Education, Reviews, Sociology

The hard reality of the hard sciences

In a review of Joseph C. Hermanowicz’s new book Lives in Science: How Institutions Affect Academic Careers for the current issue of Nature magazine, reviewer Rachael Ivy highlight’s the book’s surprising conclusions about the career paths of scientists (specifically physicists) at the nation’s elite universities: many of them end up feeling like they’ve been conned. Ivy summarizes Hermanowicz’s argument, writing that while physicists at less-prestigious universities learn early on how to console themselves with the probability that their contributions to the field will be marginal, those granted tenure at elite universities tend to remain optimistic about the level of prestige they can achieve in the course of their careers, that is, until their careers draw to a close. Ivy writes:

Those at less-prestigious universities, who were also more likely to have graduated from similar institutions, were generally satisfied because of the balance they ultimately achieved in their lives. Like other academics, they had once hoped to achieve scientific greatness, but quickly realized that such recognition would elude them. They dealt with disappointment about their career paths early on.
By contrast, physicists who got the early prize of an elite university job were satisfied with their careers—until the end. Then they were hit with the realization that the scientific recognition for which they had striven so long would now go to younger scientists. For the first time, this elite group’s “expectations for their careers exceed reality” and their satisfaction was low.

Ivy’s article concludes:

Lives in Science reveals that all scientists are socially conditioned to contribute substantially to the knowledge base and expect to receive recognition for it. But all must reconcile themselves to the shortcomings of the academic game. With research pressure growing in less-prestigious universities, and with limited resources, [the gap between expectations and reality] will remain with us. Its cure is to require graduate institutions to present a more realistic picture of what it means to be a scientist.

Read the full review on the Nature website.