I see some professors at Ivy league schools who didn't go to Ivy league schools. I also see professors who went to Ivy League schools that end up working at mediocre universities. So clearly pedigree doesn't play a very significant role by itself. What other factors come into play?

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    There are many disciplines where the Ivy League doesn't really matter. And can I just say "stanford, berkeley, UW, Georgia Tech, ...". I'd argue that this question is not well-posed, and maybe a better one is: "to what extent does a Ph.D from a high/low ranked school affect your chances of getting a faculty job at a high/low ranked school"
    – Suresh
    May 27, 2012 at 20:28
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    I think it's more important to get into an institution with fellow researchers who will complement yours, rather than aim for a school of national ranking.
    – Paul
    May 28, 2012 at 0:36
  • You should also consider the factor that the actual tenure rate is often low at these schools (that is, the % of tenure track faculty who get tenure). Princeton and Yale, for specific examples, have a reputation for giving tenure to very few tenure-track faculty, and instead hiring many of their tenured faculty with immediate tenure by recruiting them from other schools. So tenure-track jobs at these schools might be better thought of as very prestigious postdoctoral positions. However, once you look at schools other than the extremely elite ones, the tenure rates become more reasonable. Oct 9, 2014 at 11:43

1 Answer 1


The Ivy League is an athletic league, not a list of the top universities. They are all very good, and some of them are great, but nobody thinks UPenn is more prestigious or a higher-ranked university than Stanford (despite the fact that UPenn is in the Ivy League and Stanford is not).

Furthermore, the strength of individual departments is correlated with the overall prestige of the university, but there's a lot of variation. The prestige of the university plays some role in recruiting faculty, but departmental strength is the primary factor.

Finally, schools really shouldn't (and generally don't) care much about the pedigree of the candidate. They are much more interested in accomplishments than educational background. Of course, there's a strong correlation between accomplishments and pedigree, for at least two reasons. Talented, ambitious students are likely to have the opportunity to attend top schools, and they often take that opportunity. Once they are there, they benefit from an environment full of top faculty and other students like them. So it's no surprise that many professors at top schools studied at such schools themselves, but they didn't all do so.

As for what other factors come into play, that's a very broad question. At top research universities, the big question is how good your research is, primarily judged by external letters of evaluation. There's nothing special about getting a job at a top school, beyond the degree of competition.

Regarding the Ivy League students who end up teaching at lower-ranked universities, that's numerically guaranteed. Every research university graduates more Ph.D. students than it hires, and typically far more, so there's no way they could all get jobs at schools like the ones they attended. (But keep in mind that most colleges are not research universities and do not offer Ph.D. programs.) To a first approximation, most Ph.D. recipients from top universities will get jobs at lower-ranked research universities (or other types of jobs entirely, for example teaching-focused or industrial). Most students from lower-ranked research universities will not get jobs at research universities at all, although of course they may still end up in academia.

  • The way you phrase your last paragraph, it makes it seem that there is little to no chance of "upward mobility"; that is, a graduate from a lower-ranked university attaining a position in a higher ranked institution. Why might that be so?
    – Paul
    May 28, 2012 at 6:28
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    While it's harder, it's not entirely true. In those cases, your mobility comes from the work you do post-Ph.D, and it's not uncommon for people to use the tenure process as a time to do this ship-jumping.
    – Suresh
    May 28, 2012 at 8:10
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    @Paul: As Suresh said, upward mobility is certainly possible. Ultimately, the work you do will carry far more weight than the schools you studied at. However, the number of job candidates per available position means the field must experience downward mobility on average, so upward mobility will always be unusual. May 28, 2012 at 13:37
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    There are enough top departments to choose from that I wouldn't say most faculty in such departments come from lower-ranked schools, although it depends on how fine your ranking system is. To get some data, I looked at tenured professors in the Princeton math department. 23 come from top math departments (Berkeley, Cambridge, Chicago, Harvard, Hebrew University, Moscow State, Oxford, Princeton, Stanford), 4 from strong but lower-ranked departments (Columbia, NYU, Rutgers, UCLA), and 4 from more surprising places (Birmingham, Brandeis, Kansas State, Yeshiva). May 29, 2012 at 13:38
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    Also bear in mind that belonging to a top institution is a lifestyle choice as well as an academic choice. Lots of good (skilled) researchers decide that the high stress, "publish or perish" attitude of top-ranked schools is not something they want to participate in. I know folks who left an elite school because they wanted more family time, and I know folks who left a second-tier school because they realized they wanted tenure at a top institution.
    – David
    Jun 7, 2017 at 16:57

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