At first glance, this hiring system may be seem like good news for college students at least. Whether you go to a prestigious or less prestigious school, you’ll be learning from the best of the best. But the situation isn’t so rosy for the students who dream of making ground-breaking discoveries as faculty members themselves. The elite schools are producing so many job-seekers on the faculty market that they can’t hire them all themselves, so the vast majority end up at less elite schools. That means that even if you manage to be admitted to a Ph.D. program at a prestigious university, the chances are slim that you’ll stay at that university, or even a similar university, when it’s time to get a faculty job. In fact, after graduating with Ph.D.s, only about 10 percent of faculty move “up” the academic prestige hierarchy as defined by the Science Advances study (with “prestige” being determined by the university’s ability to place faculty at the widest variety of other institutions). Most faculty instead slide 25 percent down the scale.That becomes a problem when the universities down the scale emphasize something other than admitting the best possible students, and challenging them accordingly. We are all in the same business as Harvard, but the safe course might be to neglect that.
Oh, and the quality distribution of recent Ph.D.s might be more skewed than you'd think. And the experiences of a Ph.D. who happened to move up the prestige hierarchy square with the experiences of tenured professors who you'd think were born on third base.
We then contacted a few of these standouts to find out what it took for them to move up the academic ladder.There's always room for creative people, and in my experience the job candidates from perceived high-end departments were more likely to crash their chances by offering the safe but pedestrian extension of the current trendy thing.
For starters, it took a heck of a lot of work. “I killed myself,” says one female business professor who worked her way up from a midlevel undergraduate university to a top-level faculty job. To get there, she labored so hard she alienated her fellow students, annoyed her academic adviser, and even sacrificed her health. (“Looking back, I must have been insufferable,” she says.) She requested that we not use her name or credentials, because she says some of her former colleagues are “weirdly conflicted” about her success—and her success in her field is so unique that even just revealing the universities she’s been associated with would give her away to her associates.
Irrespective, though, of program, topic, or hire: the road to tenure is a darned hard slog, and it may be a process that screens for the fanatical and the insufferable. Whether that's best for higher education or not is left for further discussion.