Taken for Granted: Shocked, Shocked! to Find Disappointment on Campus

(Library of Congress)

In one of the high points of American cinema, Rick Blaine, the cynical saloonkeeper unforgettably portrayed by Humphrey Bogart, remarks that he came to Casablanca for the waters.

"You want to provide the kind of training and the goals and the structure for them to achieve at very high levels." Yet, "there is, I believe, a need to be realistic." --Joseph Hermanowicz

"What waters? We're in the desert," snaps Claude Rains as the dubious Captain Renault.

Replies Rick, "I was misinformed."

Academic scientists may not always match Rick in glamour or sex appeal. A great many of them, however, resemble him in the important respect that they, too, got bad information about the places where they ended up making their careers. But now, thanks to Lives in Science , sociologist Joseph Hermanowicz's penetrating new study of careers in academic science, people aiming for faculty positions have no excuse for such confusion.

Rick has an obviously shady past, and the film never reveals what brought him to the gritty Moroccan seaport. But there's no mystery about why so 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.

This set of foundational beliefs is an example of what Emile Durkheim, the Newton of Hermanowicz's own discipline of sociology, termed a social group's "moral order." A moral order, Hermanowicz writes, "conveys how a life (or career) within a group should be lived."

Looking at lives

(Kelly Krause, AAAS)

But as the great majority of faculty members learn--quickly or slowly depending on where they end up--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. The real issue in the distribution of recognition and prestige, Hermanowicz's meticulous research shows, is not the ability or drive of individual scientists but, to paraphrase the book's subtitle, "how institutions shape careers."

For all but a handful of the scientists he studies, the prestige of their institution pretty much determines their professional--and even their personal--destiny. Of the more than 4000 institutions of higher learning in the United States where a scientist can get a faculty post--ranging from world-renowned research universities to local community colleges--only a very limited number possess the resources, reputation, and connections needed for research careers at the highest levels of recognition. (Listing all those schools is impossible because universities' standing can vary among fields and change over time. But in many disciplines, the relative status of departments is carefully tracked and widely known.) Of the small minority of young scientists who succeed in landing any faculty job, therefore, only a much smaller percentage get a real shot at the big time that so many dream of. This is the reality about which so many young would-be professor/PIs are--and remain--"misinformed."

This dispiriting finding emerges from an innovative combination of longitudinal techniques and institutional analysis that Hermanowicz uses to track the experience of 55 tenured and tenure-track faculty members at a range of career stages and institutions. He studied physicists, but his general conclusions accord closely with other research into the social structure of academe and appear applicable to many other disciplines as well. Some aspects of Hermanowicz's methodology and classification scheme may not find favor with every reader. Aspiring scientists, however, can benefit from the insights he provides into the course of academic careers.

The harsh stratification of academic science makes the ideal of major accomplishment unattainable by most people--but the illusion of possibility serves the important social function of drawing in recruits. "It's very difficult," Hermanowicz tells Science Careers in an interview, to persuade an ambitious young person "to enter something that demands such high levels of performance with the aspiration at the outset of being an also-ran. 'I don't want to be a Beethoven or Mozart? I'm just satisfied being third rate?' "

But many professors, he goes on, "sustain the myth of great attainment" in their dealings with their students and trainees. Most professors know better--or would if they thought clearly about the current job market--but "they're human and imperfect." Far too many have not come to grips with the brutal realities of today's academic labor conditions and persist in thinking "that many of the people they're bringing into their labs ... are going to have careers just like they had," Hermanowicz says. What's more, "professors rely upon these people to carry out their work, and one way in which to get that accomplished is by training people in the ideals of science, which include these notions of success."

The professors with the greatest influence on trainees aspiring to faculty posts belong to the stratum of top-ranked universities that Hermanowicz terms "elite," which "place the highest premium on research" and are either "private research universities [or] some prestigious public universities. The overriding organizational goal is to garner additional prestige through the research and scholarly achievements of the faculty," he writes. These brand-name schools have renowned departments in many fields and compete nationally and internationally for the top students and the best-known professors. Examples, Hermanowicz writes, "include Caltech, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Michigan and the University of California-Berkeley."

Below them are institutions he terms "pluralist" because they have multiple goals and place "a premium on both research and teaching." At these mostly public research universities, the goal of amassing institutional prestige through research coexists with that of "mass teaching and service to community and states." Because these schools generally lack the resources to bid successfully against the generally much richer elites, professorial "stars" constitute a "decided minority" of their faculties, and their students come from a "mixed regional-national pool of candidates." Examples, Hermanowicz says, "include the University of Maryland, the University of Kansas, and Purdue University."

Farther down the prestige scale are "communitarian" universities that "place a premium on teaching in the presence of research." Although faculty at these "regional public universities ... often engage in research or scholarship of some kind and to some degree," at some point in their careers, "teaching ... is the overriding organizational goal," Hermanowicz writes. "Examples ... include the University of Tulsa, the University of Louisville, and Wichita State University."

Apportioning prestige

"Ability is not distributed along institutional lines," Hermanowicz says, and many "very smart people" don't work at top-ranked institutions, including many "who are arguably better than those who do." Yet, his interviews with faculty members in each of the three categories reveal that opportunity and recognition for research pretty much correlate with institutional prestige.

This insight is hardly new. A 1990 study by sociologists Paul D. Allison and J. Scott Long found research productivity more related to scientists' departments than to their personal qualities. The same person became more productive at a more prestigious university and less productive at a less prestigious one.

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.

Ironically, Hermanowicz writes, as elite faculty complete careers that less favored colleagues would consider highly successful, some suffer from "a breakdown of order, a collapse of meaning about themselves, the world, and their perceived place in it because of a sharp divide between the realities of their lives" and their long-held beliefs. Durkheim famously called this painful state "anomie."

Communitarians and pluralists, on the other hand, reconcile themselves much earlier and end their careers with far greater equanimity. Some continue to relish doing research while recognizing that their chances of attaining prominence are small. Many others find consolation, satisfaction, enjoyment, and recognition by redirecting their energies toward goals such as teaching, mentoring, administration, institutional or community service, or personal and family life.

Telling the truth

Himself a product of elite University of Chicago and now at pluralist University of Georgia, Hermanowicz recognizes that advising students and trainees presents professors with "a quandary. You want to develop a motivation in people to stretch themselves," he says in the interview. "You want to provide the kind of training and the goals and the structure for them to achieve at very high levels." Yet, "there is, I believe, a need to be realistic."

The odds of great academic career success, in the sense of gaining scientific prominence--"are very low to nonexistent coming out of a non-elite institution." It's important, he believes, for young people to understand this reality. In the current job market, "don't set your soul on an academic career," he warns. Many scientists, he says, can "be just as happy or happier and more satisfied" with something other than a faculty job. "There are many other worthwhile things" for scientists to do. "What is amazing is that people are socialized to believe that there aren't."

He adds, "finding what's important to you, structuring it in ways that allow you to derive rewards from it, being able to actively construct satisfaction in what you do, [is] something that [everyone] will need to do regardless of what your employment is." To take the surprise out of the territory ahead, anyone hoping for an academic science career would be wise to consider the message of this thoughtful, solid, illuminating book.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

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