How to Make a Scientist Happy

March 1, 2011

According to the results of our 2011 salary survey, spectroscopists are a pretty happy lot. Nearly 85% of respondents said they are content with their current jobs (41% are "satisfied," 33% are "very satisfied," and another 11% are "extremely satisfied.") Almost as many, 77%, are happy with their current employer (42% satisfied, 22% very satisfied, and 13% extremely satisfied). This is true in spite of increasing stress, reported by 53%, and heavier workloads, reported by 65%.

According to the results of our 2011 salary survey, spectroscopists are a pretty happy lot. Nearly 85% of respondents said they are content with their current jobs (41% are "satisfied," 33% are "very satisfied," and another 11% are "extremely satisfied.") Almost as many, 77%, are happy with their current employer (42% satisfied, 22% very satisfied, and 13% extremely satisfied). This is true in spite of increasing stress, reported by 53%, and heavier workloads, reported by 65%.

The reasons why our survey respondents like the organizations that employ them are varied. Quite a few cited stability (not surprising in today's uncertain business climate). Many mentioned good benefits. Another common contributor to job happiness was a good team: "The people I work with are outstanding," one respondent said. Others emphasized feeling appreciated: "I am respected for my experience and knowledge," commented one. Another said simply, "My opinion matters."

Many of those characteristics of a good job would likely surface in a survey of any field. Other themes that stood out, however, were particularly relevant to science. For example, as one might expect among the curious-minded people who chose a career in spectroscopy, many respondents emphasized enjoying challenges and the opportunity for growth. "I have been given numerous opportunities to develop myself and also to work on interesting and fulfilling projects," said one. Many cited "exciting and challenging work." Several said simply, "I love what I do!"

Another common thread was having a high degree of independence to carry out one's work without meddling. "I am free to do the research I consider important," said one. "I am allowed to do my own research, method development, etc., with little interference from upper management," said another.

Quite a number of respondents also appreciate the fact that their organizations provide them with the right resources. "My employer allows us to purchase the instrumentation and services we need to keep running," commented one. "Instruments are repaired when needed," noted another.

As these remarks indicate, scientists value having the opportunity, equipment, and liberty to tackle the challenges before them. That desire for intellectual freedom, I believe, is more than just a wish to work without someone peering over one's shoulder. It is also tied to the values that underpin good science. One respondent's note about why she likes her firm clearly links her job satisfaction to scientific integrity. "There is no pressure from upper management to report ideal results vs accurate results," she said. "Our results are always valued as being accurate and true."

Fortunately, most of our respondents have found these good conditions in their work environments. Nevertheless, quite a few who said they like their jobs also mentioned common areas for concern, all related to profits interfering with science. "My employer has been taking a more business-oriented and less academic-oriented approach to running our university over the past 8–10 years," lamented one. A scientist who works in a private organization noted an alarming trend outside his firm. "I can pursue my goals with little interference," he said, "but the culture in most companies these days is becoming less interested in the research for the sake of science and more interested in the bottom line."

Many of the key working conditions that make scientists happy in their roles, thus, are those that allow them to do good science. Scientific institutions, therefore, should beware of letting those qualities erode, because doing so may not only jeopardize employee morale: The very mission of the organization may be at stake.

Laura Bush

Laura Bush is the editorial director of LCGC North America and Spectroscopy, lbush@advanstar.com.