Archive for May 20th, 2009

An article from the spring issue of Contexts has just been posted on The Contexts Blog examining rankings of colleges and graduate schools (they’ve also posted a free link to the PDF version of the article).  Because of the importance many place on rankings, this is a fitting beginning for those embarking on the summer-long journey of preparing for the job market.  For some of us, the ranking of our graduate department will influence how we are viewed on the market.  Candidates from highly-ranked programs may be more likely to be considered for jobs in other highly-ranked programs.  On the other side of the coin, candidates may believe that the rankings say something about the experience of working at a particular school.  If it is highly ranked, there will likely be more pressure to publish and fewer rewards for excellent teaching.  If not, there may be less pressure to publish but also lower pay or a higher teaching load.

When deciding where to apply for jobs, rankings will likely be a consideration but it is important to remember that there is a lot more to a school than its ranking.  As I started my job search last summer, rankings were a primary concern.  I knew that I wanted a liberal arts job, but I also wanted a good liberal arts job, which I arbitrarily considered to be a school in the top 50 of the US News rankings.  That way, I figured that when I told friends and family members where I would be employed and they had never heard of it, I could at least say “It is one of the top liberal arts schools in the country” and they would be impressed.

Early in my search I also viewed rankings as an important marker of my graduate school success.  My graduate program is well-regarded among those who rank such things, so I figured that if I could get a job in a highly-ranked department the graduate students with visions of R1s would have to recognize that I had done well in my chosen area.  Similarly, I figured that professors would need to respect my accomplishments, regardless of how they had perceived me in the past and the department could proudly display my position on the web page so that students considering our program for the future could see that it is possible to graduate and get highly-ranked liberal arts jobs.

Over time, my opinion of the importance of rankings changed.  It would be easy to attribute this to the fact that the job market sucks and candidates should be happy to take anything they can get if I hadn’t, in fact, declined my first offer.  The experience that had the largest impact on my attitude about the rankings was actually looking up the mid-major I attended as an undergraduate and finding that it was categorized as a “Tier 4 National University.”  Tier 4! From the perspective of my job market self I had attended a terrible school, yet nobody bothered to tell this to my undergraduate self or any of my friends or family members.  At this terrible school I also had excellent professors and research opportunities that allowed me to get into a highly-ranked graduate program.

After this, the way I considered the rankings changed.  Yes, the rankings might reveal some underlying differences in resources or teaching loads, but I interviewed at a top-50 school and a Tier 3 school and, other than the size of the endowments (try not to giggle if a faculty member tells you his institution is “well endowed”) the differences in resources were negligible.  Because of this, the geographic location and student body of each school made the lower-ranked school equally compelling.  In the end, I didn’t get a job offer from the top-50 school and I’m not sure what I would have done if I had.  Maybe I would have accepted the offer that came with more prestige but a less desirable location and student body.  Regardless, I realized through this process that rankings are important for those who seek status above all else and much less so for those who seek a stable, enjoyable job with good pay and benefits.  For the record, nobody in my family had heard of either school.

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