The Prestige Payoff

Study documents impact of attending an elite doctoral program on faculty members' careers.

April 8, 2014

PHILADELPHIA -- Many a would-be graduate student has debated whether to enroll in a top-ranked program or another one that -- for reasons fair or unfair -- isn't so highly ranked but may seem a better fit.

A study released here at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association suggests that there could be quantifiable evidence that prestige pays off.

The study, by three University of Georgia scholars, used a national federal database of full-time tenure-track faculty members at all stages of their careers, with an average of 14 years of experience as a professor. While protecting the confidentiality of the faculty members, the researchers examined where the professors earned their Ph.D.s and then their subsequent achievements on certain metrics. Graduate programs were divided, based on National Research Council ratings, into four levels of prestige (including a level reflecting institutions too young to have a reputation). Institutions were ranked based on U.S. News & World Report criteria.

The study found three patterns with regard to those who earned doctorates in top-ranked departments:

  • They were 22 percent more likely than others to be employed by a research university.
  • They were 12 percent more likely to be a full professor.
  • They had about eight more peer-reviewed journal articles than did their peers.

They also found a pattern for those who graduated from a top-ranked university (regardless of how highly ranked the department is): Their salaries were 13 percent higher.

The study covered a wide range of disciplines.

Jarrett B. Warshaw, a doctoral candidate at Georgia's Institute of Higher Education and the lead author of the study, stressed that the paper does not argue that doctoral training is better at top-ranked institutions. "It could be that higher-quality programs offer higher-quality training," he said. But it could also be the case that there is "self-selection" at work -- that these programs attract the best Ph.D. students, those who might well have thrived elsewhere. (The other authors are Robert K. Toutkoushian, a professor at the Institute of Higher Education, and Hyejin Choi, a graduate student.)

Warshaw also said it was important to remember that there are "lots of ways to measure success," and that doctoral students with goals other than those measured in this study might find better fits elsewhere. "You have to find your best experience," he said.

The study also didn't explore why these patterns surfaced (work on the project continues and more findings are expected later).

Warshaw speculated that one reason salary was the only area where reputation of the university (as opposed to the program) appeared to have an impact was because of who decides on salary. When a department wants to offer more money to recruit or retain someone, typically deans or other administrators from beyond the department are involved. And they may be more swayed by a university's overall reputation than by knowledge that a particular graduate program was highly regarded.

While it may come as no surprise that those who earn Ph.D.s at prestigious programs achieve various levels of success, some disciplines have debated whether the advantage enjoyed by those graduates is appropriate. A paper published in 2012 argued that political science departments overwhelmingly favor graduates of a relatively small number of doctoral programs -- ignoring the talent elsewhere.

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