Lose your academic innocence early

November 17, 2009
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Like other recent analyses of academic careers, Joseph Hermanowicz’s Lives in Science: How Institutions Affect Academic Careers delivers some rather brutal news for all those wanna-be tenure track professors out there hoping to leave their mark on their discipline—it probably ain’t gonna happen. As Beryl Lieff Benderly writes in a recent review of Hermanowicz’s book for Science Career Magazine:

Many aspirants to research careers lack an accurate idea of where they’re headed. In fact, Hermanowicz writes, accepting an unrealistically rosy image of one’s future is a basic step on the road to becoming an academic scientist.
That image traditionally includes a pantheon of the greats of one’s discipline, faith in the high intrinsic value of research, and belief that recognition by the scientific community is a valid measure of worth. This image also implies that, with talent and dedication, any young scientist has a chance of making a distinguished contribution.… [But] as the great majority of faculty members learn … the opportunity to do important science and gain major recognition only ever exists for a relative few—overwhelmingly those educated and employed at the most prestigious universities.

Yet, as Benderly points out, this certainly isn’t the most surprising revelation Hermanowicz has to offer, instead, “what Hermanowicz’s book adds is insight into the human lives behind these well-known processes.

Scientists at elite schools, he found, retain to the end of their careers their original dedication to research, the goal of pursuing eminence, and a belief in the essential fairness of the scientific reward system. In contrast, at pluralist and communitarian schools, most faculty members must accept that their early faith was misplaced and their dreams will never be realized. Some pluralists do succeed in attaining prominence, but most cannot. This early loss of faith has an advantage, Hermanowicz says: The painful task of coming to terms gives many of these individuals an impressive depth of humanity.
Elite faculty, on the other hand, generally perceive only at the end their careers—and to their intense disappointment—that decades of single-minded striving have not won a perch in the ‘pantheon.’ Only then begins their process of re-evaluation. Only after lives of great privilege and good fortune—the extent of which many never appreciate—do most begin to question the basic fairness of science’s system of rewards.”

To read the rest of Benderly’s article navigate to the Science Career Magazine website.

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