Satisfied Academics

Study that anticipated professors' satisfaction levels might sink to those of industry scientists gets surprising result: Academe is seen as a good place to work.
August 6, 2008

One of the concerns many academics have had in recent years is that the increased financial pressures in higher education and what critics call the "corporatization" of academe would make higher education a less desirable place to work.

But a study presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association finds that academic scientists -- in the natural and social sciences -- are more satisfied than are their counterparts outside of higher education. The original hypothesis of the paper was that there might be a convergence of satisfaction levels, especially since satisfaction was defined in ways that stress traditional academic values, not more entrepreneurial ones. The scientists were asked about satisfaction with their independence and responsibility and the social contributions of their work -- the sorts of factors that many fear are being lost as academic science at many universities is increasingly connected to the business world. (Although they were asked many other questions about their jobs, the satisfaction questions were defined in this way only.)

The authors -- Roberta Spalter-Roth of the sociology association and Grant Blank of Applied Social Research Associates -- found instead that academic scientists (except psychologists) remain more satisfied than those outside academe.

There were some notable results with regard to demographic groups. Black scientists were as satisfied as others with one exception -- non-academic psychologists, who were less satisfied than colleagues who are white. Latinos were also generally as satisfied as those in other groups. But almost across the board, Asian American scientists are less satisfied with their jobs than are white scientists.

In terms of gender, the norm was a lack of difference in satisfaction levels. But men were less satisfied than women in the fields of academic biology, non-academic physics, academic sociology, and all of psychology.

Aging also appears to increase job satisfaction -- especially outside academe, where that was the case across fields. Within academe, being older correlates with increased satisfaction in biology, physics and political science.

The overall data below are satisfaction on a 4-point scale, and generally point to high levels of satisfaction, on average, with the largest gaps favoring academic satisfaction in engineering, physics and chemistry. The data were gathered from the national Survey of Doctorate Recipients.

Mean Satisfaction of Scientists In and Out of Academe

Discipline Non-Academic Academic
Biology 3.47 3.60
Math / statistics 3.31 3.52
Chemistry 3.34 3.58
Physics 3.30 3.56
Psychology 3.65 3.60
Sociology 3.45 3.53
Economics 3.46 3.55
Political science 3.46 3.55
Engineering 3.28 3.56
Total 3.44 3.58

Some of the discipline-specific findings:

  • Biology: Scientists are more satisfied if they publish more articles in peer-reviewed journals and spend at least 20 percent of their time on basic research.
  • Math and statistics: For academics, writing more articles and being paid more have a strong influence on satisfaction. For those outside academe, the ability to do basic research has a similar impact.
  • Chemistry: Salary doesn't appear to have an impact on non-academic scientists, but it does on academic scientists.
  • Psychology: Perhaps because of the clinical focus, publishing in journals or doing basic research does not increase job satisfaction. Salary increases do.
  • Political science: Asians are not less satisfied than white people are -- a rare finding for the study. However, the authors note that there aren't that many Asian Americans in the field.


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