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Toward Job Satisfaction

Thursday, July 31, 2014 - 10:35


There comes a time in the lives of some academics when they wonder whether they are a happy fit into their department (or similar professional unit). To quote from an article in Status by Meg Urry, "Many of us have worked in unpleasant environments. What happens? You spend a lot of time thinking about the sources of friction, complaining to yourself and to others about the bad things that have happened, trying to calm distraught colleagues so they won't leave."

Frustrated department members must wonder whether they or the larger unit are to blame. Then they ask whether there are some objective standards that are useful for answering this question.

Yes, there are.

A report (PDF) developed over several years of interviews for the ADVANCE project is a thoughtful 3½-page effort to describe the attributes of an ideal department and its leadership. The document serves other useful purposes as well: it provides (1) useful standards of good behaviors that can assist people who are evaluating the quality their working environment and (2) some appropriate talking points for discussions with their academic leaders. The report touches on the characteristics of vision, resources, leadership, student learning, scholarship, collegiality, environment, and spirit that are found in happy units. However, the document is more a description of characteristics than a recipe for action.

I received this report a decade ago from the ADVANCE program when I chaired our department. To this day it's posted on my office wall. As chair I used this report to set agendas. Today I quietly use it to chart our progress.

Another very useful document, the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) 2010 Executive Summary, summarizes the responses of a well-designed multi-university job-satisfaction survey whose outcomes are highly specific to the the entire faculty at a major research university in late 2009. The main sections cover tenure practices and expectations, the nature of work responsibilities (especially teaching), support for childcare and the family, and institutional climate/culture/collegiality. The report's conclusions consist of priority areas needing improvement; the report doesn't identify steps for making change. (Look for the five-page executive summary in the middle of the document.)

One vital topic that isn't covered in these documents is the way in which a concerned department acts in order to nurture the careers of its newest members. A vintage (1993) but timeless article by Marjorie Olmstead, written at the start of her career in the Physics Department at the University of Washington, provides suggestions to chairs about best practices for mentoring young faculty. The four categories of her report are (1) clarifying expectations for tenure, (2) facilitating resources to meet these expectations (with subsections on research, teaching, and service), (3) providing frequent and accurate feedback, and (4) expediting progress toward promotions.

"The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life."
       — Hubert H. Humphrey

"There is no substitute for caring leadership."
       — Edmund Bertschinger, MIT

These are little more than platitudes unless and until we actually commit to drinking the right medicine. Any such effort must derive much of its energy, enthusiasm, engagement, enterprise, and perseverance from younger, busy stakeholders who will be tomorrow's departmental leaders.

Bruce Balick
University of Washington, Seattle