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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Six-fold over-representation of graduates from prestigious universities does not necessitate unmeritocratic selection in the faculty hiring process

  • Author(s): Miuccio, M
  • Liu, K-Y
  • Lau, H
  • Peters, MAK
  • et al.

To achieve faculty status, graduating doctoral students have to substantially outperform their peers, given the competitive nature of the academic job market. In an ideal, meritocratic world, factors such as prestige of degree-granting university ought not to overly influence hiring decisions. However, it has recently been reported that top-ranked universities produced about 2-6 times more faculty than did universities that were ranked lower [1], which the authors claim suggests the use of un-meritocratic factors in the hiring process: how could students from top-ranked universities be six times more productive than their peers from lower-ranked universities? Here we present a signal detection model, supported by computer simulation and simple proof-of-concept example data from psychology departments in the U.S., to demonstrate that substantially higher rates of faculty production need not require substantially (and unrealistically) higher levels of student productivity. Instead, a high hiring threshold due to keen competition is sufficient to cause small differences in average student productivity between universities to result in manifold differences in placement rates. Under this framework, the previously reported results are compatible with a purely meritocratic system. Whereas these results do not necessarily mean that the actual faculty hiring market is purely meritocratic, they highlight the difficulty in empirically demonstrating that it is not so.

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