Academic inbreeding

(I have decided to steer clear of controversial subjects, for a while… this should be pretty safe… no ?)

The expression “Academic Inbreeding” (AI) refers to the practice of universities to hire as faculty preferentially their own doctoral graduates. It is relatively rare in the United States, but fairly common elsewhere, for example in Europe, Japan, China, Korea and India. Not much scholarly research appears to have been carried out on this subject (according to Google, anyway), hence my interest in this article by researcher Francisco Veloso of Carnegie-Mellon University and collaborators, entitled “Navel gazing: Academic inbreeding and scientific productivity”, published in Management Science, Vol. 56, No. 3, 414-429.

Here are excerpts from the abstract of the article:
“Using data from Mexico, we find evidence that, first, academic inbreeding is associated with lower scholarly output. Second, the academically inbred faculty is relatively more centred on its own institution and less open to the rest of the scientific world [...] Third, we reveal that academic inbreeding could be the result of an institutional practice, such that these faculty members contribute disproportionately more to teaching and outreach activities, which allows non-inbred faculty members to dedicate themselves to the research endeavour [...] Overall, our analysis suggests that administrators and policy makers in developing nations who aim to develop a thriving research environment should consider mechanisms to limit this practice.”
To this, I only have one word to add: Amen. My personal observation in over twenty years in academia, all but confirms the above.

I learned the meaning of AI after coming to America. As an undergraduate student in my home town in Italy (another country with a high level of AI), I cannot recall meeting a single professor, researcher, graduate student, laboratory technician, who was not a graduate of my Alma Mater; nor were things any different at other Italian universities, and my impression is that the situation has not really changed much over the past two decades. I did not think much of that phenomenon, back then; in fact, I did not even recognize it as such. After all, how else could things work ? It was not like the grocery store, the bank, the paper mill, hired their employees outside the city limit. Why would universities do anything else ? (hey, I was 19 all right ? Give me a break…). It was only normal that those hired would be graduates of the same university, given the very low mobility of Italians, who tend to spend their lives in the place where they are born [0].

As a graduate student in the US, I was surprised the first time I heard in conversation something like, “the department is trying to attract so-and-so from big-name university”, or a passing reference made to the de facto stated policy of the institution to hire its own PhD graduates as faculty in exceptional cases only. With time I have come to appreciate the notion that AI should best be avoided. There are many valid reasons, very eloquently expressed in the paper by Veloso et al. The most important, in my view, are the following:
1) A university should try to assemble the best qualified faculty, and to do that the widest possible net must be cast.
2) The best interest of an institution and its current students is served by its own graduates becoming successful elsewhere. This will in time enhance both the reputation and the influence of the institution.
3) AI promotes staleness, as it tends to lock in place a modus operandi, ideas and mentality that persist long after becoming obsolete.

Where does AI come from ? It’s probably a combination of many factors, some cultural, some contingent, likely different in the various places where it is widely practiced.
I vividly remember the conversation I had in Spring 1987 with one of my two undergraduate advisors, after I told him about my decision not to pursue my PhD at my undergraduate institution, but to go overseas instead. He was taken aback. He told me flat out that, while he admired such a courageous “life choice” on my part, he felt compelled to inform me that by doing that, I was “burning bridges”, and would likely never return to Italy as a scientist. I paid no attention, for I did not care back then (I do not care much more now).
But he was right; Italian scholars and researchers who spend extended periods abroad, as well as qualified foreign researchers, are virtually excluded from competition for positions at Italian universities. By and large, jobs go to locals (essentially always Italians) who never left in the first place; they typically pursued their PhD at the same institution where they did their undergraduate studies, under the direction of the same advisor, working in the same laboratory.
Why is AI so prevalent in Europe ? It is commonly believed to be cultural, and there must be doubtless some validity to that contention. However, it is also my impression that, everything else being equal, AI (which actually varies greatly from country to country, in Europe) tends to occur less where research expenditures are greater, such as in Germany or the UK (this is just a wild speculation on my part, I have not done any serious research on this subject).
The dynamics, at least in Italy, seems to be the following: Given the abysmally low level of funding for research, academics wanting to establish and maintain strong research groups, have essentially no choice but convince bright undergraduate students to “stick around”. These are young people who can afford to spend a few years making little or no money, living at home with their parents. They cannot be replaced by PhD students or postdocs coming from other cities in Italy (much less outside the country), for the pay of a PhD student or postdoc in Italy is hardly adequate to support one person, let alone a small family.

But why would “bright undergraduate students” decide to “stick around”, passing on an opportunity to spend some valuable time abroad, widen their horizons, establish precious professional and personal contacts, in the process also enjoying decent standards of living, having a lot of fun and almost invariably learning more ?
Well, because sometime down the road, they are going to want to return home, and are therefore reluctant to take a step which will likely close the door shut behind them (their place will be immediately taken by the “next person in line”). This makes it easy, for shrewd professors in need of “workforce”, to dangle before the eyes of these students the carrot of a possible permanent position “some day”, as long as they be willing to stay, endure some financial hardship and… well, just wait. That day, of course, will never come for most of those who stay, who will eventually opt out of academia and research in frustration, tired of being jerked around, or simply no longer able to afford the wait. On the other hand, if and when a position does materialize (a rare occurrence), it simply must be given to one of those who have “stuck around”. Failure to do so, the hire of an outsider, would send the terrible message to all the undergraduate and graduate students in the pipeline, working (almost) for free, that their effort is in vain, and induce them to seek better fortune elsewhere. This is how this vicious circle closes, and inbreeding becomes, de facto, the only way in which academics are hired [1].

All of this would change, in my view, if sufficient funding were available in the first place. The key difference is that it would enable researchers to make competitive offers and seek to attract scholars from all over the world. There is no reason why an Italian researcher wanting to put together a strong research group, would not try and bring in better qualified researchers from wherever they happen to be, instead of continuing to tap exclusively into the pool of locals. After all, Italian soccer franchises, for example, have no problem importing good players from all over the world.
There seems to be really no fundamental reason why countries like Spain, Italy or Portugal, (very attractive places to live in many respects), where research is currently seriously underfunded and which are suffering from very high levels of AI, should not have more diverse university faculties. This seems a necessary step in order for these european countries to rise to their proper role of important, respectable satellites in the international academic circuit, contributing their fair share to intellectual and professional exchange.

[0] Only very few large employers, like automaker FIAT, or (mostly state-owned) heavy industry, would tap into the most depressed regions of Italy (mostly the south) to replenish their workforce. Indeed, a large worker migration took place in the early 60s from southern to northern regions of Italy, but for the most part it affected blue-collar workers.
[1] An unpleasant side effect of this curious hiring process is that the newly hired assistant professor is immediately indebted to one senior faculty member, typically his/her former undergraduate, PhD and postdoctoral advisor, who has played an instrumental role in getting the person hired and who is going to retain a strong influence and power over the person’s career.

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5 Responses to “Academic inbreeding”

  1. Anonymous Says:


    One unfortunate crossbreed of the American system and inbreeding is the “Mafia”* that is sometimes at work in Germany and some other European countries. Its rules are: 1) All new professors come from another university, but 2) all are former students or postdocs of one single senior professor.

    This system manages to combine the disadvantages of both: It has all the problem associated with requiring people to move a lot (two-body problem, aging parents…), but still keeps scientific monoculture. It’s actually the perfect way to prevent ANY diversity of ANY sort….

    Additionally, it is very hard to stop: I’ve seen a university fight inbreeding with some success by making the equal opportunity office take care of candidates from outside, but it’s harder to even formulate explicit rules against the Mafia.


    * Apologies to Camorra, ‘Ndrangheta and co, but that’s what they call it.

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Re: Mafia

      Hmm…. and where is that “senior professor” based ? You know, in the US there are examples of “influential” senior professors who manage to have most of their PhD graduates hired, sometimes more than one of them in the same department… there may be some overlap here, in the way the two systems operate.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Italian scholars and researchers who spend extended periods abroad, as well as qualified foreign researchers, are virtually excluded from competition for positions at Italian universities

    Interestingly, there are some Asian countries where the exact opposite is true. The local academic research institutions specifically and preferentially hire PhDs who had done some training abroad. They even go so far as to strongly encourage students to pursue PhDs or postdocs abroad to increase their chances of getting a local faculty position. They even actively recruit among US-based faculty who originated from those countries to try to lure them back.

    Not entirely sure why this is, but it has to do with a perception in those countries that scientific training is more rigorous abroad, although not all foreign countries are equally favored. I have heard professors express disapproval of students who refuse to go abroad because they view these students as being too lazy or too spoilt to endure a few years of relative hardship (being away from family, etc.) to get better training.


  3. lucaguido Says:

    good post! I confirm the article

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