• September 2, 2015

Survey of Job Satisfaction Finds Physical Sciences Among Happiest Fields

Faculty members in the physical sciences have the greatest rate of job satisfaction among untenured assistant professors at research universities, according to a study being released on Monday.

In the study, researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education surveyed 9,512 pre-tenure faculty members on their satisfaction with more than 100 aspects of their work lives. The researchers then ranked the results in broad disciplinary areas, not individual fields. The physical sciences ranked among the top three academic disciplines in approximately half the survey aspects, and among the bottom three in only six.

The aspects surveyed included tenure clarity and expectations, compensation and benefits, the nature of their teaching and research, balancing work and life, job climate and culture, and global satisfaction.

The humanities followed the physical sciences in terms of high satisfaction in the most aspects, while education and the visual and performing arts ranked lowest in satisfaction in the greatest number of areas. The study also found that women expressed less job satisfaction than their male colleagues.

The survey, conducted by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, or Coache, included 9,512 responses from assistant professors at 63 public and private universities from across the country.

The survey did not result in mathematically precise rankings for each disciplinary area, but the researchers were able to devise a rough hierarchy based on how often faculty members in each area expressed high (or low) satisfaction with the aspects of their work lives. Two areas ended up in a tie.

Job Satisfaction by Disciplinary Area

1. Physical sciences

2. Humanities

3. Agriculture/natural resources/environmental science

4. Business

5. Social sciences

6. Medical schools and health professions

7. Biological sciences

8. Engineering/computer science/math/statistics

9. Education

10. Other professions (journalism, law, architecture, etc.)

11. Visual and performing arts

11. Health and human ecology

Kiernan Mathews and Cathy A. Trower, director and research director of Coache, respectively, said that varying levels of subjectivity in the tenure process probably contributed to the gap between the physical sciences and the visual and performing arts.

"The issue with physical sciences is that things are much more concrete in terms of expectations," said Ms. Trower. "If you get grants and get published, you'll get tenure."

Satisfaction with tenure clarity was high among junior faculty members in the physical sciences, while visual arts ranked among the last.

"It is harder to define excellence in art," said Mr. Mathews.

Expectations by Gender

Expectations for tenure were also divided by gender, with women displaying significantly less satisfaction with the process than men.

Women expressed lower levels of satisfaction in several other areas, including number of hours worked, amount of time for research, work/life balance, and the compatibility of the tenure track with raising children.

Shelley Correll, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University, said that the survey's gender findings were consistent with campuses across the country.

"Almost any university survey you look at, women have a harder time coordinating work and family, women end up doing more work at home, more work at child care, and this makes the work of being a faculty member harder," she said.

One of Ms. Correll's past studies showed that a significantly higher proportion of female professors than their male peers found their workloads excessive. She attributed that pattern to a related finding—that child care is a greater source of stress for women than men.

"The more stress you have outside the workplace, the more that affects the amount of time you have to do your research," she said.

Londa Schiebinger, director of Stanford's Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, said she had found that female faculty members take on a greater share of housework than their male colleagues.

"You take any woman, and she's doing twice as much at home as her male counterpart," she said.

Marc Goulden, director of data initiatives at the University of California at Berkeley, said a past study had found that women in the sciences who are married with children are 27 percent less likely than their male counterparts to achieve tenure after entering a tenure-track job. He suggested that the Coache data highlight the need for institutions to offer new family policies and resources.

The gender gap remains consistent across the survey's 12 academic disciplines, including fields, such as the social sciences, in which women are typically well represented. Ms. Trower suggested that the trend invalidates the notion that a "critical mass" of women in academe is all that is needed to ensure gender equality.

"You would think, well, if we just get more women into some of these disciplines, the gender difference will go away," said Ms. Trower. "And I think the data are saying it's not enough necessarily to have more women."

Despite those gender-based imbalances, humanities faculty members expressed high satisfaction with their ability to raise children while remaining on a tenure track.

"I think that speaks to the fact that the humanities don't have the same 24/7-in-the-lab situation that scientists feel," said Ms. Trower. "I think there is ... probably a more supportive culture for men and women to take time to be with their families."

Business faculty members also showed high satisfaction with their ability to combine work and family, ranking highest over all in their ability to balance professional and personal time.

Mr. Mathews and Ms. Trower said they hoped disciplinary associations and individual institutions would take note of their research to improve job satisfaction for their pre-tenure faculty members.

"The whole idea is to create a great workplace," said Ms. Trower. "We encourage provosts to talk to their deans, to talk to their department chairs, and to engage the senior faculty in a conversation."

The full report will be available on Monday on Coache's Web site.


1. lfathe1 - July 12, 2010 at 07:44 am

I wonder if the level of satisfaction reflects the fact that those who weren't satisfied simply left academia. PhD scientists have more options than historians.

It would be interesting to see such a survey conducted among graduates, rather than those that persist as faculty members.

2. iris411 - July 12, 2010 at 08:39 am

For scientists, by the time they get a tenure tracked job, they would have worked as postdocs for 5-7 years. I don't think this is true for junior faculties in humanities or businesses. Many PH. D.s in science drop out the race after their first or second postdoc positions. In other words, assistant professors in science and in humanities are NOT at the same point of their academic careers.

3. alexking - July 12, 2010 at 09:07 am

It is difficult to explain the low ranking for Engineering/computer science/math/statistics using the rationale given in this article. The level of tenure requirement clarity is roughly the same in these fields as in the physical sciences, and at least for engineering and computer science, the salary levels are higher than for the physical sciences.

4. jack_cade - July 12, 2010 at 09:33 am

Yes Iris it is different in other disciplines. However, more and more tenured-tracked jobs in the Humanities are only going to applicants who have at least one post-doc position, when you couple that with longer time to degree completion and the dearth of tenure-tracked jobs I would guess that the "NOT" that you suggest is rather inaccurate.

5. vickigreshik - July 12, 2010 at 11:20 am

While I haven't as yet seen the full report, it seems that once again, we have a study affecting only traditional tenure-track faculty in tenure-granting institutions. Given the decline in tenure-track positions nationally, maybe we should start looking at satisfaction and stress a little more broadly. But I may be speaking hastily. I'm headed to the full report now.

6. anonscribe - July 12, 2010 at 01:25 pm

i had a different reaction to the article: pleasure that at least those few people in the humanities who find tenure-track work are happy with their work. humanities folks are just about as happy as physicists and happier than law or engineering professors? that's great news (for me...assuming i win the tt job hunt lottery)!

that said, without some sort of normalizing cohort or some comparison to the work force at large, it's hard to tell what this research really means. are people on physical science faculties miserable compared to similarly educated people in non-academic fields? what's the job satisfaction of professors compared to non-academic lawyers, doctors, or bankers?

7. ksledge - July 13, 2010 at 08:52 am

What's the male/female ratio for physical scientists? When equating across the gender effects do you still get the same result for physical scientists? It just struck me that if there are many more men than women in physical science (as comapared to humanities or social science), then it might not be physical science that is so special.

8. bast2894 - July 17, 2010 at 08:52 pm

Amy Bishop, anyone?

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