Academic Fish Ponds

This is a recent e-mail from a reader, but it's a topic I was thinking about in a related context, so this is timely (for me):

I'm a grad student in a respectable PhD program in the physical sciences here in the U.S. (ranked by U.S. News as either in the low teens to mid-20s, depending on the particular year of the ranking).  I didn't realize until I was knee-deep in grad school just how tough the academic job market is (like, I think I know more PhDs without permanent jobs than I know with jobs!).  I'm starting to get very nervous about my job prospects.

While mulling over my options--Take the Master's and run? Switch to a different field?--it occurred to me that I could always apply to higher-ranked grad programs (you know, Harvard, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Berkeley, and their ilk).  Graduating from a Top 5 school would surely increase my prospects of getting an academic job, right? Provided, of course, I could get admitted to one of those programs...

I haven't asked too many people for advice (I don't want my professors or advisor to know that I'm considering leaving), but the one person I asked said it was better to be a big fish in a small pond (translation: stay where I am and try to stand out among my cohorts).

As an aside, if you look at the most recent faculty hires for my department, you'll see that they're all Harvard/MIT/Berkeley/Caltech/Stanford grads; there's not a single graduate from a 20-ish rank school in the bunch. We're good enough to be their grad students, but not good enough to be their eventual colleagues???

This e-mail raises many interesting issues, in addition to the usual ones involving stress about (potentially) seeking a faculty position in a field that seems to have an oversupply of PhDs. [insert required mention that academia isn't the only option for PhDs, there are many excellent careers in industry/business/government etc.].

I am going to ignore the issue of whether rankings have any merit and whether the Prestige Universities deserve their high level of prestige etc. Let's just take these numbers (Top-5, Top-20 etc.) at face value for now.

An important question for the person who wrote the e-mail is: In the context of thinking about possible future jobs in academia, do you think you would only be happy in one that is a research-ranking peer of your current university (or one more highly ranked)? I know it can be hard to predict (as a grad student, I was completely wrong about what kind of job/place would be best for me), but it's worth thinking about other options within academia: teaching-focused schools (small colleges, universities that are focused on undergraduate education, community colleges) or research universities other than the top-ranked ones. These jobs are difficult to get as well, but overall you may have more opportunities than you would if you only consider major research universities of a certain rank as job prospects. Perhaps you know some people who work at these types of institutions and could talk to them about their jobs, or you could do some investigating/mingling at conferences to interact with a broader group of academics and others.

But let's say that you are quite sure that you want to be at a major research university, a peer to your current university or better (in rankings), and jobs are extremely scarce in your field. I don't know about your particular institution/field, but from what I've seen over years of serving on various committees and panels and such, top graduates of top-20ish schools can compete with those from top-5-10 schools for academic positions. If you do interesting research, give conference presentations, publish, and put together an impressive application, you could be competitive with the top-5 people.

The person you talked to was right to mention the 'big fish' scenario; if your department/advisor are respected in your field and your advisor writes reference letters saying you are the best student s/he has ever had, that can count for a lot. You may have to work harder to be perceived -- on first impression -- as just as good as the top-5 people, but it's doable.

Important considerations in whether you stay or try to move could include:

  • the nature of your research project (is it exciting? significant? can you play an important role in it?),
  • the reputation of your advisor as a scientist and mentor (will s/he write you awesome letters if you do well?), and
  • your assessment of your abilities (difficult to do..).

When you consider those (and other) factors, maybe you will decide that the best place for you for research and career development is a top-5 department, maybe it's another place, or maybe it's where you are right now.

Another question: Have you been around for any of the searches that resulted in the recent top-5 hires in your department? It would be interesting and instructive to look at the applicant pools (were all the interviewees from top-5 departments, or just the person who got/accepted the offer?). If you attended the interview talks and/or met the candidates, what were your impressions? If there are any upcoming searches, it would be good to take a close look at the process and the people involved.

And if you look at departments in your field at peer institutions of your current one, do you see a similar preponderance of top-5s on the faculty? That is, is your department typical in this respect? If so, and you want to try to stay in your field, perhaps you should send out some applications..

If you have the time, it's worth doing a bit of 'career field work' before making a big decision. There may be more options than you know about now, or you may find you are in the best place for you already.

26 responses so far

  • In my field, the question graduates from the top 5 schools were being asked at the conference interviews was, "where." Lower than that, the question was, "if."

    From the employer side, there are some top 20 schools and a handful of top 20 advisers regardless of school, that we know do an excellent job preparing their students, but in general we can see a difference in the training of top 5 schools compared to the rest. Also there are differences in the networks and post-graduate advising.

  • rs says:

    I have been mulling over this recently as my department is hiring and inviting candidates only from the top schools for interview (engineering department in MRU). These top ranked schools know the game and play it well, so if you are a student/post-doc there, you automatically have a higher chances. It seems that in the current academic environment, the hired or interviwed candidate reflects more of the school and advisor than him/her. It is a sad situation for academia. This article in NY times reflects it well:

    specially I am quoting the related para below:

    Richard H. Thaler, a former colleague at Cornell and another contributor to the Economic View column, once remarked about an unsuccessful candidate for a faculty position, “What his résumé lacked was five bad papers.” By that, he meant that while the candidate had published several papers containing enough genuinely important ideas to satisfy any rational hiring committee — more than could be said of most faculty members — he had too few to satisfy the bean counters, who fretted about how uninformed outsiders might react to the appointment.

    Researchers have responded as expected to these incentives. But the additional papers they’ve written have added little value. The economist Philip Cook and I found, for example, that in the first five years after publication, many fewer than half of all papers in the two most selective economics journals had ever been cited by other scholars.

  • drugmonkey says:

    One of the partially redeeming features of the now obligatory postdocs in biomedical fields is the further decoupling of program / University reputation and the evaluation of the scientist.

  • DJMH says:

    Is the writer in a field where people typically do post-docs? If so, I'd say stay at the school you're at, and do a post-doc in a fancier place, which is usually a recipe for getting a leg up in the job market. Right now you've put some unknown number of years (2? the writer mentions getting a master's so maybe not yet 2?) into learning the ropes in your lab, so that will be largely time lost if you transfer.

    But if it's a field where it is very uncommon to do a postdoc, then yes, you may want either to switch or reconsider your goals. One major consideration is whether your current lab/program has the money to send you to nice conferences. If so, you can schmooze with the people in higher-ranked programs, and get your name out that way. Just because all your recent hires were from top-5 schools doesn't mean that those are the only people who EVER get hired.

    • M says:

      I was going to say the same thing. My understanding of the hiring process was that as long as you did a post-doc at a "top-5" you were in the running.

      I am a postdoc now -- at a crappy school -- and my advisor got his tt appointment (at the age of 1M), and then did a heck of a performance doing awesome science with lots of different people for a couple of years. There's something to be said for thinking out of the box and just really differentiating yourself from your peers. We just hired "Mr. Harvard" here, and as super-smart as he is and as many papers as he has, he has little experience writing grants and managing large research groups and multiple collaborators (though he is smart enough to figure out how to do this well). Another option would be to get a tt position at a non-top-20 institution, do an amazing job, and THEN apply to a top-20 school. At some point, the hiring process MUST become performance based and not just pedigree based, doesn't it? (Or am I totally wrong on this?)

      • M says:

        Wow... this got totally messed up.

        It's supposed to read: "got his tt appointment at the age of <30 (and tenure at 32) by doing a post-doc as a research professor at a research center and winning some massive grants. He wrote about 30 proposals in a couple of years, got funded for 2 or 3 of them (one over 1M) and then did some awesome science..."

  • Bashir says:

    I believe most people who end up with R1 jobs end up at places ranked similar or lower then their alma matter. Just think of it from a numbers perspective, there are far more graduates than jobs. The Top 5 candidates are going to fill up much of the Top20 jobs, the top 20 candidates the top50 jobs, and so on.

    The ranking of your graduate department varies in importance. In my field a degree from a Top20 place wouldn't be a hinderance, provided that you had other things going for you. Though there are a few places that do ignore anyone outside of the Top5 regardless of their research. That school is in the minority and has a history of failed searches.

  • Anon2 says:

    In my opinion, it really is helpful to have graduated from a top 5 university. That instant name-recognition opens doors that would not open otherwise. The trade journal in my field (Chemical & Engineering News) did an article on this several years ago and found that the vast majority of faculty in the top ~50 chemistry departments had received their PhDs from only a handful of schools. This is not to say that there are not excellent faculty in the field who did their work at lower ranked schools. But in this competitive job market, you should do everything you can to position yourself.

    An unscientific anecdote: a colleague of mine in grad school had done a Masters at a top 20 school with a very well respected PI, but chose to jump ship and move to our top 5 program for his PhD. He ended up a superstar new faculty member at a very good school. Ironically, his MS PI was hired by our PhD department while we were finishing up our degrees. But, had he stayed with his MS PI, his degree probably still would have been from his first institution, since we were so far along by the time this PI moved. Of the 4 people who joined my PhD lab the same year I did, 3 of us are faculty members at R1 institutions. The other ended up in industry without a postdoc.

    While I hate to recommend that this person move to a "better" school just for the name, it really could be helpful if her primary goal is to become a faculty member in science.

  • C. says:

    It worries me that this person writing says nothing about what *kind* of job they want when they graduate. It seems implied that they want to stay at a department like theirs or "better" but the only quantification of better/worse is national rank.

    I went from working at an Ivy League university to grad school at a top 50ish state research university that happens to have a cluster of superstars in my particular subfield. The "lower ranked" school is a much better fit. There are very few soft money positions so less of a pervasive sense of doom over funding, and the cut throat competition that goes along with that. People are nice. People are productive but have a work/life balance. Due to the subfield superstars there is a reasonable amount of networking potential, and graduates of my lab tend to get post docs at higher ranked schools.

    Personally my hope is to move "up" for my postdoc and then back "down" for tenure track. I don't want a career in a shark tank.

  • Jen says:

    When I was in grad school, I got the distinct impression that pedigree matters - grad students were being constantly advised to focus on postdocs in the top universities. However, I think it also depends on what type of school one wants to apply to. My PhD is from, and my postdoc is at Top 20 universities for medical research (according to the just-released rankings). In my just-completed job search, I applied to primarily-undergrad/liberal arts schools. One question that I was routinely asked was how I feel about going from a Top 20 to a SLAC. Since that was my career objective, I pointed out all of the opportunities afforded by my Top 20 that I took advantage of in preparing for a SLAC position (teaching/mentoring experience, research with undergrads, etc). A friend who has a PhD from one Top 5, and is currently doing a postdoc at another Top 5 was met with a lot of suspicion in her job search for a SLAC - the feeling was, why is she applying to a SLAC when she could easily get a position at an R1? Finally, I totally agree with earlier comments that doing a postdoc puts some distance from the degree program. In my department, based on the postdocs who have applied for R1 jobs in the past few years, it appears that it wasn't where their degree came from that mattered as much as how many top-tier (Nature/Science/Cell) publications they had, and if they had one of the big postdoc fellowships (NRSA, Helen Hay Whitney, etc).

  • AcademicLurker says:

    My impression (in accordance with DrugMonkey) is that this is not that big an issue in the bio-ish sciences.

    On the other hand, it seems to be frighteningly true in Physics. I don't know about the other physical sciences, though.

  • GMP says:

    Pedigree matters, but not everyone from a top-5 school becomes a professor. There are plenty of mediocre students at top-5 schools, too. If you are just one of many that went through some mega group and the advisor barely knows you, that's not very good. What a student wants is a strong publication record, skills to work independently, and strong letters from the advisor and other reputable people at a top-5 school.

    In my opinion, who you did your PhD with (and/or a postdoc) matters most; that generally means that, yes, people from top-5 schools get the leg up, but also people from well-known advisors who are the big fish in a small pond themselves (if top-20 programs can really be considered small ponds).

    Then there are things such as no guarantee that you will get along with your advisor at a top-5 place or that you will even get to do what you want or that you will have the freedom and/or mentoring that you want/need. A PhD can go wrong many different ways at any school. I would never underestimate the value of a good advisor-student match.

  • jif says:

    In my school (a "top 20" math department) we normally hire people who were students OR PDFs at one of about 10 places. The three people in the past ten years we hired directly from PhD worked with Fields medal winners (none from MIT, Harvard, Stanford, etc ...)

    Anyone with the right problem, supervisor, mix of skills or luck can get a PDF at one of these places regardless of where you did your PhD. Yes, a big name program helps get that but it is not enough on its own.

    At this point switching is one option but focussing on where to go next is, perhaps, a better strategy. What can you do today to get yourself working with the top person in your field AFTER your PhD?

  • mathgirl says:

    I started my PhD in a top 5 place and I didn't like it, so after only a year I moved to a top 20 place to work with someone who is totally awesome as a supervisor. I did shine as a student in my new department and I went on to have a very successful career in research intensive universities. I would have been a mediocre graduate student in the first institution.

    Of course, if you can be a good student in the top 5 place then you get the best of both worlds. I think the strategy is to be in the highest-ranked possible department where you can succeed. If only one could predict this...

  • Dev says:

    Most people would agree that rankings do matter in real life, and that an indicator is needed to measure (evaluate) the issue under consideration. Particularly when lots of investment goes into that. And quite a bit of it is not just money.

    But others also question the real validity or utility of the rankings. And is nothing new.

    So if academia is under the microscope in terms of usefulness or validity in terms of knowledge generated for moving on, or of translated and applied knowledge with true and positive impact in people's life and the world, one evaluation needed is:

    What is the contribution of the ranked groups on the above?

    • Dev says:

      And, if there are good ones, at all rankings, including below 20,

      why are they missing from the public site? or use?

      There has to be good and real productivity in the he little places, so I think that the main issue is that not all of it can be in the 'arena' competing. Like the economy will not be inclusive for what is available. Or has been generated.

      That seems to be the problem holding back real progress.

  • Grad Student says:

    This discussion and the comments are making me pretty nervous. I did my undergrad at a very good school for my field and I had a near-perfect GPA. I am now in a PhD program at a school that is not top-5 or top-20, or even top-50, but that has interesting research and an advisor that I feel is a great match for me. I have been intellectually stimulated in my research and I took advantage of many opportunities at this institution to pursue related short-term projects and interdisciplinary work while making progress towards my degree. I hope to have a career in academia at a similarly-ranked or better-ranked school in the future... is this impossible to achieve in my situation? Will search committees actually judge me primarily on my last educational institution, and not consider my body of work a factor of higher importance?

    • atcgphd says:

      No, not at all - but you DO absolutely need to go on to do a post-doc with someone at a "top program" (and I think your choice of PI is more important than the institution, i.e., you will be better off with a big-name mentor at a top-20 school than a less well known mentor at a top-5 school).

      rs (above) is just spot on:

      "It seems that in the current academic environment, the hired or interviwed candidate reflects more of the school and advisor than him/her. It is a sad situation for academia."

      The thing is, hiring committees are focused on demonstrated achievement, which means big (let's be honest, for the most part CNS) papers. Big papers cost big money, and require the application of cutting-edge (the most expensive and least widely available) techniques. Big money and big resources are only found at those top-tier programs, so if you aren't in one of those places, forget it. You may have the best ideas, and the most potential, of any scientist since Einstein, but if you haven't got proof of your brilliance in the coin of the realm (high-impact factor papers) you have zero chance at a faculty position at a research-focused institution.

      Of course, since securing the resources it took to generate that high-IF work is more down to your boss than to you, yeah, we absolutely hire people based on who their advisor was, not who they are.

  • Polytrope says:

    I did my PhD in a non top 5 place and am now faculty in a top tier institution in my field, thanks to a judicious choice of postdocs (including a gamble on a change of field). In my field it's common to do 3 postdocs before a faculty hire though, so there's a substantial separation. Showing that you can do independent and ground-breaking research as a postdoc (minus the PhD mentor) is far more important.

  • Junior FSP says:

    I did my undergrad at an Ivy but my Ph.D. in an unranked program in a field sort of tangential to the one I now have a tenure-track position in at a university that is one of the top-5 in my field. I did a post-doc of less than a year so it had little impact on my job search but was in another sort of peripheral field at an also unranked institution. I was offered jobs at all 5 of the top-5 institutions in my field (and a couple of others). I was told that my current job was given to me on the basis of my research productivity, experience getting funding (from NSF etc., even as a student), ability to give interesting and coherent talks, and my enthusiasm. I'm in a biological/physical boundary field. So, I wouldn't stress about the rankings too much. I believe my excellent fit both in terms of interests and personalities with my advisor was the biggest contributor to the reasons that were cited for my hire. My colleagues were all able to overlook the fact that my advisor had an appointment in a strange department and in fact, most don't even remember that a few years later when I mention that my degree is not in our specialty.

  • Anony says:

    One of my former undergrad research students went on to get a PhD from the Top-1 university and then did a postdoc at a Top-5. His PhD and postdoctoral research were fairly pedestrian; he does solid work but didn't set the world on fire. Despite this, he got interviews at all the top research schools that had open positions and.. bombed. He gave boring talks and had no vision (according to my colleagues there). Or maybe he just needs more interview experience. I don't know, but I think it was clear from his CV that he wasn't a top prospect and yet he got a coveted interview slot. On the one hand, the system worked (he didn't get an offer despite his awesome pedigree), but at the same time there are the usual problems (he got an interview despite a ho-hum record).

  • I think a PhD from a top-5 institute will get you the interview, but not the job.

    On the other hand, Top-6 to Top-50 will get you interviews, if you have a good publishing record and grants under your belt. At the end, it will be the vision and the ability to write fundable grants using that vision which is going to get you into academia and succeed in it.

    I know of many professors, who got their PhD in a top-50 something institute, got a position in academia with similarly ranked(or lower) institute and ended up in a top-5 institute as an associate or professor. So, there is definitely hope for non-top-5 PhD's, other wise professor would be just from Ivy and no place else.

  • EcoNerd says:

    I did an ivy undergrad, then chose a less prominent big state school for my phd because of my advisor's track record as a mentor. Did a postdoc at another big state u, then moved to lesser state U. for tt position. Moved after 3 years to ivy-peer dream job. I put myself in a good position, then got lucky several times.

    My sub field is small enough that institution matters less than lab, but both matter less than answering interesting questions well. In some fields, maybe you can only do this at 5 places, but I would worry less about rankings and more about whether you have technical, financial resources and colleagues who enable your best work. That and your own effort are the only things you can control. If your are feeling limited by resources, moving might make sense, but if you are feeling limited by us news and world report, don't waste your time.

  • anon says:

    I did my PhD at a top-50 institution.
    I did my post-doc at a top 5 institution.
    I got a faculty position at a (different) top 5 institution.

    What about staying where you are and then going for a postdoc at a big place?

    • Lina says:

      I don't mean to imply that this is your case, but I've seen the following. Young rising star at top 5 institution has an okay student who ends up with a faculty position at a top-50 position. This person has students at top-50 institution, who are then sent to big shot grandfather (formerly known as young rising star) for a postdoc at top-5 institution. Then this student may or may not end up getting a faculty position at a top-5 institution. The bottom line is that mobility many fields (not necessarily your case) depends strongly on writing papers with big shot.

  • "Just think of it from a numbers perspective, there are far more graduates than jobs. The Top 5 candidates are going to fill up much of the Top20 jobs, the top 20 candidates the top50 jobs, and so on."

    Exactly. So a top-20 school which thinks that people are fine as students there but not as professors is not at all hypocritical; this is just a natural consequence of striving for the best. Of course, the top-5 schools will also have professors from top-5 schools, but usually the better ones, while the worse ones will be in the top-20 etc.

    Many schools advertise with the places their faculty came from, which simultaneously says how good and how bad they are.