Name brands

I went to decent schools for my undergrad and grad experiences.  These are well-respected in certain areas, but they are no MIT or Caltech.  I got into great schools, but for financial reasons (for undergrad), and for familial reasons (for grad) I ended up going to closer state schools.  I regret letting the familial stuff stop me from going to the school I wanted to for grad school, but I finished and did well.  I had to differentiate myself to show I can hang with the best by proving myself since I know I wasn’t going to go in with an immediate aura of greatness.  So I published a ton in great journals, got grants and fellowships, and experimented for days on-end to get over my inferiority complex.  When entering industry, I didn’t have to fight that hard since I had a good background and found a good job.  Then while in industry I had to start all over: playing catch-up with colleagues from better schools that started at better salaries.  Ultimately, a lot of luck and work ethic allowed me to thrive.  When applying to faculty positions I knew I would be at a deficit, but highlighted how great of a researcher I would be (and have been) rather than heavily relying on the “Education” lines in my CV.  I ended up getting a faculty job at a school that actually rejected me for my PhD.

These are some observations I’ve had: the probability of finding a good student, employee, researcher are much higher when they come from a name-brand school.  Much higher.  When I see a good name on the school I immediately have higher expectations.  Correspondingly, it would make me more likely to bring them in for interviews.  It gets their feet in the door.  When they come in, the level of rigor by which I judge them is the same, but it gets them in the door.  And the way they respond is one of two ways: pompous as hell, or crazy down-to-Earth.  This is typically a 50/50 split.  Other candidates are usually just nervous or down-to-Earth.  The pompous ones really rub me the wrong way.  So much so, that I started to develop this overall dislike.

Correspondingly, no one looks at the smaller school people.  I’ve seen people say, “this person is the best candidate, but we should go with this other one because they went to “Name-Brand University”.  This has happened in recent faculty searches (my current favorite is from a run-of-the-mill state school), and it happened in industry.  Maybe because I didn’t have the best pedigree I wanted to give everyone a chance, but I think it’s in my nature to give everyone a chance.  I push for the best candidate based upon performance, but others frequently care about the pedigree.  I understand it’s helpful from so many aspects, but the pompous ones won’t be good collaborators, and I want someone who has an amazing proven track-record and interesting ideas.

Look, early in the career a good name will get your foot in the door, but you have to learn humility and work ethic.  Early in one’s career it can be all about work ethic, intelligence, knowledge, and how you use it.  Later on, it’s politics, your personality, and even more luck, though you better not let the intelligence slide.  Don’t rely too much on the name-brand on your sweater; let it be an afterthought.  If you don’t, you’ll be passed by people who live in the moment and know how to get things done when the boss asks.  People want you (if you’re great), not your school (even if it’s great).


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