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The ABCs for academic success

Simon Thorpe asks whether an initial can dictate your life chances and crunches the numbers across sector leadership to see if the As or Zs come out on top.
This article is more than 8 years old

Simon Thorpe is a Director of Studies at Leeds College of Art with a particular interest in employability and enterprise in the context of the Creative Industries.

Are you a T, W or maybe a poor soul whose surname begins with Z? If so, I sympathise with your plight.

Remember at school when your teacher issued the class with textbooks? I’m a T and I never got the pristine new copy but waited and waited for my name to be called out for one of the remaining dog-eared, well-thumbed copies. And do you remember being called in alphabetical order to present your talk to the class, only to find that by the time you got your moment of glory all the juicy facts and mind changing knowledge about the subject had already been repeatedly imparted, leaving a yawning, bored and non receptive audience trying to stay awake?

So what happened at university? The alphabetical listing put your tutorial at the end of a long day for the tutor. S/he had covered all the ground before, was clearly bored of the day’s routine, was keen to get home and you were the hurdle to their ambition…..and it showed.

Did we get the quality feedback on a par with the As and Bs ? Or was it shorter and lacking in those golden nuggets of wisdom to motivate you? 

What else is governed by the systematic use of alphabetical order? Programmes for recitals, lists of conference speakers, academic citations, job interviews, ballot papers. Did you know that 19 out of 21 Prime Ministers since 1900 had surnames beginning with A-M, the exceptions being Thatcher and Wilson? Did you know that alphabetical ordering of political candidates on ballots has long been observed to confer a significant advantage to the name that comes first on the ballot paper? Research undertaken in Australia in 1964 by Chris Masterman attributed the high incidence of parliamentarians with letters high up the alphabet due to the ‘Donkey’ vote whereby reluctant voters just tokenistically marked the ballot paper straight down from the top to cast a valid vote with the minimal of effort and by so doing skewed the results.

But surely this is trivial nonsense, I hear the A-Ms say. Yet listen to this. A study conducted by Young and Walters, two eminent sociology professors from New York’s City University, that observed several hundred children over a 20-year period, concluded that those with names toward the end of the alphabet were paid salaries 16 per cent below the average, held only a third of top management positions and were five times more likely to suffer depression or attempt suicide. Still not convinced? How about research from economists Liran Einav and Leeat Yarif from Stanford and CalTech who found that published faculty members with surnames earlier in the alphabet are more likely to receive tenure at top economics departments and more likely to receive the Nobel Prize?

Interestingly, Slate’s Timothy Noah observed that other disciplines such as psychology and medicine do not rank their authors alphabetically and do not show this same effect.

And there’s more… Professor Richard Wiseman from the University of Hertfordshire invited Telegraph readers to rate how successful they thought they were in assorted aspects of their life – including career, finances, health and ‘life in general’. The 15,000 scores were then combined into an overall measure of success. The results revealed that readers whose surnames began with letters at the beginning of the alphabet rated themselves as significantly more successful overall than those with surnames starting with lowly, end-of-the-alphabet initials.

Still drivel? OK then, let’s take a look at those in top jobs in UK higher education and compare alphabetical spread of surnames in comparison to whole population alphabetical spread.

Population norm28%65%
Sector leaders56%89%
Vice chancellors28%68%
(former) 1994 Group27%82%
Russell Group41%77%
University Alliance16%63%
Million +12%47%

65 per cent of the population in the UK have surnames beginning with letters A to M of which 28 per cent are in the A-E group.

By comparison:

89 per cent A-M surnames of those in the most senior positions of our commonly recognised sector organisations (UUK, HEFCE, University Alliance, QAA, OFFA, OIA, UCAS, UCU, NUS, UCEA, HESA, HEPI, LFHE, HEA, GuildHE, million+ and ECU). And get this: 56 per cent of these leaders have surnames beginning with A-E. That’s double the norm.

And there’s more… 82 per cent of principals and vice chancellors in GuildHE have A-M surnames, and 43 per cent A-E; while 77 per cent of Russell Group VCs are A-M and 41 per cent A-E.

There is always an exception to the rule though: million + VCs buck the trend with 47 per cent A-M and 12 per cent A-E. And overall, UK VCs’ surnames more or less reflect the population norms.

It seems to me there is a simple risk free strategy to help maximise your career trajectory, either write your research and conference papers with a pseudonym or change your name by Deed Pole. Perhaps, however, there is a more serious point here (of course not wishing to gazump the really serious and complex business of social mobility) and that is to encourage your colleagues to think about the potential negative impact of alphabetical order on students. Get the Zs to present their seminar first, mark the Zs first, reverse the order for calling up new graduates at awards ceremonies. Try it, I dare you!

3 responses to “The ABCs for academic success

  1. Tell me about it! They over ran for the vivas on my UG course – the last two (me, and one other unfortunate W surname student) had to have ours the morning after everyone else.

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