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In my opinion

The value of where you earned your PhD

Why do hiring committees appear to favour graduates from big-league universities?


It is a known fact that we produce many more PhDs than there are academic jobs available for them. This raises the question of where PhD graduates will take their credentials and whether they will be employed in a way that will put their well-earned skills to work.

This also raises two other issues for me: who gets to be hired in those rare academic positions that need filling? And, how is the PhD as a credential valued outside of the academic world? In this article I will tackle the first issue only, although I do believe we need a conversation about the second one as well.

I argue that we need to rethink how we value credentials when we hire for academic positions. Whenever a job opens up, hundreds of applicants submit their dossiers. Considerations of fit, research profile and productivity, teaching skills and demonstrated ability to teach various topics all come into play when we reduce the huge pile of applications to a long, and then short, list of candidates to interview. The one factor we rarely discuss, but which seems to play a big role in how one establishes such lists, is the school at which a candidate has earned their degree.

In my experience in the humanities, hiring committees are consistently wowed by American degrees, degrees from our own Canadian big-league universities or from some prestigious European universities. I assume that this is how applicants with extremely strong CVs, but from institutions that don’t count as big league, get passed over in favour of candidates from prestigious schools who have much less to boast of in terms of publications or teaching experience.

The assumption that someone with a PhD from a big-name university is a better candidate regardless of their accomplishments begs the question of how we value the PhDs we award at other Canadian universities. I understand how members of hiring committees who have degrees from big-name schools would tend to favour such degrees. They may be attached to their alma mater and overvalue its worth. However, that hiring committees composed of folks with PhDs mostly from non-big-league schools would consistently favour candidates from the big-league schools is mind-boggling to me. Why would they discriminate against their own graduates or graduates from similar schools? What does this say about what they think of their own degrees?

Indeed, at these less-prestigious schools, one often hears the case for how their PhD programs are innovative and creative, and how they provide excellent mentorship and supervision for their students. And yet, one is willing to go with a candidate from a big-league university just because of the wow factor. Those candidates may in fact have received poorer mentorship and supervision. A comment made to me by an Oxford colleague at a conference has stuck with me: “We treat our graduate students the way you treat your undergrads. They are on their own!”

I am not suggesting that all big-league schools offer poor mentoring and supervision. What I am saying is that this can be found at big league schools just as much as in other schools. The correlate to this is that when a hiring committee member is wowed by who somebody’s supervisor was, they are assuming that this superstar supervisor offered high-quality mentorship when in fact it can be quite the contrary.

When examining an applicant’s dossier, I pay very little attention to the school they earned their degree from and who their supervisor was. What I am much more interested in is their teaching and research potential as evidenced by what they have done, not where and with whom. What did they write their thesis on? What methods did they use and what were the outcomes? What teaching experience do they have? Have they participated in major conferences and published materials in good venues? Have they been successful at obtaining external scholarships? Have they received prestigious internal or external awards? Have they been involved in the life of the university by providing service to their program, graduate student association, or university in some capacity?

This is what matters, and this is what we all claim to be looking for in order to assess the quality of a candidate’s application. And yet, most hiring committee members forget all this when a big-league school’s name or a “big fish” supervisor’s name screams at them from the first page of the CV they are looking at.

Among equity circles, the argument has been made for a very long time that CVs should be anonymized for hiring in order to contravene bias, implicit or not, when assessing CVs. The idea is much the same as anonymous auditioning for orchestras, which has demonstrated that diversity in selection and hiring increased when one hid the identity of the musician.

I think we should do the same for university credentials, because it is simply not the case that a PhD from a big-league school is automatically of better quality, just as it is not the case that a PhD from a non-big-league school is of poorer quality – in fact, it may very well be of better quality, earned in an extremely innovative program created by faculty members trying to compete with the degrees offered at the big-league schools. We owe it to those we train so intently to give value to the very training we provide them.

Christine Daigle is a professor of philosophy and holder of the Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence, as well as director of the Posthumanism Research Institute, at Brock University.

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  1. David Kent / November 20, 2018 at 10:05

    Some really great points in here Christine – important to add here is that the list of other potentially distinguishing features (awards, presentations, etc) are also highly influenced by where and with whom you have done your degree. How many international conference organisers are in Winnipeg vs. Toronto? vs. Boston? The same goes for journal editors, charitable foundations, “X” in science prizes, etc. The decision boards of just about everything that ends up “judging” us is influenced by the same self-reinforcing circle of people…

  2. Christy Costanian / November 21, 2018 at 16:02

    Thank you for this article! Well written! This needs to be mentioned. PhD who graduate from less prestigious universities sometimes have to work twice as hard as their peers with this ” wow factor” to earn the same respect and consideration for jobs.

  3. Patti Ranahan / November 22, 2018 at 06:25

    Excellent points Christine. In particular I’m struck by the valuing of American degrees, given that Canadian universities are required to give preference to Canadian applicants. This also has to do with the composition of the hiring committee. I wholeheartedly agree that a candidate’s dissertation itself should be considered, recognizing that this too may be viewed through a particular lens that values certain methodological approaches over others. Scholarships and grants awarded to students also varies by institution and location. Some universities in Canada – particularly in the East – rely heavily on offering students grants and awards as a recruitment tool, not as a measure of the students’ accomplishments. Lastly, the notion of ‘fit’ is problematic. Hiring committees often use this term as a last resort strategy to reject a candidate. This is presented as if the candidate is a poorly shaped puzzle piece that does not squeeze nicely into the existing puzzle. Given that committees are often attracted to the extremes – the ‘shiny coin’ that stands out from the crowd, or the candidate who is most similar and can replicate the status quo – ‘fit’ is less about the candidate, and more about the hiring committee’s bias. Postings indicate they will hire based on merit, so let’s hire based on merit.

  4. Professor Dr. Sundararajan / November 22, 2018 at 15:33

    My comment is more to do with the Ph. D.’s and the outside world. Most Ph. D.’s in sciences or humanities shun to use the word “doctor” when introducing themselves. They feel that it is not a “big deal”. In fact it is. If you don’t respect yourself, nobody else will. Medical profession insists on the use of Dr. Even a guy who fits shoes to your feet introduces himself as “Dr.”. European academics use “Professor Dr” in front of their names. I use a cane and I have pasted my name on it as “Professor Dr. Sundararajan”. When I pass through security at European airports, for example, Frankfurt, several times, the guy at the security would ask me “Hello Doctor, what do you teach?” That is the “Wow” factor.
    All the professional associations (science, engineering and humanities) should mandate that we use the word Doctor when we introduce ourselves. That is the only way to establish our credentials with the outside community. Don’t be bashful.

  5. JC Veletta / November 22, 2018 at 15:51

    The question has more to do with the type of Ph.D. Who will you hire: A grad from a 4-year Ph.D or one from a more rigorous 6 to 7-year Ph.D and from a good institution. For example, a 4 year UBC Ph.D or a 6-7 year Calgary Ph.D in the same discipline.

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