What Makes You Happy?


Do you really know what makes you happy in your professional life?

Many people think they will be happy when they get that next assignment, raise, promotion, or other event. They never quite get there, but are always looking to the future and some external event that is going to make them happy.

Recently, Nature conducted their first-ever salary and career survey, where they examined responses from over 10,500 scientists worldwide, and compared the job experiences between genders, and among geographical regions, sectors, and career stages. A summary of the data is available online.

The survey was international; therefore the overall predisposition of a country or region would affect the happiness scores. However, the researchers accounted for this by comparing how happy scientists were relative to the average happiness of their fellow countrymen.

What did they find to be the biggest driver of professional satisfaction? Not salary. In fact, it was “guidance received from superiors or coworkers”. Is this because scientists are inherently social (which is not the prevailing stereotype)? Or because those who form relationships and obtain advice from others are more likely to move ahead in their careers (which is what the networking advocate in me wants to believe)?

Salary was, however, the second-biggest driver of professional satisfaction. Most scientists were satisfied with their salaries overall, and many other studies suggest that once you earn enough to cover the basics, more money does not make you happier. In this case, things such as actual purchasing power (relative to cost of living), and your wealth relative to your comparison group (neighbors, etc.) become more important than actual amounts.

The factor ranking third in the Nature survey was degree of independence, which was over 60% in all countries except China, India and Japan. It appears that scientists want control over the direction of their work.

When examining the data by career stage (postdoc, assistant professor/lecturer, associate professor and full professor – it was not clear how industrial chemists were counted), satisfaction levels generally increased throughout the course of the career (though European scientists had a slight dip after the postdoc, then recovered).

Some other interesting observations:

Most scientists in Europe were satisfied with their holiday and maternity/paternity leave, while those in North America were less satisfied with those benefits.

Almost half of respondents in all countries thought the two-body problem (finding jobs for both members of a couple when both are scientists) was a significant issue. This may be worth keeping in mind if you are part of a dual-career couple – keeping yourself professionally flexible may be very important.

To no one’s surprise, industrial salaries were higher than academic salaries across all countries, and average pay increased through the course of one’s career (though the curve flattens in Europe and Australasia in later stages, relative to North America).

In a separate study, TeachFirst looked into why students pursue careers in STEM. Personal satisfaction and fulfillment was the most important characteristic that influenced graduate’s choice of career paths. This was followed by the opinions of family and friends, confidence in their own competencies and ranking lowest was lack of experience.

While the data is interesting, what does it mean to you?

Much like unemployment numbers (where the only number that really matters to you is if you are employed or not), you may not be too concerned with the happiness of your fellow scientists. But knowing what they value may help you realize what you really value.

I have a friend who, for several years, told everyone he met how unhappy he was at work, how horrible his boss was, and that he was going to give me his resume to review so he could start looking for another job – but he never did. Eventually, my friend was let go, and he’s now trying to figure out what will make him happy in his next job.

Use these surveys as a chance to reflect on your own professional life. Why did you go into science, and why did you choose the specific career path that you are on? Was it an accident, or did you plan it? Are you happy in what you are doing, and how you are doing it, or would you like more guidance from, or collaboration with, your peers? Maybe you’d rather have more independence over your own part of the project.

Once you’ve decided what you want, start figuring out ways to get it. Sometimes, it’s as easy as asking for more responsibility, or to be able to take on a new kind of project. Other times, you may have to move into a new position, or maybe even a new company. But once you do that, you will be happy – at least until you’re ready for the next change.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.

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