Aaron Clauset, Sam Arbesman and Daniel Larremore have a new article in Science Advances crunching the data on academic career paths in computer science, business and history. Their main findings are twofold. First, academics’ career success largely depends on the prestige of the department where they did their PhD. Second, the system is so skewed in favor of academics who came from prestigious departments that it’s really hard to explain this by just saying that they are better than people who went to less prestigious departments. The evidence suggests “a specific and significant preference for hiring faculty with prestigious doctorates” even aside from differences in their productivity (which are also more skewed than one would expect if the differences were based on merit alone). The system is also significantly skewed against women in both computer science and business, although there’s no evidence that they’re discriminated against in history.

This may seem to just be a problem for academics (especially academics with doctorates from low ranked institutions). But as Clauset, Arbesman and Larremore make clear, it has wider social implications. The ideas that academics come up with often have impact on the wider world, for better or worse, and the system that Clauset, Arbesman and Larremore depict is one in which some ideas are going to have a much better chance of spreading and having influence than others. In their words:

Together, these results are broadly consistent with an academic system organized in a classic core-periphery pattern, in which increased prestige correlates with occupying a more central, better connected, and more influential network position … strong core-periphery pattern has profound implications for the free exchange of ideas. Research interests, collaboration networks, and academic norms are often cemented during doctoral training. Thus, the centralized and highly connected positions of higher-prestige institutions enable substantial influence, via doctoral placement, over the research agendas, research communities, and departmental norms throughout a discipline. The close proximity of the core to the entire network implies that ideas originating in the high-prestige core, regardless of their merit, spread more easily throughout the discipline, whereas ideas originating from low-prestige institutions must filter through many more intermediaries.