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Trevor Hedberg

I haven't been on the job market yet (and won't be for a while), so I also don't have a horse in this race at the moment. But I suspect one reason for the bitterness described in the comment you're responding to is that much of what enables one to get into a top program is arbitrary. For one thing, it's very hard to get into an elite program if you come from a non-elite undergraduate institution. Eric Schwitzgebel made this point not too long ago: http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2011/10/sorry-cal-state-students-no-princeton.html

I suspect a big factor beyond the name recognition of your institution is the name recognition associated with your letter writers. Philosophers at less elite undergraduate institutions will often have less name recognition than the big names at the best schools.

But what determines your ability to get into an elite undergraduate institution and reap these advantages? Your academic merits make a difference, but so your state of residence and the relative wealth of your family. Moreover, when you're making a decision about where to go to college and what to study, you can't really be in a position to know what's going to be best for your future in the (probably unlikely) event that you pursue an academic career in philosophy. I certainly couldn't have been in a position to make this judgment when I was 17, especially since I didn't take my first philosophy class until nearly a year later and had no intention of studying it at the time.

I suspect many feel they did not have much of a chance to get into an elite program. When you combine this fact with the significant advantage that pedigree can bring on the market, it isn't hard to see why people aren't pleased about it. I agree that there are still ways to distinguish oneself in the profession despite coming from a non-elite institution, but I can also see how people in that position feel that the deck has been unfairly stacked against them.

Marcus Arvan

Trevor: very fair points. I need to think about them a bit.

Kyle Whyte

I just have a couple of comments. First, I agree, and have heard, people privilege pedigree in ways that are ridiculous and would make one wonder how people in a field that prides itself on argumentative rigor would do so. But I am not sure what the impact of pedigree really is on the job market. Where exactly does pedigree matter? Is it in the bulk sorting phase of applications, so that the "lower" pedigrees are the ones that get sifted out so that they don't even get APA interviews? And it's pretty much solely based on that criterion that many do get sifted out? (Wasn't there a Leiter Report discussion on this some time ago, where someone conceded that at her or his campus this regrettably happens because there are too many applications?). Or how does pedigree come into play after one gets an APA interview and perhaps through to an on-campus? I can imagine cases where someone's not coming from a super elite institution can affect one's interviews in more subtle ways than just judgments about the prestige of one's degree. For example, coming from an elite program means that you probably know more well known faculty members. This can be the source of many good conversations during an interview. "Oh did you know or work with so and so?" And all positive conversations that would speak to one's being part of a "known" philosophical community with perceived high standards. Whereas, if one comes from a less elite program, one might get questions like "Now who is it that works on topic x at your university?" "I'm surprised you work on topic x coming from your university." All of these conversations put one on the defensive. They can change how one comes across in an interview and can lead hiring committee members to see them in a less charitable light. While there are many other variables hanging in the balance here, this can be one. This is could be compared, in some respects, to what can happen to some white males who get hired into departments and immediately become part of the informal culture of that department, whereas women and people of color can sometimes remain left out because they either do not share (for multiple possible reasons) in that informal culture or are not implicitly perceived as being welcomed to participate by their colleagues. This raises issues for being able to establish a rapport with colleagues at a level beyond formal collegiality, which matters. So, in the case of a job interview, one could be a very strong candidate from a less elite institution, who is part of an extremely competitive interview process for some job, and have to have more of an uphill battle than one's competitors. But perhaps someone from an elite Ph.D. program would say there are things missing in this analysis, like that they may be perceived as not living up to their program's reputation. I think I have seen that sort of consideration work against candidates for whom expectations about their abilities or job talk were perhaps far too high. It's all very complicated. Second, I'm surprised no one has mentioned in our many discussions about the social aspects of the job market the HUGE importance that one's dissertation committee members can or cannot play behind the scenes. There are some dissertation chairs that really hustle for their candidates in ways that their candidates may never know about. There are other dissertation chairs who don't care about this and put forth little effort at placing their students. And, there are, possibly a rare few, who actually ruin their candidates chances for some jobs. Is this a pedigree issue? Not really in the sense being discussed in this conversation. But it does explain - in part and in some cases - why some candidates can be very successful on the market even when their CVs and writing samples do not stand out from their competitors.


There seems to me to be an important disanalogy between the NFL and the philosophy job market. Imagine if instead of the worst team picking first in the NFL, the best team did. Were that the case, we would feel much less confident, I think, in our assessments of the actual talent of the top draft picks. "Sure they succeeded wildly," the reasoning would go, "but they were on a team that maximized their chances of doing so. That quarterback immediately had a great offensive line blocking for him, a running game to lean on, a team with money to spend on support, etc." In such a case, it would look even more like the top prospects really were best, even though that might only be because they were put in the best position to succeed.
Obviously, my suggestion is that that's a lot more like what the situation is like in philosophy. When the "top prospects" are drafted, part of why they seem to succeed so much more often than "lower drafted prospects" is because they're going to the best teams! They instantly become more visible, more influential (even if only slightly), they have better colleagues, easier teaching loads, etc.
So, the mere fact that (in general) the "best prospects" turn out the most successful philosophers is not sufficient evidence to show that they really were the best of the lot. It might very well be that "lower prospects" would have done just as well, given the advantages of going to such great teams.

Marcus Arvan

Kyle: your comments are well-taken. However, I think pedigree is a double-edged sword. I know of cases where people from top-programs came off as arrogant, self-entitled jerks in their applications, interviews, and/or on-campus interviews. Also, I don't think advisors working behind the scenes has much to do with pedigree. If anything, my experience has been that there may be a negative correlation between pedigree and behind-the-scenes stuff, as advisors at top programs may be (A) so busy with their own research that they don't bother working behind the scenes, and (B) see no need to work behind the scenes, given their school's pedigree. I, for one, know people from top programs who have told me that their advisors, etc., really did nothing for them besides write their letters.

David: your comments are well-taken, as well, but here too I think getting on the "good team" is a double-edged sword. There is an incredible amount of pressure to publish articles in top journals at R1 departments. I have seen some people succeed, but others wilt under the pressure -- and, even some of those who have succeeded, I've seen be miserable. Indeed, I myself struggled quite a bit in grad school due to all of the pressure to be awesome. In contrast, I'm thankful every day of my life that I ended up in a year-to-year position in a tiny department on a "lesser team." Having escaped all of the pressure, I've learned to love philosophy again, and I've worked my tail off to become the kind of person, researcher, teacher, and colleague I truly want to be. So, while of course there are benefits to being hired by a "top team", there are also many drawbacks, as well as underappreciated benefits of ending up on "lesser teams."

Kyle Whyte

Marcus: Good points. In the case of people coming off as arrogant, are you saying that they really weren't being arrogant, but how they came across plus their pedigree created that impression? Or are you saying having an elite pedigree makes it possible for one to be really arrogant and shoot themselves in the foot for some jobs? Or are you saying something else?

Marcus Arvan

Kyle: I want to be careful here. Let's just say that sometimes people who think of themselves as superstars come off as arrogant. This seems true to me in most walks of life, not just philosophy. So I don't mean to say that a pedigree turns some people into arrogant jerks. I do want to say that, in my experience, there at quite a few arrogant people out there, and there's a positive correlation between thinking you're a superstar in the making and an air of arrogance. I don't think I'm saying anything here that we don't all already know. The Sun is hot, too, and snow is cold. ;)

Kenny Pearce

A few years ago, I was deciding between two possible dissertation topics, one of which (a) was closely related to a fair amount of work going on in my department and the other (b) was within the AOS of some faculty members who could supervise it, but not closely related to their ongoing research. I got this piece of advice (which, incidentally, ended up not being the main basis for my decision): project (b) would be (I was told) a high-risk high-reward project. On the one had, it would be difficult to write a good dissertation, resulting in good papers, etc., without the assistance of faculty members focused on that area. On the other hand, because our department is not well-known in that area, everyone would know that you had less help than is typical, so that if you managed to write a really stellar dissertation on that topic, people would be all the more impressed.

I imagine something similar can sometimes happen with pedigree. If you come from Podunk State University and you write a really knock-their-socks-off type paper, then I would think that people would be especially impressed, because they would know that the paper was written REALLY independently, that you weren't receiving as many helpful comments from top philosophers. Of course, this isn't to say that the 'pedigree' folks don't have the overall advantage: they have an easier time learning to write good papers, and and an easier time getting anyone to actually read their papers in the first place.

I haven't been on the job market yet (next year!), and I certainly haven't been on any hiring committees, so this is rather speculative, but it's gathered from conversations with people more experienced than I (I also vaguely remember a NewAPPS post saying something like this).


I think the worry is that we are predisposed to think someone (or some work) is good if they have a prestigious affiliation. Jennifer Saul presents a nice example of this "prestige bias" in her recent piece "Rankings of Quality and Rankings of Reputation: Problems for both from Implicit Bias" (2012):

"A classic study of prestige bias took papers that had already been published in top psychology journals (which did not practice anonymous review) and resubmitted them to the same journals with false names and false, unprestigious affiliations. Ninety percent of the papers were rejected, citing serious methodological errors (Lee and Schunn 2010; Peters and Ceci 1982)" (258).

This suggests that institutional affiliation and/or individual reputation can, in some circumstances, more directly determine our evaluation of the quality of work (or a scholar) than the actual quality itself, which seems unfair. Granted, these studies refer to publishing practices, but we might guess that the "prestige bias" isn't limited to this context only.

Been There

It is natural to feel a little bitter if you are in this position. But that's the way the market works and it' is scarcely a secret. Compare the Leiter ranking of programs with his current list of the places that have placed their students in tenure track jobs and post docs so far this year (or look at the more complete lists from previous years). It matters whether you went to NYU or Nebraska. Pedigree makes a huge difference. That is why prospective students need to hear that if they do not get into a pretty good program, their chances of ever being a professor are very slim. You can say it shouldn't be that way, but that won't be much consolation after nine years in a grad program and no job or health insurance. It is better to be realistic.

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