the midwest: soft spot of academia

Academia is a competitive career. It’s a lot like acting, or writing, or any other creative occupation. Most people who try the job don’t stay for the long term. Rejection and failure is normal.

But what if I told you that you could double your odds of success in academia by doing one very simple thing? Maybe you wouldn’t believe me, but it is absolutely true. And it turns out the strategy is simple – focus on the Midwest in your career.

Why? Think about the four general areas of the United States. The West Coast and the Northeast have lots of great schools, but they are super popular. Their graduate programs receive huge number of applications. Then look at the South. They have a number of good schools, but not as many.

The “sweet spot” is in the Midwest. A ton of really great schools. You have elite private schools like Chicago, Northwestern, and Notre Dame. Then, you have a pile of flagship public schools and dozens, perhaps hundreds, of very excellent liberal arts institutions. The pay isn’t quite as high as Northeast and West Coast schools, but the working conditions are good and the academic prestige is often high.

I discovered that people over apply to Northeast and West Coast. Informally, I noticed this when I would speak to graduate school applicants. If you asked them about where they applied, they would reel off a ton of Northeast and West Coast schools, but then only mention one or two Midwest schools. Only people from the Midwest would list a large number of schools from that area.

Then, I followed up my hunch and looked for a little more concrete data. I found out that the applicant pool for the PhD program at Indiana and for junior faculty jobs is about 50% smaller than similarly ranked schools in the Northeast and West Coast. In other words, it’s twice as easy to be an IU sociology professor than it is to be a sociology professor at Duke, Penn, and Columbia.  Same program rank (10-20), same work requirements (get into AJS/ASR/SF), and same job (2-2 or functionally 2-1 with releases and grants). Then when you look at smaller niche graduate programs, it’s even crazier. A small program, like USC in Los Angeles, may take 3-6 students per year while IU will take 10-15  from a much smaller pool of applicants.

Of course, every person is different. You career isn’t everything. Maybe you have to be in New York or Los Angeles for a specific reason. But if you want a comfy department with high prestige, maybe the Midwest is something you should look into.


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Written by fabiorojas

December 19, 2018 at 5:01 am

Posted in uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. My hypothesis is that much of this has to do with culture and politics, i.e., highly educated people wanting to live in places that value education, the arts, and tolerance of a diverse array of social identities and views.

    Granted, the Midwest includes dozens of cities that are cosmopolitan with good schools and vibrant arts. But the Midwest also includes many towns and rural counties that voted against same-sex marriage, opposed legal abortion, sought to reintroduce religion into schools, and supported Trump and his anti-immigrant agenda.

    Moreover, because the Midwest includes several “rustbelt” cities, it carries connotations of deindustrialization and urban decay. And I would also note that the Midwest includes some of the most highly racially segregated cities in the U.S. (e.g., Milwaukee, Cleveland).


    Christopher Andrews

    December 22, 2018 at 7:36 pm

  2. But rural areas in upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts as well as California, Oregon, Washington are also very conservative, religious, anti-immigrant, economically distressed. Apart from coastal prejudice, city size is a factor, especially if you are considering the needs of a spouse. Bloomington, in particular, is a small city that is pretty far from anywhere else. Madison also suffers from a city size problem. Durham does not have a coastal cachet but is on your list of schools that get more applicants. That part of North Carolina historically had a strong KKK presence, although Durham also had a historically strong Black bourgeoisie; the research triangle and proximity to UNC doubtless help, although I note you did not list UNC as a top place. Another factor is public/private in these days of attacks on public education.



    December 23, 2018 at 6:06 pm

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