Three things you should know before deciding to become a Professor
Alex Wild wrote and interesting blog post a few weeks ago titled "Three things you should know before deciding to become a professional nature photographer". This has inspired me to do the same for a Professor. What are three things to pass along to people who wish to become University professors?
1) You will do a lot of things that you were not trained to do. I was trained to do research. I was not trained to write grants or manage grant money. I was not trained to teach, yet I spend about a third (or more) of my time teaching. I was not trained how to chair meetings yet I often do this, whether it be chairing a PhD defence or a Faculty recruitment committee. I was not trained in human resources, yet I have to interview people, manage people, and learn to deal with conflict resolution. I was not trained in project management yet I have to manage large, complicated research projects. And the list goes on... A University Professor needs to become a jack-of-all-trades, becoming skilled in filling out expense reports, hiring summer assistants, learning how to write multiple-choice exams, writing grants, etc. A lot of different skills are required, and since you won't receive training in most of these: you have be versatile, creative, and willing to learn on the fly. This reminds me of a terrific post over at small pond science, by Andrea Kirkwood about being a 'jack-of-all-trades' in Academia - although the focus of that post was a bit different, the message is similar - being versatile and open to developing a broad range of skills is an important part of being a professor.
2) You will not be 'doing research' as much as you might think. In this context, by 'doing research' I mean taking part, actively, in the research process, from collecting data in the field or lab, to analyzing data, to writing papers (instead of just editing papers!). Professors still do research, but it's typically more on the troubleshooting/editing side of things instead of the 'getting hands dirty' side of things. If I were to graph my own trajectory, it would look something like this (um, and the 40% estimated these days is generous!):
This is quite dependent on the field of study, and on personality, but it becomes difficult finding time to "do" research when you are busy teaching, supervising students and managing projects. The switch from active data collector, to advisor, editor, or 'signer of expense reports' means that less time is spent actively engaged in the research process. Yes, you will still be able to do research (and read the literature, occasionally), but it just won't be the same as when you were doing your PhD and/or post-doc.
3) You will not hold regular work hours. Doing informal polls among my colleagues suggest we all work far more than full-time. I did an audit of my own hours a year or so ago, and although I don't work an unreasonable amount of time, it was well above a typical 9-5, Monday to Friday job. This is not really a concern, because (in part) it's my choice, and the job is truly amazing, and I would argue that most of us work that hard because we love the work. However, the hours are highly irregular - they vary season to season (squeezing in weeks of field work in the summers, and more intense hours often at the start and ends of academic terms), and they vary week to week (conference travel mucks up the weeks in advance of a conference, and means you play catch-up afterwards). The hours are also unusual on a daily basis- most Professors that I know work in airports, write a few emails while waiting to pick up their kids from a swimming pool, or find themselves working 14 hours one day to catch up on grading or finish up a grant report (note: this is balanced by lighter days now and then). Flexibility and variability are central to the job as a Professor (especially when also balancing an active family life), and if this isn't something you are able to do, the job as an Academic may not be for you.
I state those three items without any bitterness or frustration. I love my job, and even though I did not receive training in many of the things I now do, I have learned along the way, had good mentors, and have grown to love teaching and I enjoy University administration. I don't lament the lack of time 'doing' research -I'm still involved in the process, and now do more editing than writing, and my time in the field is more about troubleshooting than data collection - different but equally fulfilling. And although I find myself working at weird hours (I wrote most of this post at 11:15 PM, after my entire house was asleep), that works for me - I enjoy the variety in the day, the weeks and the months.
Some caveats: I work at a large (by Canadian standards), research-intensive University, and that certainly shapes my perspectives. Different institutions have different academic cultures, as do different countries, so my comments may or may not resonate with other Professors. I'm also a 'mid-career' Professor, and by this I mean no longer 'junior', but not far enough to be considered 'senior'. I'm sure my perspectives will change over time. Also, my perspective is very much defined by my field of study. I'm not sure how well my ideas and thought will resonate with people from other disciplines.
So... all you Academics out there.. do you agree? What are the three things you can share with others who are keen on becoming Professors?
For those wishing to become a Professor - have I dissuaded you? Or, is none of this a surprise? Please share your comments!