A quantitative investigation of the roles played by academic institutions' prestige in faculty hiring reveals a "closed doctoral ecosystem" that negatively affect a field’s ideas diversity, growth, and inventiveness.

Aaron Clauset of the University of Colorado Boulder, an SFI External Professor and former SFI Omidyar Fellow, and his colleagues Samuel Arbesman and Daniel Larremore took a look at faculty placement networks in academia -- using data from the disparate fields of computer science, business, and history -- to get a cross-field representation of the roles played by an institution’s prestige factor.

Their paper is published in the new open-access journal Science Advances. Clauset described the research today in a news media availability during the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in San Jose, California. 

Their network analysis found that generally, faculty placements at academic institutions with equal or higher prestige levels than the institutions from which faculty seekers obtained their degrees was rare; in essence, the institutions at the top of the prestige heap hire each others’ graduates, promoting their collective prestige and restricting the availability of prestigious faculty positions to degree holders from less-prestigious institutions.

Perhaps more troubling, this hiring paradigm was found to perpetuate gender inequality, with female PhDs more frequently obtaining faculty placements at academic institutions with lower levels of prestige than the institutions from which they obtained their PhDs.

Ultimately, the inequalities inherent in this prestige hierarchy can hinder the flow of ideas and the formation of new fields, Clauset says. Innovative ideas that originate within the relatively isolated networks of higher-prestige universities solidify within them before streaming down to academics affiliated with lower-prestige institutes. Regardless of their quality, innovative ideas from less-prestigious universities are slower to dissipate throughout a field because they must travel "upstream" and penetrate the network of academics collaborating together in the closed microcosm of the higher prestige institutions.

“The paper examines the largest dataset on faculty hiring ever collected,” says Clauset. “Its findings allow us to start the conversation about whether this system is operating in the way we want it to.”

The authors suggest that the methods used in their study to investigate the role and effects of prestige hierarchies in other realms, such as with societal income and wealth distributions, might help understand and overcome the factors that hinder positive social expansion.

Read the paper in Science Advances (February 12, 2015)

Read the article in Science Careers (February 11, 2105)

Read the article on Quartz.com (February 11, 2105)

Read the article in Wired (February 19, 2015)

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