Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

It has recently come to my attention, thanks to a friend and long-time reader, that according to a recent Harris poll, firefighters, scientists and teachers are considered to be the most prestigious professions by the public, while bankers, actors and real estate agents are perceived as the least prestigious professions.

Since the survey was first begun in 1977 by Harris Interactive, the most significant change since the survey’s inception is that, with the exception of teachers and clergy, the perceived prestige of every one of the original 11 occupations has actually decreased over the years (the original survey only included only 11 professions in 1977.) For example, the most dramatic drop in prestige was noted for scientists (-12%), lawyers (-14%), athletes (-10%) and doctors (-9%). On the other hand, teachers’ perceived prestige increased by 25 percent since 1977, while farmers showed the greatest increase over last year’s results, gaining 5 points since 2006.

Do you have any idea why the respondents would classify these professions so highly? It certainly isn’t due to fame or income, because none of these professions is populated by famous people nor are they particularly well-paid by any reasonable standard, so what makes these professions so prestigious?


Harris Intactive poll results.


  1. #1 Chris' Wills
    November 28, 2007

    Well being a good teacher is exceptionally difficult and important for society so I’m glad that people say that it is prestigious. Not sure about farmers, good PR perhaps?

    However, I suspect that people may be confusing important with prestigious.

  2. #2 Mark P
    November 28, 2007

    I can only guess based on my own perceptions. I think these professions are ones in which there is a presumed selflessness and an intent to benefit society. I think the lack of money involved in these professions is one factor that adds to the perception of selflessness.

    I also guess that a drop in prestige for scientists is at least partially the result of a concerted effort in some circles to denigrate science, for example, climate science and evolutionary biology.

  3. #3 Colin M
    November 28, 2007

    I’m with Chris – my first thought on reading this survey was “Survey shows: Americans don’t know the meaning of the word ‘prestigious’.”

  4. #4 Mark P
    November 28, 2007

    Re the definition of prestigious: if everyone thinks a job is prestigious, then it is.

    Here’s M-W online dictionary definition of prestige: “standing or estimation in the eyes of people : weight or credit in general opinion.”

  5. #5 Mark P
    November 28, 2007

    I checked the Web site. I noticed that my perceptions about why people think certain professions have prestige is similar to what the Harris site says. Doctors, of course, are perceived to make a lot of money but they are also considered to have prestigious professions.

  6. #6 Dan S.
    November 28, 2007

    If you listen to the way a substantial chunk of [U.S] people talk about [k-12] teachers, though, it ends up looking a lot more complex and ambiguous – they’re both respected and denigrated – although the latter more often by folks who dislike (or who repeat the opinions of folks who dislike) any concept of public good, etc.

  7. #7 vhutchison
    November 28, 2007

    I agree with the comment in #2 that the 12% decrease for scientists is due to the attack on science that comes largely from the fundamentalist religious right, especially from proponents of creationism and it’s latest version, Intelligent Design (ID). The “Wedge Strategy” of the creationist Discovery Institute makes it clear that the point of the wedge is to get ID into public school science courses and then into society in general to accomplish an ultimate goal of transforming society into a religious-based theocracy.

    The poor understanding of science by the general public is obvious. That we have not done a very good job in teaching science in our educational system is also apparent.

  8. #8 Tabor
    November 29, 2007

    Who cares what people think? Who cares what people think is prestigious? Do you like what your do and can you make a living at it? The only important questions.

  9. #9 Suricou Raven
    November 30, 2007

    Teachers and scientists are both among the most and least respected. Respected for their intelligence, education and benefits to society. But equally attacked for threatening tradition, religion and the established order – and for being the messangers of unwanted news.

  10. #10 gex
    December 1, 2007

    Unfortunately, the public at large is willing to consider these careers prestigious at the expense of, ya know, paying these people what they are worth.

  11. #11 Swaranjit Singh Cameotra from the City Beautiful: Chandigarh
    December 2, 2009

    I am in the scientific line since 23 years and am sticking to it. The main reason is that the immense happiness I get when our exciting experiment/hypothesis is proved correct and we get a good publication. For us a research publication is a reward, we get many such rewards steadily.People whom we had never met get to know us. Imagine the pleasure of meeting them in a conference or some other place. It’s great to hear from them: “Hi! I read your paper in Trends in Biotechnology—–could you give me a copy”?

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