I am currently pursuing my PhD at a highly reputable university and am deeply engaged in academic activities, such as publishing quality research papers, serving as a reviewer for top-tier journals in my field, and have had the pleasure of seeing my work recognized by the academic community through numerous citations.

Despite my belief that success in a PhD program largely depends on personal effort and development, I've noticed a trend that seems hard to deny: PhD graduates from elite, top-tier universities often go on to become assistant professors at similarly prestigious institutions. On the other hand, it appears to be less common for graduates, regardless of their talent and accomplishments, from universities that are not within the top tier to secure assistant professor roles at these elite universities.

I am wondering if this is a well-recognized trend within academia, and if so, if it is something we as academics need to accept as the norm. I am interested in hearing the thoughts and experiences of others in the academic community on this matter.

Thank you in advance for your insights!

related but not the same question:

Is it possible for someone with a PhD from a top-200 university to find a faculty position at a top-20 university?

Is there a bias in top tier PhD admissions at top tier universities to favor those with undergraduate degrees from other top tier universities?

  • What is is described (for the US situation) by Anyone's answer. What should be depends on your political beliefs, so that is not a topic for this site. Jul 23, 2023 at 7:27
  • Could you please specify the country? Jul 23, 2023 at 7:30

1 Answer 1


It is well-established that there are such hierarchies of institutions. Last year there was a very interesting study of US academia showing this effect across fields: K. Hunter Wapman, Sam Zhang, Aaron Clauset & Daniel B. Larremore, Quantifying hierarchy and dynamics in US faculty hiring and retention, Nature 610, 120-127 (2022) link. The authors "analyse the academic employment and doctoral education of tenure-track faculty at all PhD-granting US universities over the decade 2011–2020". Among the relevant findings are

Faculty hiring networks in the United States exhibit a steep hierarchy in academia and across all domains and fields, with only 5–23% of faculty employed at universities more prestigious than their doctoral university (Fig. 6a,b and Extended Data Table 4). Measured by the extent to which they restrict such upward mobility, these prestige hierarchies are most steep in the Humanities (12% upward mobility) and Mathematics and Computing (13%) and least steep in Medicine and Health (21%; Fig. 6b).

As a whole, by domain and by field, US tenure-track faculty hiring is dominated by a small minority of US universities that train a large majority of all faculty and sit atop steep hierarchies of prestige. Just five US universities train more US faculty than all non-US universities combined. As we expand our view from fields to entire domains, inequalities in faculty production further increase, reflecting elite universities’ positions at or near the top of multiple correlated prestige hierarchies across fields. In principle, universities are on equal footing as both producers and consumers in the faculty hiring market. However, the observed patterns of faculty hiring indicate that the system is better described as having a universal core–periphery structure, with modest faculty exchange among core universities, substantial faculty export from core to periphery and little importation in the reverse direction or from outside the United States.

Extended Table 4 is well worth a look if you're interested in how this plays out across "the 100 most prestigious universities, as inferred from patterns in faculty hiring".

  • At least in experimental fields, a department that has been historically successful in getting grants will likely (1) have an excellent set of equipment readily available, (2) have a variety of professors working in similar topics so there is synergy, and (3) have a number of collaborations with other universities so their students get broad exposure. Moving into the 'core' takes effort. One example that worked is UC Santa Barbara back in the 1980s, where they hired a bunch of folks from Bell Labs to jumpstart their semiconductor research (and invested a lot of UC money).
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 23, 2023 at 14:11
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    A similar thing happens with undergraduate institutions: you can get an excellent education almost anywhere. Some places will make it much easier to do.
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 23, 2023 at 14:13

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