I'm just an undergrad, so I'm not really asking this question for myself. This comes more from general curiosity. I know/know of several people who did PhDs from top universities (e.g. Princeton, MIT, Berkeley, etc) but could not go on to be hired by top universities. Many were hired by good and well known universities (e.g. University of Toronto or Haverford College), but not by the absolute cream of the crop.

Based on this, I wonder what it is that qualifies or differentiates someone to research and teach at the very finest universities (I'm thinking Harvard, Princeton, MIT, etc). What's the difference between Princeton PhDs who teach at Princeton/Harvard/etc and Princeton PhDs who teach at Haverford (again, no offence to Haverford - it's an excellent institution - just using it as an example of a school that's good but not quite up there with the New England schools and the likes)? Is it because the former have just engaged in far superior research (and write far better dissertations), or that they have been able to "network" more effectively in the academic community, or something else? What role does luck have to play, if any?

  • 1
    Here's a very similar (but perhaps unfortunately named) question: What does it take to get a tenure track position at an Ivy League School? I particularly like the point made in Anonymous Mathematician's answer about the numerical guarantee.
    – Anyon
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 18:14
  • ... so I’m not really asking this question for myself. “Asking for a friend”? ;-)
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 18:26
  • @DanRomik No. What I mean by not asking the question for myself is that I'm not even close to thinking about thinking about post-phd academia jobs, and so whatever answers I get here don't have any bearing on anything I do in my life (if I do decide to enter academia at some point in my life, I will surely not remember this thread so many years into the future). A genuine question out of curiosity based on something I've observed.
    – gtoques
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 18:38
  • 1
    Also, can the downvotes explain? I don't see a reason to downvote a perfectly valid question, based on an observation which people do generally seem to agree with.
    – gtoques
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 18:38
  • 1
    I think this is answered by Anonymous Mathematician's answer in the question linked by Anyon.
    – Allure
    Commented Sep 13, 2019 at 2:37

1 Answer 1


The same thing it takes to get hired at any place of employment: convincing the people at that institution that you’re a good fit for their organisation’s culture and strategic goals.

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