Suggested Questions for Oral History Interviews

1. Introductory

Off tape: the purpose of the project and general nature of the questions to be asked will be explained. There can be some explanation of the papers and notes brought to the interview, and of the name-listing. The general control over interview use should be explained, to the extent that the interviewee knows he/she will have full editorial and access control; if there are any special conditions these should be recorded at start or end of the interview.

On tape: interviewer states interviewee and interviewer's name, date, place.

2. Youth

  • I know you were born at... in l9xx, but I don't know anything else about your family. Who were your parents, what did they do? (Specifically one should determine the parents' occupation at time interviewee was ca. 12-16 years old.)
  • What kind of education did your parents have? (N.b. phrase questions neutrally; if only one parent is discussed, follow up cautiously on the other.)
  • Were there any secondary school teachers, or perhaps other people, who had a particularly strong influence on you in science or in other fields?
  • I wonder what, of all these things, all these people, you think had the greatest influence on you, while you were growing up?
  • Did you expect from an early age to go to college? What influenced you? When you first went to college, what did you expect your education would lead to?

3. Undergraduate scientific education

  • At what point did you decide to major in physics? How did this happen?
  • Were there any of your undergraduate teachers, or any course, that made a particularly strong impression? (Follow-up on professors' names: their character, relations with students, nature of their instruction).
  • At what point did you decide you wanted to make your career in physics (chemistry,)? Why?
  • Was it doing research that attracted you, or being a teacher, or what? Did you intend specifically to be an experimentalist (theorist, solid-state physicist,)?
  • What sort of life did you expect to lead as a scientist, when you chose this career what sort of job prospects did you foresee?
  • What was your family's attitude to your choice of a career?

4. Graduate training

  • How did you choose to go to ... (university)?
  • How were you supported, as a graduate student?
  • What was your first real research project, was it your thesis
  • Did you get all your training at ... (university), or did you spend some time elsewhere, for instance abroad? (If so: how was this paid for, where, why, who, etc.; impressions of places visited, even briefly, can be useful, especially comparisons. If not, was travel abroad considered at all?)

5. Scientific career

These questions can be asked for each major piece of research, including the thesis, and for each institution joined:

  • According to your curriculum (American Men & Women of Science, etc.), your next position was at... How did you learn of the position? Did you also apply for positions elsewhere? Why did you want this position? (Just any job; size of salary; research equipment; colleagues;...)
  • What sort of working conditions did you have there? (This is fishing. If pressed, ask about physical conditions, space and equipment, then go on)
  • How much pressure was there to do research there? How were you made aware of the pressure?
  • What specialties were encouraged in the department (laboratory, observatory,)? Why did they encourage these? What effect did this have on you in choosing directions for your own research?
  • I know... was head of the department; what was his/her style as a leader?
  • In general, where and how did the staff exchange ideas about research?

These questions can be asked in the context of a specific piece of research work:

  • How much did this project cost? Where did the money come from? What did you go through to get this funding? (Compare procedures at recent dates with those at earlier points )
    (of work in collaboration:) Just what was your own role in this?
  • Could you tell me who else influenced your research, either in a personal way, or through publications?

These questions relate to the development of a field:

  • How did you usually learn about important new developments? (Journals, telephone, letters, meetings,...)
  • What journals did you read regularly?
  • Were there subgroups in the field which had major conflicting interpretations of important research problems? (Be specific about the problem if possible.)
  • In general, what led you to do research in... (field)?

6. General questions: science

Some of these should come up in the correct chronological place, but if not we must probe and follow up:

  • Have you served on any grant review boards, or any committees which influenced the way funds are given out for research? (If yes, emphasize the importance of knowing how these function.
  • How were you chosen?
  • How did the board function?
  • Of course in any group there will be individuals with different interests and priorities; what would you say were the main different points of views expressed?
  • How did the board's priorities change over time? Why?)
  • Have you served on any advisory bodies, for example government panels? (If yes, questions roughly as above.)
  • Have you ever held office in a professional society? (If yes, questions roughly as above; this is probably worth less time unless you run across a sensitive issue.)
  • Did you ever think of changing your research to some other specialty, or even another field entirely? (If yes, why?)
  • Did you ever think of going into applied (pure) research? Administration or teaching only? (If yes, why?) Did you ever have an offer for a job, or for some sort of funding, from industry? (When, why?)
  • Did you ever consider migrating to another country? (Question not usually needed for US, Soviet scientists.
  • For emigres: Did you ever consider going back to...? Were you ever asked?)

7. General questions: other

(This should be asked at the proper chronological point:)

  • What was your wife's (husband's) background, education, when you met?
  • Has your wife (husband) had a separate career?
  • Have children or other family matters had a serious impact on your career?
  • Have you written popular articles or books? (If so, why?)
  • What was the attitude of your colleagues towards popularization?
  • What are your most valuable primary records that would help historians understand your work in science and your career? (Not publications but notebooks, correspondence, computer records, etc.)
  • Where are these records now?
  • What other valuable records may exist for understanding the history of your group or lab?
  • What have we left out? Is there something of interest we've missed?
  • Who else do you think would make a good interview subject for our project somebody who's been around a lot and has a good memory?

If this is not the final session, the last thing on the tape can be a statement about what topics are expected to be covered in the next session. In any case this may be the place to tape statements about permission for access, etc. ... If this is your final session it would be a good time to discuss whether appropriate steps have been taken to preserve historically valuable documents; see our comments on preserving source materials. Feel free to call on the Center for History of Physics for advice.