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Should you be a professor?

Created 8/25/2021

Students often ask, “what is it like to be a professor?” It is a high-stakes decision for a student to pursue an academic career, and being a professor is a lot different than being a grad student. I can’t tell you whether you should be a professor, but I’ll share what I like and dislike to help inform your decision-making. Consider how these characteristics align with your interests and values, and get feedback from other professors to understand your fit with this job. I’ve tried to focus on less-obvious aspects of the job–you don’t need me to tell you that faculty jobs are competitive and the pressure to get funding and publish is high.

The notes below come with a few caveats. This is my personal experience working at a research-focused university in the United States, and experiences at other places will vary widely. I also started in a desirable job and have mostly been treated fairly and with respect. This creates some survivorship bias, and people with worse experiences will reasonably have a more negative picture of academia. My perspective is mostly from working in academia, but I have spent short stints in full-time industry jobs, have worked as a consultant for many companies, and have worked for a software startup. So I have some experience in a range of jobs. Second, I work in Civil Engineering, where there are many appealing jobs in academia and industry. Other fields may differ in terms of the types of available opportunities. Finally, I’ll compare to “industry jobs” below, but the range of industry jobs is vast. I’m thus generalizing when talking about industry, though there is hopefully some value in the comparisons.

What I like about being a professor

  • My primary responsibility is to solve tricky problems and communicate our findings. I loved working on hard problems in graduate school, and that part of my work has persisted in this job.

  • Knowledge dissemination is a core value of my employer, in contrast with the private sector that emphasizes proprietary information. I can give talks about my ideas at any venue I want, share software, and give away things like this article. That’s not to say that the private sector is bad, and I enjoy my work in the private sector too. But the definition of success differs in the two sectors, in psychologically important ways.

  • I can observe students develop from my teaching and advising. A growing number of people have benefitted in some way from crossing paths with me. Seeing their successes, and hearing their appreciation, is tremendously gratifying.

  • I have significant autonomy in many parts of my job. That autonomy started from day one and is another key to my job satisfaction. Autonomy is not the same as ‘lack of accountability’ or ‘lack of pressure.’ It can increase the pressure. But it means that I have control over how I work within my broad constraints.

  • I work with fascinating people. I have colleagues from all over the world who have spent lifetimes building expertise in their fields. Professors and students are generally intelligent and curious people who like discussing ideas, and the constant stimulation keeps me energized.

  • I can prioritize working with on research projects with colleagues that I respect and enjoy. Working with people who teach me new things and bring positive energy is great for my mood and motivation. In a company, I would likely have less say in who I work with.

  • The job has a long time horizon. I have no billable hours and fewer short-term deliverables than I would in industry, so I can be more flexible in what I study and how long I pursue it. I sometimes take consulting jobs where a solution is needed quickly. I can offer immediate advice, but I enjoy going back to my university job afterward to think deeply about more comprehensive solutions to the problem. Conversely, without billable hours, it is free for the university to schedule additional meetings or ask for my service help. And with fewer project budgets or timelines to constrain scope, time spent on projects can expand and create heavy workloads.

  • Sabbaticals are a unique part of compensation in academia. My first sabbatical was intellectually and personally priceless, and I can’t wait for my next one. However, sabbaticals aren’t gifts. They are part of our compensation and part of the reason why academic salaries are often lower than industry salaries.

What I don’t like about being a professor

  • My time gets extremely fragmented. I have meetings with students, teaching classes, proposal writing, paper edits, giving seminars, attending conferences, office hours, thesis defenses, department meetings, search committees, paper reviews, letters of recommendation to write, and more. Individually, many of these tasks are interesting. But collectively, they can make it hard to focus or be productive. Companies are less likely to put you in so many roles because it’s an inefficient use of a single person.

  • It is hard to know how much work is enough. The job comes with more requests and opportunities than time, and steady pressure to always do more. Further, there is no supervisor to tell you, “you’ve done enough work today,” or “you have too much on your plate, so let’s shift some work to someone else.” Especially as a junior professor, the feeling that you should do more can be overwhelming. But for me, the feeling didn’t go away after tenure either–after a decade of working in that mode, it was pretty ingrained.

  • Universities are slower to change than companies. Many decisions happen by consensus, and faculty turnover is low, so it is hard to make changes that aren’t widely supported. This creates significant inertia towards tradition, allowing broken systems or cultures to persist. This also enables individual bad apples to stay employed and in power in universities. Small companies can nimbly reorganize or change policy to deal with challenges or address problematic people (if they have good leadership). Conversely, management at a company may make changes you oppose, while as a tenured professor you are on a more level playing field with your leadership.

  • There are infrequent ‘wins.’ Most weeks, I don’t win an award or get a grant or publish a research finding, and I rarely hear “good job!” That’s fine if I focus on enjoying the craft of my work rather than external validation. But it can be hard when you are searching for signs that your effort is appreciated and that you are succeeding. There may be more opportunities in industry for validation from projects completed, promotions, and bonuses. And it is generally quicker to get to an industry position with a reasonable amount of job security.

  • My research team is constantly turning over. While it is rewarding to see students grow and move on to new opportunities, it is also hard to lose experts from the group. Turnover also creates challenges when we go back to old work to fix problems or make updates. In companies, it is a bit easier to have a stable integrated team.

  • I get less training and procedural support than I might at a company. While this is improving, most universities provide little formal training in advising students or managing teams. I have learned a lot from informal mentors and reading, but not everyone can or will do this. It is hard to invest in learning soft skills when there are so many more explicitly rewarded demands on your time.

  • Job options are limited. Getting a single faculty job offer is difficult–let alone one with precisely the conditions you want. You may have to be flexible about location and institutional characteristics if you want a faculty job. Conversely, there tend to be more industry opportunities, so it’s easier to pick parameters such as a target city and then search for companies within those constraints.

  • There is usually only one professional trajectory within a university. Most professors’ jobs are similar, with the partial exception of professors that move to administrative roles. It is unusual to be a part-time professor or a teaching-only professor at a research university. Conversely, in industry, there may be flexibility to choose between specialization-vs.-generality or technical-vs.-leadership trajectories. It is often more feasible in industry to shift temporarily to a part-time role during a period of caregiving or other significant personal obligation.

  • I get asked a lot, “What is it like to have summers off?” I’m joking, as I don’t worry much about how non-colleagues think I spend my time. But for the record, I work hard in the summer. I’m just working on research rather than teaching classes!

I am privileged and fortunate to be a tenured professor. It is a rewarding job that I consciously prefer to other opportunities, but it is not perfect. When considering your opportunities, I suggest that you prioritize jobs with mentoring and a chance to grow, where you can earn autonomy in your work, and where you will be part of a community you enjoy. If you can find those characteristics, you should be on the path to a fulfilling career.


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