As the son of physicians, Henry Sauermann expected he, too, would have a career in medicine. But after working in a hospital during his civil service in his home country of Germany, he realized medicine wasn't for him. "There were some aspects that I liked, but others that I didn't," says the associate professor of strategic management at Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business.
Instead, he found himself interested in business, although he didn't veer far from his original interest in the sciences. In fact, throughout his undergraduate studies in economics, he worked in science and technology start-ups, always finding himself in the company of scientists and engineers.
What struck him about his colleagues was the excitement they had about their jobs. "From what I observed, there were clearly incentives beyond money and career advancement." When he decided to pursue a career in academia, it seemed natural to want to understand those motivations further, he says.
Indeed, since joining Scheller in 2008, he has focused almost exclusively on studying what motivates scientists and how the institutional context in which they are embedded shapes their performance and career trajectories. Understanding the motives of scientists —both professionals and non-professional "citizen" scientists—can have important implications for innovation.
For example, Sauermann's newest projects examine crowd science and innovation contests. Both involve large numbers of people and end up with the same result—the solution to a problem—but they get there quite differently. In crowd science, the process is public and no one owns the solution; in innovation contests, a winner is paid for a solution that the contest organizer owns.
"These are both novel ways of innovating," he says, "but the incentives for participants are quite different, providing interesting settings in which to compare and contrast creative processes as well as outcomes."
Understanding the Next Generation
Beyond offering insights into innovation, understanding what motivates scientists also has implications for educational policy. In particular, the National Science Foundation, concerned about whether the U.S. is producing the ideal number of scientists, has funded a major longitudinal survey of PhD students and postdocs in the U.S. started by Sauermann in 2010.
"In recent years, policymakers have begun asking whether we are producing too many science PhDs or not enough," he says. This question grew out of the observation that many PhDs did not end up in tenure track academic positions. "When PhDs ended up in other careers, like industry or consulting, there was the implicit assumption that they couldn't get jobs in academia, thus signaling a possible glut of PhDs," he explains.
Through the survey, which had close to 10,000 respondents, Sauermann and his colleague found a large heterogeneity in career preferences, and also found that those preferences evolve over the course of the PhD program. Some students started their PhD training only to realize they didn't like research, while others ended up pursuing jobs in firms because they were disillusioned with the academic environment or because they liked working on more applied problems in industry.
"Different people care about different things," he says of their findings, which directly challenge the assumption that everyone pursing a PhD would want to end up in academia.
Founders, Joiners, and Technology Entrepreneurship
Sauermann is further analyzing the survey data to understand the career choices of PhDs who pursue a career in industry. Specifically, he's interested in why some end up in large, traditional corporations while others are attracted to entrepreneurial start-ups.
Again, he is finding wide differences in goals and motivations. In particular, even among those who seek to work in entrepreneurial settings, there are certain traits that suggest someone will launch a company as a founder and other traits that suggest someone will join an entrepreneurial start-up.
"We found that more people are interested in joining an existing start-up—we call them 'joiners'—than are willing to start their own companies," he says. These people tend to be disinterested in management and are somewhat more risk averse than those who intend to found, but love the freedom and excitement of research and development in a startup setting.
This result, says Sauermann, may also provide insight to managers into ways to motivate employees. Indeed, managers in large firms—looking for new ways to provide intellectual challenge to their scientists—are increasingly offering some "free time," where employees can work on whatever projects interest them.
"Many of the ideas that flow out of 'free time' turn out to be very good," says Sauermann, suggesting that understanding scientists' motivations can be a critical factor affecting innovation in our country.