Ph.D.'s From Top Political-Science Programs Dominate Hiring, Research Finds

Departments at 11 elite universities provide half of the field's tenured and tenure-track professors

December 05, 2012

For Ph.D. students in political science who have complained that graduates of top-ranked programs get all the job offers, new research on hiring practices in the field won't make them feel any better.

That's because an analysis of more than 3,000 professors at more than 100 institutions shows that there is a direct link between graduating from a prestigious political-science program and getting a coveted tenure-track position at a research-intensive university.

"When you're talking about hiring someone who is a Ph.D. or with a professional degree, you should be trying to find someone who is an expert in their field—no matter what program they're in," said Robert Oprisko, a visiting assistant professor in international studies at Butler University, who studies how individuals benefit from membership in certain groups and how those groups benefit from excellence in such groups. "But you will find this is absolutely not the case."

Mr. Oprisko's research, recently previewed in an article he wrote in The Georgetown Public Policy Review, showed that four institutions—Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford Universities and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor—saw a total of 616 of their political-science graduates hired into what amounts to 20 percent of tenure-track positions available in the discipline at research-intensive institutions.

To arrive at that conclusion, Mr. Oprisko and his research partners—Natalie Jackson, a senior analyst at the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College, and Kristie Dobbs, a research assistant at Butler—compiled a database of the tenured and tenure-track faculty at all ranked research universities this past summer to figure out which had their Ph.D. students get hired at peer institutions. Then the researchers used the 2009 U.S. News & World Report rankings of political-science graduate programs to determine whether a job applicant's academic class—or what Mr. Oprisko called "affiliated honor"—had played a significant role in the candidate's being hired. The data include 116 institutions and 3,135 tenured or tenure track professors.

The median institutional ranking of institutions in the study is 11, which Mr. Oprisko said implies that 11 institutions contributed half of the political scientists who filled tenured or tenure-track positions at research-intensive universities in the United States. That means that graduates of the more than 100 other political-science programs competed for the remaining 50 percent of job openings.

Odds Stacked Against Them

The article in the Georgetown Review reports that Harvard has had 239 political-science graduates hired at 75 institutions, including a dozen at Harvard itself. The Ivy League institution's program is ranked No. 1, along with that of Princeton and Stanford. Princeton has placed 108 graduates at 62 institutions, including five at Princeton, while Stanford has placed 128 political-science Ph.D.'s at 51 universities, including three at Stanford.

The University of Michigan was the highest ranked public institution, with a placement record of 141 political scientists at 61 institutions, including seven at Michigan.

Yet the data don't tell the full story, Mr. Oprisko said. Liberal-arts institutions and regional universities that hire graduates of the elite programs expand their job opportunities even further, a pattern that doesn't bode well for Ph.D. students from nonelite programs in what is still a tight academic-job market.

"Students who come from less-prestigious institutions don't really get a chance," said Mr. Oprisko, who plans to do additional research related to what he and his colleagues have uncovered so far.

In some instances, Ph.D. students in political science who are on the job market already seem to know how much institutional prestige matters. Political Science Job Rumors, a popular Web site for academic job seekers, is home to numerous postings that have prompted heavy discussions about programs' rank and prestige. Graduate students who are trying to weigh the pros and cons of programs in which they might enroll often seek confirmation of a program's reputation and its placement record.

Search committees, which can receive hundreds of vitas for a single job opening, are "looking for easy ways to get rid of people," said Mr. Oprisko, who earned his Ph.D. in political science from Purdue University in 2011. Indeed, when search committees are stacked with professors holding degrees from top-ranked institutions, such faculty members are more likely to hire professors with the same kind of education background as theirs.

"There's a perception that good candidates only come from certain schools, and if you went anywhere else, you can't possibly be any good," Mr. Oprisko said. But as institutions continue to hire based upon institutional prestige, to be competitive and to rise in the rankings, they should be mindful of what that suggests about their own programs, says the article, which is based on the researchers' working paper, "Superpowers: The American Academic Elite."

"You're admitting that your own program is, in fact, inferior and that these graduate students who have been teaching programs for you are no longer worthy of teaching at your institutions," Mr. Oprisko said. "Most programs are actually undermining their competitiveness by being unwilling to hire their own students."

Turning to the same old pool of candidates just to get "the most qualified candidate that you can" is easy, but it's not always the right response, Mr. Oprisko said. "The bottom of the barrel at Princeton is still the bottom of the barrel."