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This question is an off-shoot from this one, where it has been agreed by most that securing faculty positions is difficult in general. I would like to know what exactly makes this so.

Though in theory university rankings may be pointless, there is a broad quality-based classification of institutions in any country which many will agree on - for example, the crème de la crème, top tier, middle tier and decent universities, of which there could be a few hundreds. We shall assume the student has passed out with a good thesis and impactful publications.

  • Is it tough for a student graduating from a higher rung to gain a position in the lower rungs?
  • What factors dictate the difficulty in securing a position in a university in the same league?

PS: In India, the answer to Q 1 is "not at all", as there is a heavy crunch for faculty positions even in top institutes. Instead the difficulty arises only when students from low rung colleges seek top positions: in most cases, such students are found wanting in skills.

  • Physics World, May 2015: only 1.7% of the current post-docs in physics in the UK will get permanent jobs (lectureship in the UK, a rough equivalent of assistant professor in the US). – StasK May 26 '15 at 13:36
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One of the strange effects of faculty hiring (and graduate admissions) is that offers do not necessarily go to the strongest candidates. Departments have limited resources to interview, recruit, and hire faculty. Interviews are expensive; startup packages are really expensive; faculty job offers burn political capital even when they aren't accepted.

So hiring committees make strategic decisions based on the perceived probability that candidates will accept the position. The University of Southeast North Dakota at Hoople would most likely not interview superstar applicants, because they don't want to waste their time interviewing someone who's "obviously" going to get offers from stronger schools. As with any self-selection process, this assumption is partly justified and partly Institutional Impostor Syndrome.

So no, selecting an MIT grad is absolutely not a no-brainer for U-Cal-XYZ.

And yes, sometimes reasonable PhD students from very strong schools fail to get faculty jobs, or even interviews, because they don't quite have the research record to get an interview at the best departments, but their pedigree scares off weaker departments.

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    Assuming an MIT grad is actually interested in USND-Hoople, what can he do? – user107 Jul 15 '12 at 19:12
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    @Inquest One option is to specify in his cover letter exactly why he wants to go there. To a small extent, this happened to me. I wanted to go to a research school, but if I didn't get such a job, I would have preferred to go to a school near my family and where I went to school. I said this to one less research oriented school, and was progressing through their application process until I got a few offers that I clearly preferred over them. At that point I withdrew my application. – Dan C Jul 15 '12 at 20:19
  • I too up voted for the pdq bach reference. – shane Apr 9 '14 at 22:49
16

The short answer is that there are many more people that want faculty positions than there are positions. Any time demand is higher than supply, cost tends to go up. So why is demand so high? Partly it's because being a professor has lots of attractive qualities. However, partly it's because that's what our professors tell us we should be (some do this very explicitly, and some more implicitly). As a result, many students (especially stronger students) decide that the only way to succeed is to become a professor.

Another aspect that makes becoming a professor hard is that most professor jobs require a combination of skills: teaching, research, article writing, grant writing, advising and mentoring, networking, etc. However, grad school generally fails to teach us many of these skills. Most grad schools focus almost exclusively on research, and possibly teaching.

  • The demand-supply part is one can understand, but how do rankings and no. of univs enter this model? A top-univ graduate may easily get into any middle-tier univ, right? – Bravo Jul 15 '12 at 15:09
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    To clarify: There are many more highly qualified people who want faculty positions than there are positions. – JeffE Jul 15 '12 at 15:59
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It is difficult because there are more graduating PhDs than there are faculty positions. This is because by and large, academic departments are not growing very fast.

Consider a department that has 40 faculty positions, and is not growing. Suppose each faculty member has a career that spans 40 years (Say, ages 28-68). Then in a steady state, this department will hire 1 new faculty member every year. On the other hand, say each faculty member graduates 1 student on average every three years. (This is conservative: say each professor has only 2 students at a time, and each one takes 6 years). So this department graduates 13-14 students every year.

This is what happens in general: each department produces many more PhDs than it consumes, so there must be many who leave the system.

  • I understand that, but can't people move down the univ. ladder? Isn't selecting an MIT grad. a no-brainer for a U-Cal-XYZ? – Bravo Jul 15 '12 at 15:07
  • This happens at every level, not just at MIT. People do indeed move down, but there aren't many positions there either. Graduating from a good school of course helps your employment chances. – Aaron Jul 15 '12 at 15:11
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    (This should go without saying, but the reason that graduating from MIT does not guarantee you a job at say a top 25 school is because where you graduated from is actually only a tiny part of how you are evaluated: you are primarily judged on your record of research in graduate school. Having attended a top school is correlated to having a strong research record, but not as strongly as you might think) – Aaron Jul 15 '12 at 15:14
  • @^: Yes, agree with that. I have made that assumption in the question too. – Bravo Jul 15 '12 at 15:18
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    One way to think about this: pedigree opens doors for you but it won't necessarily close the deal. A degree from MIT might get you more interviews - but the final decision, as JeffE indicates, is more complex. – Suresh Jul 15 '12 at 19:04

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