orgtheory.net

what is it like to be a professor?

Got a recent email from Ben. He bought the Grad Skool Rulz and is seriously thinking about graduate school. He is curious about what it’s like to be a working academic. Smart guy. Ask now.

Here’s how I’d describe it. There are three stages to being a tenure track professor professor: trainee (grad  student), probate (tenure track), and zombie (tenured prof). It’s important to recognize that this does not describe the majority of academics. These days, the average college instructor is an adjunct (part time) instructor). Some people like this arrangement, especially clinical faculty, such as lawyers, who are hired to teach the occasional course in a professional school. For most, however, the adjunct career track is low paid work that requires “freeway flying” between far flung campuses.

But let’s stick to the tenure track because that’s what Ben is shooting for:

  • Trainee: Graduate school is uneven. The first two years are courses, then you have an extended period of self-directed study and research. You also have to learn to be an adult. Learn to do your work without a boss or deadline. Don’t get published and you’ll get a career failure. Don’t do your dissertation and you have nothing to show for your work.
  • Probate: Assistant profs are paid and have a high stress level. It usually takes a long time to execute a project and get it published. You may have five or six years, but it goes by quickly as you work on these big projects. The difference between trainee and probate is quality. The dissertation is a student exercise, so a competent work will get approved. In contrast, the competition is tough for journals and publishers. Top publishers routinely reject 90%+ of submissions. The other big difference is teaching. Research faulty teach 4 courses a year, though they can buy some out. Liberal arts faculty do more.
  • Zombie: You have enough experience with publishing and you’ve managed to balance teaching and research demands. The killer here is committee work. If you are in a research department, you also have graduate student training.

My days are usually divided into teaching days and research days. Personally, I try to cram all classroom time, office hours, and grading into a few long days. It’s about minimizing transaction costs. So a few days a week, I roll into campus late in the morning and teach these long seminars and meet with students. Since I pack a lot into a few days, this may go into the evening, especially if I have afternoon/night classes.

Research is a bit different. Since I am a multi-method researcher, doing research can mean very different things. Currently, I am involved in some surveys. So I spend time writing grants. At other times, I do ethnography. So it’s about making travel arrangements or deciphering field notes. Then, at other times, I may be programming. But unless I am traveling, research usually means reading current research,,working with data, and writing papers/book manuscripts. That entails sitting in front of computers for a long time.

Teaching and research are interrupted by committee meetings. This is utterly boring. Sometimes the meetings are boring and crucial (like hiring or promotion), or boring and not crucial (listening to an administrator tell us about the latest mission statement). Regardless, they are a necessary evil of the academic profession. I am lucky to be in a program where meetings are kept to a minimum.

At the zombie level, you also do a lot of evaluation. Senior professors are asked to review papers for publication, book manuscripts and write letters of recommendation, including tenure letters.

Finally, Ben asked about research topics. This is easy. Just pick up the journals, books, and recent dissertations in your area. Read them and see if they inspire you. If they leave you cold, then academia probably isn’t for you.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 18, 2012 at 12:01 am

38 Responses

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  1. I usually just clench my fists and say “The Power … THE POWER …”

    Kieran

    May 18, 2012 at 1:29 am

  2. How about a future post about making the jump from grad student to tenure track, bypassing the whole adjunct culture that seems present now. Do you think this is going to just be the new norm or will there be any foreseeable changes in the next 6-7 years?

    undergrad

    May 18, 2012 at 4:32 am

  3. [...] what-is-it-like-to-be-a-professor [...]

  4. I think being a professor is the greatest job in the world. As a kid, I never thought that I’d get paid to read about interesting ideas, talk about those ideas with others, and write. But that’s what being a professor is. It’s truly my dream job.

    But that doesn’t mean it’s not work. Being a good professor involves a lot of work that doesn’t fit into a neat 9 to 5 day. During the day I meet with a lot of students, teach, do committee work, work on papers and data, etc. But in the evenings I read manuscripts and write reviews, respond to emails, and read new books/articles. There simply isn’t enough time in my office workday to do all of this. I’m not complaining. I love this kind of work, but if you think that being a professor is a great job because it’s not time intensive, you’re wrong. A lot of the work that professors do is unseen and not readily rewarded. Teaching, although very important, makes up a very small portion of how I spend my time. I like to think that the rest of this stuff makes me a better teacher in some way, certainly a more informed teacher, but we don’t spend the majority of our time in the classroom. (This varies, of course, by the kind of university/college that employs you.)

    Some phd students start their programs with the wrong idea about what an academic job is. They think they’re being trained to be instructors, to learn polemical and rhetorical skills. You’re lucky if you can pick some of this up along the way. Clearly, professors who learn these things end up being more effective in the classroom, but again, because most of what you do is outside the classroom, our emphasis in training is on learning how to dissect arguments, craft papers, analyze data, etc. A fair number of grad students drop out of their programs because they realize pretty quickly that this is not how they want to spend their time, and I applaud those students for figuring that out early rather than waiting until they find their first job to realize that the tasks of being a good professor are not suited for their personalities. Being a professor involves a lot of tedious tasks, like creating datasets, that are essential to the craft of doing research.

    brayden king

    May 18, 2012 at 1:38 pm

  5. I’ve never heard of buying out classes – how does that work? I forget if I mentioned this before, but when I attended the admitted student welcome days at Wharton your book was recommended (I had already bought it).

  6. Professors with large grants will often use some of that money to buy out a course or two. They pay back the college the amount of money they would make from teaching that class with the grant, which releases them from that course for the year. This almost never happens in business schools (which I assume is where you’ll be going Andrew?). Courses in business schools can be quite expensive to buy out. Although it’s conceivable that a really big grant (like a multi-million dollar NIH grant) could afford to buy out a course or two, it rarely happens in practice in the business school.

    Not surprisingly, this works as a disincentive for b-school professors to seek grants.

    brayden king

    May 18, 2012 at 2:00 pm

  7. Best advice is to look a journals seriously before you start applying to graduate school. This should help you pick disciplines and programs that fit your aspirations. I got this advice as a college student, read a bunch of journals and just couldn’t believe that professors really spent time trying to produce that stuff. My mistake!.

    David S. Meyer

    May 18, 2012 at 2:50 pm

  8. I’m with Brayden – it’s a wonderful job with a lot of expectations and those expectations aren’t well bounded. That’s OK with many of us because of the wonderfulness of it, but the tradeoff is worse for adjuncts.

    To say the “average professor” is an adjunct these days is correct, of course, but not all that useful, since there’s a lot of heterogeneity among disciplines, university issuing degree, and employing institution. A strong sociology student gaining a degree from a top-20 sociology program has a strong chance of landing a tenure-track job.

    andrewperrin

    May 18, 2012 at 3:33 pm

  9. The downside of being a professor is that, unless you make a conscious effort in other directions, your understanding of the world outside academia can be quite limited. This can be especially crippling if you are committed to studying social issues.

    Moral of the story: don’t believe people who say or imply academia is the only worthwhile thing to do in the world. It isn’t, by a long shot. Universities are full of those people.

    Guillermo

    May 18, 2012 at 4:36 pm

  10. The downside of being a professor is that, unless you make a conscious effort in other directions, your understanding of the world outside academia can be quite limited. This can be especially crippling if you are committed to studying social issues.

    That’s a sadly common but misconstrued perception. Our job is to study and understand the world outside of academia, and so it can’t be true that we’re somehow less informed about the social world than others just because we don’t have a job working for the DMV or for a consulting firm. A job is a job and anyone who has one will calibrate their job performance/lifestyle according to the demands, incentives and constraints of that job. Academia certainly has its own particular set of demands, incentives, and constraints, but then again, so does working for Goldman Sachs, a hospital, or any other institution. At the end of the day, we still have normal lives outside of our jobs that involve paying bills, mowing the lawn, getting our kids to dance practice or to a birthday party, etc. I have neighbors who have jobs that have nothing to do with academia. I go to church. I live a fairly normal life, other than that I use my free time after things quiet down at night to read journal articles, review papers, write letters of recommendation, etc.

    What exactly don’t academics understand about the social world that somehow people outside academia understand better?

    P.S. I also watch 30 Rock and Mad Men, I’ve been known to watch Wizards of Waverly Place with my daughter, I read novels, and I keep the SF Giants games on tv while I read.

    brayden king

    May 18, 2012 at 5:22 pm

  11. “What exactly don’t academics understand about the social world that somehow people outside academia understand better?”

    The real-life constraints faced by people who live and work in different environments, which look very different when viewed from the inside.

    Also, the actual difficulties in implementing policy solutions proposed by a professor who has never left the comfy environment of an elite higher education institution.

    Guillermo

    May 18, 2012 at 5:36 pm

  12. Guillermo, this is a lame argument. All professions are different than the rest of the world. Ask an auto-worker what he thinks of something. He’ll base it on his experience. Ask a doctor. They think the world revolves around them (and it does – in hospitals!). And yes, professors often make poor judgments, we are no different than anyone else.And while you may think professors lead cushy lives (I do, to a good extent), most make modest salaries and a majority are part timers.

    But here’s the difference. Many professors are paid to actually study the social world. Social scientists, at least, are actually trained to collect data and analyze it using the best techniques we have. The average person just gives post-hoc rationalizations of their opinions.I would never claim that profs have a monopoly on truth, I would say that we have a more informed opinion on social matters than most people because we’ve actually studies the issue way, way, way more than others.

    fabiorojas

    May 18, 2012 at 5:46 pm

  13. The real-life constraints faced by people who live and work in different environments, which look very different when viewed from the inside.

    That’s ridiculous. Of course we face real life constraints. Do you think we’re just sitting around a faculty club all day, reading Foucault and making ironic comments? Academics get fired and a large number of us live in a state of job insecurity (e.g., adjuncts). We have to make ends meet like everyone else. Many of us have worked in other jobs prior to academia, and we certainly all have friends and siblings who are not academics. I just don’t see how this job is any more of a bubble that anyone else’s.

    As for policy solutions, amen. But academics can get in a long line. Most people who have opinions about policy have little idea about how they should actually be implemented. That said, I think there are some academics, including some people I know who have very close relations with the policy world, who have a very good understanding of how policies are implemented. They’re doing more than just arm-chair theorizing, as some of these people spend much of their time in Washington doing actual (real world) policy work.

    brayden king

    May 18, 2012 at 5:50 pm

  14. The thing that surprised me the most when I became a professor was the amount of moving and travel.

    Research universities are like sports teams, most cities and towns have 1-2 at a given rank and they hire to fill out the team so they won’t always have opennings in your position. If you want a job on the research fast-track you have to be willing to move at the end of your PhD (which will most likely be in your late 20s or early 30s). An indemand new PhD coming out of a top program will have some choice over where she lives (e.g. 3-4 comparable offers to choose among), but even she can’t live anywhere she wants without taking a pretty big career hit.

    If you’re a lawyer or some other professional you can switch employers without moving far away. In academia, changing employers often means changing cities or states (assuming you’re not leaving academia).

    There is a lot of travel. Being an academic early in your career is like starting a small business. You are building your brand and the product is you. That means going to a lot of conferences and workshops to make people aware of your work and also giving a lot of talks at other universities. A typical trip to give a talk at another university goes as follows: fly in the night before, the day of the talk you have 30 min meetings with people in the Department all day, group lunch and dinner and at some point in the day you give a 90 minute lecture. You then either rush to the airport after dinner (you have to teach the next day) or take a flight the next morning.

    Marit

    May 18, 2012 at 5:52 pm

  15. Um, Brayden… just for the record, if you know a place where I can sit at the faculty club all day and make ironic comments, please forward them my CV.

    fabiorojas

    May 18, 2012 at 5:53 pm

  16. “Guillermo, this is a lame argument.”

    We’ll probably disagree once again. My point was that practical real-world experience is severely undervalued in academia (and the responses I received only reinforce this opinion).

    As an aside, I did not mean to imply that university professors are necessarily better off than the rest of the population. What I meant by ‘comfy’ is that a university is a shielded environment where it is more difficult to learn about external reality. In that respect, give me a hospital – even a private one – any day.

    Guillermo

    May 18, 2012 at 5:57 pm

  17. Fabio – the only faculty club I’ve ever been to was at your alma mater, U. of Chicago. It was mostly empty, or totally empty, if I recall. Rather than talk about Foucault, we played pool for about 20 minutes and then left. It was kind of like hanging out in a dorm lounge.

    brayden king

    May 18, 2012 at 6:01 pm

  18. Guillermo: What do you count as “real world experience?” Do you think that teaching is not “real world?” Do you think not making tenure and ruining your career and about fifteen years of work is not “real world?” Do you think being an adjunct who makes a pitiful salary while part time teaching at three campuses is not “real world?”

    Also, do you actually know about people’s work histories in academia? Yes, some people have spent their whole lives in academia but a lot of people haven’t. One commenter in this thread who I know personally has spent time in Washington doing policy work. I’ve had PhD students who’ve been school teachers, government regulators, and attorneys. My co-author (Michael Heaney) has worked on staff in Congress doing policy work. My other co-author is an MD who practices medicine and is a leading researcher in his area.

    It’s sad that you can’t take the time to recognize these people’s complex careers as “real world.”

    fabiorojas

    May 18, 2012 at 6:03 pm

  19. PS: You may not realize this, Guillermo, but a fair number of social scientists continue to consult and do work outside the academy. This is actually very common in economics and business, but also happens in sociology where people work with non-profits aimed at under served populations like immigrants and the poor.

    Geesh, the more I write, the more annoyed I get. Does Guillermo – a regular reader – not remember the various discussions of ethnography on this blog? Does he even understand that entails years of working in “real world” field sites? This is the sort of commentary I expect from freshmen.

    fabiorojas

    May 18, 2012 at 6:07 pm

  20. If Ben is reading this post, what it’s like to be a professor is that a lot of people don’t think you are part of the real world.

    fabiorojas

    May 18, 2012 at 6:14 pm

  21. “What do you count as “real world experience?””

    For the purposes of this discussion, extra-academic productive activities. Some of those you already mentioned. Others you did not include laying bricks, harvesting tomatoes, crossing a border illegally, etc.

    “Also, do you actually know about people’s work histories in academia?”

    Yes, I do, and that does not change my opinion one bit. My comments were not meant as indirect references to posters here. But it would be silly to deny that lots of people in academia live in this state of wilfull ignorance.

    Guillermo

    May 18, 2012 at 6:14 pm

  22. Guillermo – I suggest you create a survey questionnaire with a list of items that would allow you to construct a real-world index. Feel free to include laying bricks, harvesting tomatoes, and crossing borders illegally in the index. Then distribute the survey to a random sample of non-academics and then to a random sample of academics. My guess is that our real world scores would be fairly similar.

    By the way, does harvesting home-grown tomatoes in your backyard garden count as a real-world experience? I’ve done that and those were the best tasting tomatoes I’ve ever had!! For real.

    brayden king

    May 18, 2012 at 6:25 pm

  23. “My guess is that our real world scores would be fairly similar.”

    O. K. Point taken.

    Guillermo

    May 18, 2012 at 6:44 pm

  24. My point was that practical real-world experience is severely undervalued in academia (and the responses I received only reinforce this opinion).

    Yes, I do, and that does not change my opinion one bit. My comments were not meant as indirect references to posters here. But it would be silly to deny that lots of people in academia live in this state of wilfull[sic] ignorance.

    Feed a troll and he will grow.

    pretendous

    May 18, 2012 at 7:31 pm

  25. I once tried to cross a border without a proper visa – 1 point for me!

    Anonymous

    May 18, 2012 at 8:03 pm

  26. In Guillermo’s defense, there is a common “scholastic fallacy” argument which says that a professional academic in a US or European university (especially a tenured faculty-person) is going to have a baseline degree of economic security as compared to the typical global human (who subsists on a dollar or so a day while living a precarious existence in some squalid megacity of the global south), and that such distance from material necessity can lead the former to construct poor accounts of how the latter live and experience their lives. Of course the typical sociologist who reads orgtheory is going to have read John Levi Martin, Pierre Bourdieu, lots of anthropology, etc; will have internalized the thrust of this argument; and will likely be producing enlightened scholarly work that takes seriously the lives of those they study. But I still think it’s a valid point to make and I don’t necessarily interpret Guillermo as accusing me of living a pampered existence in an ivory tower. I mean, my coffee machine has been broken for three days now and yet I still have managed to wake up before noon each day. I may even motivate soon to hit Target to buy a new one.

    sallaz

    May 18, 2012 at 9:02 pm

  27. “a professional academic in a US or European university (especially a tenured faculty-person) is going to have a baseline degree of economic security as compared to the typical global human (who subsists on a dollar or so a day while living a precarious existence in some squalid megacity of the global south)”

    But, that’s true for virtually everyone who lives in a Western country…

    JD

    May 18, 2012 at 9:08 pm

  28. “In Guillermo’s defense, there is a common “scholastic fallacy” argument which says that a professional academic in a US or European university (especially a tenured faculty-person) is going to have a baseline degree of economic security as compared to the typical global human (who subsists on a dollar or so a day while living a precarious existence in some squalid megacity of the global south), and that such distance from material necessity can lead the former to construct poor accounts of how the latter live and experience their lives”.

    That’s more or less the gist of the argument. Thank you for an intelligent response.

    Guillermo

    May 18, 2012 at 9:46 pm

  29. Anonymous

    May 18, 2012 at 10:07 pm

  30. Guillermo – if you would have made a class-based argument initially, we would have had something to discuss. But I don’t think that’s what you meant because you said that the hospital was preferable – i.e., less shielded – than the university. And the hospital is certainly just as middle-class, if not more so, as the university.

    Let’s stick with the class-based argument for a second though. I still don’t buy it. How is being part of the middle-class any less real than being poor in a Third World country? Different realities, for sure, but less real? I don’t buy it. You’re saying that because academics experience a reality that is so different from anything we study, anything we seek to understand with our empirical tools, we will simply be unable to understand it. If you actually believe that, then I don’t see why you’d see any value in social science at all. Our reason for existence is to assess reality using empirical tools, which help us gain insights about the world around us that you couldn’t get simply through experience or anecdotal observations. If you don’t believe in that basic endeavor, then I’m not sure why you even care to read this blog.

    brayden king

    May 19, 2012 at 1:30 am

  31. FR, thank you!

    benkilbarger

    May 19, 2012 at 12:43 pm

  32. As summer’s arrived and this professor now has time for leisure reading, let me share this gem from The Art of Fielding (page 194, if you care, and yes–read the book if you can): “She knew this was precisely a professor’s job–to build a repertoire of lectures, refine them over time, and perform them as charismatically as possible. To never seem sick of your own voice, for the sake of others.”

    Jenn Lena

    May 19, 2012 at 9:48 pm

  33. “You’re saying that because academics experience a reality that is so different from anything we study, anything we seek to understand with our empirical tools, we will simply be unable to understand it.”

    I’m not saying that professors are unable to understand or experience what the real world is. I’m saying that practical non-academic experience is a very valuable life asset, and that this kind of experience is undervalued in academia. I’m sure you and Fabio can see the difference.

    I mentioned class-based examples such as crossing the border illegally. One of the examples I had in mind was one of Omar’s fellow faculty members at Notre Dame, who actually crossed the border as an illegal immigrant, using a participant observation methodology in order to gain a more developed understanding of the migration experience. I mention this to make clear I was not arguing for the impossibility of learning about reality as an academic researcher. I was arguing in favour of enriching research with hands-on experience.

    Guillermo

    May 20, 2012 at 1:41 pm

  34. This thread-hijacking kerfuffle should also be filed under “what is it like to be a professor?” Somewhere down the list, but not THAT far down: “The professor must daily face the question, ‘Do i engage the subaltern troll, or do I get REAL work done today?’” There is an endless supply – don’t you KNOW how many billions of people live on less than a dollar day!?! – and, just like feeding the hungry, feeding the subaltern troll is necessarily a collective endeavor. You can’t do it on your own.

    JT

    May 20, 2012 at 3:21 pm

  35. [...] teaching, and service to the profession, institution, and public. Occasionally, I also mention the career stages of academics. Because students usually only encounter professors in the classroom, many students (and [...]

  36. This Guillermo guy is a real idiot: Imagine someone applying Guillermo’s arguments to macroeconomic policy.

    “Gee, Ben Bernanke just doesn’t have the real world experience and knowledge of everyday circumstances for regular people necessary to know how to deal with once-in-a-generation financial crises and economic depressions!”

    This whole elevation of commonsense is exactly the kind of unthinking idiocy that is behind the “government budget is equivalent to household budget” and “teenage pregnancy wouldn’t be a problem if we had better values/they didn’t listen to rock or rap music” logical fallacies

    Andrew B. Lee

    January 8, 2013 at 10:54 pm

  37. I work for professors and find the majority of them to be the most elitist, yet clueless people I have ever met. In my opinion, elitism – which most of them are full of – is the most dangerous form of ignorance. I am actually a genius with an IQ of over 160. I found this out in my early twenties when I took a test administered by a government agency. However, my upbringing did not allow me many opportunities and I didn’t attend college until I was an older adult. In my job, my “superiors” have no idea how intelligent I am. They only see other professors as their peers and everyone else as subjects. In my opinion, professors strive to be the first to state what I consider to be the obvious; because it makes them feel they are smarter than everyone else. Being a true intellectual, I judge people based on how they treat others above any credentials or achievements they might have on paper. I would like to do a research study on professors. I wonder how that would make them feel.

    Jean

    January 11, 2013 at 9:48 pm

  38. Ben Bernanke and the like lack all insight and creative ability. These are gifts for which no amount of formal education or privilege can be substitute. In order to understand Guillermo’s comments, you’ll have to tear down your own delusions: those who suffer and are dehumanized do not have the luxury of self-delusion. They must find ways to survive and therefore, see more truth. To be blind to it might have fatal results. On the other hand, privilege breeds a lack of insight and raises pillars upon pillars of delusion … false paradigms.

    What a conundrum these professors find themselves in: to make up for their lack of life experience, they must study others to understand what they lack in life experience.

    Jean

    January 11, 2013 at 11:06 pm


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