Thursday, April 16, 2015

The most brutally honest sentence I read today

I've been reading Daniel Drezner (professor of international political economy at Tufts) for a very long time. This was a very interesting statement on his part:
The first is that if your goal is to become a professor and you are not accepted with a scholarship into a top-20 political science program, I would not in good conscience recommend that you get a PhD.
Most of the professoriate in international relations comes from the elite schools. Whether this is because these schools function as a prestige cartel or not is immaterial: the reason will not change the current realities. The academic job market is brutal; getting an academic job without a degree from a top-20 institution is even more brutal.
I applaud him for his honesty.

(The whole article is good, and a reflection of what I should be doing here more often.) 

27 comments:

  1. In chemistry, a diamond in the rough who got his/her PhD at South-Central Wyoming State U can get noticed with a stellar publication record. There was a prof at my graduate alma mater who got in that way in spite of coming from a low-ranked PhD program. Of course, getting a paper into JACS is a lot easier if your advisor is a famous bigshot.

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  2. "Graduate school has a cult-like effect on what you think you should want as a graduate student." True - it takes a kid who would have been perfectly happy getting a night-class M.S. had he/she not gone to grad school, and after a few years of brainwashing, the kid is so afraid of mastering out that he/she jumps off a building instead.

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  3. Drezner is speaking the truth ( I recall an article some time back that a shockingly high percent of chemistry faculty were from 10 or so schools), though it's not polite to say---particularly for faculty members at places like Eastern South Dakota State who want grad students to exploit....err, I mean inspire.....

    I guess one can take solace in examples like Jerry Rice, who went from Mississippi Valley State to the NFL's GOAT. One could also buy that extra MegaPowerBall ticket.

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  4. I generally told prospective students that they only had to have one stage of working at a big school/for a big shot: undergrad, grad or postdoc. Of course the undergrad doesn't really count, i suppose, but it was too late by then anyway.

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    1. When I went looking for a job, people frequently asked why I postdoced where I did (top 20, with a bigshot advisor) despite having been at Stanford/MIT for undergrad and grad. Undergrad definitely didn't offset anything. If I had known how big a deal it was, I might have made a different choice.

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    2. Yeah, if you're already on the fast track, just stay on it. In fact, it will make it easier to get into that big-shot postdoc lab.

      If you're not already on the track, you can do it in postdoc, but you need to have been pretty outstanding at Where-ever U for your PhD.

      (I always think of Matt Sigman at Utah as a good example--a California CSU undergrad, Wash State PhD, but Harvard postdoc. And he busted ass at WSU.)

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  5. It's the same in all fields and probably the same in any country. A small group of people from "elite" schools or PI's find better jobs and more easily compared to people coming from "low-ranking" schools. Check top-ranking schools' hires and see the trend. You will see that those people have almost always been privileged.

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  6. It is possible to do a spectacular work graduating from a not-as-distinguished school and advisor, and afterwards postdoc with someone really famous, etc. but it is a lot more difficult: Dalibor Sames is a good example/ In academic career you need a strong backer, which should be your grad school and postdoc advisor.

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    1. @milkshake:

      What about the effect of cyclical changes in perceived academic reputations? I remember not too long ago (within the 21st century) when several landlocked public universities were ranked higher for organic and medicinal chemistry than many "elite" private universities on the coasts. Now it seems like Pharmas won't venture into Flyover Country, even just to "wave their flags"!

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    2. HI Mikshake,

      " In academic career you need a strong backer, which should be your grad school and postdoc advisor."
      Thanks I will pass this on to my worthless "Doktorvater", who is on record for stating that he owes nothing to the "Mitarbeiter" who made his career.

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  7. But if you publish a nice JACS paper from an "unknown" advisor as a grad student from a top 40 university, and publish a paper (or two) in JACS with a post-doc from another top 40 university, your toast.

    Meanwhile, I know an individual who was home-schooled, never went to college, and is training to be a plumber. His lifetime earnings are likely to be more than mine.

    Why?. Well, in part, its because plumbing cannot be outsourced, and as of yet has not been insourced. But I'm sure someone will figure out how to bring in cheap plumbers from Chindia.

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    1. (I always wonder how Detroit unions would have reacted if the automakers had all decided to start hiring workers from Asia, transporting them in by the truckload and running all the factories with them.)

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    2. Some of the auto workers commute weekly from Detroit to plants in the AL and GA. The automakers built the plants in the South to get away from the unionland.

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    3. What do you mean Chindia? The plan to screw the non-degreed professionals is to import them from Mexico and Central America. By the millions.

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  8. The Aqueous LayerApril 16, 2015 at 2:51 PM

    f you really want to be a professor, then you need to get a PhD. If you want to advance your career as a wonk, then, all else equal, a PhD would probably help. But all else is not equal. If this is the kind of world you want to enter, then fine, you’ve been warned. But do not claim, seven years from now (if you’re lucky), that someone sold you a fake bill of goods.

    This.

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  9. Honestly, one of the main reasons I didn't even want to try to become a professor was because I couldn't bear the thought of having to lie to prospective grad students about their prospects of becoming professors themselves.

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  10. I had the option of attending UC Santa Barbara for doctoral studies. Instead, I went to Germany to do my doctoral studies at a very good university there, and learn German to near fluency. The assumption that selection committees at US universities would be impressed, because my course of action was intellectually challenging than staying in the US. This assumption turned out to be incorrect, as I learned upon returning to the US. The only thing which counts is whether your PhD or at least post-doc time was at an elite US university (very open-minded, our fellow citizens).

    In Germany, on the other hand, other German PhD students were consistently telling me about how unwilling our research director was to help then find any position after graduating (unless it directly helped his own career...he eventually was appointed president of the GdCh). I defended him against the accusations of his countrymen/women for around 19 years, until it was necessary to admit they they were, in fact correct.

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    1. I personally learned that the situation in your first paragraph is correct. I did my PhD in a top 50 school in the US and had some first author publications in top journals, and decided to do my postdoc outside the continent, where I also got enough good publications as first author, two in top journals. Didn't even get one interview from the schools in North America. I know this is bullshit and not random, since I got plenty of interviews for positions outside of North America. Same with my wife, who had an even better record than me. The one that really got to me, was a flyover uni, where they were looking for someone in exactly my field, but decided to hire someone in the search committee head's field, who had less publications and whose proposal was doing more of the same that he did during the postdoc (I know from inside sources), so now I know that my applications for North America suffered by being too 'high-risk', which I thought was what they wanted since that's what every goddamn ad for faculty positions says these days: "Innovative and high-risk research". Yeah right... I actually feel lucky now, as the funding situation in the States is a bit dire, and I'm somewhere where it's not such a big concern, at least for the next five years. Still wish I could have the time I spent on all those North American applications back.

      Actually at a conference, some head of a search committee at a coastal university from the year we applied to places, asked my wife why she didn't apply to his place, since he was asked to comment on her applications at a foreign university where we eventually got jobs (they ask famous US scientists if this person is actually good). She said, yes, she applied, but heard nothing back. He thought for a while and said, "Yeah, we fucked up." Probably was thrown in the 'non Top 10 school -- look again if really desperate' bin.

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  11. People who go to top 20 schools and have great publication records also have problems getting academic positions. It's not just people from mediocre universities/departments.

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    1. Cry me a river... Probably had a bad proposal, came across badly in the interview, or gave a terrible lecture. At least they get an interview.

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    2. We call it the "Ethan Perlstein syndrome" now. It's good for a laugh, at least.

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    3. Anonymous 1:56 PM, I have negative sympathy numbers for you. Furthermore, your inherent snobbishness is apparent in the way that divide academia into "top 20 schools" and "mediocre universities/departments".

      The problem is that people are hired on the basis of their pedigree and not because of their accomplishments. This is a result of (a) insider-ism + (b) PR/advertising prioritie$ trumping everything else. Why else do departments' websites brag of their faculty's pedigrees?

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    4. Gee, looks like the commenters to Anon 1:56pm are a little insecure about the schools they attended.

      It is true that there are very mediocre universities and departments and PhD chemists. I met a "PhD candidate" in organic synthesis who did not understand the fundamentals of reading a LCMS. I met another who did not account for salts in molecular weight calculations. Both those people obtained a PhD. I would not attend a school which has such low standards for its students. Sorry, but I rather cash in on my previous academic successes and accept a fellowship from a top 20 school.

      Are there excellent students at awful universities? Occasionally, yes. That does not help the fact that there are people who are granted PhDs despite knowing next to nothing about chemistry.

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  12. Sigh, Anon 6:21 PM. Just because universities with poor standards do, indeed exist, does not mean that a non "top 20 school" automatically fits into that category.

    On the other hand, just last week, I was told of an assistant professor at Brown University who quit because the attitude of entitlement which he perceived from the graduate students there, which made him sick. He is now in private industry.

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  13. Brown's rank is #60 on US News.

    Seems like a sense of entitlement you assume for those who get into top schools predominates at lower ranking schools.

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  14. It does frustrate me, not that people have a advantage of going to a top 10 school (i usually say top 5), but that it appears to be the only necessary criteria. I went through the tenure-track application process in fall of 2013, and received one invitation to interview in person (a PUI, with a PhD program). I feel like I rocked the interview, hit it off with a number of the faculty there, and had some pretty good proposals. I didn't get a offer. Who did? Someone who did a post-doc at a top 5 with nothing earth shattering in their CV. The most frustrating part is that I can now view their research interests on the department website. It is the most generic research interests in my field, just the same generic research done by dozens of other professors across the country.

    I wasn't too broken up about losing the position (now very happily employed in industry). It does bother me that I lost out to someone who does not appear to be extraordinary. Just someone who went to a top 5.

    Disclosure for context: PhD at a top-20 with a well known professor, Post-doc at top 20 with a new professor (which I'm sure hurt me)

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    1. You have my sympathy. The sisyphean task of expecting that your quality will trump pedigree in The Land Of Opportunity.

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