Do you like being a professor?

I have gotten this question a lot, especially from graduate students I meet at conferences who I met while in grad school. They’re asking because the job of a professor is largely hidden from them, even though they are surrounded by them at the university. My typical answer is “Yes, I do like my job. However I don’t recommend it for most as it is either the best or worst job in the world depending on what you want.” Let me clarify. Here are some of the common things I do as part of my job.

-Teach classes and talk to students
-Write, take, and grade homeworks and tests (yes, I have to take my own tests to make sure they’re doable)
-Mentor graduate research students
-Meet with perspective undergrad and grad students
-Write papers for conference and journals
-Write research proposals for funding
-Allocate funding for students and equipment
-Edit student papers
-Read research papers
-Attend conferences
-Decide what project and research to pursue
-Serve on department/college/university committees (meetings and paperwork)
-Serve on professional committees
-Give tours for the lab to visitors
-Meet and greet with government, industry, and academia folks to build relationships and collaboration on research/funding

As you can see, that’s a wide range of tasks I end up doing every week/month/year. Some are more fun than other. So there are definite pros and cons to the job. The biggest pros would be: getting to pursue research based on my interests and mentoring students. The biggest cons would be serving on the various committees and juggling the money. But luckily most of my days are spent doing the interesting and reward parts, and they have long term benefits to me and my career. It all does keep me pretty busy. An average weekday would be as follows:

9:00 am – get to the office/lab. Work on some research related things (edit/read/write papers or proposals, fiddle with data, help grad students, etc)
11:00 am – go to a meeting of some kind
1:00 pm – teach a class
2:30 pm – office hours (can take this time to do research or classwork if no students show up)
4:00 pm – finish up and head home
8:00 pm – after dinner and kid asleep, pick up laptop and continue with research or classwok
10:00 pm – watch some late night TV and head to bed

Most days are like this. Some days have more meetings than others, or I may teach two classes on one day and none the next day. There are some days that I go from meeting to meeting or continuous sets of maintenance task like budgets and paperwork. On those days I don’t end up doing anything to further my research, which make me feel kind of bad. I tend to reserve my time during the daylight hours for research activities and take care of class activities in the evening. So even I have homework so to speak, usually grading the student’s homework, making notes/tests, etc. Saturdays I try and reserve for my family and avoid doing any work. On Sundays I usually end up working at least 4 hours on research or class to help catch up for the next week.

So academia may be for you if you are really interested in doing research that you control, like working with students, don’t mind taking work home with you all the time, and can put up with the dull parts. But if you just want a paycheck, a project that is given to you, or don’t want to work past 5 pm, then academia is not the best option. I’m not impugning those things, there are times I want a job that is well bounded and that I can stop thinking about when I get home. It takes a special kind of crazy to be an academic. There has actually been early studies that suggest academics have some characteristics of psychopaths, mostly an ability to make purely logical, emotionally detached decisions. So maybe being an academic is not always such a good thing. 🙂


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