Prestige matters in academic job placement for STEM Ph.D.s

An RBR Writing Program post by Eve Granatosky

One key to improving the sustainability of the biomedical research enterprise is aligning the supply of qualified faculty applicants with the number of available positions. Scientists who choose to pursue an academic career path, whether at a research or teaching-focused institution, are faced with a limited number of available openings. Furthermore, an increase of qualified scientists coupled with today’s hypercompetitive funding environment has made pursuing these limited openings quite daunting. So in a competitive labor market, what are the qualities of an applicant that lead to landing a faculty position?

A new study investigates how a variety of factors affect scientists’ abilities to find an academic position in line with their personal career preferences. Overall, doctoral institutional prestige was the most important factor influencing job placement. Institutional prestige was measured by creating statistical networks of faculty hiring. The more centrally placed an institution was within a network, meaning that it produced a large number of the faculty hired at other institutions, the more prestigious that institution was considered to be.

Individuals who received their degrees from highly prestigious schools were more likely to report a match between their desired and actual career placement. This trend held true whether the applicant was focused on a faculty position at either a teaching or research institution. Thus, doctoral prestige could be viewed as a form of capital. Scientists who have Ph.D.s from prestigious institutions are able to spend this capital to obtain the positions they desire more so than their counterparts from less prestigious schools. Passively restricting the faculty hired to a small pool of individuals could stifle innovation within the overall research enterprise and perpetuate inequality in academia.

The current study focused on the prestige of a faculty member’s doctoral institution. One way to expand on these findings would be to determine whether or not a successful applicant also completed a postdoctoral position at a prestigious school. Furthermore, faculty hiring committees could be interviewed to determine how much of an active role institutional prestige plays in interviewing and hiring decisions.

A prior study of prestige hierarchies for academic job placement suggested that 25 percent of universities accounted for up to 86 percent of all tenure-track faculty in computer science, business, and history. The current study indicates similar trends are true in STEM fields and even suggests that the importance of doctoral institutional prestige has been underestimated. This cycle of hiring from the same exclusive circles may exclude promising researchers who lack the traditional pedigree. Institutions and faculty search committees should examine their biases with regard to prestige to ensure they are selecting candidates based on scholarly merit rather than pedigree and employ the most talented scientists to contribute ideas and skills to the research enterprise.

Eve Granatosky is passionate about promoting effective science communication and encouraging career development for graduate students. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in Biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame and is the co-founder of the Science Policy Initiative at Notre Dame. Follow Eve on Twitter (@granatosky) or contact her by email (

The RBR Writing Program is intended to help graduate students and postdocs receive policy writing experience. For more information, contact RBR Director Chris Pickett.