moving up the academic hierarchy
A question that is often asked goes something like this. “I am working in an academic career. However, my record isn’t so great. What can I do to improve my position?” For example, last week, a student asked the following question:
The first half of my college career was atrocious and my GPA suffered tremendously, which led to being put on academic dismissal. After three years I came back to school and I have been doing well, even making the Dean’s List last semester. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be able to raise my GPA up to 3.0 by the time I graduate, even if I continue to have 4.0 semesters. Is there any hope for me to get into a Grad program?
The analogous question for faculty and graduate students is “how do I move up even though I am at a low status place?”
Overcompensate. If you had an atrocious year as an undergraduate and you have a bad GPA, then work double hard to maximize your GRE. Get into an MA program and write a really innovative MA paper – and get it published. If you are in a low-status PhD program, then get published in a well known journal. The same advice goes for faculty.
Of course, this isn’t easy. That is why so few people pursue this strategy. But it does increase your chance of success. If you look at most (but not all) top 20 programs, you will see some faculty with PhDs from non-top 20 programs. If you look at graduate students at top programs, many come from not so fancy undergraduate institutions. What these people have in common is that, at some level, they moved on from the fact that there was something “imperfect” about their academic record and focused on being excellent.
Let me finish with an observation about academia. It’s a system that combines inertia and prestige chasing. That’s why being at the bottom of the pecking order can be frustrating. At the same time, the farther you get into your career, oddly, the less status matters. The rewards go to those who publish.
The truth is that very few people are consistently publishing quality material and few are consistently good teachers. While I have personally known a few good publishers who had tenure problems, most people with good records get promoted. Graduate students with publications do better on the job market than those who have none. Consistent publishers have an easier time moving to desirable jobs. Easy? Not at all. But excellence is the solution most likely to solve your career problems.