A new study on university careers calls into question the entire foundation of our social order. In the Washington Post, Henry Farrell argues that academia does not function like a meritocracy because the prestige of your program often (if not usually) matters more than the quality of your work. Farrell summarizes an article in Science Advances that looked closely at the data on “academic career paths in computer science, business and history.” Here’s what it found:
Academics’ career success largely depends on the prestige of the department where they did their PhD. Second, the system is so skewed in favor of academics who came from prestigious departments that it’s really hard to explain this by just saying that they are better than people who went to less prestigious departments. The evidence suggests “a specific and significant preference for hiring faculty with prestigious doctorates” even aside from differences in their productivity (which are also more skewed than one would expect if the differences were based on merit alone). The system is also significantly skewed against women in both computer science and business, although there’s no evidence that they’re discriminated against in history.
Other evidence confirms this analysis. Take, just for example, the role partying plays in advancing people’s career prospects. Being able to afford the “right parties” where you meet the “right people” gives you a enormous networking advantage over bright and hardworking students who might not be able to afford them. Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (which we’ve discussed previously here) illustrates how rich undergraduates with good connections end up in a good place after college while less fortunate students sink under the stress and debt they accumulate while trying to navigate the networking/party scene. And it’s not just undergraduates, either—a recent piece in Bloomberg found that important networking for MBA students happens on social trips they take around the world. Building key social capital that way can cost as much as $18,000 a year.But, as Farrell himself notes, the truth about Ph.D. prestige raises questions about more than just academia. It illustrates a real problem for our whole society, in which rank and privilege is increasingly associated with “meritocratic” credentials and competition. If meritocracy is a fraud, just what kind of a society have we been trying to build for the last 50 years?