One of the more the things I find frustrating about being a fan of college football is how subjective it all is. For decades, the sport has been dominated by polls run by various media organizations that vote on a championship based on perceptions of play instead of the actual results—I should note, though, that the sport is slowly, slowly moving towards having a real playoff system. A good example of the silliness of this came last year when TCU and Baylor had the exact same record, but TCU was ranked higher because its one loss was perceived as being “better” than Baylor’s one loss, even though that loss came in a head-to-head contest early in the season against Baylor. That is right TCU lost to Baylor, had the same record, but was higher in the polls.
Academia is much the same. Various history departments are described as “strong programs” or “weak” ones with very few objective criteria. (The U.S. News and World Report rankings of colleges and universities are the equivalent of the college football polls. They take subjective factors and try to make them look objective and mathematical.) That is why I love the Clauset, Arbesman, and Larremore, “Systematic Inequality” article because it finally provides some objective criteria for evaluating history departments, and Ph.D. placement is the real acid test. Reputation, the quality of, and the amount of historical scholarship are important, but those pale in comparison to what your graduates do with the knowledge and degrees they earn. I found other parts of the study troubling or questionable, but I will get to those in another posting, but in this blog entry I want to focus on how students can use this study to their advantage.
In an interview with a reporter from Inside Higher Ed, Clauset said his team’s findings should not keep others from pursuing their dreams of being a college professor. “I don’t think that if I had seen this study in graduate school it would have deterred me from this path to becoming a professor,” he said. “But knowing how steep the mountain is can help people make decisions about whether or not they want to climb it.”
I agree. I want to repeat the advice I offered in Blog CLII: Looking for a Home and Blog LXXIX: Hail to the Victor. In those two postings I recommended that the prospective grad students limit their searches to the member schools of the Association of American Universities or the schools that made Education-Portal.com's listing of the 20 best history departments. If you are looking for a Ph.D. program, I would limit your search to the “Magic Eight.”
Being a good academic, let me add some qualifications, some small qualifications, to that statement. First, a prospective grad student should compare and contrasts the three lists. While all of the "Magic Eight” are members of the Association of American Universities, not all of them made Education-Portal.com's listing, and that should give pause. A glitch in “Systematic Inequality” is that does not measure recent placement. While an elite school might have placed hundreds of people in the profession that might reflect the strengths of their programs in the 1980s and 1990s. The real question is: where are they today? Even elite schools have cycles. People come and go through retirements and deaths, and a program might not be as strong as it was a decade ago.
Another thing to consider, if the schools do not have people doing the topics you want to explore or you are unable to get in, you might want to widen the aperture a bit, but only a bit. These numbers are not set in stone and there is some room for honest disagreement—I will talk about that a bit more in another post. If there is no one doing the field you want to study at one of these schools, then they are not right for you, no matter their ranking. If the biggest name on a specific topic is at a school a bit lower on the list that will probably be a better fit. But as Clauset, Arbesman, and Larremore note the ability of graduates from schools in the top twenty is significantly harder than those from the "Magic Eight. As a result, if you are looking at a school that is lower than the mid-teens, then I think you should reconsider your plans to be a historian.