Best Places to Work 2006: Academia


Our annual survey picks the 40 best academic institutions. See where yours - or the one you're considering moving to - fared. Assistant publisher MARIA W. ANDERSON highlights trends and zeroes in on what made top schools great.

By Maria W. Anderson, with reporting by Juhi Yajnik

The results are in: The Scientist's readers this year ranked St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in...

That jibes with what survey respondents voted the No. 1 factor in determining workplace satisfaction for the second year in a row: personal fulfillment. Peer relations, institutional management and tenure procedures also ranked among the most important factors, as determined by responses from more than 1,500 survey respondents, and institutions earning high marks in those categories took this year's top honors.

"The mission of our institution-treating children with cancer and finding new therapies for childhood diseases
-is pervasive throughout the institution at all levels and inspires me to do a good job every day." - An unnamed person from St. Jude's

For researchers at the top-ranked institutions, personal satisfaction can come from a variety of sources. At places like No. 1 St. Jude, and No. 9 Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Pa., fulfillment comes from seeing the science go from bench to bedside and knowing that it has real impact on people's lives. "What makes Fox Chase unique, I believe, is the sense of common mission among all employees," says Fox Chase principal investigator Glenn Rall. "As a cancer center that sees many patients each day, we are constantly reminded of our singular emphasis. ... We may do different things, but our work is all to reduce the burden of human cancer."

Large public universities fill different roles in the research community, but academic scientists find satisfaction in those roles as well. Michael Lairmore at No. 3 Ohio State University in Columbus values the "strong sense of mission. Ohio State is the flagship of the state for research and the atmosphere is great. This, coupled with the Midwest people, makes for a great workplace and family oriented group." One molecular biologist, who wished to remain anonymous, appreciates that his school gives back to its city: "Wayne State University plays an important local role helping to rebuild Detroit from the inside." Others see their institutions serving more globally. "Upper administration has a clear vision on how to position Georgia Tech as a technology leader for the 21st century and to train students to understand the 'flat' world in which we live," writes an unnamed researcher from the No. 11 Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

The people in a lab or office can make a big difference in the atmosphere and attitude, too. This year's top-ranked institutions scored well on factors related to peers, like cooperation, collaboration and collegiality, which were weighted heavily by a majority of survey respondents. "Collegiality and institutional loyalty are very important issues for me; fortunately both areas are strong among the faculty at Calvin," writes a biochemistry professor from No. 5 Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. Joe Kamalay, a postdoctoral associate at the No. 15 Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Mo., says, "Collaboration is strongly encouraged from the top down. In a relatively small institute this has made relationships possible between faculty with different expertise."


When asked what aspect of their work environment they most appreciated, this year's survey respondents gave a wide variety of answers, ranging from "I am surrounded by bright, enthusiastic people" to the less optimistic "I get a paycheck." The single most appreciated factor was academic freedom - "the freedom to pursue my own research interests," as defined by one unnamed respondent from McMaster University, in Ontario, Canada (view the top-ranked Canadian institutions). Hundreds of scientists across the country echoed that sentiment. "The administration has allowed me to build my research program as I have envisioned," says an investigator from No. 6 Trudeau Institute.

Scheduling flexibility also garnered many votes, especially from scientists that have family responsibilities. When you can choose your own schedule, it's "easier to make a life-work balance," according to a staff scientist at the Wellcome Trust Center for Human Genetics in Oxford, England (view the top-ranked UK institutions). Others, like one respondent from Brown University, like the variety that an academic research career provides: "I never have a routine and am always doing many things at once." Nancy DiMarco, Director of the Institute for Women's Health and professor of nutrition and food sciences at Texas Woman's University, agrees and says that she appreciates "being able to use my creativity-no day is ever the same."

Although geographic location was not cited as one of the top 10 most important factors (see Factors Most Important to US Academic Scientists) in this year's survey - US researchers ranked it 21st out of 39 factors - some scientists still consider it a huge plus when considering their overall career contentment. A respondent from the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine in Hershey, Pa., likes that "the surrounding environment is reasonably priced and within easy traveling distance to major points of interest." For the first time, several Midwestern states including Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Missouri had three or more institutions in this year's top 40 rankings. "Madison, Wisc., is a very nice place to live. Very safe with good schools," writes an unnamed respondent from the University of Wisconsin. The only state outside of that area to have as many institutions on the top 40 list was California.


Scientists in academia find plenty to complain about as well. Lack of funding, and thus low pay and lack of job security, were commonly cited as the least appreciated aspects of academic life, followed by problems with administration-either a lack of administrative support or an excess of administrative duties.

Survey respondents lamented drops in NIH funding (see Sizing Up Bush on Science) and criticized institutions that require life scientists to rely solely on grant money to continue their research. "Inadequacy of funding is the single greatest impediment to the quality of academic life," writes a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researcher that wished to remain anonymous. Low pay was a universal complaint: Scientists both at top-ranked institutions like Georgia Tech and Fox Chase, and at schools lower on the list, such as Purdue University and the University of Missouri, bemoaned their poor compensation. Researchers at places like the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and the No. 2 Gladstone Institutes and No. 13 Stanford University in California, say that their pay doesn't match the cost of living in those areas. Others at schools like the University of Michigan and the University of Massachusetts Medical School complain that large percentages of salaries must come out of their research grants, decreasing the funds available for lab equipment and supplies.

The importance of teaching duties is up for discussion. According to the weighting of the survey questions, two factors related to teaching ranked in the five least important factors (see Factors Least Important to US Academic Scientists). Some academic scientists would rather leave the teaching and administrative duties behind. An assistant professor from University of Ottawa appreciates that "I am given a reasonable amount of freedom from administrative and teaching responsibilities to establish my research program." Others value the balance between teaching and research and are frustrated when their teaching and mentoring efforts aren't properly recognized. David Nelson, a microbiologist at the University of Rhode Island, appreciates "the respect that I receive from my peers for both my research and my teaching." Northern Arizona University professor of biochemistry Diane Stearns concurs: "The good balance between research and teaching makes for a fulfilling career."


And it's those institutions that provide balance-the right mix of research, teaching, and administrative responsibilities; opportunities for interaction and collaboration with colleagues; avenues for career development and advancement; availability of funding and other resources; and most importantly, freedom to follow personal research interests-that achieve the healthy and rewarding work environments that life scientists crave. Linda Marchuk, a research associate at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, says, "My institute and the people I work with allow me to pursue my interests and encourage me to be the best that I can be."

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