Welcome to Race on Campus. Who is more likely to become a faculty member — an individual who has at least one Ph.D.-holding parent or someone whose parents don’t have graduate degrees? If you guessed the first option, you’re correct. Early research shows that this parental advantage may be bad news for colleges that want to diversify their faculties.

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Faculty members are 25 times as likely as the average American to have a parent with a Ph.D., according to a new preprint paper by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The researchers, who surveyed about 7,000 professors in doctorate-granting departments for eight disciplines, also found that the proportion of faculty members with Ph.D.-holding parents “nearly doubles” at prestigious institutions.

There’s a lot to unpack in the survey results in the paper, “Socioeconomic Roots of Academic Faculty” — especially what they mean for the challenges of diversifying the professoriate.

Black and Latino professors, in particular, remain underrepresented at colleges across the country. Black and Hispanic adults are also less likely to have graduate degrees, compared with their white counterparts, the study found. If you follow this thinking, then children of Black and Hispanic people are also less likely than are their white peers to become faculty members.

The study found that this model — the odds of becoming a faculty member are higher if one of your parents has a Ph.D. — actually overestimates the number of Black and Hispanic children of Ph.D.-holders who will become faculty members.

The paper’s lead author, Allison C. Morgan, a doctoral student in computer science, has studied tenure-track faculty members in the United States but found that there was a research gap in faculty members’ backgrounds. She hopes this paper will jump-start inquiries into, among other things, why the academy implicitly or explicitly favors people with inherited advantages.

“The study is only people who won the lottery and became faculty, so already we’re talking about a very small, very special population,” says Aaron Clauset, an associate professor of computer science and one of the paper’s co-authors. “In talking with friends and colleagues that are professors in other places, I got this sense that there is this strong tilt in the system.”

Survey results confirmed his suspicions. The researchers found that faculty members with Ph.D.-holding parents are more likely to receive support for their academic careers than do those whose parents lack doctorates.

Troubling for Science and Research

The findings are worrisome for science and research, Morgan says. If faculty members come from similar racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, then their research and scientific ideas may be limited.

The number of Black, Latino, and Native American doctorate recipients in 2019, the latest year of available data, increased 6.7 percent from 2018, according to the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates. Those numbers are encouraging, Clauset says, but the potential benefit of having a parent with a Ph.D. won’t trickle down the academic pipeline for at least a generation.

That’s where the hiring process comes in.

The new survey can serve as a reflection point, Morgan says. After looking at the results, she wondered: What is it about mostly white candidates, who are more likely to have a Ph.D.-holding parent, that makes them more attractive to hiring committees?

“Why are we privileging these individuals?” Clauset asks.

Most people on hiring committees believe that they are selecting candidates based on merit, Clauset says, but many committees’ decisions ultimately show gendered and racialized outcomes. Hiring committees may need to reconsider what evaluation criteria are obstructing diversity goals. That may mean doing away with traditional merit markers, such as questions about how many publications a candidate has in prestigious journals, Clauset says.

Clauset posted a Twitter thread last month summarizing some of the findings. The response was overwhelming, he says. Many people replied that they weren’t surprised by the findings and offered their own anecdotes, additional research, or readings.


Morgan and Clauset say they plan to work through that feedback and fold in some related research as they prepare the paper for publication. In the meantime, the preprint is stacked with further questions for other scholars to take up, including: Why are women more likely than men to have Ph.D.-holding parents? And does having a Ph.D.-holding parent give someone an advantage in white-collar work, as it does for an academic career?

Read Up

  • The Washington Post and The Hechinger Report found that, in 2019, 15 flagship colleges had at least a 10-point gap between the percentage of Black graduates of public high schools in their states and the percentage of Black freshmen enrolled that fall semester. What’s driving the divide? (The Washington Post)
  • Last year the number of suicides fell by 5 percent. But the numbers among people of color went up. Why? (The New York Times)
  • The writer David Treuer makes the case for the U.S. government to hand over the national parks to Native Americans. (The Atlantic)