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  • Writer's pictureDina

The Brutal 80-20 Rule in American Academia

In the US, approximately 80% of university faculty with doctorates graduated from 20% of US universities.

Inside Higher Ed conducted a new survey examining faculty recruitment and retention models at universities with doctoral degree programs.

Researchers caution that the training of academic faculty is extremely unbalanced across the globe. Also, the few faculty members a university produces, the more likely it is to have higher faculty turnover rate.

Researchers also found that the five most common doctoral degree conferring universities—University of Michigan - Ann Arbor, University of Wisconsin - Madison, University of California, Berkeley, Harvard University, and Stanford University — produced one eighth of all faculty members in the United States!

(Source: Nature)

But why? Let's take a closer look at the survey's conclusions.

A Closed Recruiting Network

A 2015 study of tenured professors and tenure track positions in history, business, and computer science doctorate-granting programs found that 25% of universities and institutions produced 71% - 86% of tenured professors in the field.

A 2012 study of programs in Political Science found that doctoral degree holders from Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and the University of Michigan make up 20% of tenured faculty at more than 100 universities and institutions; half of the faculty members with doctoral degrees graduated from programs at top 11 universities.

(Jongho Shin/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

The new study, published today in Nature, analyzed hiring patterns in 107 fields, from the humanities to the natural sciences.

The dataset used, from an academic research sector under Academic Analytics, includes employment records of all tenured faculty members at nearly 400 doctoral-granting university institutions in the US between 2011 and 2020.

In addition to the disproportionate number of faculty receiving their PhDs from a few institutions, the new study also observed "pervasive levels of university prestige."

Through their analysis of the survey, researchers found that between 5% and 23% of faculty members were employed by universities that were more prestigious than the universities where they earned their doctorates, depending on the subject area. The "upward mobility" rates were 12% and 13% for the humanities, mathematics and computing, respectively, and 21% for medicine and health.

The study surveyed the top 10 universities and institutions in many disciplines and found that 23% of positions at these top 10 were occupied by graduates from five universities: UC Berkeley, Harvard, Stanford, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Columbia University.

This pattern of recruiting creates a network of prestigious universities, where they exchange faculty resources with each other, but rarely absorb those from universities outside the network.

The study also analyzed the phenomenon of "self-employment" among doctoral students at US universities. The term refers to when Ph.D. students take faculty positions at their schools. "Self employment" accounts for 9% of all professors in the US, and 11% of professors who received college education in the US in this sample.

Interestingly, researchers found that self-employed faculty members were at greater risk of attrition than non-self-employed faculty members, especially in criminal justice, criminology, and industrial engineering, where attrition rates were 1.9 and 1.8 times higher, respectively, than other faculty members .

Their Well-Educated Family

Beyond hiring patterns, other recent studies have some interesting findings. A paper in the Nature: Human Behaviour found that 22% of tenured faculty members have parents who also received doctoral degrees.

These findings suggest that the position of professor has traditionally been produced among the socioeconomically privileged, which is likely to profoundly affect their scholarship and output.

Other research has also shown that, especially among PhDs in economics, there is an increasing proportion of at least one parent with a bachelor's degree or higher.

Aaron Clauset, a professor of Computer Science at the University of Colorado and co-author of the articles "Recruiting Prestige" and "PhD Parents," argues that there is certainly a link between the two results, and that these two patterns seem highly likely to profoundly affect academia.

The level of overrepresentation in this very small group is staggering, and the real benefit of these two studies is that they quantify these patterns in great detail and point out which details require more causal research. Clauset sees this as an area of research where studies they've conducted is just a beginning.

Most research about prestige recruiting, including this most recent one, exclusively examines universities and institutions that offer doctoral degrees. Hiring patterns can look very different when institutions that only offer associate, bachelor's and master's degrees are taken into account. Last but not least, these studies typically do not include those who eventually left the tenure track.

When it comes to academic planning, employment prospects are becoming an increasingly crucial factor for students and their families. Things can get far more complicated when students find out that what they have chosen to study for passion present very limited career choices.

At Enlighteens, we believe that practical considerations are just as important as motivation when it comes to academic and career planning. To us, every student has a different set of strengths and passions, and we are here to provide our best assistance to help them and their families achieve their goals, with the bigger picture in mind.

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