New Study Highlights Prominence of Elite PhD Programs

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Elite history departments tend to draw their faculty from elite PhD programs, economist Stephen Wu reports in the July–August 2005 issue of Academe (the magazine published by the American Association of University Professors). That is hardly news to anyone in the profession, but Wu's analysis provides some context by comparing history to five other disciplines.

Wu collected degree information for just over 5,000 full-time faculty in six disciplines (chemistry, economics, English, history, mathematics, and sociology) who are now employed at liberal arts colleges and universities ranked as the top 25 in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. He was thus able to cross tabulate information for these faculty members to determine who among them had obtained their PhDs from departments that are ranked among the top 10 and 20 programs in the U.S. News rankings for each discipline.

While the U.S. News rankings are often maligned for the subjectivity of their quality ratings, Wu's findings do suggest some underlying validity in the ratings, at least as a predictor for academic employment. For instance, among faculty employed at history departments in the top-rated "national universities," 58.9 percent had received their PhDs from the top 10 programs in the U.S. News rankings. This is less pronounced than in the case of the faculty in economics departments, where 67.3 percent of the faculty had degrees from the top 10 schools, and is just a bit above the English departments, where 57.1 percent of their faculty had received degrees from a program in the top 10.

When Wu takes a wider perspective, to include PhDs from departments ranked among U.S. News's top 20 programs in the discipline (Figure 1), economics departments still appeared to draw most heavily from top-ranked programs in the field, with history a distant second. Economics departments at the highest-rated research universities drew 82 percent of their full-time faculty from the top 20 programs in their field. In comparison, history departments drew 74.9 percent of their faculty from the similarly ranked programs. This compares to 74.0 percent of sociology faculty, and 70.2 percent of English faculty. The faculty in the harder sciences—chemistry and mathematics—drew less than 65 percent of their faculty from the top 20 schools.

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