Empiricism in the Service of the Already Known

I’m working on another book proposal now, and as part of that, have been reading bits and pieces in a new literature. And one of the articles I’ve come across is this one: Amir, Rabah, and Knauff, Malgorzata. (2008). Ranking Economics Departments Worldwide on the Basis of PhD Placement. Review of Economics and Statistics, 90:1, 185-190. Based on already accomplished mathematical rankings of economics departments (based on numbers of publications in high-impact journals), this study examined the faculty of those economics departments to see where they got their doctorates.

And gosh, it’s pretty darn circular.

Nearly a quarter of the 2,100 faculty at these top-tier schools (as of April 2006) got their PhDs from only two econ departments: MIT and Harvard. The top eight contributors (adding, in order, Stanford, UChicago, Princeton, Berkeley, Yale, and Northwestern) had more faculty at top economics schools than the combined next fifty schools.

And while it’s nice to have your knowledge supported by people who can do calculus, we’ve already known this. As I said in the book’s entry on program rankings, your first job will ALWAYS be a step backward on the hierarchy of colleges. As one of my friends said of another colleague, “A PhD in Anthropology from UMass? It’s no surprise she’s still on the market…”

From the outside, we don’t recognize that degrees, like diving routines, are multiplied by their perceived degree of difficulty, and the perception varies by community. We think of the PhD as a thing, as a fixed term for a person who’s made an original contribution to the body of scholarly work. It’s crucial to realize that the way your degree will be read is “PhD in ____ from ____,” and that all three terms are contributors to your academic future.

And you, prospective scholar, get to do all the investigative work on your own. You have to imagine the kinds of schools you’d like to teach at. You have to pick a few and make a list from their websites of each of their tenure-track faculty members, and find out what school each of them got their own PhD from. And then you need to apply to those PhD programs who were the greatest contributors to your own desired community.

There’s a lot of discussion about “the overproduction” of PhDs given the current job market. We could just as easily talk about “the underconsumption” of PhDs given the massive scale of collegiate and graduate education today; those twenty million students (!!!) in higher ed have to be taught by somebody, after all. But the underlying fact is simple; the program from which you get your PhD will be the best department you will ever see. You have entered a system of downward mobility.

Now let’s be clear. You might actually WANT to work at a teaching focused school, working with undergraduates who come from other than 1% families. And if you’ve chosen a doctoral program that’s too elite, that desire has to be hidden from your own faculty, who can’t imagine a scholarly life at anything other than their R1 comfort. Why should they spend their time on you when you’re only going to try to get a job at some backwater college? You’ll never edit the journal that might publish the next generation of their students… you’ll never be a grants officer at the federal agency who’ll push funding opportunities toward their lab and their postdocs. (Again, I’ve heard exactly these things from friends who’ve been hired at teaching oriented colleges, that their advisors essentially shunned them once they learned of their intentions.)

You need to know, friends, that there are departments in your field that are the equivalent of the Maserati Quattroporte, and departments that are the Mitsubishi Mirage. Although all of them may offer something called a PhD, only a few of them will ultimately be currency that you can spend.