How Academic Hierarchy Shapes the Distribution of Precarity

From the Series: Academic Precarity in American Anthropology: A Forum

Photo by Tim Sackton, licensed under CC BY SA.

Many anthropologists proclaim a commitment to fighting structural inequalities, but academic anthropology often reproduces the very inequities its practitioners rail against. In this forum, Jordan Kraemer’s essay reminds us that women, mothers, and people of color are the ones most disadvantaged in academia’s already exclusionary jackpot economy. So, while academic precarity is widespread, as Platzer and Allison convincingly argue, its distribution is also (unsurprisingly) uneven. Here, I want to add one more dimension to the discussion, which is the role of social hierarchy within the academy and how it shapes graduates’ opportunities for careers as tenure-track faculty.

Graduate training at most R1 universities is designed, either explicitly or implicitly, to reproduce R1-style researchers. But the reality is that unless you are a graduate of a top program, it is unlikely that you will end up at one of those institutions. Even if you do come from a top program, the chances are far from favorable, as Platzer and Allison note.

In 2015, some colleagues and I collected data on all tenured and tenure-track faculty at PhD-granting anthropology programs in the United States. For each individual, we recorded his or her anthropological subfield, PhD institution, year of PhD, and country where the PhD was received (if outside the United States). With those data, we analyzed hiring patterns using statistical and social network analysis methods. One of our basic findings was that of the more than one hundred PhD-granting programs in the United States, only fifteen programs are responsible for 53 percent of the faculty placements.

It is important to acknowledge that this problem is not unique to anthropology. Similar patterns have been observed in sociology and political science, among other fields (Burris 2004; Oprisko 2012; Weakliem, Gauchat, and Wright 2012). A recent study by Aaron Clauset and colleagues (Clauset, Arbesman, and Larrimore 2015) examined nearly nineteen thousand faculty placements in computer science, business, and history departments in the United States, revealing that only 25 percent of institutions were responsible for producing 71–86 percent of all tenure-track faculty in those fields.

In our analysis of U.S. academic anthropology, we looked into factors that might explain differential program success in placing graduates in faculty positions. Using data from the National Research Council, we found that some of the important predictors are: average graduate cohort size, university endowment, average citations per faculty member, and average number of awards per faculty member.

One question this raises for me is: Are PhDs from elite programs really that much better qualified than those coming out of mid-range programs? Or are they benefiting from the prestige (and resources) of their graduate institutions and prominent academic advisors? In other words, when hiring committees approach a stack of applications, are they asking: Is this person the best qualified for the job advertised? Or, are they being swayed by the fact that an individual may have received his or her PhD from Chicago (or Harvard) and studied under Sahlins (or the Comaroffs)?

Hiring committees like to talk about an applicant’s “fit” for a position, but what that means can be pretty nebulous. For some, a discussion of fit might go something like: “We’re hiring a cultural anthropologist who does work on Latin American migration, and this person has a PhD in hand and a few peer-reviewed publications in the area already.” But for others, fit might mean something like: “This person got their PhD working with [insert “big name” here] and has an article coming out in American Ethnologist.”

Of course, even if the question of fit were more clearly defined, it would not change the reality that programs are producing far more anthropology PhDs than they are hiring as tenure-track faculty. As it stands, a dozen or so programs appear well-positioned to continue to train their graduates for tenure-track faculty positions, even as a PhD from such elite programs no longer confers any guarantees. For programs outside of the top fifteen or twenty, though, the chances of their graduates landing tenure-track faculty positions are just not very good.

So how should nonelite programs and their faculty begin to reenvision graduate education in anthropology? A common response is to focus more explicitly on applied fields, preparing students for careers in government, NGOs, and the private sector. Greater emphasis on interdisciplinary training—pairing anthropology degrees with training in engineering, ecology, media studies, or public health—is another route, and one that many programs are considering.

But it seems to me that the anthropology programs most successfully doing these things are the ones that aren’t really participating in the academic pyramid scheme to begin with. The University of South Florida, for example, has a PhD program that is focused exclusively on applied anthropology. While some of its graduates have found employment in academe (due, I imagine, to the growing demand for scholars who can train students for nonacademic careers), the program’s emphasis is on other sectors including public health, cultural resource management, heritage studies, and forensic science.

While good arguments have been made for resisting the pressure to turn graduate school into a glorified vocational program (or worse, one long professionalization seminar), it also seems deeply unethical for faculty to lead graduate students on with the hope that a tenure-track position is waiting after their dissertation defense if they just work hard enough. This is one of the more perverse ways in which academic hierarchy shapes the distribution of precarity: faculty can end up recruiting graduate students simply to justify the continued existence of the graduate program in which they teach, without serious thought being given to what students are really being trained for. Meanwhile, the professoriate relies on graduate students to teach undergraduate courses, grade essays, collect data, edit article manuscripts, conduct literature reviews, and accomplish other tasks that enable their careers as tenure-track faculty. It is time for faculty to take a long look in the mirror and ask who graduate training is really designed to benefit.


Burris, Val. 2004. “The Academic Caste System: Prestige Hierarchies in PhD Exchange Networks.” American Sociological Review 69, no. 2: 239–64.

Clauset, Aaron, Samuel Arbesman, and Daniel B. Larremore. “Systematic Inequality and Hierarchy in Faculty Hiring Networks.” Science Advances 1, no. 1.

Oprisko, Robert L. 2012. “Superpowers: The American Academic Elite.” Georgetown Public Policy Review, December 3.

Weakliem, David L., Gordon Gauchat, and Bradley R. E. Wright. 2012. “Sociological Stratification: Change and Continuity in the Distribution of Departmental Prestige, 1965–2007.” American Sociology 43, no. 3: 310–27.