Chris Rider Ph.D.

The Continuum

Educational Prestige as Career Insurance

Will my alma mater matter if my career takes a turn for the worse?

Posted Jun 03, 2015

When considering which law school to attend, we typically consider the career opportunities enjoyed by a school’s graduates. Indeed, schools typically promise prospective students the guidance of dedicated career counselors and wise faculty mentors, access to a robust on-campus recruiting program and a valuable network of accomplished alumni—all of which can help one attain their post-graduate, professional aspirations.  

You should consider all of these factors. It is difficult to justify the investment of tuition dollars, living expenses and foregone income that graduate school necessitates unless you expect your education to open up exciting career opportunities that would be otherwise unavailable to you. You’re probably gauging each school’s potential for enhancing your career prospects by doing what most of us do: collecting alumni success stories and post-graduation placement statistics for each school. Should all go well, then you can reasonably expect such post-graduation opportunities for yourself.

What if all doesn’t go well? Many of us avoid contemplating the unpleasant negative turns that our careers can take, instead focusing on achieving our most ambitious goals.  But, what if your employer fails and you unexpectedly need to find another job?  Worse, what if you (yes, you!) are to blame for the firm’s failure? My recent research addresses these questions. The key insight is that your career will probably fare better the greater the prestige of your degree-granting institution.

At Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business I conducted the study “Educational credentials and intra-occupational inequality: Evidence from law firm dissolutions,” in which I followed more than 1,400 lawyers after six major law firms dissolved rather unexpectedly—each for idiosyncratic reasons but largely due to the economic crisis that began in 2008. Holding prior employer and other individual characteristics like gender or experience or practice area constant, graduates of more prestigious law schools regained employment at more prestigious, (and, typically, more profitable) employers than did graduates of less prestigious law schools. Furthermore, comparing each lawyer’s eventual employer to firm-offices in the same metro area, lawyers tended to get new jobs at firm offices that employed more former law school classmates. 

What if one is not merely displaced but, rather, to blame for firm failure? In the study Organizational Failure and Intraprofessional Status Loss, which I co-authored with Giacomo Negro of Emory University, I followed the post-failure career transitions for more than 200 ex-partners of a prominent law firm. Approximately 80 percent of the partners regained employment at less prestigious law firms than their prior employer.  Even though they were not more productive than their partners and even though they graduated from law school many years ago, graduates of the most prestigious law schools were the least likely to lose intraprofessional status due to the firm’s failure. We infer that educational prestige counterbalances the labor market fallout caused by association with failure for two reasons. First, hiring organizations view educational prestige as an indicator of competence and character. Second, graduates of prestigious schools have friends in high places—former classmates employed by prestigious firms are in position to influence hiring decisions in their favor.

Together, these studies imply that for two people with the same jobs, the one who graduated from the more prestigious school will suffer fewer career consequences if their employer fails and that a school’s alumni network places a central role in maintaining one’s career trajectory. So, you might want to choose a graduate school based on the “career insurance” that the school provides, should not all go according to your post-graduate plan. The results of my research suggest that educational prestige is a valuable insurance policy.