Working in physics: A physicist's life-cycle

Long-term career satisfaction for academics is closely linked to the type of institution where they work, as Joseph C Hermanowicz discovered when he set out to follow physicists through their careers.

On the up?

What can we learn when we follow people over the years and across the course of their professional lives? This is the question that I have tried to answer by examining one particular group of professionals - namely academic physicists - during their careers at a variety of universities across the US. I chose to study physicists because in the wider culture physics is the scientific discipline par excellence. Physicists possess a recognizable genealogy of immortals - the likes of Kepler, Newton and Einstein - who promote a sense of scientific heroism and define a "model" career for those who follow. Thus, if one is interested in seeing how careers play out against a backdrop of this kind of company, then physics departments are a good place to visit.

In my research as a sociologist, I tracked 55 physicists through different stages of their working lives. The questions I posed were aimed at exploring physicists' shifting perceptions of their jobs in order to uncover the meanings they invest in their work, when and where they find satisfaction, how they succeed and fail, and how the rhythms of work change as they age. Based on interviews with the subjects, my study examined the consequences of career goals (both met and unmet); the frustrations of scientific careers, universities and the academic profession; and the way in which highly trained professionals deal with boredom and stagnation, as well as with renown.

Under the microscope
Physicists in the study were originally interviewed between 1994 and 1995. At that time, the subjects were sampled according to early, middle and late career stages, with average ages of 37.0, 48.3 and 61.4 years, respectively. They were also grouped by one of three types of university - termed elite, pluralist and communitarian - at which they were employed. Elite universities, such as Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley, are those that stress research in the presence of teaching and other roles. Those that place roughly equal emphasis on teaching and research, such as the University of Maryland, the University of Kansas and Purdue University, are termed pluralist while those that place the greatest emphasis on teaching, such as the University of Tulsa and the University of Louisville are termed communitarian. Such labels are, of necessity, ideal types; in reality, both universities and individuals exist on a continuum.

The same physicists were interviewed again between 2004 and 2005, thereby creating a longitudinal study - the first of its kind - of how academics, working in a variety of institutions, age in relation to their work. The follow-up study thus reveals how physicists' perceptions of work evolve with perceived costs and rewards, from early to mid career, from mid to late career, and from late to post career.

The questions I asked in the second study addressed physicists' attitudes to work; their most prominent work concerns; whether they would seek an academic career again, and, if so, what they would do differently. The study also examined perceptions of peak satisfaction, the objects of their satisfaction and estimations of their overall career satisfaction; and their perceptions of whether the reward system in science is "fair" or not. A few of their responses appear below; note that the study is based on over 1700 pages of transcript, so the passages presented are merely illustrations.

How careers progress
The results of the study reveal striking differences between the attitudes that elites, pluralists and communitarians have to their careers. In passing from early to mid career, elites - who in the earlier interviews had frequently described their situation (especially during the tenure process) as "a burden" - tended to stabilize and rededicate themselves to academia. In other words, they had found a renewed interest in fulfilling the institutional goals of higher education by continuing in their research productivity.

In contrast, pluralists - who had previously been highly satisfied in their work, and felt they had achieved a "happy medium" - experienced a reversal at the middle stage of their careers. They questioned their interest in and commitment to the profession, and they grew disillusioned with academic research. Early-career communitarians, for their part, had already expressed considerable disillusionment in the earlier study; by mid-career, most had ceased to do research entirely. For communitarians in mid-career, cumulative disadvantages had accrued to the point of shutting down interest and motivation to continue with scientific re_search. Their career pattern may best be described as succumbing to a stasis - there was no forward progress.

In their transitions from mid to late career, elites remained consistent in their identification with science and in their scientific productivity. Their publication productivity continued to accelerate, far eclipsing those of their contemporaries in other types of institutions. Pluralists either attempted to revitalize their careers following earlier fallow periods (largely without success) or continued with the research that they had been doing. Communitarians entered into a kind of scientific demise. They identified less and less with research, and became increasingly disaffected with their departments and universities, which they saw as having crippled their research aspirations.

Given these patterns, it is perhaps not surprising that in moving from late to post career phases, the pluralists characteristically withdrew from work, while communitarians separated themselves completely from it, usually severing all ties with work and their employing organizations. Intriguingly, elites in this stage for the first time lessened their intensity and embrace of research. This effect was associated with a decline in their overall career satisfaction.

The bottom line is that among elites, satisfaction begins high and rises through the career, but it then drops at the end as attitudes turn ambivalent - about what they have done, how much they have achieved, and where they stand professionally. For pluralists and communitarians, however, this pattern is reversed. Among pluralists, satisfaction starts out on a high, drops and then levels off before rising at the end, coinciding with a time when they withdraw from work. Communitarians experience low satisfaction throughout their careers - until the end, when, for the first time, they experience the greatest satisfaction of all the groups. They also, for the first time, regard the system of rewards in science as "fair".

The role of organizations
Over time, physicists in the three prototypical academic organizations show evidence of reversals - in terms of career orientation, outlook and attitude. Elites may be most dedicated throughout their careers, but most devastated at the end, when they realize that their lofty (and often unrealistic) ambitions remain unfulfilled. Communitarians may be less dedicated during their careers, but most satisfied and positive in their outlooks at the end. Pluralists exemplify the greatest variability in their careers, but in the end find a satisfaction that overcomes a previous ambivalence. It is important to recognize that none of these shifts are taking place in isolation. Academic organizations - both universities and departments - script the courses of careers, and also influence changes in attitude, commitment and motivation to work. These career patterns have implications for the advancement of physics, for the welfare and functioning of academic departments and universities, and for the cohesiveness of the profession.

The telling of contemporary lives in science also prompts questions about what types of people, and with what levels of talent, science will be able to attract. One scenario is that academia will attract less-talented individuals, while more-talented people, seeing the conditions under which academic careers are experienced, will increasingly enter other professions. Perhaps the best answer to the question "What can we learn when we follow people in their careers?" is, simply, "much about the institutions that shape them". Conditions have developed in modern universities that create an enduring problem of meaning and satisfaction in the academic profession.

In their own words
The following are excerpts from interviews with physicists about their academic careers.

"My attitudes about the job, about me and about the university have undergone tremendous changes in the past 10 years...I'm not sure I want to even submit things to published journals anymore...I'm disgusted by the whole thing...I got tired of getting referee reports...that spend a page talking about the bibliography; they were entirely concerned with whether I cited their work or their friends' work, and they hadn't read the paper...I'm in a setting where the last thing people want is honesty...You guys play your game, it's fine. There are more important things in life than getting grants from the National Science Foundation, getting Nobel prizes even or any of that stuff. That's all just a game..."
Pluralist at mid career

"Maybe there is some self-delusion in feeling that you're being a significant contributor to science. It's just [pause] you have been trained, you know this field, when you're an expert in something, you tend to take pride in it, and you tend to continue doing it. But I don't think it's always very significant in the grand scheme of things...I could have worked harder to become a better professional physicist...At some stages of my career, I could have easily done better. It would have made a difference. It might well have been a significant difference...If I had worked harder, it would have given me a little more status. I would have accomplished more in the field..."
Elite at post career

"There really wasn't much else to look forward to. [Right now, I'm] not working as hard. I'm not doing research anymore. I had two or three pretty good ideas during the course of my career, and I haven't had any since. I really don't keep up with the literature...I think that early on, even though I did some fairly decent work, both as a graduate student and in the beginning of my career, I never was satisfied. I always thought that I could have done better or sooner or more. In more recent years [near and in retirement], I have become content, not only with what I was doing, but also how much. I think this is a reflection of my coming to like myself more."
Communitarian at post career

Do your experiences match the patterns found in this study? Or has your career as an academic physicist been completely different? Send us your thoughts at

About the author
Joseph C Hermanowicz is a sociologist at the University of Georgia, US, and the author of two studies on academic physicists: The Stars Are Not Enough: Scientists - Their Passions and Professions (1998, University of Chicago Press) and Lives in Science: How Institutions Affect Academic Careers (2009, University of Chicago Press).

This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Physics World

Image credit: Photolibrary

last edited: August 06, 2012

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