Is academia is a fair playing ground?

I was talking to a friend who made this point. Unless one is from an elite institution it is considerably much more difficult to have an impact with your ideas. The example he gave was of inflation. Before Alan Guth the same idea was published by a Russian scientist and he failed to have an impact.

The example he gave was of 1979. Is he correct? Have things improved since then or does academic elitism of this sort prevail to this extent?

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    what's the metric to judge "fairness"?
    – Alvi15
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 6:16
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    I have observed a lot of preferential treatment given to young scholars based on their institution and advisor. I think it’s very common.
    – mbsq
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 7:11
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    In general, your question applies to the world in general. The higher your starting point, the more likely your 'success'. It is 'easier' to get into elite schools if you have been tutored since you are born. This means you must have come from a family with resources. Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 8:02
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    There are certainly Matthew effects ("the rich get richer") at play in academia.
    – Anyon
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 8:53
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    @lordy in which sense? the industry may be unfair towards the society/environment at large, academia is unfair to its own members (for the privilege of few lucky academicians)
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 10:23

1 Answer 1


Actually, no. Academia isn't "fair". Actually, though, life isn't fair either. But you make of it what you can and find ways to success on your own terms.

If you feel that you need to be at the very top of the heap you will most probably be disappointed. Einstein didn't do relativity to be seen as the smartest person around. He did it to learn something about the world as it is.

Yes, graduates of top schools have an advantage in some ways, but, then, many of them had advantages from birth. Some of them had advantages thrust upon them. Some achieved advantages on their own.

But that doesn't make you a lesser being if you don't have those advantages.

One of the things I learned in my modest academic career was that I was about as smart as the superstars that I heard speak at conferences and that I'd had many of the same ideas they were expressing. They had better opportunities to develop those ideas and get them into print and into conferences, but I didn't treat that as a problem. Instead it encouraged me to keep thinking "deep thoughts" as best I could.

If you get frustrated because someone else gets credit for something that you also did then you will be, well, frustrated. If they haven't actually plagiarized you then there is really no solvable issue. The world ain't perfect and we would probably all be miserable if it were.

OTOH, if you discover prior work done on some important topic where credit is due but not given, then it is good to bring it to the fore. Not, specifically, for the credit, but for the betterment of our understanding of the world.

And, lots of great work is done by people not at or from top institutions. It isn't a closed society. One of the common academic jokes is that there is no one dumber than a C student from Yale.

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    "They had better opportunities to develop those ideas and get them into print and into conferences" This. I had this thought yesterday but I do not have the capability to put this into the words like you did. Which is probably the core to the answer of this question.
    – Alvi15
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 1:54

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