What Are Low-Ranked Graduate Programs Good For?

Douglas Paulin for The Chronicle

January 28, 2013

When Socrates called on his followers to seek "wisdom and truth and the improvement of your soul" over fame and prestige, he might have had professors in mind. Professors revel in reputation—and nowhere does that show more clearly than in our concern about educational pedigree.

That concern takes complicated forms. In last month's column, on the oversupply of Ph.D.'s relative to tenure-track openings, I wondered what might happen if we reduced graduate admissions to a level that would only replace retiring professors. One possible consequence of such a move would be that less-elite Ph.D. programs might fold for want of students.

To which one might reply, So what? Who, wondered one of my commenters, is "hiring the graduates of second- and third-tier doctoral programs? At a time when not a few Yale, Berkeley, and Michigan Ph.D.'s are treading water in temporary and visiting appointments." The commenter went on to declare: "The world will not miss a few dozen low-end Ph.D. programs."

Certainly a recent study of job placement in political-science departments does nothing to refute such a mordant view: The results, reported in The Chronicle in December, showed that top-ranked Ph.D. programs in the field exert disproportionate influence in the academic job market. Robert Oprisko of Butler University, a co-author of the study, observed that graduates of the top 11 programs occupy almost 50 percent of all tenured or tenure-track openings in the top 100 departments in the discipline. That is, Ph.D.'s from the top 10th account for about half of the most competitive jobs. "Students who come from less-prestigious institutions don't really get a chance," Oprisko said.

But it's too easy to dismiss low-ranked programs on those grounds. They may not do as well at placing their graduates at research-­intensive institutions, and political science may be, as I'll suggest, an extreme case of that. But the influence of low-ranked programs isn't necessarily less. Instead, it's different.

I've spilled a lot of virtual ink in this space on behalf of nonacademic employment for Ph.D.'s, but let's put that possibility aside for now. Instead, I'll argue for the value of lesser-ranked doctoral programs on the same ground upon which they're often attacked: academic placement.

Consider the issue of placement potential: A given Ph.D. program has the greatest influence within a certain range of its own ranking. So Ph.D.'s from Yale University, for example, are most employable from the top ranks of their field to, say, about halfway down the listings. Meanwhile, Ph.D.'s from Little-Known Regional State U. have the most appeal from the bottom of the rankings to around halfway up. A midranked program reaches up and down from its position.

Data on Ph.D. job placement are too poor to support a data-driven graph, so I'm describing a necessarily rough and general idea. Moreover, the forces affecting who goes where on the academic job market are myriad, and most of us can point to exceptions. Not every brilliant graduate-school applicant goes to Yale or its epigone, and not every brilliant Ph.D. will be hired at a tony place after graduation. Princeton University's history department, for example, does a lot of junior hiring from elite programs (including from Princeton itself), but it also currently employs young professors with Ph.D.'s from places like the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and York University, in Toronto—fine universities, to be sure, but lower on the prestige ladder than Princeton. There is no monopoly on excellent work.

Geography also matters a great deal. Even elite universities will place more graduates nearby than far away. Networking plays a part here: Lots of credentialed apples come to rest near the tree, so Ph.D.'s who compete for local jobs usually encounter some of their fellow alumni while they're looking. (An institution's religious affiliation, if it has one, can matter as well.)

It's also worth mentioning that while rankings encompass entire departments, individual programs within departments may have very different placement records from the departments at large. For example, the University of Notre Dame's political-­science department is ranked 36th by U.S. News & World Report (whatever one may think of that authority), but some of that department's programs (for example, the one in religion and politics) are particularly well regarded. Perhaps for that reason, said Geoffrey Layman, graduate director, in an e-mail, "We have had some recent success in placing students in major national or regional research universities."

Along the same line of reasoning, a superstar adviser may enjoy a personal placement rate that exceeds her department's overall record.

Provisos aside, the main point is this: There are different kinds of jobs and different kinds of training. Rankings encourage us to think of a department ranked No. 5 as "better" than one that's ranked No. 35. And the No. 5 department will certainly be better at some things. We may safely speculate that the research produced by its faculty is probably better known and more often cited than the research produced by the faculty at the No. 35 department. In addition, a fifth-ranked department would be better at training and supporting graduate students who commit to doing cutting-edge research—partly by giving them financial packages that free them from having to teach much.

But might we not also expect that the 35th-ranked department would be better in some ways? Perhaps in training its Ph.D.'s to be effective teachers? Rankings are ultimately guided by what you're looking to compare, and the influential NRC rankings are comparing research output: NRC stands for National Research Council, after all.

Research isn't a professor's whole job, though. And colleges and universities that hire new Ph.D.'s don't all privilege research in the same way. Many, if not most, institutions seek skilled and experienced teachers.

Political scientists at many Ph.D.-­granting institutions wrestle with the need for good teachers. It's an inconvenient fact for them because it conflicts with their aspirations to occupy one of the top 40 spaces in the research-based rankings—and that surely contributes to the discipline's top-heavy placement record.

Political scientists, like AM-radio disc jockeys of old, prize the top 40. The top 40 political-science departments amount to a charmed circle, and political scientists invest a lot of psychic energy thinking about that circle—more so than in comparable disciplines. Those outside the circle closely watch the universities inside, and look for ways to push their way in.

Some of the have-nots can get defensive. A graduate director at a Southwestern state university outside the top 40 sought to flatten out any differences between her political-­science program and those ranked above it: "As a Research I University," she wrote in an e-mail, "our students, for the most part, are very much interested in continuing to do research," and accordingly, they apply to research-­oriented institutions. Only in the last couple of years, she said, have they encountered trouble, which she blames on "the economy."

A graduate director of a political-science department at a Midwestern state university—also ranked outside the top 40—wrote in an e-mail of how his program's recent external reviewers pushed his department to adopt a top-40 model. The external team made a number of recommendations for how his department could compete against higher-ranked institutions "and place our job candidates at schools that lean more on the research side," he said. The examiners recommended specialization, but the graduate director worries that this move "could pose a risk" for his department's job seekers, the more successful of whom tend to be generalists.

That top-40 model has proved unusually confining within the political-science field. One graduate director at a state university in the South (also outside the top 40) commented that "the model coming out of the top 40 is very narrow." It's also pervasive. "Socialization within political-science departments is guided by the behavior of the top programs," he said.

One result of that mimicry, the Southern graduate director continued, is that "most lower-tier programs aren't emphasizing teaching" even though the graduate students at those universities teach plenty. Thus, he said, "there is a void in the academy when it comes to socializing political-science teachers." Political scientists are failing, he said, "to see teaching as an essential part of what we do."

But teaching is obviously essential to what faculty members do—not only within the top 40 and the top 100, but also beyond those ranges, at colleges and regional universities where good teaching is paramount and central. And the Ph.D.'s who get hired at those places are not the narrow specialists with the high-ranking degrees.

I contacted some political scientists at colleges and universities outside the top 100 (that is, below the lower boundary of the recent placement study). Compared with the aspirations of the top 40 and their wannabes, these professors might as well be inhabiting a different academic planet.

An assistant professor at a state university's branch campus in the South described a hiring bias against the fancier job candidates. "My colleagues tend not to favor graduates of elite Ph.D. programs," he wrote in an e-mail, because his institution is "a teaching-orientedschool." When his department hires, it seeks "candidates who have experience and a passion for teaching students," and "unless a candidate from an 'elite' program really communicated a high level of interest in the position and our school, we probably wouldn't consider interviewing him/her."

Another young political scientist at a college in the South pointed to the four-course-­­per-term teaching load that prevails at his institution. When his department hires, he wrote in an e-mail, it prefers candidates "with more teaching experience and who present themselves as generalists rather than specialists."

In other words, elite Ph.D.'s with highly specialized research interests and limited classroom experience don't often fit at teaching­-intensive campuses. And "fit" is what departments at any level seek, above all.

Heather Hawn, an assistant professor at Mars Hill College, in North Carolina, wrote in an e-mail that when she was hired, "my hiring committee was very focused on 'fit,' which is why I got the job, over many candidates who graduated from higher-ranked universities." Her department also gets applicants with Ph.D.'s from elite programs, she said, but "we do not gravitate toward them."

These examples, typical of a larger sample I collected, suggest that what's being produced at the top of the political-science food chain does not meet the nutritional needs at the middle and the bottom.

The problem is that the programs in the middle and even the bottom are too focused on what's going on above them. Thus, the disproportionate influence wielded by the top-ranked political-science programs may result from the blinkered efforts of so many others to be just like them. Instead of cultivating their own strengths based on their own resources, they aim their prayers—and the desires of their students—upward because that is the basis on which they are evaluated. But in the process, they're ignoring the work to be done on the earth below.

I did encounter one graduate director—at a lower-ranked state university in the Midwest—who admitted in an e-mail that his colleagues "spend additional effort training students as teachers, making sure they have lots of classroom experience before going on the job market." Not surprisingly, his department's placement record shows the benefits, but he still sounded chastened and dejected: We prepare students that way, he said, "because we know our place."

He shouldn't feel so bad. The Ph.D.'s who graduate from middle- and lower-ranked programs possess fewer airs than some of the professors who train them. The assistant professor at the branch campus said that his university was "certainly not the type of institution I had in mind prior to finishing graduate school," but that he had adapted smoothly: "I really love it and am seriously considering making a permanent career here."

The lesson is not new. The economist and cultural critic Thorstein Veblen wrote in 1899 that "the propensity for emulation is probably the strongest and most alert and persistent of the economic motives proper." That propensity has a lot of political scientists by the throat—and many academics in other disciplines, too.

We have no time for this. In my next column I'll look at some of the ways that departments can examine their doctoral training and play to their strengths.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at