Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Blog CCXVIII (218): What to Do with the "Systematic Inequality" Findings

This essay is from the better-late-never department.  This essay was intended as a follow up to Blog CLXXIX, where I basically endorsed the findings of the article "Systematic Inequality."  I am going to explain a bit more on why in this essay, and offer some advice on who various groups should react to the study.  I should note, though, I have some reservations about the findings of the article, and in this essay, I am going to develop more on those misgivings.

I should first explain that I think that this study was an inventive way to measure something that is very difficult to measure: prestige.  Clauset, Arbesman, and Larremore--to use the words of Arbesome--"developed a new ranking methodology based on a simple idea: a school’s prestige (and rank) is determined by where its graduates go. If a school is good, then lots of other schools will want to hire its graduates."  They have hit on something very important here: the major coin of the realm in academia is reputation.  Where a school places its graduates is exceptionally important.  In my Ph.D. program, getting students through their qualifying exams and on the job market was something the faculty stressed and stressed and stressed.

Some of the findings were a bit surprising.  That there is a hierarchy in academia is not news.  That it is so damn steep is another thing altogether.  These findings, though, simply repeat for the profession a general conclusion that was made in a cover story in the January 24, 2015 issue of The Economist on American education.  The basic thrust of the news magazine was that the United States was developing an aristocracy based on education.  The quality of education of is the key to wealth and power in the nation, and if you have wealth, you can begin investing in your children's schooling at a very early age.  They, as a result, get into the best schools, not because they are the children of the wealthy and powerful, but because they are better qualified than their peers because of the educational preparation, which their parents paid for. As I said in Blog II, the rich get richer and the poor don't get so much.  

Some of the rankings of various departments were surprising.  That Brandeis was part of the "Magic Eight" was a bit of a shock.  I was also surprised to see UC, Davis and UC, San Diego finish in the top twenty.  Davis is not exactly considered one of the better locals in the state of California, but a quick visit to the web page of the UC, Davis history department reveals that their faculty have two Pulitzer Prizes, a Bancroft Prize and an AHA president among their numbers.

There are problems with this study, though.  The first big one is that it is focused on Ph.D. placement at other Ph.D. granting institutions.  As a result, some pretty prestigious schools that lack Ph.D. programs will not be found in this ranking: Dartmouth, BYU, West Point, Annapolis, the Air Force Academy, and Villanova.  More importantly, placement at these schools does not count.  Some Ph.D. granting institutions are also absent: Baylor, Oregon State, and SMU.  Another problem, is that the study fails to account for the rise and fall of a department.  It is altogether possible that USC might have had a bad decade in the 1980s when it came to placing their grads.  On the other hand, a school like the University of Rochesther might have had a strong program in the 1980s and 1990s that it could not sustain in the 2000s and the 2010s.  Departments rise and fall and the study fails to capture that dynamic.

Another bigger problem is that subfields are a key part of a department's strength.  If you want to study U.S. diplomatic history, then Yale is a great place to study.  If you want to write a dissertation about Scandinavian history, then it really is the wrong place to be.

With all these points in mind, this study is important to some groups more than others.  To be more specific:
  • Undergraduate History Majors: ignore the study. It is all about Ph.D. program placement. If you are majoring in history at a good school a bit down the rankings, like TCU or Alabama, do not worry. The quality of teaching and instruction is quite good across the boards. In fact, both of those schools had history professors listed in the compilation The 300 Best Professors In The Country that the Princeton Review put together. 
  • Students Shopping About for a Ph.D. Program: you are the ones that need to take heed most of this study. This next statement has some important qualifications, but here goes—you need to get yourself into the highest ranked program on this list as is possible.  The reason is simple--you want to give yourself as much of an edge as possible in a hyper competitive job market. The key qualification is the subfield you want to study. If you can get into Stanford, good for you, but if you want to study maritime history and they have no one that covers that topic, it is the wrong school for you, end of story. When you find a school that has specialists in the topic you want to study, you need to make sure that the individual professors are willing to take on grad students. 
  • Grad Students at the “Magic Eight”: Congratulations. You have a real advantage of your peers at some really good schools. It will help you. But be warned—it does not make you bullet proof. Clauset and his team noted that many graduates of these schools end up at lower tier schools. I should also note that many graduates from these schools and their faculty have a sense of entitlement; that the name of their school will be enough to get them a job. I have seen this more than once and from more than one of these schools. You might be the front runner for a job before you even apply, but you still need to work at the interview process. History is littered with front runners that ended up not winning. Do you really want to be the person that loses out to a graduate from one of the universities ranked in the twenties?
  • Grad Students at Institutions other than the “Magic Eight: Do not lose faith, but also be realistic. Subfields make a difference. If you are specializing in Latin American history at the University of Texas—which has one of the best programs in the world—you are going to be competitive for jobs in this field.  For that field UT is just as good as Harvard or Yale.  Another thing to consider is that this study only examined schools granting a Ph.D., some people might be very content to teach at an institution like BYU or the Air Force Academy that has a terminal BA or MA program. On the other hand, this study makes it clear that if you are attending a lower tier Ivy League school, a Pac-12 school outside of the San Francisco Bay area, an institution in the Big 10, Big XII, or the Southeastern Conference, then the grads of the “Magic Eight” have an enormous, enormous advantage over you. The AHA study The Many Careers of History PhDs also makes it clear that half of all history Ph.D.s have to find jobs outside of teaching. If you already in a program, you probably want to finish and earn the degree. You should, though, begin asking your faculty about your options. Don’t be surprised if they are not able to give you immediate guidance—many of them might be grads of the “Magic Eight” and were fortunate enough to go from grad student to professor. But you need to ask what options have previous graduates turned to in the past. Start this conversation in your department as soon as possible, it is only your future that is at stake.

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