The majority of US faculty members have doctorates from a small minority of prestigious US universities, according to a study published in Nature. These findings — from an analysis of almost a decade of hiring and retention data from all PhD-awarding universities in the US — may guide efforts to improve equity and representation.
Hiring and retaining university staff is key to shaping the academic workforce in the US, directly influencing education, careers, research agendas and ultimately, the spread of ideas. However, limited data have prevented the quantification of general patterns of hiring and retention dynamics that may exist over time, across disciplines and universities.
Daniel Larremore and colleagues examined faculty hiring and retention in every PhD-granting university in the US between 2011 and 2020 (a total of 295,089 people hired in 10,612 departments across 368 universities). The authors’ analyses reveal both universal inequalities and steep social hierarchies. For example, 80% of faculty trained in the US received their PhDs from just 20.4% of the universities. Only 5–23% of staff were found to be working at a university that was more prestigious than where they earned their PhD, depending on domain (for example, natural sciences) or field (such as physics or ecology), which reflects a lack of academic social mobility. Although the overall representation of women in academia increased in all eight domains studied and in 75% of the 107 fields studied over the past decade, these figures are not reflected in the percentage of new hires, with the authors attributing the overall increase to a disproportionate number of men among retiring faculty members.
The authors conclude that these findings showcase the universal inequalities that exist in US faculty hiring and retention. They go on to emphasize that future research will be needed to understand the underlying causes of this disparity to improve mitigation strategies.
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