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are publications the great equalizer?

So, as the job market approaches yet again, some questions about grad school, publications, and, well, jobs.

It all starts (and ends?) with where you go to grad school of course, and while it’s obviously not arbitrary where you get into grad school, most of us are reflective enough to know that it’s more arbitrary than the ontological verification of quality it can often become. Grad admission committees have a hard job (like any kind of committee doing any kind of ranking): they’re looking for evidence of potential for excellence as much as they’re looking for evidence that excellence already exists, and that’s after they already figure out what the hell a word like excellence means. Is grad school a boot camp, actually changing people from one kind of person into another, or is it a finishing school, taking folks who are already mostly where we’d like them to but giving them certain skills to get the rest of the way? Granted, Matthew Desmond did get into Wisconsin, but it’s a telling indication of the difficulty of gauging future success that one of sociology’s biggest starts only got into that one program.

Of course, grad school can be both boot camp and finishing school, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to get past the hegemony of the top 20 (and often top 10) departments. That list is fuzzy, of course, but if you think of, say the top 15 and the 15 or so other schools sometimes mentioned in the top 20, you have a sense what I’m talking about. What’s striking about these departments is that they don’t matter nearly as much in terms of where you’re working: look at any elite journal or publisher’s list and you’ll find people working at all sorts of colleges and universities.  But then look at those CV’s of professors from across the land, and you’ll find a pretty consistent (though obviously not exclusive) list of Ph.D. programs. Of course, as you start getting into the faculties of regional universities and smaller liberal arts colleges that story changes a bit.  There are plenty of people with doctorates from outside the top 20 at those schools, but as the market continues to be brutal, even that story’s changing.  I went to Loyola New Orleans for undergrad, which was a great little regional university, even if it was basically a college. I think I had one professor with an Ivy League (or Ivy equivalent) doctorate. I didn’t really care, of course: they were great teachers, and I really didn’t understand how any of that stuff works.  But I look at Loyola today and the CV’s of the faculty are totally different.  And that’s not a story unique to Loyola New Orleans.

This isn’t an earth-shattering revelation, of course.  But I bring it up because the job market is upon us again, and we’re back to that old joke about sociologists: sociologists think people gets into undergrad because of contingent social factors and they think people get jobs at sociology departments because they earn it. Of course, that’s not really true: we’re all aware (or at least most of us are aware) of how lucky we are to have our jobs. I’ve said before that imposter’s syndrome is a problem, sure, but for me, an even bigger problem is survivor’s guilt.

So how do we adjudicate worth if we’re aware of these contingencies?  Peer-review publications!  I think it probably is our best best, actually, but there are all sorts of ways in which this variable is not actually that independent of the others. There’s the problem of cumulative advantage, of course, which Headworth and Freese argue shows this is not really a caste system story. And that’s probably right, though with enough cumulative advantage, stratification can look a lot like caste.

There’s obviously the question of time and money for research and writing in the more prestigious (and private) programs, but even beyond that is the access to networks, a closer access to what’s fashionable, what’s necessary to cite, what’s important to avoid.  In some ways, the fact that elite grad networks are spread more diffusely across the American academy than they used to be might make this less of a problem than it was, but it’s still a problem. But beyond this, there’s still the broader network and status problem of wanting the mana of a higher status Ph.D. within your faculty, and of particular network ties emphasizing those schools.

It’s an empirical question which would make a pretty good experiment how much an ASR/AJS plus top 50 school would do alongside an identical CV with a less prestigious journal and a top 10 school. But my hunch is the top 10 school would win out in a lot of places, which would show that publications are not, in fact, the great equalizer.

So what to do?  Well the most obvious is for the top 20 schools to make a deliberate effort to hire form programs outside of the top 20, though, again, following Headworth and Freese, the kind of high-level publishing that might provide a useful signal does tend to correlate with a high-status Ph.D.  But not always, and that makes it important to be on the lookout. Yet, as with anything related to capital accumulation, these high status schools have more to spend and can take these kinds of status risks.  The much bigger challenge is for schools outside of the top 20 to be willing and eager to hire from peer institutions rather than stacking their decks with higher status Ph.D.’s.  Yet there are far too many incentives pointing the other way.

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Written by jeffguhin

July 14, 2017 at 4:16 pm

Posted in uncategorized

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