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.