Differences between the sciences and the humanities


One of the great things about being on a small campus is that I have lots of opportunities to interact with colleagues in different departments and colleges. One positive side effect of being sucked into university-level obligations is that you get to know people you otherwise wouldn’t interact with.

  • Over the years, I’ve observed some huge differences differences between the research cultures of the sciences and the humanities. Most of these things are obvious, I realize.  Understanding these differences can help bridge cultural gaps.
  • In the sciences, journal articles are the primary metric of productivity and success. In the humanities, it’s books. Scientists can write books, and humanities people can write journal articles, but they’re not as important.
  • In many humanities fields, giving a paper at a conference involves actually giving a paper. Standing at a podium and reading, page after page after page. Science talks are far more informal.
  • Research in the sciences is highly collaborative. Many humanities scholars work solitarily.
  • Student mentorship happens everywhere. In the sciences, students often adopt a piece of a larger lab project, whereas in the humanities more often students work on entirely separate questions from their mentors. On average, science professors take on a greater number of student researchers than in the humanities.
  • Scientists are often expected to fund their research programs with external grants. Humanities researchers aren’t necessarily expected to bring in outside funds in order to be perceived as successful, as long as they create the research products in the end.
  • What constitutes a huge grant in the humanities is a small grant in the sciences. An award of $50,000 from the NEH or NEA is a massive success and a windfall, whereas in the sciences this is useful money but not even close to a “big.”
  • Scientists can get big pools of money to start up their labs. In the humanities, you get moving expenses, a computer, maybe some reassigned time and maybe a little bit more.
  • In the humanities, receiving a PhD from a “top 10 program” in the field is critical for professional success. Program prestige matters in the sciences, but not as much. (I couldn’t even tell you what the rankings are in ecology/evolution.)
  • The academic job market is way more messed up in the humanities. Here are two contributing factors: First, the degree of adjunctification is higher outside the sciences because tenure-line science faculty are more likely to bring in overhead to cover salary costs. Second, the job market for research scientists is more robust than for academic (say) historians. In the humanities, it’s more challenging to parlay a PhD into a salaried academic position outside a university.
  • All worthwhile doctoral programs in the sciences fund the students, so tuition and living expenses aren’t covered by loans. Graduate students in the sciences are paid to teach and do research, albeit poorly. In the humanities, PhD recipients often emerge with substantial debt.
  • Scientists need good library access to get current articles. However, physical access to great libraries is far more important in the humanities, as original papers and actual books remains important for research. The physical location of an institution, relative to an impressive library, is important for the humanities scholar.
  • Humanities scholars use the phrase “digital humanities,” and it means something to them.
  • Science professors are less likely to use elbow patches on their tweed jackets, but professors in the humanities are more likely to smoke a pipe.

Feel free to make new contributions, or disabuse me of any mistaken notions, in the comments.

8 thoughts on “Differences between the sciences and the humanities

  1. Some subcultures within the humanities cite in a very different way than how scientists cite. That is, in the humanities, a paper (read at a podium) is often a long string of citations (direct quotes really) from the “big names” in the field with what seems to me to be little additional organization or insight from the author. So the author starts with a question and uses lots of quotes to (kind of) answer the question. So citations are used as authoritative (almost guru-like) knowledge (but knowledge in a very different sense then knowledge in the science). And of course this then generates new knowledge (but again, a very different sort of knowledge than in the sciences).

    As for knowledge, there seems to be a different method for “testing” hypotheses. One of the most disappointing books that I’ve read was “The Godless Jew” by Peter Gay (a big name in the humanities) which opened with the argument that it took an atheist AND a jew to invent psychoanalysis. I thought that an interesting thesis. But in 100 or so pages all Gay showed was that Freud was indeed Jewish (literally quoting dozens of family and friends talking about how Jewish Freud was) and indeed an atheist (literally quoting dozens of family and friends talking about godless Freud was) and founded psychoanalysis. Case closed!

  2. In computer science, the talks themselves are presentations like other sciences do, not just reading a paper, but what’s being presented is an actual peer-reviewed paper, which was reviewed by the conference reviewers and published in the conference proceedings. A conference paper is a legitimate publication – in my subfield the best conferences would be considered more prestigious as publication venues than most regular journals.

  3. I worked on an interdisciplinary team of ecologists and a historian once, and learned a lot about the intellectual methods of historians [at least those of the school of thought of my collaborator]. Two important things struck me. First, many historians are *not* hypothesis driven. They think that defining a hypothesis at the outset of a project narrows the scope of the discovery process. Their research is more akin to descriptive natural history or geology. Secondly, philosophy is a fairly important part of how historians approach their material, and part of that philosophy is deep skepticism towards the idea of objective truth.

  4. OK, scientists tend to investigate the world without regard to the political consequences. Humanities (and social sciences) faculty tend to be much more sensitive to political consequences of scholarship.

  5. It seems to me there is a strong interest in, and a moderate incentive for, distilling research findings and sharing them with the public in science. There are far more news stories, popular writing, etc., on active science than on recent progress made in philosophy, literature, etc. (maybe history/archaeology is the exception). Which is a shame, because I’d like to better know what they are often talking about in the humanities.

  6. Getting big funds to set up a lab depends on the type of institution you arrive at. Not a given for scientists.

  7. Terry – like you I work in a relatively small university and have an opportunity to interact with colleagues from the arts, humanities and social sciences. It’s a great privilege that I’d like to think gives me a broader perspective on my work than I might otherwise have. In addition I’ve collaborated with a historian on supervising a joint ecology-history PhD (with mixed success), plus I research and publish papers within the field of history of science. So I’d like to think that I have a reasonable idea of differences between humanities and sciences. Some of what you write above I can recognise in colleagues from both the sciences and humanities, some I don’t see as being a major difference (at least in the UK).

    One difference you did miss was that wine is sometimes served during arts and humanities research seminars, but that’s rare in ecology (in my experience) – see:


    What’s more interesting, I think, is similarities between ecology/evolutionary biology and the humanities. Stephen Jay Gould pointed out many years ago that some lines of scientific inquiry were more like historical research than “real” science. That idea has stayed with me throughout my career, which I think is why I’ve such an interest in how a historical perspective informs our present day understanding of the subject.

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