Recent discussions about department rankings and picking a department for grad school had me wondering how my own department is doing in placing our graduate students in top departments (Spoiler: Pretty good.) I had my undergraduate RA look at the faculty listing web pages for all the sociology departments with a rank of 20 or better in the current US News & World Report rankings. For each of the assistant professors, we noted where they went to graduate school and what year they earned their PhD.
I’ll say up front that this measure is not perfect for determining placement in top departments over the last six or so years (the period I consider). For example, if you earned tenure early, you aren’t in the dataset. I’m also not 100% sure all the people received their PhDs from a sociology department. Because of the small number of graduates from each department, these errors can have a substantive impact on the placement rank of individual departments, so I’m not going to assign ranks to all the departments. Regardless of these caveats, I’m pretty sure that the data capture the big picture of placement in top 20 departments, but feel free to argue that point.
Anyway, here’s what I found:
There are currently about 93 assistant professors in top 20 departments. Since one is in this role for about six years, this set of departments have been hiring about 15 people a year.
Of these 93, 82, or 88% went to departments that are currently ranked in the top 20. Of the other folk, five went to schools ranked between 21 and 31; four came from non-US departments; one came from a department just outside the top 50; and one came from Georgetown, which I couldn’t find a ranking for.
Fun fact: In Val Burris’ (2004) study of the academic caste system, he found (according to my math based on Table 3) that 88% of all top 20 sociology department faculty were produced by top 20 departments. While that is spookily identical, the proportion of jobs going to top 5 ranked department graduates did decline, from 47% in his study (which included all faculty, not just junior people) to 32% for today’s junior faculty.
According to the National Research Council (NRC), top 20 departments admitted an average of 310 students per year between 2002 and 2006. Each of these cohorts is fighting for about 13.5 spots a year (15 spots a year*88%). So when you start graduate school in one of these departments, the odds of getting an early career job in a similar department is about one in twenty. In March Madness speak, think of yourself as a 4 seed trying to win the national championship.
There is a great deal of variation in the placement record within the top 20. The top five departments place about one person a year each in a top twenty department. So do the next five, those ranked six to ten. Schools ranked eleven to twenty, however, averaged only one top twenty placement every four or five years.
Adjusting for entering cohort size (again using the NRC data) changes the picture, but only slightly. Graduate students entering top five programs had a 6.2% chance of ending up in a top 20 program. Students entering the next tier had a 7% chance of earning one of these positions, and students entering the 11-20 programs had a 1.9% chance. I didn’t calculate the entering cohort sizes for many other departments, but assuming schools ranked
30 20 to 50 average 10 incoming students a year, that is about 300 folks a year competing for one slot. Those are roughly the odds that an eight seed has of winning the tournament, which has happened once so far (Villanova in 1985).
Another caveat: This denominator is based on entering cohort size, not graduating cohort size. So the analysis is combining two processing: completing of a PhD and getting a job. So this answer the question: “I’m entering graduate school. What are my chances of getting a job at a top 20 department?” and not: “I’m going on the market next fall. What are my chances of getting a job at a top 20 department?”
There’s variation within ranks too, as shown in my figure below which looks at rank and the number of current assistant professors at top twenty departments divided by average entering cohort size multiplied by six (because the current pool of junior faculty represents approximately six cohorts of graduate students). My reading of the data is that departmental prestige can be thought of as an upper boundary for graduate placement in top departments. Some, but not all, very prestigious departments excel at placement in these sorts of jobs, and PhDs from other very good universities have a tough time breaking into the club.
You might see two points that standout for exceptional placement. In upper right hand corner is Princeton with, by my count, 11 PhDs currently working as junior faculty members in top twenty departments. In upper left hand corner is Cornell. They have three folks in the sample, but are listed in the NRC data as having incoming cohorts of only 3.8 people. By comparison, Wisconsin is listed with an average cohort size of 27.2. I haven’t independently verified these cohort numbers* and things might have changed in the last ten years. This is one of the reasons I’m not labeling the points on the graph, although anyone could recreate this list in about two hours.
A final caveat: I’m not looking at jobs outside of the top 20. It’s probably a different story with a lot more variation. Someone should do that analysis, and I’m happy to share my spreadsheet with anyone who wants to press forward with this.
I think that it is incredibly difficult to tease out the effect of being at a top school from the selection issues that sort people into graduate departments. That said, the variation within prestige clusters probably means that some departments, or at least some faculty within those departments, are doing something right in regards to training and placing students in top departments.
PS: I also looked at how many jobs went to men and how many went to women. Time to sound the matriarchy tipping point alarms: 52% of the jobs at top university sociology departments went to women. That said, my educated guess is that the proportion of graduate students at top departments who are women is about 60%, so I’m not scoring this one as victory for gender equality just yet.
* Cornell is listed as both admitting and graduating 3.8 people a year, so I’m thinking one of these numbers is wrong.