Monday, April 26, 2010

"top schoolers" and hiring (in which I take blogging to new heights of procrastination)

I'm not a cultural anthropologist, but I like the Savage Minds blog, just to keep up with our socio-cultural brethren. I wasn't thrilled by this post by Rex, though, "Who needs alumni from 'top schools'", which essentially argued that PhDs from top schools aren't taught how to teach, know nothing about methodology, and can't conduct relevant research. Personally, I think that's painting a whole bunch of diverse schools (only one of which is actually named in the post) with a pretty broad brush, but then I attended two of the top anthropology programs, so maybe I'm biased. That said, I consider myself a very good teacher, I'm fully trained in methods, and one of my research interests is the application of environmental archaeology to environmental policy.

What really got me thinking was the post's contention that "top schoolers", therefore, are not well positioned to get jobs in today's education climate, which tends to value undergraduate education, methodology, and applied research. Is this really the case? The Savage Minds post had no data, so I decided to crunch a few numbers. The University of Michigan was the only institution actually mentioned in the post as belonging to the category of "top schools", so I looked at the web pages for all of the departments of anthropology in the state of Michigan, and where it was possible, I noted down where each faculty member got their PhD, and what year. (I intended to do this for several states, to look at regional variation, but this just takes too much time. Even I have limits to my procrastination.)

In the state of Michigan, there are 16 institutions with departments of anthropology (or departments with anthropology in the title). There may be some random anthropologists floating about at the other schools, but they aren't included in this sample. Michigan has one "top school" (the University of Michigan), and two less-prestigious PhD granting institutions (Michigan State and Wayne State). Two programs offer MAs (Western Michigan and Michigan Tech), while the remainder offer bachelors degrees alone. These institutions employee 151 faculty, 141 of which had information about their PhD granting department on their webpages. 116 faculty members also had information about the year in which they got their degree.

The 141 faculty members represent 54 different PhD granting institutions. Of those institutions, I choose 8 that I considered to be truly "top schools": Arizona, UC Berkeley, Cambridge, Chicago, Harvard, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Yale.* These 8 schools are 15% of the total number of PhD granting institutions represented, but their alums hold 35% of the jobs. I can't say whether this is an over-representation, since I don't know the relative size of the graduating cohorts from each of these universities. Nonetheless, more people from "top schools", overall, have jobs in Michigan.

There are some interesting trends, though, in who is hiring these "top schoolers". The only "top school" in the state, the University of Michigan, hired 66% (n=29) of its faculty from PhD programs at other "top schools". The other institutions represented on the faculty are all very strong, and most are arguably "top schools" themselves, at least in certain fields. The second-tier PhD programs, however, only hired 28% (n=11) "top schooler" faculty. The number is similar in MA programs, at 29% (n=5). Those programs that offer only bachelor's degrees have an even lower percentage of faculty from "top schools", only 13% (n=5). Of those, four of the five are graduates from the U of Michigan who obtained local jobs. So, "top schools" are hiring "top schoolers", but that is not necessarily the case at less prestigious institutions, particularly the least prestigious schools, although they occasionally snap up a local graduate from their flagship institution.

I wondered if this trend has changed through time. Since the early 90s, there has been an increasing focus on undergraduate education. If, as the Savage Minds post contends, "top schoolers" can't teach their way out of a paper bag, has there been a trend toward hiring faculty members with PhDs from less prestigious programs?

The answer is yes and no. I don't know when people were hired, but I can look at the year that faculty members got their PhDs. Of the 42 people whose PhDs were from 2000 or more recent, only 10 of them come from "top schools", or 24%, a lower percentage than for the overall sample. If you look more closely at the data, however, you'll find that previously noted trends in hiring are actually intensifying. The University of Michigan has 10 faculty members with recent PhDs, and 80% (n=8) come from "top schools" - actually an increase over previous years. In contrast, less prestigious schools seem to be hiring many fewer "top schoolers". None of the 16 faculty members with post-2000 PhDs at MSU and WSU have degrees from "top schools". Only one of the five newer faculty members at the MA-granting institutions has a "top school" PhD (20%), and out of the 11 more recent hires at bachelor's institutions, only one (9%) is from a "top school". So, in recent years, the "top school" is actually focusing more and more on hiring "top schoolers", while the less prestigious schools seem less willing to do so.

I can't say these trends will continue, or even that they apply outside of the state of Michigan, but there are still some interesting patterns that emerge. What concerns me is that this is largely a game of perception. If lots of search committee members, like Rex at Savage Minds, just assume that "top schoolers" can't teach, then some excellent teachers, researchers, mentors, etc., will never find an academic job because there is a perception that only "top schools" should hire them, and there aren't enough jobs at top schools to go around. I'm convinced that I only have my tenure-track job because this school is so small that nobody on the search committee had the background to accurately evaluate my C.V. My colleagues have very little idea of what I do, no clue how strong my research record is relative to the average for this institution, etc., etc. As a result, I was judged on my teaching talk and the research talk where I highlighted my applied research. I got the job, but if this school had more anthropologists to serve on the search committee, would I have been passed over on the assumption that no "top schooler" would be appropriate for a job here?

BTW - sorry for the dense text. Someday maybe I'll figure out how to make tables in this blog.

*Yes, I know this is arguable. Obviously, reasonable people could disagree on whether Yale belongs on the list, and whether Wisconsin, UCL, and Stanford should have been left off. The Savage Minds post didn't define which schools were "top schools", and clearly this is all based on perception, so I figure my biases are as valid as anyone elses.

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