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Expectations and the end of summer

Posted by Melissa on August 28, 2009

In Nature earlier this month, Rachel Ivie reviewed the book “Lives in Science: How Institutions Affect Academic Careers” by Joseph C. Hermanowicz. Hermanowicz has traced the careers of physicists at different types of universities and compared their levels of satisfaction as they progress throughout their careers. I’ll admit I don’t think I’ll pick up the book myself, as Ivie notes that Hermanowicz assumes “that research is the highest form of scholarly endeavour. He refers to teaching as an undesirable activity–as ‘acceptable unproductivity.'” As someone for whom teaching is central to what I do, I doubt I can stomach a book by an author whose fundamental assumptions define what I do as unproductive. Nevertheless, there were several things in the book review that caught my attention. Hermanowicz describes faculty members as victims of a ‘con game’ in academia where graduate students “all start out expecting to achieve greatness; but few do so.” There is analysis of the disappointment that faculty members must face at different points in their careers as they realize that the recognition their scientific achievements will bring them does not match their expectations. As someone who had no aspirations to scientific fame in grad school, I wonder, do most graduate students really start their careers expecting they will achieve greatness?

The review did make me think about what my expectations were when I started grad school (definitely no aspirations of becoming a physics big shot). I went to grad school because I enjoyed physics, and I did expect getting a PhD would allow me to contribute to physics, but in my mind, contributing to physics encompassed many possibilities–contributing to the creation of new knowledge (research), to the development of new physicists (teaching), to the support of the physics community by society at large (policy and/or outreach), to the application of physics to products and services (industry).

At this point in my career, it’s not dashed expectations that frustrate me, but rather too many competing expectations–institutional expectations, the expectations of colleagues and collaborators, student expectations, and the expectations I have for myself. As a woman in physics, I also find myself facing challenges related to expectations that arise from societal gender schemas. As the summer draws to a close and I take stock of what I had hoped to accomplish and what I actually accomplished, I find the landscape of expectations to be particularly harsh and I’m trying to figure out how to balance various expectations in a sustainable and satisfying way for the coming academic year.

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