Cover Story

Has the so-called "corporatization" of higher education made academia a less desirable place to work?

No, say professors in the natural and social sciences. In fact, according to a study presented at the American Sociological Association (ASA) annual meeting in August, academic scientists are more satisfied with their jobs than their nonacademic counterparts. The only exception? Psychologists.

Drawing on data from the National Science Foundation's 2003 Survey of Doctoral Recipients, the study found that, overall, professors were more satisfied with their autonomy, control over their work and their work's contributions to society than non-professors. Survey participants included about 18,000 PhDs in the physical sciences, social sciences and engineering and math.

Psychologists as a group were the most satisfied of any of the nine disciplines, according to co-authors Roberta Spalter-Roth, PhD, of ASA and Grant Blank, PhD, of Applied Social Research Associates. But in contrast to the overall findings, nonacademic psychologists were happier than academic ones.

How to explain that anomaly?

"I think it's because for psychologists, it's a career norm to work outside the academy, to have your own independent practice or to work in a corporation as an industrial/organizational psychologist," speculates Spalter-Roth, ASA's director of research and development. "They're not working in positions considered secondary to the academy."

Nonacademic psychologists aren't all happy, however: African-Americans were less satisfied than their white counterparts. "Psychology is the only discipline where there were significant differences between black and white," says Spalter-Roth. And men were less satisfied than women in both nonacademic and academic psychology.

Determining the "why" behind these findings will require qualitative research, Spalter-Roth emphasizes.

And, she adds, the overall situation may change as universities face continuing pressure to corporatize. To uncover whether attitudes among academic and nonacademic scientists are in fact converging, she and Blank plan to examine earlier and later data sets.

"If this convergence is occurring, it's a process over time," says Spalter-Roth. "In this study, we're looking at a point in time."

— R.A. Clay