Post Academic

Fuzzy math: The odds of attending college to teaching there

Since we’re on a math kick these days, here’s an attempt to summarize what your odds are for becoming an academic, from the start of the process–getting into college–to a happy ending–getting a tenure-track position or a postdoc.  There are lots of numbers floating around out there, so we’ll try to gather the easier-to-find hard data on undergrad admissions and the more-difficult-to-guesstimate anecdotal numbers on grad school admissions and faculty job searches.  Since we’re English types, we’re just going to focus on our fields, tracing the odds our hypothetical know-it-all high school senior who just decided s/he wanted to become a lit professor faces from being accepted at a university to teaching at one.

Phase 1, Getting into college: We know that the admissions stats vary a lot based on different demographic factors, such as race, sex, family connections, and geography (especially if you’re attending an in-state public school or you happen to be the best student from Wyoming that all the Ivies want to admit so that they can say they have a student from all 50 states).  But let’s say our hypothetical student spreads around her/his applications, from the H-Y-P-S (Harvard-Yale-Princeton-Stanford; too bad there’s also not a E school before the S of Stanford!) pie-in-the-sky tier to some liberal arts schools to good state universities to “safety schools.”  Here are some of the odds for 2010 admissions, compiled in almost real-time by the NY Times:

Harvard: 6.92% acceptance rate

Yale: 7.50%

Princeton: 8.18%

Stanford: 7.18%

The numbers for the H-Y-P-(E)-S are slightly more exclusive than their closest private counterparts, with almost all Ivies hovering around 10%, give or take a few percentage points.

More stats below the fold…

Top liberal arts colleges would include:

Williams: 18.12%

Pomona: 14.48%

Swarthmore: 16.01%

Top state schools are much better bets, both in terms of odds and also value, probably; the numbers don’t distinguish between in-state students who the public universities are supposed to serve and the out-of-state students who sometimes pay tuitions close to those of private schools:

UNC-Chapel Hill: 29.90%

UVA: 30.67%

Wisconsin-Madison: 54.62%

SUNY Binghamton: 39.37%

For more stats, check out the spreadsheet at the NY Times “The Choice” blog.  The Washington Post “College Inc.” blog goes into the numbers too, guesstimating that that 2% of this year’s incoming students applied to Harvard–which, intuitively, seems wrong, despite the simple math the writer does.

Phase 2, Going to grad school: So somewhere along the way, our hypothetical protagonist figured out that s/he was good at writing analytical essays and got into critical theory, learning how to write long, wordy, but pithy run-ons, then unlearning that habit once a faculty member taught her/him that more isn’t necessarily better.  Said professor (or maybe it was a TA) took our student under her/his wing, which inspired our hero to apply for graduate school, knowing full well how difficult it is to get into a top program and how much more difficult it is to get a job after that.  But the numbers don’t apply to our earnest, motivated, and smart student, right–or so s/he thinks?

We gleaned these unofficial and often anecdotal stats over various years from the staggeringly comprehensive “Results Search” from (which we wrote about here), as well as some of the threads about the odds of being accepted into an English grad program from the site.  The “Results Search” is really a wonderful tool, especially because it is so easy to do targeted searches; just type in a school and a field (like “Irvine English”), and the results will pop up!

Here are the numbers compiled from application materials, some of which is posted in a forum of

UC Berkeley English: 40-45 admits/around 20 matriculating out of a roughly 500 applicant pool (not sure these numbers are true, since they mean you have a better chance of getting into the #1 program in the country than into Harvard as an undergrad!)

UC Berkeley Rhetoric: 10-12 admits out of a 200+ applicant pool

Stanford English: 10 matriculating out of 350+ pool

Michigan English: about the same stats as Stanford, 12/350 applicants

UPenn English: 10 or so/690 applicants

Columbia English: 18 admits/700 applicants

UIllinois-Chicago: 7/200 applicants (from their dept website)

UWashington: 10 or so/500+ applicants (guesstimated from “Results Search” reports)

(Hopefully, said prospective grad student would have taken a look at some of our posts on grad school life, to get prepared for the next, say, decade!, like this and this.)

Phase 3, The Un-promised land of the tenure track: We’ve written about this a lot already, so we’re not going to depress ourselves any more about this.  If you want the guesstimated numbers, pieced together from rejection letters to job applicants reported to the Academic Jobs Wiki, here’s what we had to say about them.  The short of it is:

“Best”-case scenario: Miami U of Ohio, Asst Prof, Modernist lit: 1 position, 380 applicants

Worst-case scenario: Dickinson College, Asst Prof, Contemporary lit: 1 position, 650+ applicants

And don’t forget the latest numbers from the MLA, which can only tell us that the Worst. Job Market. Ever. this past year wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been.

“A roulette wheel” by Toni Lozano from Wikimedia Commons, licensed through Creative Commons

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