Sauermann Studies What Makes Scientists Tick

As the son of physicians, Henry Sauermann once 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.  

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 startups, 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,” Sauermann said. When he decided to pursue a career in academia, it seemed natural to want to understand those motivations further. 

Sauermann became an associate professor in the Scheller College of Business in 2008 and teaches strategy and entrepreneurship at the undergraduate and master’s levels. Much of his research and teaching intersects with his personal experience. 

One study he headed, funded by the National Science Foundation, surveyed 10,000 doctoral students on their career preferences. The study grew from the question of whether the U.S. is producing the right number of Ph.D.s and was meant to explore why some pursue academia and some don’t.

What they learned was that those pursuing Ph.D.s had an array of career plans, and that many of those plans evolved over time. The bottom line of the findings was simple, and it echoed what Sauermann had experienced personally.

“Different people care about different things,” he said. 

Where are you from?

I grew up in Dresden, Germany. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this was the communist “East,” so I got some exposure to both systems.

How did you end up in the U.S. and at Georgia Tech?

I was looking to spend a year abroad during my undergraduate studies in Potsdam, Germany, and ended up at Duke through a partner program. I loved it so much, especially after seeing the victory celebrations and bonfires after a major basketball win, that I applied for their Ph.D. program. Once I graduated with my Ph.D., it made a lot of sense to take my first job in the U.S. as well, and Georgia Tech offered the perfect combination of great colleagues, a university that provides the perfect setting to study science and innovation, and a very livable city. 

What do you enjoy about teaching Tech students?

At Scheller, we typically use case studies to illustrate and apply concepts, but it’s the most fun if students who have their own business ideas come up to me and tell me how the class made things clearer or helped them work through their challenges. I still have students from years ago email me and report on the progress of their ventures and careers. 

How does your research of studying the next generation blend into teaching and working with them?

One of my streams of research studies how graduates make decisions to work in different sectors of the economy. The key insight is that there is no one best place that works for everyone, and it is important to figure out what one wants from a job and how to find the best match. I discuss these issues in my classes, where they are very relevant to students who are either thinking about starting their own firms or who are close to graduation and thinking about different types of careers. I have also worked with science and engineering students, postdocs, and educators at other universities who are trying to improve graduate education and career outcomes. One key goal is to ensure young people have access to the right kinds of information, and a systematic way of thinking about their career choices. 

What do you like to do outside of work?

My partner and I love to travel. It’s amazing to explore new countries and meet people in different parts of the world. We have an endless list of places that we still have to visit and every destination is at the top of the list. I visited Singapore in May and hope to visit Stockholm sometime this year.

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Kristen Bailey
Institute Communications