Daniel W. Drezner

Is the political science job market a prestige cartel?

In last week’s debate over whether policy wonks should get Ph.D.s, there was a hidden assumption baked into the discussion — that all doctorates are created equal.  But anyone who spends any time around the academy knows this isn’t so.  A Ph.D. from, say, Harvard, is going to find a lot more open doors than a ...

In last week’s debate over whether policy wonks should get Ph.D.s, there was a hidden assumption baked into the discussion — that all doctorates are created equal.  But anyone who spends any time around the academy knows this isn’t so.  A Ph.D. from, say, Harvard, is going to find a lot more open doors than a Ph.D. from, say, the University of Massachusetts.  Why that’s the case is the subject of some debate (and research in sociology).  One argument is merit-based:  the Harvard Ph.D.s are simply better than the UMass ones.  Another argument is that it’s prestige-based:  all else equal, the Harvard student gets a leg up in the job market because of the Harvard credential and the Harvard network. 

How powerful, and how pernicious, is this prestige effect?  This week, the Chronicle of Higher EducationInside Higher Ed, and The Monkey Cage all ran stories about an essay by Robert Oprisko in the Georgetown Public Policy Review entitled "Superpowers:  The New Academic Elite."  Drawing from his book, Oprisko posits "a system whereby individuals navigate society based upon processes of honor that determine their value."  To my theory-addled ears this sound a bit like Pierre Bourdieu, but that’s neither here nor there.  Then Oprisko drops the empirics:

We compiled a database of the tenure-track and tenured faculty in all ranked research universities to determine which of those universities successfully placed candidates at peer institutions. We found strongly suggestive evidence that hiring based upon institutional excellence is ubiquitous.

We used the 2009 U.S. News and World Report rankings for political science graduate programs as a proxy variable to determine an applicant’s academic class, or affiliated honor, in order to determine if it significantly influenced hiring processes officially predicated upon individual talent (referred to as prestige). The aggregation of this data includes 116 institutions and 3,135 faculty members who are either tenure-track or tenured. We hypothesized that affiliated honor would directly correlate to employment success. We also hypothesized that a cascade effect would emerge where institutions would place within and immediately below their prestige level such that a prestige-based hierarchy would present itself. The results dramatically show that we were both very right on the first hypothesis and very wrong on the second. There is a group of highly prestigious universities that dominate the political science academic market, effectively shutting out all competition at multiple levels. The fact that these academic superpowers are so dominant and place candidates ubiquitously indicates that institutional prestige drives hiring practices in academia and, perhaps, other highly selective professions….

[Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Michigan] contribute 616 political scientists; roughly twenty percent of the total tenure-track lines in the discipline at research-intensive programs. The median institutional ranking for the 116 institutions covered is eleven, which implies that eleven schools contribute 50 percent of the political science academics to research-intensive universities in the United States. Over 100 political science PhD programs are graduating students that will contest the remaining 50 percent of openings.

These numbers likely understate the impact of prestigious universities; the present study does not include the many liberal arts colleges and regional universities that also hire graduates of these programs and increase the network of advocates for graduates from highly ranked universities (emphasis added).

Please do read the whole thing, as well as the Chronicle story by Audrey Williams June, which has numerous additional quotes from Oprisko, including:  "The bottom of the barrel at Princeton is still the bottom of the barrel."

Now, this is clearly the precis of a larger paper that will have all the numbers.  And, clearly, there is some motivated self-interest going on in the analysis:  Oprisko has a 2011 Ph.D. from Purdue University, which U.S. News and World Report ranked as the 62nd best Ph.D. program (though they do better in the NRC rankings).  In the spirit of full disclosure, I got my Ph.D. from Stanford, so I’m naturally going to be resistant to the idea that it’s only honor and not merit that’s determining these hiring patterns. 

That said, as they continue to crunch the numbers on the larger paper, I hope Oprisko et al address the following arguments that might cut against the prestige argument: 

1)  Cohort effects.  This study takes a static snapshot of all current hires.  The problem is that this likely exaggerates the power of the top-tier institutions due to lagged effects.  Elite Ph.D. programs have likely been around for a longer time — and, in the past, a lot of these programs also had much larger incoming classes of Ph.D. students.  This would suggest that these institutions should capture a disproportionate number of positions at the senior level.  So Oprisko et al need to show whether this problem is more or less acute among junior hires. 

2)  Parse out the merit vs. honor arguments.  Remember, there are two different arguments at work here, but they both make the same prediction:  Ph.D.s from higher-ranked institutions should do  better on the job market.  There needs to be clear evidence that the "honor" argument is the primary driver. 

I’ll confess to being somewhat skeptical.  As Gabriel Rossman points out, there are pretty solid reasons to think that Oprisko’s finding are consistent with a meritocratic sort.  Furthermore, based on my own experiences, I’d push back strongly on the "bottom of the barrel" observation.  I’ve taught at a top ten political science department and a not-that-close-to-top ten political science department in my career.  I will gladly concede that the bottom of the barrel at the top tier institution were much bigger pains in the neck.  They were, nevertheless, also much better trained and more analytically sharp than the bottom of the barrel at the other institution. 

3)  The selection bias likely works in reverse.  Oprisky speculates that the elite effect is likely understated, because they don’t examine "liberal arts colleges and regional universities."  The selective liberal arts schools aside, I’d wager that the reverse is true.  Indeed, it’s the very "elite" thing that would drive this effect.  People who get their Ph.D.s from Harvard do not want to go teach at Eastern Washington University — and even if they wanted to at first, they were socialized at Harvard to think of it as a bad outcome.  This is particularly true if the geographical location of the hiring instiution is… let’s say "not near a large body of water."  Furthermore, a lot of these places won’t take applicants from elite institutions seriously, because they assume that these are "safety school" applications, and that these Ph.D.s really want jobs at R1 research institutions.  I would posit that Ph.D.s from lower-tier institutions are more likely to secure teaching positions at liberal arts schools and regional universities.  One manageable way to test this would be to look at these school categories in two small, matched states — say, Connecticut and Oklahoma — and see what the numbers show.  

4)  This ain’t that big a concentration ratio.   I emailed Oprisko to ask which institutions were responsible for the largest share of the market, and he was generous enough to let me know.  The top four were:  Harvard with 239 placements; UC-Berkeley with 156 placements; Yale with 149 placements; and Michigan with 141 placements.  Now, if the total size of this market is 3,135 positions, we get the following market share figures: 

Harvard:  7.6%

Berkeley:  5.0%

Yale:  4.8%

Michigan:  4.5%

Let’s acknowledge that these are all elite institutions.  Still, this doesn’t look like an oligopoly to me.  Using standard oligopoly measures yields a four-firm concentration ratio of 21.9% — which isn’t indicative of an oligopoly.  The Herfindahl-Hirschman Index is 126, which is not remotely close to an oligopoly in industrial organization.  Similarly, in international relations, these kind of market power numbers suggest a world of extreme multipolarity rather than any kind of significant concentration.  Maybe using economic or IR comparisons are inappropriate — but I’d need to be persuaded why that’s the case. 

I think it’s extremely useful for Oprisko to bring up these kinds of questions about the political science job market, but I’m going to need to see more to be convinced that this is a concentrated prestige market run amok.

What do you think? 

UPDATE:  Because Georgetown possesses so much less prestige than Fletcher, I somehow missed Dan Nexon’s excellent take on this issue

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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