A recent study in the journal Science Advances, titled "Systematic Inequality and Hierarchy in Faculty Hiring Networks," has been making the rounds among disgruntled academic job-seekers. The reason for its popularity is presumably that it confirms the reality that people with their nose pressed to the glass live every day: the market for permanent tenure-track positions is strongly biased in favor of those with degrees from the most prestigious doctoral programs. The article's authors, Aaron Clauset, Samuel Arbesman and Daniel B. Larremore, sampled the hiring data in business, computer science and history in order to make some broader points. They conclude that "only 25% of institutions produc[e] 71 to 86% of all tenure-track faculty" and that these gradations are prevalent even among the very upper reaches of the academic hierarchy. "The top 10 units produce 1.6 to 3.0 times more faculty than the second 10, and 2.3 to 5.6 times more than the third 10."
Presumably people who attend the best programs came in as the best students and then, on top of that, received the best educations. Following that logic, the fact that people from more prestigious programs are more likely to get jobs is unremarkable. In fact, it would be strange if it were not true: certainly people go to the best law or medical schools that they can, on the assumption that it will situate them appropriately upon graduation. The difference here is that hospitals hire medical school graduates and law firms hire law school graduates, whereas the graduates of doctoral programs in university departments are generally hired (or, in most cases, not hired) by other university departments. So the overall hiring patterns do not represent an accumulation of experience regarding how one kind of institution values the contributions of graduates from various programs. Instead, it demonstrates an implicit assessment by one department of another department. While it certainly could be the case that no one would be in a better position to judge the merits of various programs better than someone already practicing in that field, the authors of the study argue that this is not the main factor accounting for this correlation. Instead, they claim that hiring patterns suggest that the main factor is simply prestige. "The magnitude of these differences" between placement rates at various institutions "makes a pure meritocracy seem implausible, suggesting the influence of nonmeritocratic factors like social status."
What this means, writes Sarah Kendzior in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, is that "no amount of publishing, teaching excellence, or grants can compensate for an affiliation that is less than favorable in the eyes of a search committee. The fate of aspiring professors is sealed not with job applications but with graduate-school applications." In this regard, the university, ostensibly a realm of the disinterested pursuit of ideas, is merely another reflection of the larger stratified society of which it is a part. "Academia’s currency is prestige," she writes, "but prestige is always backed up by money, whether the expenditure for life in a costly city, the expectation of unpaid or underpaid labor, or research trips assumed to be paid out-of-pocket."
My own experience backs up the bit about prestige. My Ph.D. is from Texas. Anecdotally, I can think of a couple of graduates of my program who have jobs at more prestigious institutions than our alma mater and many more who have pretty great positions that are arguably of less status than UT. And there are also a ton of us who do not have any kind of permanent teaching job, but we tend to be tossed down the memory hole. I don't feel as strongly about the money claim, but I think it's a real phenomenon. As one example, in the nearly twenty years since I entered a Ph.D. program, I've had one summer in which I was not teaching. Others who were tracked in more prestigious or lucrative environments have many of those summers off. Had I been writing those summers, I have no doubt that my first book would have come out much sooner and that my second one would probably be done by now. But I have not, and other people have. In this scenario, those tagged early as productive accomplished more than those (me!) who did not. That could look to some like a meritocracy. But I don't think it is.