May 3, 2016

Sociologist Stephanie Beyer to Discuss Divisions and Visions within Academia

BERKELEY, CA, May 3, 2016 – Stephanie Beyer, Visiting Scholar at Center for Studies in Higher Education, UC Berkeley, will present findings from her research on how U.S. university rankings shape faculty career trajectories and their academic perceptions in the disciplines of sociology and chemistry, on May 4th, at Berkeley.  Rankings, which sociologist Val Burris has described as a “caste system”, have a long tradition in the U.S. higher education system, and are used by the most elite universities for recruiting faculty.  Prestigious divisions not only shape the institution itself but also the visions of academics within different prestigious departments.

In her research, Beyer applies sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s relational sociology, which identifies both the objective divisions and the mental structures within a social space, to U.S. academia. She investigates how departmental prestige affects the perceptions of professors and Ph.D. students in their views of research topic autonomy, competition for funding, academic capital, and career trajectories. 

Using a mixed-methods approach, Beyer will discuss her research design consisting of multiple correspondence analysis of sociology departments using such criteria as ranking, size, funding, NAS and AAU membership, number of citations, public or private status, and production of academics; and semi-structured interviews of Ph.D. students and faculty.  From the results, she was able to map the academic field of sociology departments on a macro level, identify three distinct clusters of departments within the field, and use the clusters as a basis for her interviews. 

In her talk, Beyer will illustrate the strong correlation between departmental prestige and academic career trajectories, funding opportunities, and choice of research topics within it.  For example, faculty in the most prestigious departments can often research whatever they choose, focusing on the more theoretical topics, while faculty in the least prestigious departments tend to focus more on applied research.  Further, sociologists in elite divisions have greater access to NSF funding and are cited more often.  Departments of mid-level prestige strive to advance to more prestigious ranking positions and have a lesser degree of access to NFS funding.  Academics in the least prestigious divisions have fewer funding opportunities but highlight the work-life balance they enjoy in their positions.  A sociologist from this cluster remarked in an interview,

“I really don't want that sort of career where you are working until absolute exhaustion, I have hobbies and I have a social life and I am gonna keep having those things, I wanna put research out but I don't wanna drive myself crazy trying…” (Phd Student)

In conclusion, Beyer will argue that prestige is a fundamental principle of differentiations within the U.S. academy that shapes the academics’ visions including conceptualization of research autonomy.  Beyer, who is a visiting scholar from the University of Bamberg, Germany, hopes to apply her studies to the German higher education system, which is becoming more sensitized to internal and international university rankings, and becoming increasingly competitive.

Carol Christ, Director at Center for Studies in Higher Education, will moderate the discussion.

Sponsored by: The Center for Studies in Higher Education, UC Berkeley, on the 8th Floor Barrows, Social Science Matrix, Wednesday, May 4th, 12:00pm-1:00pm.  Lunch to follow.


Stephanie Beyer is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Bamberg, Germany.  In her thesis entitled "Transformation of Higher Education Systems: A Comparison of the University Systems and Academic Career Paths in the USA and Germany", she is analyzing the consequences of the changing university systems (especially after budget cuts and increasing competition) in Germany and the US as well as its consequences on scientific careers. During her stay at CSHE she is conducting further interviews to learn more about researchers’ career trajectories within US higher education. She is examining how departmental prestige affects academics' views of their careers as well their perceptions of autonomy within academia. Moreover Stephanie is interested in Pierre Bourdieu's field theory, multiple correspondence analysis, and the combination of quantitative and qualitative methods.  Ms. Beyer received her M.A in sociology from the University of Bamberg in 2010.

Carol Christ is the Interim Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, UC Berkeley; Director, Center for Studies in Higher Education, UC Berkeley; former President, Smith College.

Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) was established in 1956 and was the first research institute in the United States devoted to the study of systems, institutions, and processes of higher education.  The Center’s mission is to produce and support multi-disciplinary scholarly perspectives on strategic issues in higher education, to conduct relevant policy research, to promote the development of a community of scholars and policymakers engaged in policy-oriented discussion, and to serve the public as a resource on higher education.  http://cshe.berkeley.edu