Thursday, March 29, 2012

If you decide to go anyway: Reproduction of Privilege

"If You Decide to Go Anyway" is a special page in a blog devoted to 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School. [It's at Reason # 80. I haven't explored it yet; this summary in IHE is all I have read.]

On the other hand, Karen Kelsky's CHE article -- Graduate School is a Means to a Job -- has some very practical advice for aspiring students.

Granted, they are US centric; but some of what they have to say is valid for the others as well.

Both emphasize the importance of going to prestigious schools, an advice that acquires a very sharp edge in a bad job market (in the US). When the going gets tough, you'll need all the privilege an elite university can give you!

Here's 100 Reasons:

Where you go to graduate school matters. It is difficult to over-emphasize the importance of this point. As everyone knows, there is a hierarchy of universities, but no one takes this hierarchy more seriously than academics (see Reason 3). There are so few jobs in academe that the competition for virtually every open position is a national (and often international) competition. Those with the best chance of securing employment are the products of the nationally (and internationally) prestigious institutions. There are very few genuinely prestigious universities, and almost all of them are private. They are the Ivies and the quasi-Ivies like Stanford and MIT. The number of genuinely prestigious public universities in the United States can be counted on one hand, probably on three fingers, and quite possibly on one.

The large, perfectly respectable public university in your area is almost certainly not one of them, even if it offers an enormous array of graduate programs with extremely competitive admission standards. The problem is that there are hundreds of universities just like it all over the country, together producing tens of thousands of graduate degrees every year. If you happen to earn your PhD at such a place, you will be at a severe disadvantage on the job market, where you will be pitted against people with degrees from the genuinely prestigious universities.

And here's Karen Kelsky:

Go to the highest-ranked graduate department you can get into—so long as it funds you fully. That is not actually because of the "snob factor" of the name itself, but rather because of the ethos of the best departments. They typically are the best financed, which means they have more scholars with national reputations to serve as your mentors and letter writers, and they maintain lively brown-bag and seminar series that bring in major visiting scholars with whom you can network. The placement history of a top program tends to produce its own momentum, so that departments around the country with faculty members from that program will then look kindly on new applications from its latest Ph.D.'s. That, my friends, is how privilege reproduces itself. It may be distasteful, but you deny or ignore it at your peril.


  1. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    Those blurbs (I didn't click through) are depressing reads -- if you don't go to the top 11 (8 Ivies, + MIT + Stanford + Berkeley -- which I assume is the one public university they allow) then don't bother? I know quite a lot of Indian PhD's who got good jobs in the US, and of course in India too. And there are about 50 US universities that, I think, are entirely worth going to.

  2. WebMiner said...

    Rahul --- You'll notice that most such articles are written by people outside hard sciences and engineering, in whose fields pedigree must necessarily supplement independent assessment of whether Did E. M. Forster Harbor Post-Modernist Nazi Leanings? is an excellent thesis or bilgewater, which is bound to be a tad whimsical. Few people inside science and engineering seem to have the time to write such articles. I have also collected some interesting statistics on the demography of the author and whether they strongly promote the rich gets richer ideology, but the margin here is too small for a proof.

  3. Abi said...

    @Rahul: Yes, it is depressing -- but this advice is mainly for folks in fields where the primary purpose of going to grad school is to land a faculty job. These fields include most of humanities, I suppose, but they also include fields like cosmology, theoretical physics, astrophysics, some parts of biomedical sciences, etc. [broadly, fields in which people end up doing serial post-docs]. This advice has a far less salience in fields where PhDs have lots of options on graduation: engineering, most parts of chemistry, condensed matter physics, economics, etc. Even in these latter fields, I would think that pedigree would matter a lot in the market for faculty jobs.

    @WebMiner: Take a look at these two posts (and the lively comments threads therein -- especially, the first comment in the first post) for the views of scientists.

    As I said, these views acquire a harder edge in a bad job market -- which is what the US (and the West, more generally) has been going through over the last several years.

  4. WebMiner said...

    The Caltech grad writes: "At the same time, I’m a firm believer that your life doesn’t completely end just because you’re in grad school, nor that the process itself should be unpleasant." --- even more depressing than what was in your OP! Yeah, and I never said pedigree isn't important in S&T among technical equals, just that technical prowess is a little more objective.