I think I understand that someone should do a Ph.D. under a strong advisor and have a solid publication record, and I know going to a more prestigious university helps. Now, this is where I get confused. Let's say person A goes to Princeton and person B goes to Iowa State, for example. Let's say person A gets a post-doc at Michigan and person B also gets a post-doc at Michigan. Do people A and B both have an equal chance of getting a tenure track position at for example the University of Oklahoma? I guess what I'm asking is that if someone gets a post-doc at a prestigious university, does it make up for the prestige of where they got their Ph.D.?

The university I'm going to do my Ph.D. in has a nontrivial amount of people that get postdocs at prestigious universities but none of them end up as tenure track professors at universities with a graduate program. A very small number of people ended up at R1 universities past 1990, perhaps several people at my university.

Some famous counterexamples to this are Igor Rodnianski, Aaron Brown, and Ernest S. Croot.

DISCLAIMER: I'm not interested in going on to be a tenure track professor, just curious.

  • 5
    I'm not sure that "going to a more prestigious university" actually helps at all. The advisor is important. The work of the student is important, but the prestige of the university is marginal. There is no one so dangerous as a C student from Yale. (often said, sometimes in jest)
    – Buffy
    Apr 19, 2020 at 14:16
  • At the research level, the prestige of the university does not matter at all. only the resources available, the research done and the PI.
    – Our
    Apr 19, 2020 at 14:20
  • Seems similar : academia.stackexchange.com/q/147741/72855
    – Solar Mike
    Apr 19, 2020 at 14:23
  • @onurcanbektas : does not matter or should not matter? Life is not always fair.
    – vsz
    Apr 20, 2020 at 5:13
  • @vsz It has nothing to do with fairness. Let say you are applying for your second post-doc. If the PI cares where you did your first post-doc, then I advise you not to choose with that that PI. It does not make business sense (in the sense of research).
    – Our
    Apr 20, 2020 at 8:13

2 Answers 2


Actually, what is better is what you do in whatever circumstances you end up in. If you are productive and publish good research, the institution at which you do it is of little importance. But any institution at which you can find good collaboration resources, such as weekly seminars in field, are valuable. Larger places which larger faculties tend to have these. But even quite small institutions manage it.

One of the reasons that few people are winding up with tenure track positions at R1 universities is that the number of total positions offered in a given year is small compared to the number of potential candidates. So, the competition is fierce, but it doesn't consist of ranking the candidates in the order of the prestige of their institutions.

Go where you will find people with similar interests and who are willing to work with you. Write a lot of good papers. Build an expanding circle of collaboration. The very best faculties are not, in fact, concentrated at only the very most prestigious universities.

Note also that doing mathematics alone without any feedback or synergy is very difficult. So, a group of like minds is very valuable. It is possible to wind up at a prestigious place where there is actually no one to give you any support. It will be difficult to advance from such a situation.

  • "but it doesn't consist of ranking the candidates in the order of the prestige of their institutions"....I doubt its a 100% true.
    – Rajesh D
    Apr 19, 2020 at 16:08
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    @RajeshDachiraju, note that an institution prominent in one (or many) fields won't be equally well endowed in all. Even worse, in some subfields of even mathematics, the top institution in a country may be lacking in interested and competent faculty. Would you accept 98% true?
    – Buffy
    Apr 19, 2020 at 16:11
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    @RajeshDachiraju That's technically correct; you rank candidates in order of prestige of their most recent advisor, crossing off any from advisors who members of the search committee are enemies with. The fact that it's highly correlated with prestige of the institute is just a happy accident.
    – user120011
    Apr 19, 2020 at 16:15

If your postdoc advisor is academic-famous (from whichever place) you'll be OK on the job market and your PhD won't matter very much. If your postdoc advisor isn't famous going to Princeton is just one more deck chair on your career Titanic.

Famous, academic-powerhouse types mostly hire from other famous academic-powerhouse types, so if you've missed getting into that club early you may be screwed. There will always be a couple counterexamples but the odds aren't exactly in your favor.

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