Does Your Alma Mater Really Matter?


Hiring managers assess a number of qualities about each candidate when choosing the right person for the role. Some consider a candidate’s alma mater–the institution at which they earned their degree–to be the most important factor. 

But how much does a life science candidate’s alma mater really matter? In short–it depends. 

One reason answers to this question vary is due to the different priorities of each hiring manager or recruiter.

In a survey of 500 senior-level and executive managers published by Indeed, 43% of C-suite executives said they believe that the best performers graduated from highly reputable institutions. This figure decreased slightly with lower-level professionals, with managers and senior managers coming in at 35% and 34%, respectively. 

This could be due to the fact that many C-suites hold degrees from top-tier institutions. The same study shows 37% of those who self-identified as an alumnus from a top school said they prefer to only hire candidates from top institutions, compared to only 6% of managers who did not attend a prestigious institution. 

Another reason answers vary could be due to the specialty of the candidate. 

Stephen Provost, managing director and founder of Prestige Scientific, a life sciences recruiting and executive search firm, told BioSpace that in his experience, where a candidate attended college becomes more or less relevant depending on their field of work. 

In areas like research and manufacturing, it’s common for his clients to request candidates from certain institutions that are known for producing graduates who excel, he said. In other areas, like quality assurance and regulatory affairs, the clients typically don’t have a preference. 

Matt Toner, CEO and co-founder of LifeSci Search, agreed.

For some candidates, it should be irrelevant; for others, like those in cell and gene therapy, considering where a candidate studied is largely beneficial, he told BioSpace. 

“There are certain niche areas of science that may require or largely benefit from someone trained at an institution renowned for a specific area of science or medicine,” Toner said. “Which labs and under whom the candidate studied can carry a lot of weight in certain therapeutic areas.” 

Provost also emphasized the difference in searching for candidates for an entry-level role versus a C-suite. When a candidate has had time to prove themselves in their respective fields and gain more experience, the institution attached to their degree carries less weight. 

“Over time, the best rise to the top, regardless of where they began their career,” Provost said. 

One Small Part of the Big Picture

Toner emphasized the potential harm that recruiters can cause when they overly prioritize where a candidate went to school. He said to combat this, recruiters must play an active role in fighting against these biases. 

“A candidate's alma mater is just one small slice of the complete picture of who they are and their fit for the role,” Toner said.

In seeking that complete picture, what matters most is soft skills, Provost said.

He pointed to a candidate’s emotional intelligence and ability to work with a team as top indicators of how well they will likely perform on the job. 

This is backed up by data.

A 2022 LinkedIn report showed soft skills such as leadership, communication and problem-solving are in high demand, and 45% of all jobs posted on the platform in the three months prior to the report mentioned the importance of communication skills.

Similarly, in LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends report, 89% of recruiters surveyed said that when a hire doesn't work out, it is typically due to a lack of soft skills. 

This shows that if soft skills are so vital to keeping a job, they should likely be prioritized in the same way in the hiring process. 

“It is about the person, their accomplishments and their potential to succeed in a specific role that should measure a candidate,” Toner said. “It should not be about the tuition they paid, the alumni network they have leveraged or the campus they have studied on.”

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