academic caste system 2013

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.

24 thoughts on “academic caste system 2013”

  1. I enjoyed this analysis but I do want to warn readers that this analysis is NOT about them. There about 300 soc PhDs per year but this analysis only addresses 15 people!


    1. Agreed-these positions are rare. This analysis misses most of the job market and many people don’t want these sorts of jobs. But my guess is that most 1st year PhD students at top departments put their odds of working at a similar sort of institutions at about one in four, not one in twenty, or worse.

      As I note in the post, I would love it someone rolled this out to larger group of institutions.


      1. I would love it someone rolled this out to larger group of institutions.

        A graduate student and I have amassed data on first job placements for a large portion of all new US sociology Ph.Ds over a 5 year period. We’re presenting that work at ASA this year, though, and no spoilers here.


  2. just wanted to double check the number of job openings this sentence refers to “Each of these cohorts is fighting for about 13.5 spots a year (15 spots a year*88%).” This is only referring to job openings in top 20 programs correct?


    1. Sorry for any confusion. Yes, I only looked at schools rated in the top 20 by US News & World Reports. This set of schools currently has about 93 junior faculty, so I estimate they hire about 15 people a year.


  3. @fabio – I think the # of new Ph.Ds listed in the ASA Guide to Grad Departments is more like 500-600 per year, although some of those are not straight sociology Ph.Ds and a few in some joint programs may not even be sociology Ph.Ds at all.


  4. Neal – quick arithmetic check. When you say programs “ranked 30 to 50”, you mean ranked 21-50, right? That would make sense of “assuming schools ranked 30 to 50 average 10 incoming students a year, that is about 300 folks a year.”

    I’d be interested in seeing the spreadsheet expanded to include placements at at least the top 50. Do you have a sense of how laborious a task it was to get the top 20? We could crowdsource a bit, albeit potentially at the cost of some intercoder reliability.


    1. Thanks. I fixed it.

      I think it’s not a huge effort to roll out to the next 30 because the CVs are likely online. That said, getting the placement numbers for a specific department correct is very tricky, and this strategy may not be the best way to do that. But for overall trends, I think it works.


  5. Neal – this analysis is still a bit distorting for top 20 students. Most may want that top 20 job but they will place in a wide range of positions. People need to know that.


  6. Re distortions: this method also doesn’t count placements in top business schools or related programs. Departments (disclaimer: such as my own) that train students in topics that are most likely to be of interest to b-schools — networks, econ soc, orgs, some types of social psych — are going to be disadvantaged in Neal’s measure.

    RE the Cornell data: sometime in the 2000s, we had three years in which our entering cohorts were 3, 4, and 5 students, respectively. This was an intentional effort (on the part of the grad school) to rebalance the program size after two consecutive years of unusually large cohorts. So, I wouldn’t assume these data are erroneous, although they may not be representative.


    1. This is a flaw with the analysis when using it to rank departments based on top placements. I’d love to know what percent of sociology PhD end up in non-sociology departments. My guess is that the proportion is highest in top departments. Unfortunately, Jeremy is making us wait.

      Thanks for the clarification on Cornell. For the record, even with “only” three placements in my dataset, this still puts them in the top dozen by raw count. This is all the more impressive with several years of micro-cohorts.


      1. In terms of non-sociology placements overall, though, I think the worlds of criminal-justice-type and medical-school-type placements are both numerically larger than the world of business-school placements.


    2. Very true. Soc places in ed, policy, business, social work, and once in a while poli sci. So you really need to take this into account if you want an analysis of placement rather just sociology placement.


  7. When I enrolled at the greatest graduate training program in the history of the world in the early 1990s (Wisconsin), I knew full well that I could only experience downward mobility. Not sure how many of my 30+ fellow graduate students entering that cohort (most of whom did not complete their PhDs at Wisconsin to my knowledge) were equally conscious of this reality. Or how many of them — like me — did not want to work in a top 20 department. But being trained at a top 20 department affords the most options. You can go from #1 to #50, but going to from #50 to #1? Not so much.


  8. Neal – this is great! Thank you for writing this up.

    I think that all of the caveats mentioned are important to keep in mind as several commenters (particularly Fabio) point out. That said, I think that the expectation of many graduate students coming in — and perhaps more importantly — many *departments* is that these hires are much more frequent than they are. This information provides a more accurate sense of what the market looks like for graduate students and faculty at top departments alike. Per Fabio’s point, this represents 3% of the market and so graduate students (even those at the top departments) are more likely to be in the other 97% and should plan accordingly.


    1. What do you suppose is the relationship between departments’ expectations that students will be placed into Top-20 departments and students’ widespread feelings of being a terrible disappointment?


  9. I did something similar a few years ago using the 2009 ASA Guide to Graduate Programs. I looked at the top 25 Sociology Departments according to the US News, but our results are pretty similar. You found that:

    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

    Looking at all faculty in these 25 departments (as of 2009), 80% had earned their PhDs from a top-25 department. Looking at just those faculty receiving their PhDs between 2000 and 2009, 87% had earned their PhD from one of those same top-25 departments.

    This analysis includes those who have affiliated or joint appointments (some of the B-School types that Kim noted) and, in the analysis of recent hires, includes both APs and folks who have already been promoted. I did not do as good a job as you did of adjusting for cohort size, but my crude adjustment (for faculty size at degree granting institution) only shifted the relative ranking of departments in terms of placement around a little.

    Finally, to reinforce Fabio’s point, I’ll note that if you group faculty in top-25 departments by year of PhD and then divide by the total number of PhDs awarded in that year in Sociology (from ASA), you get a number that maxes out at about 5% (and is often lower, though for the older cohorts, some of that has to do with retirement and mortality).


  10. Interesting analyses. By my quick and rough count, as of 2013-2014, there are/will be roughly 49 assistant professors in the Top 10 departments (using orgtheory’s rankings).

    Of these 49: 3 are black (6%) and 5 are Latino/a or Hispanic (10%), the rest are White or Asian*.

    Compared to their respective population sizes in the U.S. this yields: Blacks (6% vs. 13% of U.S. population) and Latinos/Hispanics (including Hispanic whites) (10% vs. 16% of U.S. population)

    *Asians make up 8 of these 49 asst. professors (16% vs. 5% of U.S. population)


    1. Per the 2008 IPEDS data, 13% of the PhDs from top 25 soc programs were earned by Black, Latino/a, or Native American students (combined, detailed data by race are not available). If you assume that the top 10 are primarily hiring from the top 25 PhD-producing programs, it means the top 10 programs are hiring students of color at or possibly above what you’d expect if hiring were random with respect to race.

      The national level PhD pipeline, irrespective of program ranking, is not much different, and still less than 16%. Also, the % of PhDs earned by students of color in 2012 isn’t that much different from the % in 2008.

      See here for more information on the data, program rankings, and method we used to construct these reports for sociology and other NRC-ranked fields.


      1. Should clarify: the point is that the underepresentation of Blacks, Latino/as, and Native Americans relative to the population seems to be driven by processes that generate PhD pipelines, not hiring from those pipelines.


      2. Fair points, I suppose, but I did not really state what I think are the causes of these statistics (e.g. differential treatment of black and Latinos in hiring in Sociology). The findings of this study by the ASA: show that (1) African-Americans actually do quite well in obtaining a tenure track job as ABDs (there is quite a demand for them and they make slightly more $$$ too), but (2) African Americans are under-represented at Research and Doctoral universities and over-represented at Bachelor’s-only institutions (Pg. 8). By contrast, Hispanics and Asians are under-represented at Bachelor’s-only institutions (Pg. 8).

        Furthermore, there is considerable “leakage” of African-Americans between assistant and full professor ranks, particularly at R1 universities, such that (Pg. 10) such that, “[i]n contrast to African Americans, the relative proportion of whites increased rather than decreased between assistant to full professor” (Pg. 12)

        Taken together these data suggest that even though there are probably pipeline issues that precede the job market, it is not as if there is total equality in the tenure-track pipeline itself either.


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