Faculty Perceptions of Work, the Academic Profession, and Universities Across Careers

Joseph C. Hermanowicz
The University of Georgia

August 2009 |

How do academics account for the unfolding of their careers in light of the goals and aspirations that socially situate their profession? A sociological study of 55 contemporary academic careers between 1994-95 and 2004-05 demonstrates how institutions shape careers and structure academics’ evaluations of their experience. Specific generalizations can be drawn about careers across cohorts of academics in three main organizational contexts. Faculty at elite research institutions may be most dedicated throughout their careers, but most devastated at the end. Faculty at communitarian institutions that stress teaching may be less dedicated throughout their careers, but most satisfied and positive in their outlooks at the end. Faculty at pluralist institutions stressing both research and teaching exemplify the greatest variability in their careers, but in the end find a satisfaction that overcomes previous ambivalence.

Such findings pose implications for the advancement of fields of knowledge, the welfare and functioning of academic departments and universities, and the cohesiveness of the academic profession. It can be argued that the increasing phenomenon of institutions seeking to embrace the model of the American research university entails a change in institutional expectations for careers that involves a greater emphasis on research productivity, but which does not necessarily bring about greater research opportunity. Taking into account the evidence of this study, we are drawn to the proposition that increased emphases on research will be accompanied by increased probabilities of dissatisfaction throughout the system of higher education and the present conditions of academe favor a decline in the attractiveness of the academic career. The present work prompts the question of what types of people, with what levels of talent, the academic profession will be able to attract.

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