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I have noticed while reading CVs of professors in STEM fields that universities only hire up. First-tier and second-tier universities seem to only recruit professors from first-tier PhD programs, third tier universities only hire from top and second tier PhD programs, and so on. It seems like it is very unlikely for anyone graduating from a university that's not first-tier to have an academic career. I can think of a few explanations:

  1. Maybe everyone wants to hire the first-tier "brand." Hiring committees could be too busy to evaluate the relative merits of their candidates, choosing to trust in brand names instead.
  2. There could be something wrong with second-tier PhD programs and below that cause them to produce candidates unsuitable for tenure track. Maybe there is something that certain universities instill in everyone who goes there that causes both increased output when they are there, and a long and successful career afterwards.
  3. Perhaps most students bright enough to produce an impressive amount of research in grad school are bright enough to produce an impressive amount of research in undergrad. In that case, most of the good researchers get admitted to top-tier programs, making it unsurprising that virtually every tenured professor came from one. In this theory, research potential is an innate characteristic that universities have little effect on.

If the first dominates, then I should not bother getting a PhD unless I can go to a top-tier university, or unless I think it will boost an industrial career. If the second dominates, I would still want to go to the best school possible, but it would not be completely pointless to go to a second-tier institution; maybe hard work could close the gap. If the third explanation is true, the university's prestigiousness hardly matters at all, and I should choose based on factors like how interested I am in the research being conducted there.

So, in the light of these guesses, do you think it is possible for someone to distinguish themselves at a second-tier institution through hard work, high research output, and maybe a really good thesis - or is the second-to-first tier gap impossible to jump?

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    Depends on your field. I am at a university that a random person wouldn't think of as high-tier, but it is extremely well known in my fields. Coming here gave me resources I wouldn't have had anywhere else (except maybe Harvard). But that's because those resources are exceptionally expensive computers and biomedical hardware. If you don't need those, i could see the answer being different. – Azor Ahai -him- Dec 15 '20 at 22:59
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    My first thought was: isn't it easier to distinguish yourself at a second-tier grad school? (as compared with a first-tier one, not with a third-tier one) – Kimball Dec 16 '20 at 0:16
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    @Kimball Easier to distinguish yourself from your direct peers, maybe, but what counts is how hard it is to distinguish yourself among the entire academic labor pool. Depending on the "pedigree prejudice" and "prestigious schools actually teach better" variables, it could be harder or easier. – Retracted Dec 16 '20 at 2:24
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    Even if most faculty got their PhDs at top teir universities, most PhD students at top tier universities also never become faculty. – Anonymous Physicist Dec 16 '20 at 2:58
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    @AnonymousPhysicist: Mmm... survivor bias... nomnomnom – Ink blot Dec 16 '20 at 12:46
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First, I think it is important to recognize that the definitions of "1st tier", "2nd tier", etc. are not so universally defined. World or national rankings of universities are substantially based on the opinions of department heads. The differences between the #1 school and the #20 school may not be that large.

Professors also move from "2nd tier" to "1st tier" schools all the time based on demonstrated research output. Therefore, it is possible to improve your value to hiring committees with more productivity.

Now to analyze your 3 options (which I think are fairly comprehensive): I think all 3 have some impact.

  1. Departments often hire faculty with new expertise, meaning that no one at the department is an expert in that subfield. If they are not expert enough to evaluate individual papers directly, they may use as a proxy the quality of the journals which papers are published in, or the ranking of a school at which the student graduated from. However, I think this has the least impact because the quality of an individuals' research publications can usually be assessed separately from the ranking of their alma mater.
  2. "1st tier" universities often hire the most productive faculty and have the highest expectations for promotion and tenure. Faculty at "1st tier" schools may have the best research abilities, skills, or ideas and share these ideas or skills with their students resulting in their students also becoming more successful researchers.
  3. "1st tier" universities can pick the most promising new graduate students, which includes students who had the best combination of ability, skills, and motivation in undergrad and going into grad school. These students are likely to continue to perform at the top.

To answer your question directly, I believe that a student at a "2nd tier" school could certainly distinguish themselves sufficiently to be hired at a "1st tier" school. It happens infrequently because the students at "1st tier" schools have the advantages of being advised by top researchers and being top students when entering grad school.

Nevertheless, distinguishing yourself for a faculty job is hard at any school. I know many PhD alumni of "1st tier" schools who left academia.

Finally, not every school can be "1st tier", and professors at "2nd tier" schools can still do good work in research and teaching. You may want to consider whether you prefer being a professor at a "2nd tier" school to an industry job.

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    And don't forget the various national labs, which are (perhaps to me only) decidedly different beasts yet again. To me, in my hiring, the tiers can get pretty fuzzy particularly for niche fields where we've learned the few specific professors who have good students. – Jon Custer Dec 15 '20 at 23:43
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    "all the time" Not true. It happens, but rarely. – Anonymous Physicist Dec 16 '20 at 3:00
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This is very field specific. In my field, neuroscience, where you do your PhD is probably less important that where you do your postdoc. So, if you do good work for someone who is well respected at a "2nd" or "3rd" tier school, your PhD advisor can probably help you get a postdoc at a 1st tier school. If you are then productive in your postdoc, you may have a chance at getting a faculty position.

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  • +1: More generally, the prestige of the last place you were at, vs places in the more distant past, is generally more important. In fields where 1, 2 even 3 postdocs are the norm, the lab/university where you did your last postdoc is more important. Same in industry, if you were a project manager at google, no-one will care where you got your degree, whereas if you are fresh out of your degree, people will care a lot more. – WetlabStudent Dec 16 '20 at 23:24
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Yes, it is possible, because the "tier" of your grad school is not something people care about anyway:

Nobody in theoretical computer science cares where you got your degree. Really. We. Do. Not. Care. We only care about the quality and visibility of your results. Publish strong papers and give brilliant talks at top conferences. Convince well-known active researchers to write letters raving about your work. Make a good product and get superstars to sell it for you. Do all that, and we'll definitely want to hire you, no matter where you got your degree. On the other hand, without a strong and visible research record, independent from your advisor, you are much less likely to get a good academic job, no matter where you got your degree.

Caveats apply, also given by JeffE in that answer:

And. In my experience, where you get your degree is strongly correlated with successful research. I got my Master's degree at UC Irvine in 1992 and my PhD at UC Berkeley in 1996. The biggest difference I saw between the two departments was the graduate-student research culture. Every theory student at Berkeley regularly produced good results and published them at top conferences. When the FOCS deadline rolled around each year, the question I heard in the hallways from other students was not "You know the deadline is coming up?" or "Are you submitting anything?" but "What are you submitting?", because "nothing" was the least likely answer. Everyone simply assumed that if you were there, you were ready and able to do publishable research. Publishing a paper wasn't exceptional, it was just what you did. That cloud of free-floating confidence/arrogance had a huge impact on my own development as a researcher. I've seen similar research cultures at a few other top CS departments, especially MIT, Stanford, and CMU. (Caveat: This is an incomplete list, and there are many departments that I've never visited.)

In this sense, universities "hire up" because graduates from top schools are much more likely to be great researchers in the first place.

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    While nobody cares, it is certainly something that has an effect. Top tier places tend to have strong students, strong researchers, good and nurturing environment. Lower tier places tend to be more dreary, have mediocre students, and a less supportive environment for great research. So nobody cares about where you went to grad school, but they care about things that are easier to achieve in a good grad school. – Ink blot Dec 16 '20 at 12:45
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    Similar to Ink blot's comment: I think it is really hard to measure whether "people care" whether you went to a top graduate program, because to do that would involve sieving out the actual benefits of being in a top graduate program (which certainly exist) from the perceived benefits of being in a top graduate program (which also certainly exist). You also don't have to consciously "care" to more subliminally give the benefit of the doubt to candidates from top programs. (None of this is in disagreement with what @JeffE says.) – Pete L. Clark Dec 16 '20 at 16:38
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    I work in a field closely related to Jeff Erickson's (theoretical mathematics), and I think in my field we would "admit to caring" a bit more than his comment reflects. I would be very interested to know whether this verbal sociological difference is actually reflected in a different faculty composition at top departments in TCS vs pure math. – Pete L. Clark Dec 16 '20 at 16:40
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If your main motivation is to become a well-paid and respected professor, then I would say that you're better off playing the lottery. If you think getting a PhD will mean that you'll have better career prospects, then there's some merit in that, depending on the field you're in.

There's also a difference between research groups and universities. If you're getting into research, you're interested in the former. There's no point in being affiliated with a first tier university if it doesn't have strong collaborative connections with other groups around the world. You're going to have to move around alot and collaborate if you want to move up anyway.

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