Friday, August 6, 2010

Does faculty quality matter for PhDs?

A reason people are obsessed with department rankings is, for graduate students, faculty quality reflects the quality of their education, and for faculty, it determines the quality of the students they will attract. The presumption here is that there is a strong correlation between quality of faculty, as measured by citations or article placement, and quality of students, as measured by potential or job placement. This correlation is, however, not that close to one, I can think of several top programs whose students turn out not to be that great. The student placement ranking by Rabah Amir and Malgorzata Knauff unfortunately does not compute such a correlation.

This introduction is a little bit of a stretch to the paper by Fabian Waldinger that looks at a stark natural experiment: the massive exodus of top mathematics faculty during Nazi Germany. Some top departments, the best in the world at the time, lost over half of their faculty within a year, giving us very clear identification. Measuring the likelihood of doctoral students to publish in top journals before and after the exodus, he finds that a one standard deviation in faculty quality, as measured by citations per faculty, increases the probability of publishing the dissertation by 13%. It also has a similar impact on the probability to become full professor, and gives 6.3 more lifetime citations (for an average of 11). One conclusion that Waldinger reaches is that few top departments with top faculty should concentrate on conferring doctoral degrees.

What could be the implications for today? The United States is now the most vibrant arena for doctoral studies in most fields. But the success of US universities is possibly not sustainable, which could lead to an exodus of faculty, a watering down of top doctoral programs and thus an important reduction in the quality of graduate education. Under such circumstances, the only way to save the preeminence of the US is to close many doctoral programs and concentrate the top researchers in the remaining programs.


untitled said...

You make a couple comments that I don't understand. One is that there are "several top programs whose students turn out not to be that great". Which ones do you have in mind? Why don't you think their students aren't great?

Second you say that the "success of US universities is possibly not sustainable." Are you talking about the rise of universities in China and India? Or are you referring to a belief in an "education bubble" that could burst?

Sorry for these questions, you may have already addressed them in recent posts and I missed it (if so a link will certainly suffice), but I was confused why you say those two things. Thanks, I really do enjoy your blog!

Kansan said...

Columbia University strikes me as an example of a place with great faculty and a so-so graduate program.

But indeed, why are US universities not sustainable?

untitled said...

Why is Columbia so-so? Last year, for instance, Cerreia-Vioglio, Schmieder, He, and Machado were all pretty decent in economics, and Wang and Tsoutsoura on the b-school side.

Anonymous said...

Well, you should not pay attention to the coments of Kansan. He is a regular on this blog. His comments are mainly meaningless. You should not expect much from a single cell brain anyway.

Anonymous said...

Talking about Columbia, why every economist I know of hates Sala i Martin?

Anonymous said...

What is the major issue with US universities? I would say that undergraduate education sucks, and graduate programs are only excellent because of foreigners.