## On jobs and papers

A few commenters took issue with a contention that I made in my latest post, namely that publications matter very little, when it comes to the fortunes of science doctoral degree holders seeking employment in industry. It is the opinion of some that, in fact, many a potential industrial employer will raise eyebrows over the lack of publications on the CV of an applicant with a PhD in a scientific discipline — alternatively, having published the type of peer-reviewed research articles that constitute the backbone of one’s scholarly portfolio, may also significantly enhance that person’s marketability for industrial positions, most of which feature no substantial research component and/or do not specifically target PhDs in the applicant’s field (or in any of the Science and Engineering disciplines, for that matter).
One of the arguments seems to be that, since there is an expectation of publication of doctoral graduates in the sciences, lack thereof is often perceived as a sign of overall applicant mediocrity.

(For the purpose of clarity — the aim of this post is not that of discussing the importance of scholarly publications for graduate students, but only its impact on the narrower issue of finding employment in industry).

There is always a degree of subjectivity in assessing what is “a lot”, or “very little”, but, in general, I am not interested in small differences — if I am going to recommend a graduate student to delay graduation by one year, in order to publish a couple more papers, I think I should have solid reasons.
As I stated in my post, as well as in my replies, I am personally very skeptical of any claim that scholarly publications may play a significant, much less decisive role in the hire a PhD scientist outside academia. This is mostly based on my own personal job hunting experience (see this post for some more background), which now dates back some fifteen years (but I doubt if things have changed much) [0], as well as on that of my friends from graduate school, and of my own undergraduate and graduate advisees [1].
Admittedly, however, these are just my own opinion and personal experience (well, and of many other colleagues, actually), and therefore of anecdotal value at best — much like what has been offered by commenters to my post. Fact is, none of us backed with actual hard data our statements, firstly because this is just a blog, secondly because data are not available, or, at any rate, not easily found (I come back to this point below). The comments, however, got me thinking about this issue. While it will always all remain a matter of opinions, to some extent, it seems interesting to pose the question of whether is it possible to try and quantify the effect of publications on one’s CV, based on the little on which maybe we can all agree.

Below, I am going to make a modest attempt at performing a simple statistical analysis, aimed at arriving at least to a numerical upper bound on the effect that publications can be expected to have on a job applicant’s appeal to a potential industrial employer.
As usual, what follows is nothing but my personal observations (rantings). If anyone has data, or finds an obvious problem with my reasoning, I would greatly appreciate to be set straight — you will get in public a personal “thank you” from the author of this widely read, internationally ranked science blog.

A few definitions
Let us consider a freshly minted PhD, intent on seeking employment in industry, an employment not necessarily related to her PhD research work or even field of study, but for which she proves a credible, qualified applicant, by virtue of analytical and technical skills acquired during her doctoral training [2].
Let P(H|PhD) = α be the probability that this person will successfully land such a job within an accepted time frame. Let us introduce the following two additional probabilities:
P(H|PhD, pub) = probability that the new science PhD will be hired in industry, given that she has published one or more articles during her doctoral studies.
P(H|PhD, no pub) = the same probability, but for a graduates with no publication on her CV.
It is clearly
P(H|PhD) = q P(H|PhD, pub) + (1-q) P(H|PhD, no pub)       (1)
where q is a number between zero and one, representing the fraction of all PhD applicants for the typical industrial job, whose CV features at least one publication. This fraction, whose precise value is unknown to me, turns out to be of crucial importance, as we shall see below.

Let us now introduce the publication enhancement factor (PEF), δ, through the definition
P(H|PhD, pub) = (1 + δ) P(H|PhD, no pub)
The PEF furnishes a quantitative measure of how much more likely to find a job, on average, a PhD applicant with publications is, than a colleague without publications. For example, if δ = 2 then the former would have on average three times greater a prior probability to get a job than the latter. If δ = 0 then publications do not enhance at all a CV, at least on average, in the eyes of an industrial recruiter [3].

Now, the question: is there any way of quantifying the effect of publications, by giving at least a rough estimate of δ ?

Using actual data
Given the above definitions, one can straightforwardly apply basic rules of Bayesian probability (see also this post), and arrive at the following result:

δ = [(1-q) P(PhD,pub|H)]   [q P(PhD,no pub|H)]-1-1       (2)

where P(PhD, pub|H) (P(PhD,no pub|H)) is the probability that a PhD applicant having been hired in industry possess some (no) publication record. The above expression tells us, for example, that if the overall effect of publications were, hypothetically, that of doubling on average the odds of someone to be hired, and if equal proportions of PhD applicants did and did not have publications (i.e., q = 1/2), then the population of hired PhDs would include 66% of published PhDs and 33% without any publication.
A reasonably good estimate for δ can be obtained using (2), upon knowing the values of q, as well as the fractions of PhD applicants hired in industry with and without publications. I have looked for that kind of data on the internet, but could not find it. I would greatly appreciate it if anyone could furnish a link [4].

How large can δ be ?
Even if reliable, robust data are unavailable, it is still perhaps possible to make some general estimates. First of all, though, some common sense. If δ were large enough to make a noticeable difference in the outcome of industrial job searches, e.g., to the point where unemployment among PhD scientists were largely confined to those with no publications, or if any such a trend been observed, it would be known by now. Professional societies such as the APS, which have been constantly monitoring employment trends for decades, would have long issued a warning to departments and graduates, urging them to make sure not to leave that aspect uncovered. I am not aware of any such warning, though.
I attended many focus sessions on employment held at APS meetings in the mid-90s, with presentations typically delivered by speakers from industry, and not a single time did I hear even a hint of that. If anything, admonitions consistently went in the opposite direction, namely for advisors and graduate students to worry less about publications and more about developing marketable skills.

Having said the above, starting from (1), we can re-express, using the definition of δ with some simple algebra, P(H|Phd,pub) as follows:

P(H|PhD,pub) = [α (1+δ)]  [1+qδ]-1         (3)

Because P(H|PhD,pub) is a probability, it necessarily ought not be greater than one, which allows us to place an upper bound for δ, let us call it δM. Specifically, one finds that

δM = [1- α]   [α-q]-1         (4)

Here, in order to obtain a reasonable ballpark estimate for δM one needs to come up with reliable guesses for α and q. Again, I do not have the numbers, but I think it is a plausible guess that δM will not exceed a few percent, maybe ten percent at the most. Here is why:
1) There are good reasons to posit that α should be a number close to one, something like 0.95 or so, i.e., a freshly minted science PhD looking for industrial employment will almost always find it (I am not discussing job satisfaction here, at all). This is because the overall unemployment rate among PhD scientists is a few percent, and only a tiny fraction of them end up employed doing research (see, here, for instance, for data that pertains to Canada — no reason to expect the situation to be very different in other countries). Thus, many of them do look at industry as a potential source of employment.

2) If q ~ 1, i.e., if almost the totality of science PhD were published by the time they seek employment, then the denominator of (4) could also be small, and δ could conceivably be large too. But there are in fact reasons to believe that q should be something like 0.5 or so, i.e., that something like roughly half of all CVs sitting on the desktop of an industrial head hunter do not feature publications [5].
We physicists tend to think that everyone with a PhD must have published at least one paper, given the insistence on publication in our own field. But physicists account for just a tiny percentage of all PhDs in Science and Engineering (in Canada, approximately three percent), and it turns out that publication rates vary greatly across fields. I have not been able to find hard numbers but, in engineering, for example, the rate at which students graduate with their doctorate without publications could be as high as 30% (see, here, for instance), and, while some of us may not want to consider engineers as scientists, if 70% of them publish the remaining 30% ought to be harmed by recruiting criteria emphasizing publications, no less than science graduates with no publications.
One may also reasonably opine that the population of those seeking employment in industry may be richer in CVs without publications, precisely because of the expectation that the lack of papers will not be seen as such a big weakness in industry as it would be in academia.

If one accepts something like α ~ 0.95 and q ~ 0.5, then the greatest boost that one may expect to derive from being published, when seeking a position in industry, is of the order of 10%. That is, out of a pool of 100 PhD applicants, 50 of which with publications and 50 without, on average 53 with publications and 47 without publications will be hired [6].
Is this a “big” difference ? Maybe it is a matter of opinions — I find it too small to induce departments and advisors to insist on a strict publication requirement, especially with students with a stated aim for a career in industry.
One could argue that, even though in the end everyone will find a job, which is why one meets very few PhD scientists standing in unemployment lines, publications may make it easier to find a job more quickly, or that PhDs with publications may land better jobs, or move up the ladder more quickly, and so on. All of that is certainly possible or even plausible, but I need to see data in order to be convinced, and of course one would have to assess any benefit against the (possibly) longer time spent in graduate school in order to produce those publications.

Notes
[0] In 1996-97 I interviewed with MBNA (in Delaware), and no mention was made of publications. I do not know if I would have been hired, because I eventually accepted an academic position. However my “industrial” resume did not include publications, and I was not asked about them during the interview. I was also offered a job as UNIX system administrator, through a head hunter with whom I spoke on the phone and who did not seek any information from me about my publications, while he did ask a lot of specific questions about my computer knowledge.

[1] During my 5 years as a faculty at my former institution I was directly or indirectly involved in the supervision of at least a dozen undergraduate and as many graduate students, who all ended up finding employment in the high-tech private sector in the San Diego area. At the undergraduate and graduate level, as observed by one commenter, there is no expectation that the graduate’s CV will sport peer-reviewed publications. However, a good fraction of our graduates (both at the Bachelor’s and Master’s level) did co-author at least one such article, and I think it is noteworthy that that did not seem to make any difference, as far as them finding a job — they all did, publications or not.

[2] It is worth stating things precisely, here. The type of industrial employment that is discussed in this post may not be the one that PhD scientists desire at the outset, but is the one with which they prevalently end up, these days. Namely, a job with essentially no research component, and making little or no use of the scientific knowledge acquired during one’s doctoral studies (see, for instance, Fig. 10 of this document, published in 1994 but still very relevant). For this type of employment, typically PhD scientists compete not only with fellow PhDs in other disciplines, but also with applicants whose highest degree is a Master’s, or even a Bachelor’s, if supplemented with significant hands-on experience.
There may still exist jobs in the private sector such as those that PhD physicists used to have, not so long ago, at places such as Lucent Technologies, i.e., with an important research component. Despite being formally employed by a private company, a PhD scientist would be hired in those places to perform tasks not too dissimilar from those of a basic science professional working in academia. For this type of job, for which competition among young scientists is typically quite keen, candidate selection is carried out based on criteria that resemble those of academia, not surprisingly — hence a strong publication record would surely be given great emphasis.
These jobs were never plentiful to begin with, and became rarer in the 90s, with the gradual disengagement from basic research of much of the private sector. These days, they are few and far between. They cannot in fairness be taken as representative of the bulk of the industrial job market for PhD scientists.

[3] Conceivably, δ could even be negative, still remaining greater than minus one, negative values representing a possible, if unlikely, negative bias of the industrial environment against scholarly publications.

[4] As usual, one would not establish by that procedure any kind of causation, namely one would not prove that those people who had published did obtain those additional jobs because of their publications, but simply a correlation between publications and hiring. However, the lack of any significant correlation suffices to rule out any substantive influence of one’s publication record on outcome of a job hunt in industry.

[5] One of the anonymous comments, allegedly by “an Industry scientist responsible for hiring”, states that “no publications is a quick way to reduce your pile of CVs to review”. This suggests that the fraction of applicants who do not have publications is far from small, or the pile of CVs would stay essentially the same size. I have, of course, no way of ascertaining the reliability of such a comment, but, amusingly, in many respects it proves the opposite of what its author may have intended to — for, since the numbers seem to show that those publication-less scientists will find a job anyway, while the author may discard from consideration their CVs due to mere lack of publications, the majority of recruiters ostensibly take less draconian an approach, again supporting the notion that on average publications have little impact.

[6] And this is if one considers the maximum boost that publications can give. I think a more realistic estimate would put δ more in the 1% range, i.e., well within the “noise” — at that rate, the school of provenience, for example, is likely to be far more important a discriminating factor.

### 31 Responses to “On jobs and papers”

Left a comment on your previous post, but I think the applicability of publications to industry depends on the industry. From personal experience, I know that it is important in the semiconductor, chemical, Big Pharma, and instrumentation industries, even for positions with no research component. 3M (not sure where they fall) also cared when I interviewed with them.

I have no doubt that most PhDs without publications get jobs (as shown by the very low unemployment rate for science PhDs), but I suspect they are more of the quant/analytics/programming/consulting type than product development/product management/process engineering type.

• Massimo Says:

Yes, Prodigal but Semiconductor, Big Pharma, chemical and instrumentation seem sectors targeting mostly PhDs in specific disciplines. If that were the prevalent scenario, namely if a PhD physicist could restrict her job search to industries where she would compete mostly with fellow PhD physicists, then I could see how publications could become an important discriminant, for the reasons you mention.
But all the literature I am familiar with, and the spiel I have been subjected to from APS speakers on this subject, has left me with the impression that most of the time PhD physicists, biologists, chemists, engineers, mathematicians, statisticians, geologists and what have you are all competing with each other for positions that really have nothing to do with any of those disciplines. I have a hard time thinking that publications are relevant in such a scenario, and again my reading of the few numbers that I have found would seem to support that contention. But of course I am no recruiter.

2. Schlupp Says:

Impressively complicated way of stating something simple, namely that your definition of “small” refers to some grand cosmic scale of things and not to the order of magnitude of the issue at hand. Given that some UofA website gives Alberta’s employment rate of holders of undergraduate degrees as 90% in 2008, the whole PhD can at most lead to 11% more. Since you define this as small, it is pretty obvious that any part of these 11% are also small.* Or nil or whatever.

I do not quite understand why you need so many words and even formulas for this clarification of your scale , but then, eh, I am just too small minded. (Hey, I even look up data and use stupid qualifiers like the possibility that things may be different in different countries. ) Looser that I am I’d like to point out that having gone to Harvard in the past may indeed have more of an impact (your footnote [6]), but the advice comes a bit late for a student who is finishing a PhD at Wherever U. On the other hand, students *can* still try to nudge their advisors away from a “PRL or nothing” strategy.

*) OK, theoretically, I could have claimed publications to be more important if you claim that I claimed that a PhD without papers is worse off than a bachelor.

3. betelgeuse Says:

prodigal academic, it is not possible for a physics PhD to find a job in Genentech or Pfizer R&D department, no matter how many publications he has. Those jobs are very rare these days anyways as Massimo pointed out thus you are talking about maybe 2% of the overall job market as if it is the norm. If those jobs were easy to come by, no biologist or organic chemist would go through several years of postdoc hell and trust me, it is pretty common. As for semiconductor industry, I interviewed with bunch of them and I personally know people working there (Intel, AMD etc.). I would say you will have difficulty finding anyone there who has a publication in any decent journal but in my experience that is precisely why most people leave academia, namely a lack of publications. I am yet to meet someone who has a solid publication record AND wants to leave academia voluntarily.

• GMP Says:

I am yet to meet someone who has a solid publication record AND wants to leave academia voluntarily.
If I may say that Kelin Kuhn, an Intel fellow, used to be a tenured prof at University of Washingotn and left to work for Intel as she felt that was the only way she could do cutting edge work in real time. If you don’t believe me, see here
http://www.intel.com/pressroom/kits/bios/kkuhn.htm

I know a number of people at Intel with very good publicaiton records, from their Intel days as well as from before.

I wasn’t talking about Genentech R&D. Before their latest travails, the Big Pharma companies (Merck, Pfizer, etc) hired PhD chemists, physicists, to various engineers to do formulation, oversee characterization, oversee production equipment, act as process engineers to move product up to production scale, evaluate new methods/techniques for QC on the line, etc. These ARE NOT research positions. They are product development or product management. These jobs may have moved to service companies (not all of which are outside the US), but they are development/production jobs, not research jobs at (mostly) the PhD level.

We can agree to disagree about the semiconductor industry. I interviewed there, and many people from my PhD cohort went there. The ones with PhD level jobs all had publications. Note, that I said publications, not high level publications. Massimo’s statement was about publications vs. no publications, not good publications vs. bad publications. The ones without publications generally took jobs that were also open to MS degree holders.

I also know more than a few people who left academia voluntarily with great publication records. None of these people came into the PhD program planning to stay in academia, and they left when they were done, even with their PRL/JACS/PNAS/Nature/Science papers. I’d say in my experience at least 50% of incoming students do not plan on an academic career. YMMV.

5. Betelgeuse Says:

No sane person would go to grad school unless he wants to be an academician. Otherwise who would slave off for 5 or 6 years with minimum wage and without any job guarantee in the end? At least 80% of students start grad school to become academicians but right before their graduation, this goes down to 20% (I was told this by an editor of Nano Letters, a big shot scientist, and I agree with her)
PhD scientists get all those non-academic jobs not because of their PhD but DESPITE their PhD. You probably could do well in any of those non-academic positions with just a bachelor’s degree. They do not require research experience at all so why get a(any) degree if you will not utilize it for the rest of your life?

• Massimo Says:

No sane person would go to grad school unless he wants to be an academician

OK, by that token over half of my class mates at FSU in 1987 would have been insane, for many of them had no interest in academia at all. Some wanted to work in industry (aerospace, defense, semiconductors were the most popular), some wanted to work in national laboratories, and some were interested in teaching at community colleges.
Equally insane would have been the countless MSc students whom I taught at SDSU, who would take courses and work on their experiments at night, because they already had industry full-time jobs which they were not interested in leaving. These people simply liked physics, wanted to learn more of it, and liked the idea of spending some time doing research. There are universities that offer also doctoral degrees for people working full time (I know for a fact TCU does, for a former student of mine is enrolled there). Do you think these students pursue their degrees thinking of switching back to academia ?

why get a(any) degree if you will not utilize it for the rest of your life?

For many excellent reasons, otherwise no one would go and study arts, philosophy, music etc., knowing full well from the start that the likelihood of pursuing those activities professionally later on is minuscule. The notion that graduate education is meaningful only if its outcome is an academic job is dismal, and pernicious, in my opinion. And if it were true that most people feel that way, there would be widespread dissatisfaction, regret and frustration among PhD graduates who end up working away from academia. I do not think that that is true, APS routinely conducts surveys among those people and apparently very few of them express regret about having pursued a PhD.

I totally agree with you, Massimo. That the majority of my cohort did not intend on academia was my experience too. In fact, I got my PhD with no intention of remaining in academia. I decided to come back after 7 years outside to work with students, but that was never my original intent.

It is an awful, destructive, and counterproductive myth that all PhD students want TT jobs, and especially that a PhD holder is a failure without one. A good friend of mine just loved physics, but intended to teach high school all along. He got a PhD, enjoyed his years doing research, and is now a happy high school physics/math teacher. He went to UC Berkeley Physics. Another friend of mine got a PhD in chemistry before entering the seminary to become a rabbi, which was her plan all along. She went to MIT Chemistry.

6. Betelgeuse Says:

How many of them can APS track down once they leave academia (and hence they are no longer APS members)?? Can APS contact someone working in Goldman Sachs??
Another thing is that if you do a PhD in florida state, I am afraid you have almost no other choice but to leave academia. You wouldnt be hired by Harvard after a PhD in florida state, would u? Pedigree matters, face it..

• Massimo Says:

How many of them can APS track down once they leave academia (and hence they are no longer APS members)?? Can APS contact someone working in Goldman Sachs??

I am not going down that path, I am sorry. I have had countless arguments of this type, and I always face the same type of objection: if the only available data do not agree with the stated conclusions (everyone who goes for a PhD must want to be an academic), which is invariably the case, then one simply dismisses the data — surveys must be unreliable, data must be forged, samples must be corrupt. On the other side, the argument invariably goes along the lines “since I want to be an academic, and my friends as well, then obviously everyone must want that”…

You wouldnt be hired by Harvard after a PhD in florida state, would u? Pedigree matters, face it..

OK, and what does that prove, other than the fact that, since that most of us were perfectly aware of that, we were comfortable with such an outcome and saw value in pursuing a doctoral education anyway ?

7. Calvin Says:

Massimo might know better, but it’s my general impression that in Europe, a PhD is considered a positive thing in industry and not something to hide or be ashamed of or to try to compensate for somehow. I certainly know quite a few Germans who got PhDs in physics and then went into industry without much fuss. The US is different, certainly.

APS wants to keep industrial PhDs. I know this, because I am on the APS committee on membership (and the committee itself has two or three industrial physicists on board). APS does lean heavily towards academia, and needs to think hard how to retain industrial physicists, but it’s simply not true that once a person leaves academia he or she automatically gets kicked out of APS.

As far as the “wouldn’t be hired by Harvard after a PhD at Florida State,” that’s a bit of a red herring. First, Harvard famously mostly hires Harvard graduates–maybe a couple from Yale or (sigh) Columbia. Pedigree does matter, yes, but it’s not the only thing; plenty of people with degrees from places other than Harvard get tenured positions. Unless one thinks that only Harvard counts as academia, in which case, it’s not even worth debating.

8. Betelgeuse Says:

You see, Massimo, I do not think you were aware at the time (i.e. when you were a grad student at florida state) that you would NEVER end up at Harvard or MIT with that degree. You know it NOW thanks to years of experience in job market and at various institutions. Neither was any of your classmates. Am I mistaken?
When we were grad students, we were all naive… I was the same. I thought that if I completed all the tasks given by my advisor, sky was the limit but in reality it wasn’t. A friend of mine (we were grad students together) went on to work in Exxon Mobil even though he liked academia and did not want to leave it but he had a wife and a child so he didnt want to be shuffled from one postdoc to another with a family. He had an invited talk at march meeting when he was just a grad student.
What do you think he would say if he got contacted by APS somehow?? That he liked his present position and $$? What can you learn from such a survey? At some point during grad school, people realize that academic positions are very difficult to come by and they aren’t willing to sacrifice everything for that. Not that anyone starts doing a physics PhD from day one to work in Baker Hughes!! • Calvin Says: Betelgeuse, you give the impression that you think that academia only consists of Harvard and MIT and maybe a couple of other Ivy schools. First, when I chose my PhD institution (U of Washington) I knew that meant I wouldn’t get hired by snobby schools. One of my professors at my undergrad (UC Davis) even said, “If you want to be a superstar, go to Cornell.” But when I talked with Cornell and when I talked to UW, the latter engendered much more excitement about physics. I wanted to have fun much more than worry about being hired by Harvard (in fact, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be hired by Harvard). Second, I and Massimo and others have continued quite happily in academia. We publish papers. We are invited to more conferences than we have time to go to. We bring in grant money–my own average, at institutions far from Harvard, is something like 100k -140k/year for 15 years now, for a theorist. How is this not being in academia? • Massimo Says: You see, Massimo, I do not think you were aware at the time (i.e. when you were a grad student at florida state) that you would NEVER end up at Harvard or MIT with that degree. Sorry, you are talking to the wrong guy. I came from a country where academia is just not a viable option for 99% of physics students, for historical reasons not worth rehashing. So I decided to go to the US because I wanted to do a few more years of something which I enjoyed, being perfectly prepared to give it up, hopefully as late as possible. Paradoxically, my expectations and desires went up with time because I liked academia so much, and started realizing that industry was not for me. As for my American classmates, they were all fully aware of how stratified the American university system is. They explained it to me almost right away. And as Calvin mentioned, I, like most of us, never had the ambition of landing a job at Harvard or MIT, I was always perfectly happy with a post at a second tier department — when that did not come, I took one at a place without a PhD program, and you know what ? If I had been stuck there I would have survived. What do you think he would say if he got contacted by APS somehow?? That he liked his present position and$$? What can you learn from such a survey?

I am sorry, B., I don’t see a point in arguing along these lines. “If the survey does not show what I think it should show, then there is something wrong with the survey, they did not ask the right people, maybe those whom they asked lied, or the responses that did not serve APS’ agenda were discarded. If I feel the way I do, then everyone else must”… You may well be right, but at that point it becomes an act of faith. I agree that the evidence at hand may not be as compelling as in a physics experiment, but when it comes to people I doubt if you ever get anything much better than that.

9. Calvin Says:

By the way, APS does do exactly the kind of survey that Betelgeuse suggests. Here is one that addresses the question “does it matter where I get my bachelor’s?”

http://www.aip.org/tip/INPHFA/vol-10/iss-6/p10.html

A sample of a few more:

http://www.aps.org/careers/guidance/statistics.cfm

http://www.aip.org/tip/INPHFA/vol-10/iss-6/p10.html

APS also makes an effort to communicate to grad students about industry jobs, e.g.:

http://meetings.aps.org/Meeting/MAR06/Event/43659

APS does need to improve these efforts, and, even more, make them more visible, but come on, Betelgeuse, you’re making strawman arguments. Do a little research before making such sweeping statements.

10. Betelgeuse Says:

Calvin, I am not saying academia consists of ONLY top 10 or 20 schools. I am aware that you can get as much funding as you want in schools that are in top 50 as a faculty member. The thing is that the devil lies in details here just like everything else. The graduate student quality is essentially a Fermi Dirac distribution function and it falls off so steeply after the top 20 therefore an average grad student at Harvard is much more brilliant than say Iowa State and without good grad students, no matter how smart you are, you cannot be competitive as a faculty. That is why in schools like Penn State, all they have is postdocs. Very few capable grad students would want to go to Penn State. When I applied for grad school, I got offers from 12 institutions. If I have a choice, why would I go to Iowa State or Penn State? Employers know that there is an initial selection process and it is much more difficult to get into Harvard than Iowa State to begin with, thus where you go to undergrad and grad school determines your fate…

• Massimo Says:

Of course, B., things are just like that.
We all know that there are no “capable graduate students” outside the top 20. I thought that my graduate students published and got decent postdocs and/or employment outside academia, but it was just my imagination. If they were any good they never would have come to work with me, let’s face it. Gee, B., what are you a motivational speaker ?😉
I thought that people like Calvin and I, and countless others (after all, most of of us do not work at Harvard, nor at a top 20 for that matter) managed to get decent research papers published, reasonable amounts of grant funding, to give on occasion invited talks but, no, it is not true — we just think we do. In fact, we have no graduate students, just like Penn State, where it is well-known that no real research is done (one could be fooled into thinking that these are graduate students but, no — all Penn State has its postdocs. Oh, and that “supersolid” thing ? Forget it, if it is not done at Harvard it cannot be good).
Every employer knows that there is no point hiring someone who did not graduate from a top 20, they simply cannot be good. The fact that these good-for-nothings get jobs anyway means nothing, as we all know that they will be forever unhappy and frustrated anyway, ’cause what they really wanted was an academic job.
Yeah, makes sense…

Look, B., kidding aside, if you follow my blog you know that I routinely express my frustration with the above way of thinking which exists, I am not denying it, and it is a serious problem. But let us not get carried away now. Making a parody of something does no one any good.

See here’s where you completely go off the rails, B. There are many reasons people choose their graduate schools, not all of which have to do with the rankings. I myself turned down UC Berkeley to go to a “lesser” school because I was more interested in the research projects at my PhD school.

In my experience, the AVERAGE student at Harvard might be better than the AVERAGE student at Penn State (and that is debatable–lack of opportunity at the high school/undergrad level for otherwise brilliant students means that there are many brilliant students all over the place at the PhD level). But the top anywhere is as good as the top at Harvard. And there are crappy students at Harvard, just like anyplace else.

I am not sure why you are so invested in the idea that your fate is sealed once you select an undergraduate university. Even a fabulous pedigree is no guarantee that an academic dream job is waiting for you. I completely agree that the life of an itinerant postdoc can suck, btw. That is why I went to a National Lab for 7 years post-PhD, before deciding I would rather be at a University. There are many paths to getting an academic job. Nothing is set in stone. And you can never remove the right place/right time luck factor, no matter what you do.

11. Betelgeuse Says:

Prodigal academic, Massimo likes to make his comments based on statistics. Let’s look at statistics. President of United States of America is a Harvard graduate right now, for god’s sake. Can you tell me the last time Penn State produced a president, a judge in Supreme Court or a member of National Academy of Sciences among many other things I can count here?? Yes, it matters to go to Harvard instead of Penn State guys. Nobody is stupid enough to pay 40K to Harvard for a Bachelor’s instead of 5K to any crappy state university, yes?

• Massimo Says:

B., I am sorry, you are again making straw man arguments. Just like you implied before that unless you end up at Harvard as a faculty you are not really doing research, now you are saying that if you aspire at that Oval Office you need to have a degree from Harvard.
For Pete’s sake, don’t you think that there is a wide spectrum of life outcomes between US President and a life in precariousness and starvation ? No one is saying here that a PhD at Penn State opens the same doors as one at Harvard (I am sure Prodigal is perfectly aware of that too), but from that to insisting that a PhD from anything other than Harvard is rubbish is making a mockery of the entire argument.

• Calvin Says:

We would all agree with the statement that the “better” the institution, the more easily doors open for you. Massimo has even had some earlier posts on exactly that point. But a great deal of that isn’t just the name of the institution, it’s networking, and it’s easier to network from Big Name Institution than from Small Backwater Place, if only because a lot more people visit BNI. For instance, in my field, UW where I did my PhD is a Big Name, and while doing a PhD I met a lot of people in my subfield. I went on to postdocs at Caltech and Los Alamos and every week we had visitors from everywhere. So when I was searching for a job, and after landing a job applying for grants, people knew me. It wasn’t so much the name of the institution but the fact that they knew me and the institution enabled them to know me.

My most recent PhD student got a staff position immediately at a national lab. She *loves* it, and is doing *exactly* what she wanted from her PhD, and is making good money too and already is overseeing multi-million \$ grants. Since we are not a BNI, I made sure she went to conferences and spent summers at a BNI so that she would get networked in. And it worked. She got the job she wanted. She got several offers, in fact, including a prestigious fellowship (which she turned down for the permanent position).

I can’t see what she lost by not going to Harvard.

12. Schlupp Says:

Hehe, the funny thing is: I’ve quite a few times heard the opposite side use the same strategy, ‘Academia is such a rotten place full of unhappy people who are starving, so every one obviously wants to leave it, oh, well, some MAY “want” to stay, grant you that, but these people are a) clearly losers who simply wouldn’t hack it in the real world or b) very unfortunate cases with tragic personal histories.’ *

The idea that someone else may have made a decision different from one’s own – and that this decision may even be a valid one – must be profoundly unsettling for some people.

*) Proof: Barack Obama. If he was (still) a (full-time) professor, he wouldn’t be president. QED.

13. Betelgeuse Says:

Massimo, you are trying to evade the issue. Like it or not, “elite institutions” exist in every country, including europe. If you want a prestigious position after graduation, you go to Oxford, Cambridge or Imperial in UK, to Ecole Polytechnique in France, University of Tokyo in Japan etc. You may like it or not, this is a fact of life. Your teasing will not change anything. The degrees awarded by “elite institutions” are NOT considered to be equivalent to the ones given by lower tier places. You may not care whether it is important to be in National Academy of Sciences or not, but most people do and it is much more difficult to get into it if you are in a second tier institution.

• Calvin Says:

Betelgeuse, why is being on the faculty of Harvard and in the NAS the only measure of success? Are you telling Massimo and I and thousands of other professors across the country that we really should be unhappier than we really are?

And you’re wrong. It’s not the degree from the elite institution that is better (and they do exist, no one denied that), but the networking opportunities that are better.

14. Massimo Says:

Massimo, you are trying to evade the issue.

My friend,

The reason I am teasing (very benevolently, I may add), is that the only alternative would be, at this point, to resort to swear words that I am not keen on. That there exist “elite institutions” and that they have far too much influence, is something that I have written on in at least half a dozen posts, on this very blog, lived with it throughout my career, continue to suffer the consequences thereof, and certainly need not learn of from you. OK ?

But that is not what started this discussion. As much as you keep using straw man arguments and attribute to others things that they have not said, the point is, you made a series of ridiculous statements, at least implying among other things that a PhD is worthless unless it is from Harvard (for, any PhD worthy of this name should propel one to the National Academy or Science, or at least to the White House), that a PhD should exclusively be pursued if one has academic interests, that unless one has a position at Harvard one is not really an academic (in fact, one is not going to have any graduate students, except for a few incapable ones), and so on. These are things that you wrote, not me.
And they are all, demonstrably untrue.

I repeat: I agree that most, perhaps too many employers will prefer a graduate from Harvard, just because she is from Harvard. But your implication/suggestion that, consequently, graduates from any other universities will be left with nothing, is a logical fallacy. It is a non sequitur. And, again, it is not true — I have data to prove it.

15. GMP Says:

I had a really nice geeky comment for you, where you describe hire-ability using a statistical operator \rho defined on a Fock space |n>, where n=0,1,2,3… is the number of papers published. Off diagonal terms \rho(n,n’) would correspond to the state of |n-n’| papers submitted. This statistical operator is actually obtained by taking the partial trace of the larger, full statistical operator defined over a larger space with vecotrs |n,a,b,c,d,…>, where a, b, c etc are various other degrees of freedom, such as verbal communication on a certain scale, quality of letters on a certain scale, etc. Your probability to be hired with n papers is, of course, \rho(n,n). But then I got distracted thinking about how to write a model generator for the non-unitarty dynamics of \rho(n,n’)…

Anyway, I enjoyed the expose, even if my geekiness is showing. Cheers.

16. Charro Says:

I thought that people like Calvin and I, and countless others (after all, most of of us do not work at Harvard, nor at a top 20 for that matter) managed to get decent research papers published, reasonable amounts of grant funding, to give on occasion invited talks but, no, it is not true — we just think we do.

Can we really believe anything from italians these days? I thought you were so good in soccer and that’s why people called you the World Champions… From what I’ve been seeing lately, it looks like that’s also not true, you just think you are good.😛

‘Academia is such a rotten place full of unhappy people who are starving, so every one obviously wants to leave it, oh, well, some MAY “want” to stay, grant you that, but these people are a) clearly losers who simply wouldn’t hack it in the real world or b) very unfortunate cases with tragic personal histories.’

How can anyone ever argue with that? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

17. Massimo Says:

From what I’ve been seeing lately, it looks like that’s also not true, you just think you are good.

Oh, gee, don’t tell me, now it turns out that that 2006 World Cup, which I thought had been won by Italy, was also a figment of my imagination ? It did not really happen, you are saying ? Are you french, or spanish or german, by any chance ?

• Charro Says:

I am from neither of those places, not even from the same continent, and of all the european teams I root for Italy, but I can’t understand why they are playing sooo bad.

I hope the play better once their group matches begin…