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Beryl Lieff Benderly

An Ivy League Ph.D.: Not All Advantages

A while back we commented on an astute essay about choosing an adviser written by Karen Kelsky, a former tenured anthropology professor and department chair who now uses her ability to decode cultural systems as a professional career consultant to aspiring academics. Now, at Inside Higher EdKelsky turns her penetrating eye to another sensitive subject, the relative weight of a Ph.D. from a very elite institution, such as a member of the Ivy League or one of a handful of other ultra-high-profile universities. 

From her experience as an academic job seeker, search committee member, and career consultant to hundreds of academic job applicants, Kelsky has concluded that the aura of eliteness that those schools project counts for much less in today’s brutal academic hiring jungle than many people (especially graduates and faculty of those schools and some graduates of less prestigious institutions) appear to believe. That aura doesn’t count for nothing, she admits, but, in her opinion, it is way overrated.

Kelsky agrees with a job seeker she is quoting that, once a candidate reaches the shortlist, the Ivy League professors “mobilize the X university network, and they seriously work the phones.” This kind of naked pull, Kelsky writes, “should never be underestimated.”

But does an Ivy degree help in the crucial step of getting on the shortlist in the first place?  These days, not so much, Kelsky believes. In that rugged competition, Ivy Leaguers no longer have any “inherent and indisputable advantage.” That’s partly because of the “complacency factor,” which appears to affect both job seekers and their professors, Kelsky says. Many Ivy advisers fail to prepare their protegees for the realities of today’s job market, so their application materials are often sub-par. And, having been amply funded, many Ivy League candidates fail to display what Kelsky calls an ability to “scramble.” Kelsky believes that this hard-earned quality includes the capacity to “talk about making something from nothing” and arises from not being used to having resources at one’s beck and call. It is highly prized in today’s cash-strapped departments, “especially at lower-tier schools where, increasingly, all Ph.D.s are competing for jobs.”

So, non-Ivy applicants, don’t waste time bemoaning your supposed disadvantages. And elite-school grads, don’t assume you have any special institutional laurels to rest on.  Instead, read Kelsky’s informative piece. You can find it here.