Elite Schools Lead to Academic Jobs- Fallacy or Fact

Posted on December 4, 2011


The other day I wrote about how quite a few people advised students not to go to grad school. One of the pieces I brought up, by Larry Cebula, has been (not sure on the write word- critiqued?) by Holger Syme  . It is a decent critique that presents a fairly good argument for going to graduate school. A point was brought up that makes me cringe a bit-

“So I will continue to tell my students what I have always told them: getting an academic job isn’t easy. You have to get into the best graduate department possible, and that’s tough. Then you have to work hard building a scholarly identity, and you have to face the vagaries of an unpredictable, often nasty, and all-too-frequently extremely unfair job market…..

I, too, might discourage a student from getting a doctorate from a second- or third-tier program or in a massively overcrowded field. But I wouldn’t dream of telling a student not to apply to the best departments (not the top-ranked ones, necessarily, but those with clear and recognized profiles in particular subfields); and while I’d have a serious conversation with a bright undergraduate persistently keen on a badly competitive subject area, I wouldn’t simply tell such a student to give up on the idea……”

The recommendation is that if you go to graduate school only go to the “elite schools”. To be fair this might be the way to go in “History”, the topic discussed above,  but my gut feeling is that this has become a fact by repetition. That is that people have repeated the statement so many times that everyone takes it as fact. To be fair this does make sense, elite schools don’t just get the title “elite” for nothing, right? The questions is the needs to be asked is this a fact in reality, are elite schools the way to go?

The “elite school” idea should be easy to test by looking at the number of graduates a program produces and the number of people who get academic jobs. Elite schools should produce more people with academic jobs from fewer students, that is if elite schools really do help one obtain an academic job.

To test this out for archaeology I took two data sets I have worked with- the number of Archaeology PhD’s given out in the UK between 1988-2007, and the break down of people who obtained an archaeology academic job during that same period. Neither dataset is perfect with a few schools not reporting to some of the RAE’s (there were 3) and not have the data on all academics, but more on that in a moment. Here are the results-

The first column is the number of new academic staff between 1988-2007 that each program provides. Second column is the % of UK archaeology PhDs each program provides and the column after that is the predicted number of academics each program should produce if everything was equal. The last two columns are the difference between predicted and actual.

Yes, there are outliers but like I said the data is not perfect. I had a real hard time getting the data of which schools staff at Liverpool graduate from. Considering most schools employ several of their graduates it is safe to assume the staff at Liverpool would make up most of those numbers. Edinburgh did not report for the last RAE so they are missing 5 years worth of PhDs. Add in those years and they are pretty close to average. Everyone else look at the difference in the number of positions instead of percent. The majority of the difference in the numbers are from universities with small number of graduates, one job difference makes a big difference percent- wise.

What this shows me is that pretty much it doesn’t matter what university you got your degree from to get an academic job. This is not to say the experiences you have at different universities doesn’t matter simply that statically speaking a name is just a name. There are three exceptions (greater then 4 positions difference between actual and predicted) to this- Cambridge, Bradford, and UCL. Cambridge and UCL would be considered “elite schools” (guardian ranks archaeology programs- http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/table/2011/may/17/university-guide-archaeology-forensics UCL is 1 and Cambridge is 2, Bradford is 28!)  in the field of archaeology but you see two different outcomes. Cambridge has a sizable advantage for its graduates but UCL appears to be negative attribute for its graduates.

Does this mean that “elite schools” help someone’s career in academics, for archaeology? First, it would be better to have higher quality data to be a 100% sure. That aside, it looks like the idea of “elite schools” is a fallacy when it comes to getting an academic job in archaeology. Yes, Cambridge does have a premium but it is only one school out of all of the UK. Also, UCL, the top elite school, actually under produces academics and all the other “elite schools” are a wash. Moreover, Bradford, one of the lowest rated schools and not considered elite, actually gives a better premium than even Cambridge. So giving the advice to attend an elite school to get an academic job, unless maybe it was Bradford, is useless.

Is this true for other disciplines? Is this true for other countries? I don’t know but people need to look at the data first before they speak as though it were fact. Until someone shows that “elite schools” matter I will call it the elite school fallacy.

Hopefully in the next couple of days I can run the same numbers for the US.