Many faces of the university professor

In grad school I developed this theory of what a college professor is, or rather what roles their job entails. Note this is for a full time professor who teaches classes, does research, and has graduate students. Your standard professor at most 4 year universities.

I believe a professor is a scientist, mentor/teacher, and businessman/businesswoman all rolled up into one. Let me explain.

This is the role most students see. Most faculty teach at least one class per semester in the Fall and Spring. Our jobs are to develop course material, homeworks, exams, and projects with the goal to impart some of our knowledge of the subject on the students. The trick is the students have to meet us halfway, which is hard for some. But a good professor tries to help each student as needed and put some effort into every course, even if it’s the 50th time teaching it. A lot of this depends on the student though, as a name on the rooster means very little to me if I don’t know who you are and what you don’t understand because you’ve never come to office hours.

The mentoring part of the job is more geared towards grad students. As research advisors, we not only guide students in their research tasks, but also in their professional development and careers. A new grad student coming into a field likely has no experience in the methods and no knowledge of the background theories that predate them. And they are expected to succeed in this environment, largely independently. Quite daunting if you ask me. So as mentors, it is the professor’s job to “show them the ropes” as it were, to give them the right books and paper to read, to break bad habits, and generally get the student acclimated to the field. For more senior students, it is the professor’s job to introduce them to other people and to the world outside the university. Eventually the student will graduate and have to get a job, and a good professor will help by making sure others know the student and their work.

A large portion of our job as faculty is to conduct meaningful research. You’ve probably seen something like “research interests” on a professor’s website or “research groups” on a department’s webpage. Research and making meaningful contributions to the great body of human knowledge is how we are graded by our peers and the other scientist in the world. To do good research, we need good graduate students who can learn and do. But we also need to be good scientists ourselves. In some schools you may be able to get away with letting your students do all the work, but most of the time that doesn’t pan out. Besides, it is the professor’s job to advise their students on the research and to prevent too many discouraging dead ends. A few dead ends are fine, it’s part of the learning process, but it serves no one to let the grad student stumble in the dark for ever. So a good professor is also a good scientist and personally contributes to his field.

This is probably the least fun part of our jobs. If you imagine a professor, his or her lab, and the grad students as a small business, you wouldn’t be far off. The research most faculty do and the direction the research takes is largely decided by the faculty. The university generally lets us do what we like. The downside is that the university usually won’t pay for the research. So it’s up to us to get money to pay grad students, buy equipment, fund trips, etc. This involves a certain amount of salesmanship and credibility. Those faculty who have lots of students also have lots of money and are probably very adept at getting research funding. The funding sources range from public government (NSF, NIH, etc), military (army, navy, air force, etc), to private companies. It may surprise many that we faculty tend to spend a lot of time on this part of the job. We write many proposal a year for various funding agencies looking for funding for a new idea. Like any business, when the money stops, the work stops, and then it gets really hard to do the scientist part of the job.

So as you can see, your professors are probably very busy people and have to cover a lot of territory. A good professor will do one of these three jobs well, and the other two decently. It is very, very difficult to do all three well. There’s just not enough time in the day. Being a professor at a 4 year university is hard, but it can be rewarding and those of us who stay in it have found something that we enjoy.


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