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Getting your PhD at a prestigious university, doing a postdoc at a prestigious university, publishing in fancy prestigious journals, etc.?

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    Doing a good job at your job is good? Aug 19, 2022 at 5:41
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    Because there are far fewer available jobs than highly qualified people. There has to be some way of choosing one hire from fifty or a hundred highly qualified applicants to a job. Aug 19, 2022 at 6:14
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    The issue is that there are so many people and so much noise in academia. It's difficult to figure out what is worth giving attention to. Having prestige lets others know that what you're saying is most probably worth listening too. Aug 19, 2022 at 9:14
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    Short answer? Because people are lazy and judgmental. Prestige and rank are not so important to anyone who isn't lazy and judgmental. Aug 19, 2022 at 16:18
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    This certainly isn't limited to academia.
    – Buffy
    Aug 19, 2022 at 16:24

4 Answers 4

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This information is used as predictors to forecast your success. There might be better predictors but sometimes those are not available to the person doing the forecast. And of course, some people are not very good at forecasting.

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  • +1 If it is a PhD level appointment, someone on the shortlisting panel needs to understand the topic well enough to look at the papers and not need the proxy. Aug 19, 2022 at 19:19
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    @DikranMarsupial: If we were to hire in, say, geometric topology, there is no one within 300 miles (that's 500 km) who could make sense of the candidates' papers. Aug 20, 2022 at 14:58
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    @AlexanderWoo in that case I would bring in an external. Aug 20, 2022 at 16:13
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In an ideal world, the prestige(tm) of your alma mater doesn't matter. As a researcher, you will be evaluated by the quality of your research output.

But it turns out that the world is not ideal. In the real world, there are plenty of situations in which a researcher will be evaluated by people who can't look at the papers of the respective person in detail and make a fair judgement:

  • Hiring committees for academic positions
  • Companies hiring people "out of academia"
  • Panels in funding agencies
  • ...

Especially when comparing different researchers to whom grants or jobs may be given, it is normally unrealistic to compare their research works in total. There is no time for this, and probably nobody is qualified for a real comparison if the candidates are not exactly from the same niche of a sub-field.

And in these cases, prestige matters. Being affiliated with a good university (or one that is perceived as such) can get you through initial screening rounds, and since the selection processes for positions at these good institutions are often quite competitive, being affiliated with a very prestigious university can give you a subconscious head-start in the heads of the selection committee members. Given that these processes are extremely noisy and often many candidates compete for the same position, such a head-start is highly valuable.

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  • My thesis advisor said something like, "Well, if you went to a prestigious place and got papers in prestigious journals, then you must be good." So it provides info. That seems to correlate to what you are saying.
    – cgb5436
    Aug 19, 2022 at 20:39
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    @cgb5436 Even if that were consistently true--which is debatable--the converse is false. Getting fancy opportunities is a lot better correlated with already having had other fancy opportunities than it is with quality. Aug 19, 2022 at 20:46
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We have an evolved basis for status pursuit. The persons with higher status attract mates more reliably, and the attracted mates tend to have higher status. It works both for men seeking women and women seeking men. This has direct impact on the reproductive success of the persons with status, and on their offspring who share in the penumbra of the higher status. It is effective in many cultural contexts, and even transfers between many cultures. Here are just three items I found in a quick Google search.

So, to put it in colourful terms: Status is important because people with high status get all the girls.

Or rather, our ancestors with high status got all the high status girls. So, any genetic predisposition and any cultural tendency to seek or gain status was reinforced by reproductive success.

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If your potential employer judges you on the quality of the university where you got your PhD rather than the content of your PhD (e.g. papers), that is a bit of an indictment of them (lazy academic snobbery). I'm not sure I'd want to work for them because I would want to work somewhere that my skills were actually useful and of interest.

Of course, if the PhD is not necessary for the job, then this isn't so much of an issue.

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    @downvoter - some feedback on why would be appreciated. Aug 22, 2022 at 5:17

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