Pride, Prejudice, Prestige

What matters when you pick a graduate program may not matter when evaluating job offers, writes Heather Dubrow.

December 16, 2013

On hearing that I had just turned down an offer from a highly regarded state research university in favor of Carleton College, the renowned professor, my former teacher, informs me that I am making a serious mistake with my career. It is late winter 1980, and I am fortunate enough to be able to choose among competing possibilities (I also had the option of remaining in my then-current post at the University of Maryland at College Park, but the presence of my soon-to-be-ex-husband in the same department, though perhaps promising material for the edgier sitcoms, was not a recipe for happiness).

My decision about Carleton was indubitably the right one for me at that point. The collegial atmosphere and commitment to undergraduate education had attracted me, and I rightly predicted that I could continue my research there as well. The precipitous decline in positions for newly minted Ph.D.s made giving up graduate teaching more palatable. Yet 10 years later, having reached the very difficult decision to move back to the research-university circuit for a number of professional and personal reasons, I again encountered people like that adviser who could not understand why I would think twice about leaving Carleton for the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

I certainly know -- both from far less happy personal experiences on the job market at the beginning of my career and from the struggles of many others in its even more dreadful current incarnation-- that I was very fortunate to have those possibilities.

Nonetheless, they gesture toward tense and sometimes toxic issues. To what extent should the perceived prestige of institutions or of types of institution shape decisions about job offers? That question introduces a prior but closely related one: How should such rankings affect debates about which graduate school to attend?

Though prestige is easier to recognize than the characteristic with which it is too often confounded, quality, assessing it is not unproblematic. For example, regional prejudices may lead some to favor New England institutions over Southern ones (or, of course, vice versa). Or people from the locale of a given college or university may simply be better able to assess its strengths and weaknesses. And the rankings of institutions in general and graduate programs in particular in both U.S. News & World Report and the National Research Council have often been challenged. Nonetheless, most academics would rightly consider, say, the University of Michigan more prestigious than the University of Montana, and despite the stellar reputation of the Carletons of the world in a number of circles, many people, like the mentor cited above, would consider most research universities more prestigious than colleges, however distinguished.

Adapting the real estate agents’ mantra about location, I maintain — despite my commitment to other, sometimes conflicting values -- that prestige, prestige, prestige should generally be the primary determinant of which graduate school to attend. Above all, the perceived ranking of the university is likely to affect, even effect, getting one’s first job. In addition, prestigious institutions more often have types of funding that aid one’s professional development, such as reduced teaching loads when finishing the thesis and travel money. (Whether the quality of the education will be markedly better, especially given that the job market has ensured that very talented people are teaching at less-respected universities — and exactly what determines that quality -- is necessarily the fraught subject for a different conversation.)

To be sure, the correlation between the reputation of a university and job placement is not perfect. Relatively small differences among the reputation of doctoral programs may not affect their students’ job prospects. And during my dozen years as job placement officer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, I found that certain colleges and universities seemed to prefer our Ph.D.s over their Ivy counterparts, perhaps because ours were perceived as better able to adjust to somewhere considerably less distinguished than their graduate institution and less likely to try to leave in short order. Moreover, particular universities may have niches in the job market: some institutions like hiring from a graduate program in their own region, while graduates of programs at church-affiliated universities sometimes are favored. when applying for jobs at colleges of the same genre. Nonetheless, by and large applicants with more highly regarded doctoral degrees have an edge in hiring in the initial stages of their careers.

Other considerations are certainly not negligible, though evaluating them can be tricky. Yes, living with a partner, especially if the couple has children, can indeed be a desideratum. But since the quality of the Ph.D.-granting institution can affect options on the job market, many couples may decide that a lengthy commute, or even living apart for a few years, may be a sound investment towards allowing them to live together in the long run. Money? Given the horrific uncertainties of that job market, going into substantial debt to get a Ph.D. is at best problematic. Fully funded programs are very desirable. At the same time, as long as the more prestigious university is offering enough to live on, the size of the stipend probably should not be the primary consideration.

One misguided student blithely told me that she had chosen a doctoral program at a state university many would regard as low second tier over a much more highly regarded one at the same genre of institution simply because the stipend was a little higher — higher, I knew, by an amount unlikely to affect significantly either her standard of living or her ability to complete the program without incurring debts.

Some institutions foster a collegial atmosphere among both graduate students and faculty, while others provide early training in not only literary criticism but also competitiveness and snarky backbiting. The behavior of professors in this respect can be a model, for better or worse, for their graduate students. Thus atmosphere, when it can be assessed accurately, is a real consideration for those sensitive to the slings and arrows of outrageous ambition. “Fit” in terms of particular faculty members with whom one wants to work or strength in a particular field might be significant — although the attraction to a particular specialty may change, and since professors sometimes move, basing a decision on the presence of a particular faculty member is risky.

Down the pike, prestige remains a significant consideration, especially for one’s first job — though under many circumstances it is less crucial than when one is considering options for graduate training. To be sure, in that initial job, whether it is tenure track or contingent, a post at one of the leading institutions in the country produces an aura that may be helpful throughout one’s career. As a chair once observed, “Well, even if this isn’t where you stay for your whole career, this would be a very good place to move from.” And in fact people have observed that for many reasons it is easier to move from a well-known research-oriented university to a liberal arts college than vice versa.

The distinction of one’s institution can also open doors to fellowships and publications. Arguably, the students may be preferable — that is, if one prefers students who are typically already very able and often well-trained over ones who are sometimes more needy and to certain teachers more rewarding academically.

In any event, even when accepting one’s first appointment, and certainly later on, if one is lucky enough to have a choice one should carefully weigh factors different from and sometimes in conflict with prestige. Regrettably, dissertation directors and other mentors may well discount those factors when advising students. Sometimes, having spent their whole careers in major research institutions, they themselves know little about other genres of institutions. Far more regrettably, too many believe that their own prestige is enhanced or decreased by the institutional label sported by their former students. The habit of listing on one’s vita the names and current affiliations of one’s dissertators is telling.

A friend of mine turned down an offer from Major Ivy in favor of Middle-Ranked State University because of the low chances of tenure at the former and never regretted the decision. And people who are sure their primary commitment is to the classroom rather than research, as well as committed critics and researchers deeply engaged with undergraduate teaching and dubious about the often conflicting celebration of professional “visibility,” may well welcome an appointment at an institution that shares — and celebrates — their values. (I did so when I chose Carleton, and many years later when I moved to Fordham.)

Yet one should also remember that the relative valuation of teaching and scholarship may be in transition and even volatile at a given institution. And of course institutions that marginalize undergraduate instruction may offer rewarding graduate teaching. The degree of collegiality in the most positive senses — as opposed to that competitiveness and backbiting—may also be both volatile and hard to assess, but this too may matter deeply, at least to those unschooled in Stoic practices of immunity to the outer environment. The needs of a couple or family, a wish to live in a particular area or in a town of a particular size are of course important in themselves and, by variously generating contentment and dismay, may also affect the quality of professional work. Such issues may be particularly pressing for people outside the mainstream in one way or another.

Some readers may be feeling bemused, if not belligerent, on encountering an essay examining choices so many people are not lucky enough — or privileged enough — to confront. Yet such issues are relevant to all of us because of the larger questions about the profession that they raise. For example, how does a teacher’s consciousness of her own professional standing inflect — or infect — the advice she gives her students? How can one balance recognizing, however regretfully, that prestige is indeed a valuable commodity in many professional markets — while recognizing as well that it can be a fool’s gold liable to distort our perceptions of people and our advice to our students? And how and when should we distinguish prestige from quality?



Heather Dubrow is the John D. Boyd SJ Chair in the Poetic Imagination at Fordham University. Among her publications are six single-authored monographs, a co-edited collection of essays, an edition of As You Like It, and a volume of her own poetry.



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