The Myth of Ivy Advantage

August 22, 2012

Some months back I wrote a column in The Chronicle of Higher Education called "Graduate School is a Means to a Job." The column began with issues a prospective graduate student should consider before entering graduate school at all. I wrote:

"Go to the highest-ranked graduate department you can get into — so long as it funds you fully….. [But] never assume that the elite, Ivy League departments are the highest-ranked or have the best placement rates. Some of the worst-prepared job candidates with whom I've worked have been from humanities departments at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. Do not be dazzled by abstract institutional reputations. Ask steely-eyed questions about individual advisers and their actual (not illusory) placement rates in recent years."

The column received a lot of generally positive commentary. But my remarks about the Ivy League elicited one comment in particular:

"I think this is a very good article, but I think the dismissive approach to the Ivy schools is unfair. I am an administrator of a humanities Ph.D. program at one of those schools and 90 percent of our grads get TT jobs. I do a lot of counseling about how to go about making sure they are ready to go on the market from the time they enter the program. Their faculty members are incredible mentors not only during their time in the program but well beyond commencement."

Ninety percent of grads get tenure-track jobs? That’s an impressive figure. Is it true? Well, who knows. The commenter declined to provide us with any additional information, even when pressed by fellow commenters, who inquired as to the location of his department, in order to direct students to it. He merely replied huffily, "I am not comfortable publicly announcing where I work, but Google is a great tool."

I bring up this exchange to raise the enduring myth that Ivy League job candidates have an inherent and indisputable advantage on the tenure track job market. They do not. This is a myth.

Let me be clear — I am not making a statistical, quantitative argument, and I am not offering percentages (like the dubious 90 percent above). I am making an argument based on my experiences as a job seeker in my generation of job seekers, my time on many search committees, my observations as a practicing academic in my fields of anthropology and East Asian studies, and lastly, my recent work as an academic career coach in my business, The Professor Is In, in which capacity I’ve worked with approximately 800 job seekers in the past year.

Based on observations gleaned from these experiences, Ivy League job seekers (and of course this category could be stretched to include another four or five top private universities) do not have an inherent and indisputable advantage on the tenure-track job market. Many of them have a great deal of trouble finding tenure-track jobs, and a significant proportion of them fail, just as do Ph.D.s from other schools. 

I do believe there are some advantages enjoyed by Ivy Leagues candidates, and I’ll mention those, but they are far fewer than people both inside and outside the Ivies seem to believe (and as I shall show, not without their own attendant pitfalls). Yet the myth prevails. 

This myth is particularly important to me to address, because it is debilitating to both those tenure-track job seekers who have (or are getting) Ivy League Ph.D.s, and those who do (are) not. In the first case, because in the desperate conditions of the current job market complacency is deadly. And in the second because misplaced jealousy and an unwarranted sense of inadequacy are debilitating in candidates who are in fact entirely competitive on the market.

I wrote in the column that "Some of the worst-prepared job candidates with whom I've worked have been from humanities departments at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton," and this was not idle rhetoric, or grandstanding. When I served on search committees some of the most unprofessional application packages we received were from Ivy League candidates. Now as an academic career coach I observe that Ivy League clients often present some of the most ill-conceived first drafts of their job documents.

The question, of course, is why.

I believe it’s the complacency factor. Not necessarily in the job seekers themselves, who tell me that many of their peers have failed to find work, and who are anxious indeed. It’s the complacency of their advisers and departments, who, according to my clients, offer little or no professionalization training, because it is not viewed as necessary.

And indeed, in earlier times, it probably wasn’t.

But these days, institutional name, and indeed, individual superstar faculty name, are no longer sufficient to get a candidate through to the end of a brutal selection process. Especially at the lower-tier schools where, increasingly, all Ph.D.s are competing for jobs,  the elite pedigree can sometimes be greeted with skepticism.

This is not to say institutional status plays no role. As one client told me, "the faculty do absolutely nothing to prepare us for the market. But if one of us does get shortlisted, they  mobilize the X University network, and they seriously work the phones." Remember the Old Boys' Network? That would be this, minus the gender. It should never be underestimated.

But getting shortlisted in the first place? That comes from the length and depth of a candidate’s C.V., and the brilliance of her job materials. Institutional name or reputation alone is not enough, not now, not at this point in time.

The brutality of the job market has had an interesting, inadvertent meritocratizing effect. Because neoliberal logic has ravaged the notion of the ivory tower, and reduced the university system of value to the same quantifiable standards of productivity that prevail in other industries, any candidate who presents a C.V. filled with quantities of published work will compete handily with one who brings primarily name status. 

The quality of training at Ivy League universities with regard to these frantic (and unapologetically bourgeois) standards of accomplishment is the question. To the extent that "striving" is considered alien to the ethos of the graduate program, job market preparation will inevitably be lacking.

In my work with Ivy League job seekers, I have been struck by the abundance of their financial support. What they do not do, during their years of graduate school, is scramble.

Scramble in that unseemly and desperate manner that consumes their peers in less plentifully endowed programs. That rich funding is an advantage in many ways — money above all buys time to think and research and write, and do it well. But it also puts these job seekers out of step with the zeitgeist of the moment, and of the market. This zeitgeist revolves around scarcity. The successful job seeker will be adept at knowing how to talk about making something from nothing when called upon to do so. 

Any job seeker who doesn’t understand the scarcity model of the academy at the present moment is a job seeker out of step with the prevailing (although generally unacknowledged) ethos of search committees and administrators. Great thoughts, if they are not published in high-ranking peer reviewed journals, and accompanied by a record of successful grant funding, do not make the cut. 

Networks,  name allure, and abundant funding are not small things. But they are also not inherent or indisputable advantages for a tenure track placement, and they do not replace a consistent record of evidence of productivity and achievement. There is no free pass on the market in this day and age. As much as we might deplore the defunding of higher education, it has made some of the terms of competition more stark, and less mysterious (and mystified).


Karen Kelsky is a former tenured faculty member and department head who taught at the University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in the departments of anthropology and East Asian languages and cultures. She left the academy to open an academic careers consulting service, The Professor Is In.


Search for Jobs


  • Viewed
  • Commented
  • Past:
  • Day
  • Week
  • Month
  • Year
Loading results...
Back to Top