Recently, someone analyzed computer science professors at top universities and found that over half of the professors at the top 51 universities graduated from a top 10 university. Others have also brought this up. From my personal observations, most schools do hire graduates from better-ranked schools.

  1. Is this because of the competitive job market? We have so many good applicants, we have to narrow it down some how!
  2. Or is it simply that these schools produce the most PhDs?
  3. Has this always been the case?
  4. How rare are exceptions to this? I know of a few people who graduated from a top 75 school and got hired at a top 50 school. But what about bigger gaps? The top 10 schools seem to just swap graduates, do they ever hire from a 50+ ranked school?

Update 2018: I have accepted a tenure-track position at a top 75 department at an R1 university immediately after graduating from an unranked department at an R2 university. It does happen!

This may or may not generalize to other fields and countries.

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    It is related to the quality of papers published, but better ranked universities do provide a better environment for high quality publication.
    – bingung
    Jul 7, 2014 at 3:31
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    "I think this question can generalize to any field and country." - can it be generalized like that? e.g. do university rankings (at least those considering whole universities across all subjects rather than particular specialities of single departments) receive an equally high attention everywhere as in the U.S.? Jul 7, 2014 at 7:46
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    @O.R.Mapper: the trend need not be due to any attention being paid to university rankings by employers. At any given rank, there are loads more students graduating than there are teaching positions opening up. So assuming that (a) top students tend to go to top unis and (b) top ex-students want teaching positions, one would expect them to apply to a wider range of unis and again beat the same people who they beat a few years ago for positions to study :-) The big question is whether the observed effect (>50%) is similar elsewhere, or if CS in the USA is somehow special. Jul 7, 2014 at 15:11
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    True, but another way to look at this is, "why is that someone good enough and motivated enough to get a post as a professor at a top-51 university has a 50% chance of having studied at a top-10 university?". Answer might just be "because >50% of them were good enough and they wanted to". Of course we expect that there's also an influence from the brand value of your degree in a job interview. But yes my mechanism would not apply if there's essentially no correlation between being a strong academic, and choosing a top university to study. Jul 7, 2014 at 15:20
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    – JeffE
    Jul 11, 2018 at 23:54

7 Answers 7


People are occasionally hired by far more prestigious universities than the ones they studied at. For example, there's a tenured professor in the Princeton math department (unambiguously among the top 5 departments in the U.S.) who received his Ph.D. in 1999 from Kansas State (which wouldn't necessarily make the top 75). Where your degree is from is a negligible factor in hiring decisions compared with how outstanding your research is.

On the other hand, research excellence is highly correlated with which doctoral program you attend. The top programs tend to get the students with the most talent, determination, and preparation, and they usually provide the most support for these students to succeed. Of course this is just a statistical assertion, not an absolute law. However, in mathematics in the U.S., the number of students graduating each year from rank 50-75 universities whose job applications are as impressive in research as those of the average top-5 graduate is tiny. If you're hiring based on research promise, then even the most unbiased search should lead to hiring mainly people from higher-end schools. Of course there's presumably some prejudice as well, but I don't think it's a substantial factor at research universities. (I have no first-hand experience with hiring at teaching-oriented schools. In particular, I don't know how overrepresented graduates of prestigious universities are or which factors are responsible for it.)

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    See my similar answer to a closely related question.
    – JeffE
    Jul 7, 2014 at 16:43
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    Spot on. When looking for top talent, look to the places with the reputation for producing it. Also, look for the strength of the resume of the applicant. Amazingly enough, strength of resume often correlates with the quality of the program from which the candidate graduated. Nonetheless, one must always look for the "diamond in the rough." Jul 8, 2014 at 0:30
  • Can you quantify your claim to "highly correlated" with a journal publication with that yields a specific correlation coefficient and its corresponding p-value? Also is the relationship causal?
    – Paul
    Dec 19, 2014 at 23:53
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    @paul, at a certain point, the usual journal-publication-count stats are not of great interest... Dec 19, 2014 at 23:59
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    @paulgarrett: That's not what I'm referring to. I'm interested in the correlation between research excellence and pedigree. Everyone speaks of it as if it were obvious, but what are the actual statistics on it? The statistician within me is dying to know! :)
    – Paul
    Dec 20, 2014 at 0:52

The top ranked doctoral programs get the cream of each year's incoming graduate application pool because they can offer access to the top professors, top research libraries, and have tons of money to spend on tuition waivers, stipends, summer research money, etc. They can effectively outbid other programs and choose the people who seem to have the most promise (or are advantaged in having Famous People write for them, etc. etc.).

Graduate students at top ranked programs don't have to spend as much time doing non-research activities such as teaching and waitressing to pay the bills as they're getting most of their living expenses covered. They instead can focus on their research and publications, resulting in a flush CV by the time they graduate.

This leads grant agencies and hiring departments to assume that the graduating students at the top ranked programs are indeed the best of the best. They certainly have the imprimatur of the Best Programs® and Famous People® are writing them letters of support.

This is almost certainly a flawed assumption, but when faced with 200 grant or job applications, it's a shortcut many search committees make. Ideally they should just look at the candidate's qualifications without considering the school or the Famous People® who wrote for them.

But even if we redacted program names in applications, the very fact that having gone to a top-ranked place gives people a huge material difference/advantage in resources available while they are in the program, and this is evident in their CVs which are long with lots of publications and talks in the Right Places®.

In a totally fair world, we'd do what google does and throw away (or at the very least redact) CVs and letters and instead interview people one by one. But try to convince a provost and a search committee to go along with that. It would take too long and cost too much.

Interestingly, as fewer and fewer people get jobs straight out of graduate school and everyone now has to have a post-doc or visiting position, this has served as a slightly equalizing factor as hiring schools can look at performance there as a better indication of inherent ability.

Note 1: People can and do move from lower ranked to higher ranked schools, but usually they don't do it in their first job. Rather, from a low-ranked they get hired at a mid-ranked school, then through publishing and publishing and publishing, they get hired away into a top-ranked (perhaps going through one or two job hops along the way).

Note 2: Top ranked universities (as well as everyone else) have overproduced so many PhDs in pretty much every field that there is market saturation. Even graduates at top-ranked programs are having trouble finding jobs -- even as adjuncts and NTT faculty. In a true market economy, the suppliers would be forced to lower production in the face of oversupply, but academia is not a market economy and having doctoral students is seen as a source of prestige for both faculty and institutions alike. Unless we can increase demand (by forcing schools to hire TT faculty instead of contingents, or other means) or reduce supply, we're all screwed but the folks graduating from mid- and lower-tier schools are screwed the most.

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    I rather strongly disagree with the suggestion that one-on-one grillings are a great way to identify excellent researchers. Jul 7, 2014 at 5:55
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    1) Yes: put all the candidates' names into a hat, pick one, and offer her a job. That a hiring method is free of the "bias of going to a top tier school" does not imply that it is a good one. 2) You can see from Noah Snyder's profile that he has a tenure track job at the University of Indiana. Your equation of job talks with one-on-one grillings is from my experience a non sequitur. For that matter, I find the idea of throwing away candidates' CVs rather silly: trying to learn about someone's research accomplishments primarily by "grilling" is superficial at best. Jul 7, 2014 at 13:46
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    "[h]ow you do at the job talk gets you the job." That's an oversimplification. It takes an especially good or (more likely) especially poor talk to change people's minds. "Job talks to me are a fair evaluative mechanism where KSU candidates are relatively equal to MIT." I don't see what is inherently more fair in evaluating someone's work in an hour long talk than spending hours or days evaluating their written work. I also find the idea that people who are from KSU will come off as well as people from MIT slightly naive. MIT people will probably do better under "grilling", for instance. Jul 7, 2014 at 14:29
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    Any viable faculty candidate in my department has letters from Famous People® most of whom are not at the applicant's institution. A stellar computer science researcher at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople will likely have a recommendation letter from Prof. Turinga Wardwinner at MIT or Berkeley. Conversely, a candidate from MIT who only has letters from Famous People® at MIT almost certainly will not be invited for an interview, even if the letters are glowing.
    – JeffE
    Jul 7, 2014 at 16:48
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    This is one of the most absurd suggestions I have ever heard. Just like it does for google, it would result in you hiring a long stream of aggressive, overly-confident white men. The goal in hiring tenure-track faculty is not to figure out who the "smartest" person is (however poorly-defined that might be), but to find the person who will produce the best research over the next 20+ years. And the best predictor of future results is past results. The source of the PhD is irrelevant (and mostly ignored) -- it's the papers and letters of recommendation that really count. Jul 8, 2014 at 21:55

Here's a numerical perspective on this. Let's take the position that students graduating from highly-ranked schools have competitive advantage against other students (i.e. they are "better", and will generally be hired when their applications are compared with students of less prestigious schools). Now, consider how many positions are available at each level:

  • Undergraduate: Typically, a college will have hundreds if not thousands of students in each year, of varying majors. In my major (math), let's say 5% of the class has it. At my school there were 1000 students graduating, so let's say 50 math majors (actually, it was more like 80).

  • Graduate: Typically, a graduate school department will have tens of students per year. A small number of tens; at my undergraduate institution (Chicago), the corresponding graduate school has about 100 total students, for about 20 per year. So, with similar figures at other schools, only 0.4 of math majors can go to graduate school. Fortunately, not everyone wants to.

  • Post-doctoral: Most math departments only have a handful of postdoc positions; let's say 10 (which is actually on the high end). So only 0.5 of graduating students can get postdocs. Of course, there are teaching jobs available at schools that don't produce PhDs, but those are "lesser universities".

  • Tenure-track: In any year, any department might have three of these. Or one, or none. That means that 0.3 of postdocs will go on to a more permanent position.

At each stage the number of people accepted to the next level is a small fraction of the total number of applicants, and so the schools can pick and choose whom they take; of course, they will take the "best" applicants, which (according to my conventions) will generally come from the highly-ranked universities. The alumni of just the top 10 universities are sufficient to fill all positions at all universities that are at all desirable (to researchers, that is).

  • Not to mention only 15-80% of the tenure-track get tenured, depending on the institution. The cultural and social capital you build (or are given) as a doctoral student continues to help you when you come up for tenure.
    – RoboKaren
    Jul 7, 2014 at 18:09

Val Burris addressed this issue for sociology back in 2004 in the American Sociological Review and the article has now became quite a well-known piece of scholarly work within the discipline.


He basically argues that while departmental prestige is quite loosely correlated with the scholarly productivity of its graduates, being high-prestige school graduate gives one the necessary social and network capital to be placed within the institutionalised system of prestige sustained through the accumulated and "closed" interlinkages between top departments. Although the bulk of his analysis examines sociology placement records, he also provides some comparative data on the hiring of history and political science faculty, and finds that the relationship is quite robust while those latter disciplines tend to reinforce status hierarchies more so than sociology.

  • It'd be neat to have a ranking of disciplines by meritoracy vs. top-tier aristocracy. The problem of drawing up the metric is trying to decide what makes a problem meritocratic vs. aristocratic. Diversity of graduating institutions in the faculty is problematic as some disciplines have more (top) doctoral programs in certain fields than others.
    – RoboKaren
    Jul 7, 2014 at 18:08

Look at:

From its abstract:

We find that career movements are not only temporally and spatially localized, but also characterized by a high degree of stratification in institutional ranking. When cross-group movement occurs, we find that while going from elite to lower-rank institutions on average associates with modest decrease in scientific performance, transitioning into elite institutions does not result in subsequent performance gain.

Inside, there are plots quantifying transition from institutions of different rank.


Universities typically hire the best people they can. And sometimes they can be found as graduates of lesser universities.

One of my favorite professors, who went from Yale to Ohio State, indicated how this could happen. His opinion was that a top 10 percent student at Ohio State was just as good as a top 10 percent student at Yale. So a top 10 percent student from Ohio State who applied to a high level university could be very competitive with a top 10 percent student from Yale, provided that research, letters of recommendation, and other aspects of the application were competitive.

Where the professor saw value in a Yale degree was that an average Yale graduate would be accepted in many places that an average Ohio State graduate would not be.

  • Can you clarify whether your prof meant undergraduates or doctoral students when he meant the top 10%?
    – RoboKaren
    Jul 8, 2014 at 5:51
  • @RoboKaren: Both. He was working with both sets of students.
    – Tom Au
    Jul 8, 2014 at 13:40
  • Having taught at a private R1 for the past 8 years, I have to say that the quality of the top undergrad and grad students at the large state schools is equal to many of the students here. A good part of is the extreme long tail of state university undergrad populations (a large n even at 2-3 sigma greater than mean) and that many people chose grad schools based on non-reputation criteria (such as proximity to family) even though that affects their careers later. That's why the bias in the hiring process frustrates me. Yes, some break through, but not enough.
    – RoboKaren
    Jul 9, 2014 at 3:08
  • @RoboKaren: Princeton once did a study on three groups of applicants: 1) Admitted by Princeton and went to Princeton, or some other Ivy League college. 2) Admitted by Princeton and went to State U. 3) Rejected by Princeton. Years later, they found that the third group underperformed the first, but much to their surprise, the second group was not behind the first. Put another way, Bill Gates is not noted for graduating from Harvard (he never did). What is notable is that he "got in."
    – Tom Au
    Jul 10, 2014 at 13:57
  • Having been accepted to Princeton undergrad many decades ago, but ultimately deciding to go to a very different, lower ranked school, your comment makes me very happy. =) I went to college before US News & World Reports ranking was pervasive. It was a better time, much less anxiety on everyone's part.
    – RoboKaren
    Jul 10, 2014 at 14:54

Another statistic: according to Wikipedia the 62 institutions of the Association of American Universities (AAU) issue 52% of doctoral degrees in the U.S. So, in the U.S. system, even if we discount any effect of institutional ranking, these schools should still account for half of the hiring of doctoral recipients. Of course, there is also an effect of university quality, so the AAU schools should account for more than half of hires. On the other hand, of course there are exceptional faculty who did not attend top-ranked schools. But the statistics suggest we shouldn't be surprised to find many faculty from a relatively small number of schools.

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