The Frontal Cortex

Tenure and Last Names

Well, no meritocracy is perfect. The economists Liran Einav and Leeat Yariv analyzed the faculty in the top 35 U.S. economics departments. Their conclusions were startling, especially if your last name begins with the letter Z:

Faculty with earlier surname initials are significantly more likely to receive tenure at top ten economics departments, are significantly more likely to become fellows of the Econometric Society, and, to a lesser extent, are more likely to receive the Clark Medal and the Nobel Prize. These statistically significant differences remain the same even after we control for country of origin, ethnicity, religion or departmental fixed effects.

[Hat Tip: Mankiw, hereafter known as Aaamankiw]


  1. #1 John Aardvark
    December 14, 2006

    Thanks for the heads up…

  2. #2 David
    December 14, 2006

    My first guess as to an explanation is this.

    The list of finalists for a spot is always ordered alphabetically. When a committee reads through the list they’re likely to start making judgments about who should win the spot. This premature judgment will be difficult to change in the face of a second deserving applicant who is just as, or very slightly more, qualified than the first. Unless the second person heavily outweighs the first they won’t get selected.

    So the “tie-breaker” tends to go to the first person the committee evaluates.

    The solution? Randomize the order on nomination lists.

  3. #3 Karlyn
    December 14, 2006

    Einav and Yariv hypothesize that the convention in economics of alphabetized ordering of authors on co-authored papers is the primary cause. From the perspective of the sciences where co-authored papers are the norm, such conventions seem unfair and inefficient (as no infomation as to contribution can be drawn from order of authorship). I imagine single-authored papers would be significantly more common in economics than the sciences even absent this system, however this must present a strong disincentive for economists with late-in-the-alphabet last names to collaborate. Can I also add that I dislike the European system, where an advisor gets first authorship on his/her student’s paper.

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