Sarah Kendzior

Writer at Al Jazeera English

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Academia’s 1 Percent

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Image: Dinner at Eight (1933), directed by George Cukor

Will your Ph.D. lead to an academic job? To answer that question, prospective students are often encouraged to see how recent graduates fared -- a task easier said than done. Department placement lists are catalogs of untold stories, a logroll of the disappeared. Those who left academia are erased: According to my own alma mater, for example, I never existed, along with the majority of my colleagues who failed to find academic jobs in the Great Recession. There is no placement list for the displaced.

A more useful indicator of whether your doctoral program is a pathway to employment lies in whom the department hires. Because chances are, you will see the same few institutional names again and again. During my own time in graduate school, my department hired several faculty members, all with different specialties and skills, all with one thing in common: Harvard, Harvard, Harvard, Harvard.

The evidence is not only anecdotal. A recent study by Aaron Clauset, Samuel Arbesman, and Daniel B. Larremore shows that “a quarter of all universities account for 71 to 86 percent of all tenure-track faculty in the U.S. and Canada in these three fields. Just 18 elite universities produce half of all computer science professors, 16 schools produce half of all business professors, and eight schools account for half of all history professors.” This study follows the discovery by political scientist Robert Oprisko that more than half of political-science professorships were filled by applicants from only 11 universities.

What that means is something every Ph.D. from a less-prestigious institution knows all too well: No amount of publishing, teaching excellence, or grants can compensate for an affiliation that is less than favorable in the eyes of a search committee. The fate of aspiring professors is sealed not with job applications but with graduate-school applications. Institutional affiliation has come to function like inherited wealth. Those who have it operate in a different market, more immune from the dark trends – unemployment, adjunctification – that dog their less-prestigious peers.

The Great Recession is notable not only for its relentlessness – many people, six years later, are still waiting to feel the effects of the “recovery” – but for the way a tiny elite was able to continue their luxurious lifestyle while the livelihood of the majority was turned upside down. During the first two years of the “recovery,” the mean net worth of households in the upper 7 percent of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28 percent, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93 percent dropped by 4 percent. With wages largely stagnant and cost of living soaring, it made less difference what one did during the recovery than what kind of money one had before the crash. More and more, the American Dream is a foregone conclusion, a tale told in reverse.

The same trend holds true in academia: career stagnation based on institutional affiliation. Where you come from remains cruelly indicative of where you will go. What you actually do on the journey is, to the status-obsessed, irrelevant.

With institutional bias in hiring now proven by multiple social scientists, why don’t prospective graduate students simply limit their applications to favored elite institutions? The answer is often financial, and, again, speaks to privilege and discrimination endemic to academic culture. The most prestigious universities – the Ivy League, University of Chicago, Stanford University, the University of California system – tend to lie in the most expensive parts of the country. Even with full funding, it is nearly impossible to live in such costly cities without incurring debt, given that stipends tend to be $25,000 or less.

Rather than go to an expensive, elite program, a fiscally responsible student might be inclined to select a solid program with good funding in a cheap city. But academia was not designed for the fiscally responsible: It was designed for those for whom money is a nonissue. Academia’s currency is prestige, but prestige is always backed up by money, whether the expenditure for life in a costly city, the expectation of unpaid or underpaid labor, or research trips assumed to be paid out-of-pocket.

As university infrastructure grows more elaborate and US News and World Report rankings become increasingly valued, elite colleges often appear less concerned with providing an education than selling a lifestyle. Whereas students have often chosen a college believing that its reputation would enhance their own, colleges now solicit wealthy students believing that the students’ prestige will enhance the college. The same is true of faculty. As Clauset and his Slate co-writer Joel Warner note, “For a university, the easiest way to burnish your reputation is to hire graduates from top schools, thereby importing a bit of what made these institutions elite in the first place.”

Where does this leave the majority of Ph.D.’s who are not affiliated with the small group of approved institutions?

Last week, adjuncts across the country staged a walkout to protest poor pay and working conditions. Adjuncting itself is a product of an academe that operates on an almost Calvinist faith in its 1 percent: Adjuncts are viewed as “tainted” by their own job experience, and their low status regarded as “proof” that they never deserved a tenure-track position. Though graduates of elite universities were certainly among the striking adjuncts – the academic job market is bad enough that even the Ivy League is not entirely immune – most adjuncts tend to come from less prestigious institutions, with their contingent positions a seeming punishment for failing to start out right.

No one’s career should end at its beginning. But for thousands of Ph.D. students, that is exactly what is happening. The candor of studies like Clauset’s and Oprisko’s should be applauded. It is only in recognizing institutional bias -- and exploring the issues of class that surround it -- that hiring can be made more equitable.

Updated (March 11, 2015 8:40 a.m.): The original photo credit misidentified the film in the image. It's Dinner at Eight, not Grand Hotel. The credit has been corrected.

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