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Credentialism, elite employment, and career aspirations

Steve Hsu has posted a series of reflections here, here, and here on the dominance of graduates of HYPS (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford (in that order, I believe)) in various Master-of-the-Universe-type jobs at “elite law firms, consultancies, and I-banks, hedge/venture funds, startups, and technology companies.” Hsu writes:

In the real world, people believe in folk notions of brainpower or IQ. (“Quick on the uptake”, “Picks things up really fast”, “A sponge” …) They count on elite educational institutions to do their g-filtering for them. . . .

Most top firms only recruit at a few schools. A kid from a non-elite UG school has very little chance of finding a job at one of these places unless they first go to grad school at, e.g., HBS, HLS, or get a PhD from a top place. (By top place I don’t mean “gee US News says Ohio State’s Aero E program is top 5!” — I mean, e.g., a math PhD from Berkeley or a PhD in computer science from MIT — the traditional top dogs in academia.) . . .

I teach at U Oregon and out of curiosity I once surveyed the students at our Honors College, which has SAT-HSGPA characteristics similar to Cornell or Berkeley. Very few of the kids knew what a venture capitalist or derivatives trader was. Very few had the kinds of life and career aspirations that are *typical* of HYPS or techer kids. . . .

I have just a few comments.

1. Getting in to a top college is not the same as graduating from said college–and I assume you have to have somewhat reasonable grades (or some countervailing advantage). So, yes, the people doing the corporate hiring are using the educational institutions to do their “g-filtering,” but it’s not all happening at the admissions stage. Hsu quotes researcher Lauren Rivera as writing, “it was not the content of an elite education that employers valued but rather the perceived rigor of these institutions’ admissions processes”–but I don’t know if I believe that!

2. As Hsu points out (but maybe doesn’t emphasize enough), the selection processes at these top firms don’t seem to make a lot of sense even on their own terms. Here’s another quote from Rivera: “his halo effect of school prestige, combined with the prevalent belief that the daily work performed within professional service firms was “not rocket science” gave evaluators confidence that the possession of an elite credential was a sufficient signal of a candidate’s ability to perform the analytical capacities of the job.” The reasoning seems to be: The job isn’t so hard so the recruiters can hire whoever they want if such people pass a moderately stringent IQ threshold, thus they can pick the HYPS graduates who they like. It seems like a case of the lexicographic fallacy: the idea that you pick IQ based on the school and then clubbability, etc., among the subset of applicants who remain.

3. I should emphasize that academic hiring is far from optimal. We never know who’s going to apply for our postdoc positions. And, when it comes to faculty hiring, I think Don Rubin put it best when he said that academic hiring committees all to often act as if they’re giving out an award rather than trying to hire someone to do a job. And don’t get me started on tenure review committees.

4. Regarding Hsu’s last point above, I’ve long been glad that I went to MIT rather than Harvard, maybe not overall–I was miserable in most of college–but for my future career. Either place I would’ve taken hard classes and learned a lot, but one advantage of MIT was that we had no sense–no sense at all–that we could make big bucks. We had no sense of making moderately big bucks as lawyers, no sense of making big bucks working on Wall Street, and no sense of making really big bucks by starting a business. I mean, sure, we knew about lawyers (but we didn’t know that a lawyer with technical skills would be a killer combination), we knew about Wall Street (but we had no idea what they did, other than shout pork belly prices across a big room), and we knew about tech startups (but we had no idea that they were anything to us beyond a source of jobs for engineers). What we were all looking for was a good solid job with cool benefits (like those companies in California that had gyms at the office). I majored in physics, which my friends who were studying engineering thought was a real head-in-the-clouds kind of thing to do, not really practical at all. We really had no sense that a physicist degree from MIT degree with good grades was a hot ticket.

And it wasn’t just us, the students, who felt this way. It was the employers too. My senior year I applied to some grad schools (in physics and in statistics) and to some jobs. I got into all the grad schools and got zero job interviews. Not just zero jobs. Zero interviews. And these were not at McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, etc. (none of which I’d heard of). They were places like TRW, etc. The kind of places that were interviewing MIT physics grads (which is how I thought of applying for these jobs in the first place). And after all, what could a company like that do with a kid with perfect physics grades from MIT? Probably not enough of a conformist, eh?

This was fine for me–grad school suited me just fine. I’m just glad that big-buck$ jobs weren’t on my radar screen. I think I would’ve been tempted by the glamour of it all. If I’d gone to college 10 or 20 years later, I might have felt that as a top MIT grad, I had the opportunity–even the obligation, in a way–to become some sort of big-money big shot. As it was, I merely thought i had the opportunity and obligation to make important contributions in science, which is a goal that I suspect works better for me (and many others like me).

P.S. Hsu says that “much of (good) social science seems like little more than documenting what is obvious to any moderately perceptive person with the relevant life experience.” I think he might be making a basic error here. If you come up with a new theory, you’ll want to do two things: (a) demonstrate that it predicts things you already know, and (b) use it to make new predictions. To develop, understand, and validate a theory, you have to do a lot of (a)–hence Hsu’s impression–in order to be ready to do (b).

A simpler response to Hsu is that it’s common for “moderately perceptive persons with the relevant life experience” to disagree with each other. In my own field of voting and elections, even someone as renowned as Michael Barone (who is more than moderately perceptive and has much more life experience than I do) can still get things embarrassingly wrong. (My reflections on “thinking like a scientist” may be relevant here.)

P.P.S. Various typos fixed.


  1. Sebastian says:

    I agree with a lot of what you say, but:

    Getting in to a top college is not the same as graduating from said college–and I assume you have to have somewhat reasonable grades (or some countervailing advantage).

    seems odd – they Ivies have something like 97-99% graduation rates, so getting in is in fact almost the same as graduating. And GPAs tend to be quite high all around. Of course that doesn't mean you have a high-pay job guaranteed when you get into a HYPS school – but it's a pretty good approximation.

    One thing Hsu says strikes me as odd:

    teach at U Oregon and out of curiosity I once surveyed the students at our Honors College (…) Very few of the kids knew what a venture capitalist or derivatives trader was.

    I'm sorry, but that means they're not very intellectually curious students. If you lived through the financial crisis without any idea of what a derivatives trader is, you're just not very interested in the world around you.

  2. James says:

    Another problem with the "not the same as graduating" comment is that people who don't go to HYPS schools can graduate from their institutions with perfect GPAs (which I admit is different from graduating from a HYPS school with a perfect GPA) but that achievement is ignored only because of the original admissions decision.

  3. Morgan says:

    "…we new about Wall Street (but we had no idea what they did, other than shout pork belly prices across a big room)"

    This is an especially great line, because pork bellies are traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, not on Wall Street, which provides support for your point that such things weren't on your radar. Was it intentional, or serendipitous?

  4. Andrew Gelman says:

    Sebastian, James:

    I saw a wide range of abilities among MIT students, and if an employer wanted to use that information (for example, by selecting only students who had good grades in hard classes), it would be possible. Still, I see your point, that if someone is just hiring graduates from top colleges without looking at specifics, that's probably not much different than selecting from people who were admitted to these colleges.

    The other thing is that we really did learn a lot in college. And when I was a grad student at Harvard, my impression was that the undergrads there worked pretty hard too. So I don't think it's so clear that "hiring Harvard (or MIT) grads" is all about the admissions filter. Most of these kids really did learn a lot in those four years and also got a lot of practice in pushing themselves intellectually. That seems a lot more than just being able to get high test scores. To put it another way, perhaps getting high test scores is a strong indicator that you have the ability to push yourself hard intellectually, but I'd think that four years of strenuous effort have got to make a difference in themselves.


    I recognized the contradiction as the words were coming out of me but I thought it was an amusing turn of phrase so I kept it in. Sort of like when I wrote that you can't put Pandora back in the box. Not exactly a joke, more like a phrase that, while inaccurate in literal terms, seemed to me to capture what I was thinking. I'm glad somebody noticed it!

  5. Ben Hyde says:

    This delighted me: "… I want to MIT …", thanks.

  6. Tim says:

    I am glad that Brin and Page didn't end up just trying to make important contributions in science.

  7. steve hsu says:

    "… much of (good) social science seems like little more than documenting what is obvious to any moderately perceptive person with the relevant life experience …"

    I put the winky smile after that so people wouldn't take it too seriously ;-)

    I realize the value of carefully documenting a social phenomenon so that others who don't share the same life background (i.e priors) can be convinced that the description is correct.

    re: honors college survey, I took that before the crisis. The point is that while HYPS grads were part of the finance bubble (at peak, about 40% of H grads were going into finance/consulting), Oregon kids didn't know what it was about. A kid who was admitted to HYPS but chose to attend Oregon would miss out on crucial information about how to maximize their future earnings. This goes against results claiming that controlling for SAT eliminates most of the future earning difference between those who attended elite and non-elite universities. I believe those results might have been correct 20-30 years ago, but not any more.

  8. Brent Buckner says:

    You write:
    As Hsu points out (but maybe doesn't emphasize enough), the selection processes at these top firms don't seem to make a lot of sense even on their own terms.

    The selection processes may make more sense when one considers terms other than those stated.

    First, as noted in the linked posts, interviewing only at HYPS cuts recruiting costs substantially but may not much compromise firms' abilities to hire acceptable candidates. Even if not interviewing on-site, filtering all incoming resumes with an HYPS standard cuts resource requirements.

    Second, the HYPS candidates have been surrounded by other HYPS folks for years. That may tilt the odds that they will better fit with the firms' cultures (filled with HYPS graduates).

    Third, many of those firms are structured as tournaments. Entry into HYPS seems to me to be structured as a tournament. Seems a good fit to recruit amongst folks who have already shown the inclination and ability to win a tournament.

  9. Andrew Gelman says:


    Yeah, I was just saying that a scientific research career works for me, and I'm glad that as a college student I wasn't in the position of aiming to be a billionaire. I'm not saying that this is the case for everyone or even most people in my situation.

  10. ceolaf says:

    What's missing from all of this analysis is how much of a further filter these firms and companies apply. Can students who are in the bottom quater of their classes at these schools get all the same interviews that students in the top quarter can get?

    The answer is "no." I know for a fact that people at these top name-brand most prestigious schools compete for interviews. Yes, they get recruiters from these top firms come to campus for interview. But these firms do NOT view all students/graduates as being equal.

    And that's where this kind of analysis falls apart. If the top students at these schools at HYPS are the equal to the stop students anywhere else, then going to HYPS simplifies these firms' own filtering processes. But it does not eliminate them.

    Let me make this more clear: the bottom students (or graduates) from these schools are not getting these jobs ahead of the top students from Duke, Columbia and UChicago.

    Futhermore, these firms are looking for more than G. GPAs and SATs have ceiling effects that impact virtually everyone at these top schools. They simpy are not designed to accurate at these extremes, anyway. They are looking for a certain kind of work ethic and willingness to forgo short term gain for long term success. And they are looking for schools dense with those sorts of folks, and close enough to make recruiting easy.

    So, you want to work in NY? Go to a great school in your field near NY. That is true for all fields. You want to work in Chicago? You want to work in SF? Well, go to a great school in your field near the place you want to work.

    UOregon students are at a disadvantage when it comes to these Master of Universe jobs because of the location of Oregon as much as anything else.

  11. To Sebastian, I have taught honors students at the U of Oregon and sorry, you're off base. "Lived through the financial crisis" means very different things if you are at an East Coast institution where lots of your friends' parents (and maybe your own) are directly involved in that industry, your slightly older friends have graduated and gone to work in that industry, many of your contemporaries want to go into that industry, and as a result everybody around you is talking about it. Keeping up with the conversation around you does not earn you credit for being extraordinarily intellectually curious. UO honors students are intellectually curious, but that curiosity tends to be more directed toward things that are relevant to their lives (the same principle as at HYPS).

  12. David Afshartous says:

    I agree w/ your comments above in point 4 about MIT and sense of potential future careers (I majored in math undergrad at MIT). I think part of the problem is rooted in the academic advising system. My adviser was a pretty famous mathematician, but he probably wasn't the best guy to talk to about future careers and I don't think there were many good resources for that. I had a lot of friends at Harvard and my perception was that, on average, they had a much better idea of their career options. Funny story, I tutored in a summer program for high school minority students that was meant to attract students to MIT. Two of the students went to Harvard instead and explicitly told me that they thought MIT would have been too much work vs Harvard. They both went straight into finance upon graduation and are making big bucks on Wall Street. Perhaps Harvard is also better with respect to networking with their alumni as well, and that feeds into the original topic of the post.

  13. Lord says:

    And then there are companies like GE that exclude engineers from top schools in favor of lesser ones ones because. well, anyone can do engineering and some come cheaper.

  14. So, the ‘masters of the universe’ are a set of near identical yes-men with a herd mentality that look to recruit other near identical yes-men with a herd mentality. These are the same lemmings that managed to collectively lose trillions during the financial crisis, only to be bailed out to the tune of trillions by their near identical yes-men with a herd mentality in government.

    I went to graduate school with students whose undergraduate institutions included schools from Cornell to the University of Maine – Farmington. The student from the University of Maine – Farmington was better.

  15. Joe says:

    Hi Andrew,

    I just found this post on bayesian predictions in basketball while doing some leisure surfing. Since I study both statistics and enjoy basketball I found it pretty interesting. I wonder if the modeling this guy has done is proper so I figured I could try asking you since I've seen you answer questions like this before here.

    The post:

    Best regards Joe

  16. K? O'Rourke says:

    Steve: In close company to Gardin's l’homme-de-la rue?

    Andrew: In case you are missing Paris

    Now should I try and trick my daughter into reading that after or before she has finished her methods course…?


  17. Bob Carpenter says:

    This kind of thing happens everywhere, including grad school admissions. When I was a professor at Carnegie Mellon (late 80s, early 90s), a student of my AI prof as an undergrad at Michigan State was rejected. This isn't too surprising given the number of applications to Carnegie Mellon's CS department, but this student placed highly in the Putman contest, had a perfect GPA with mostly graduate math and physics and CS, and so on.

    I tracked down his case file and it turns out he didn't even make the first cut because he went to Michigan State. The admissions committee told me they didn't even consider anyone from Michigan State because the faculty wasn't strong enough to have provided them any opportunity for serious research.

    It turned out well when the student was accepted into another top-tier CS program.

  18. Mark Palko says:

    Steve's posts were excellent, but I would have liked to have heard more of his thoughts on the original topic of the thread, the impact of legacies on the professional networks of Ivy grads.

    (Thorfin and I continued the discussion in the comments section and, once we got our terminology in sync, more or less ended up on the same page.)

    The question was "Does the Ivies' mixture of the ambitious and talented with the rich and connected produce a more effective network than you would get with just the first group and, if so, does that combined with selection factors, explain most of the Ivy premium?"

  19. Phil says:

    I just can't get over the fact that people take the concept of "g" seriously.

  20. s says:

    >I just can't get over the fact that people take the concept of "g" seriously.

  21. Brent Buckner says:

    Well, the American Psychological Association did, in "Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns" (1995). Didn't ringingly endorse it, but did take it seriously. So strikes me as quite believable that a lot of people would take it seriously.

  22. Steve Sailer says:

    There was a time when Wall Street wasn't super high paying. That began to change on August 17, 1982, when Paul Volcker announced that the Fed had pushed up interest rates enough to take down inflation. The Dow Jones average went up 10% that day.

  23. Sebastian says:

    Sanjay. I don't live and have never lived on the East coast. I have no friends or even acquaintances working in finance.
    I think that everyone in a country whose headlines were dominated by the financial crisis, whose government spend enormous amounts of resources to alleviate the consequences of the financial crisis, and whose job prospects – regardless of profession – are affected by the ripple effects of the crisis – "lived through the crisis". And my expectation for a top notch student at an academic institution is that that person would want to understand at least the basics of the financial systems that is such an important part of the news cycle.

    I saw Steve wrote in to say he surveyed before the crisis, and I do think that changes things substantially, so partly this is a moot point. But still – venture capitalists were discussed all over the place with respect to companies – it was in the papers, on TV, it made it into movies – it's not like there was some kaball of ivy league skull and boners keeping its existence secret.
    I think what Steve wants to get at might be slightly different and closer to Andrew's – that they didn't have a good sense of what those people did exactly, how much money they made, and how one becomes one – in that case I think that's perfectly reasonable and indeed likely to be part of filtering mechanisms for the super-elite

  24. Steve says:

    When did you guys go to MIT? I think nowaday's most people go into consulting. Working on Wall Street is another hot ticket. Most engineering majors don't become engineers, esp. Course 6 people.

  25. Andrew Gelman says:


    Yes, but things were different in the early 80s when I was in college. Back then, the whole finance track was indeed more of a secret. I mean, sure, we knew that there were zillionaires on Wall Street, but my impression was that these were Bonfire-of-the-Vanities-style traders; I had no idea that they had any serious need for "quants." And yeah, we all know about Steves Jobs and Wozniak, but our goal was pretty much to work for these dudes, not to become them. Of course, at any given time most people can't become bigshots, but we were MIT students. If anyone had a decent shot at this sort of thing, it was us. But it wasn't on our radar screen. In all of college, I don't remember a single person talking about creating an entirely new product, or founding a company, or becoming a billionaire, or any of this. (Which, for me, was just as well.)

  26. Seth Roberts says:

    I don't understand Don Rubin's comment ("academic hiring committees all to often act as if they're giving out an award rather than trying to hire someone to do a job").

  27. zbicyclist says:

    "And then there are companies like GE that exclude engineers from top schools in favor of lesser ones ones because. well, anyone can do engineering and some come cheaper. "

    I got my first job out of grad school because behavioral science PhDs were in oversupply and cheap and MBAs were expensive. ;)

    I don't know if it's "anyone can do engineering" so much as "we can't tell who's going to be a star until they get here. So let's hire a bunch of people, let cream rise to the top, and slough off the others". Makes sense if you are a huge company and once you know that success in school is only weakly correlated to success in life.

  28. steve hsu says:


    You are correct — in the actual survey I asked the students whether they could give a job description of, e.g., derivatives trader or venture capitalist. They had a general understanding but not a detailed one and didn't understand the career track.

  29. Steve Sailer says:

    "If I'd gone to college 10 or 20 years later, I might have felt that as a top MIT grad, I had the opportunity–even the obligation, in a way–to become some sort of big-money big shot."

    In the spring of 1982, the Dow Jones Average was below 1000 and interest rates above 10%. New MBAs were being offered starting salaries at Wall Street investment banks about 50% higher than starting salaries at Fortune 500 corporations in places like Chicago. The higher cost of living in Manhattan and the longer hours at i-banks meant Wall Street jobs were not particularly fashionable.

  30. Lord says:

    Except they were using this as a counter signal and purposely avoiding first tier graduates, not just hiring lots and sorting.

  31. Steve Sailer says:

    I quite agree with the idea that one of the barriers to entry to elite jobs is simply that most people who don't have social connections with people in those jobs don't have a picture in their head of what the job entails and that therefore they have a hard time picturing themselves in that job. And that vagueness and lack of confidence comes through in hiring interviews.

    For example, Oliver Stone's 1987 movie "Wall Street" encouraged a lot of non-Harvard types to aspire to work on Wall Street in part because it gave them a better picture in their head of the job. Learning that being greedy was a key part of the job inspired a lot of people to say to themselves, "Yes, I can do that!"

  32. @Seth Roberts – I thoroughly endorse Don Rubin's comment re: academic hiring committees acting as though bestowing awards as opposed to hiring colleagues. My own version of this thought, which may not be exactly what he meant but surely has something in common: when you're looking to hire an assistant professor, you would be very sensible to value a good work ethic, intellectual generosity towards peers and less advanced students (including unglamorous ones who will never be among the most talented academically), a certain degree of selfnessness (i.e. willingness to do committee service within the university and service work in the discipline, in the form of things like serving on dissertation committees and administrative committees of other sorts, writing uncompensated and largely invisible reader's reports on journal articles and book manuscripts, etc.). But what often happens instead is that committees get starry-eyed about what is perceived as 'brilliance' of some thoroughly unanchored kind (and brilliance as it is perceived by those older and more advanced in the profession, as opposed to the peer group's report on the candidate, which would often be quite at odds with the perceptions of faculty, especially in the humanities where faculty seem to have relatively poor detectors for the 'suck up, kiss down' mentality!). As a job candidate 10 years ago, I remember feeling very grumpy about the extent to which committees' questioning seemed to reveal, implicitly, that they thought they were about to bestow an award for intellectual precocity and promise rather than recruit for a job that would require actual work!….

  33. McDruid says:

    "Getting in to a top college is not the same as graduating from said college"

    I have to agree with the others that this statement is untrue. With 99% plus graduation rates, the only people who can't get through an Ivy are dead or stoned out of their mind. Especially when the median GPA is something like 3.7.

    A few years ago, there was a guy, L.T. Grammar, who transferred from San Luis Obisbo Community College with a "C" average to Yale (shenanigans were involved). At Yale, he boasted of having an "A" average. One professor claimed that Grammar got a "B" in his class, but that the prof only awarded Bs to really awful students.