Three things you should know before deciding to become a Professor

12 December 2013 by Christopher Buddle, posted in Academia

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? 

Here goes:

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!):


An estimate of the % of time doing research, over the last 17 years

An estimate of the % of time doing research, over the last 17 years

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.

Working pool-side, as one of my kids did their lengths.

Working pool-side, as one of my kids did their lengths.


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!

27 Responses to “Three things you should know before deciding to become a Professor”

  1. Sarah Boon (@SnowHydro) Reply | Permalink

    I agree with all three points here, largely because I'm in a similar discipline where you're mixing fieldwork/lab work with research group management and other issues.

    Having been at an institution that also placed a premium on teaching and cmte work, I'd add that you can often combine research with teaching (i.e., keep up with your field by sharing new ideas in class, have students work on interesting projects in your field) - though this requires that you teach courses in your discipline.

    Also if you're like me and somehow get involved in the workings/executive of your scientific societies, It can be fun but be aware that it adds a whole other layer of separationg from research.

    • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

      Thanks for the comment! Yes, good point, Sarah: the lines between the different parts of the job are often very, very blurred - and in my opinion, that's a good thing. Yes, the contributions to society, etc., can be another drain on time (although worthwhile!), further highlighting the need to be versatile and open to new skills.

  2. Simon Leather Reply | Permalink

    Great post - sums it perfectly - depends on how you count research - hands on I do hardly any - but reading the literature, thesis drafts, paper drafts and discussing experiments with PhD students and lab members might get me to 40%

    • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

      Thanks Simon - much appreciated! Yes, you are so correct - what to define as research is difficult. To be perfectly honest, the 40% (my research estimate for my work life, now) really isn't 'hands on' research, but the parts of the process I'm involved with are all contributing, but just in different ways. The editing, committee meetings, troubleshooting, grant-writing means less time at the microscope, for example, but still enjoyable and validating, and as Elena mentions in her comments, the mentoring is a very lovely part of the work.

  3. Elena Reply | Permalink

    Lovely post, Chris. My additions:

    1. Working with and mentoring young scholars (grad students, postdocs) can be incredibly rewarding, so trading out on-the-ground involvement in research for mentoring isn't necessarily bad. In fact, for me, this has been a huge net positive.

    2. If you are good at your work (i.e., publishing important papers, getting good teaching evaluations, participating in dept and Uni service), being a professor is a job with amazing flexibility (beyond just the work hours). As with all jobs, you have to prove your value. But if you are good at what the university expects you to do, you will be able to set your own agenda in terms of the research that you do and other interesting non-research projects you want to take on. (Improving undergrad programs, building community around the idea of a green building on campus, starting a blog, etc.)

    3. This flexibility - in hours, in research, in what projects you choose to do, in who you choose to work with - makes it a great job for those with families. Even though professors work hard, and sometimes work long hours, we have an extremely high degree of flexibility and power over our own work life. And that is a fantastic and often unspoken benefit!


    • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

      Thanks Elena, for the comment. Yes, I very much agree with you - one of the best things about the work is the combination of variety and flexibility. That combination, for me, makes up for the fact that I don't do as much hands-on research. I think it's also why I enjoy University admin, 'cause it's another part of this variety. Great comment about mentoring, too. It's a very important, meaningful and time-intenstive part of the job (and a rewarding part of the job).

  4. Terry McGlynn Reply | Permalink

    This is wonderful in its truth. Things I wish I knew.

    I opted against running a big lab because I didn't want to be disconnected from the research like most PIs do. At a small campus with undergrads, I thought, I would be able to do more of the science myself and not have to get distracted by as much admin stuff, grantwriting, and personnel management.

    And boy was I wrong. Even on a small campus, with a small lab, and not that many students and no postdocs or PhD students, I still am doing way more admin time than I ever imagined. I now am doing less and less research myself, which I do find frustrating. I also really love my job, and wouldn't trade it for anything else. But it's not what I anticipated.

    • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

      Terry - your comment is much appreciated -thanks for taking the time to comment. I am sensitive to the fact that my ideas and perspectives are biased by my institution and the culture of my University, so hearing your perspective is extremely valuable. For several years I was quite frustrated about my lack of time actually collecting data, or identifying spiders, but I realized that it's not going to get any easier so I better find new happiness in other parts of the research (and University) process. That being said, it sure is fun to get to that microscope now and then! And I *always* find time each summer for some weeks in the field - to me, that is an essential part of who I am and why I do (natural history) science.

    • D. Huber Reply | Permalink

      Terry wrote: "Even on a small campus, with a small lab, and not that many students and no postdocs or PhD students, I still am doing way more admin time than I ever imagined."

      I suspect that service loads are proportionally higher at smaller universities. Similar amounts of admin (at least not proportionally scaled down) and fewer people to do the work.

      I have no hard numbers to back this up, but I do have 'data' in the reactions of colleagues when I tell them about the amount of service work that I typically do.

      • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

        It's an interesting point, Dezene - I too am curious about that. I wouldn't be surprised - in my experience, 'service' is highly variable at my Uni - some people invest almost all of their time in research (and teach the minimum) and do very little service; others are more balanced, but we have the numbers so that this can (sort of) work.

      • Terry McGlynn Reply | Permalink

        That's a really good point. I think if my university were exactly the same in mission, student body, and all that stuff - but twice as large - that I would be able to get into the lab more often than I have, and have more time for my research students. I've actually spent more time on service than teaching this semester, by far. That's absolutely nuts. However, it was actually truly important service (does that sound like an Assoc Prof?). Running two searches and getting a center for undergrad research started on campus. And nobody else in a position available to do it (or nobody who I would trust to do it). Next semester will be different. Gotta keep repeating that, and maybe it'll be true.

  5. Crystal Ernst Reply | Permalink

    This all seems pretty on-par with my own expectations, so it certainly hasn't dissuaded me from anything. Like Terry, I know there's a part of me that hopes I'll be able to keep getting my hands dirty in the field on a regular basis, but I recognize that I shouldn't expect this to be the case. As far as the on-the-fly training, the jack-of-all trades expectations, and the irregular work hours, I think these actually represent major parts of the appeal of an academic career, for me. I have a ridiculously short attention span and work best in environments that constantly throw new and varied challenges at me. It can be stressful, yes, but ultimately very stimulating and rewarding.

    • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

      Thanks Crystal - yes, I think the variety of skills, constant flow of new ideas, opportunities & challenges are what make the work really, really wonderful, but only if your own personality is a good fit. It too suffer from a short attention span (probably why I love twitter), and Academia is certainly one place where that trait can be fully leveraged!

    • Carly Reply | Permalink

      I'm with Crystal - this seems pretty on par with what I would expect, as well. But I'll add that I'm sure this is at least partly due to working with excellent mentors that have made the academic experience/process a lot more transparent. I can see how someone could easily be surprised by much of this coming out of (and definitely before entering) some PhD programs.

      The flexibility, and variety of tasks, is definitely the biggest attractor to an academic life for me!

      • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

        Thanks, Carly, for the comment. Yes, I suspect how 'surprised' someone might be will depend on their exposure to the full suite of tasks that make up a Prof's workday - glad that you have found the experience transparent -that is important.

  6. John Finn Reply | Permalink

    Great post- I don't work in a university but in a research institute; however, your comments are just as applicable.
    Although I do far less hands on research (in ecology) than I ever thought I would, I actually enjoy the analysis, writing and publishing much more than I used to. Same goes for project management, supervising and journal duties.
    I never thought there would be SO much admin, often for trivia. The flexibility makes up for the long hours, much of it on activities that are challenging in an enjoyable sense!

    • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

      Thanks for the comment, John. Yes, I suspect the ideas presented in the post probably work in many research institutes, also - I hadn't really thought about it that much, so thank you for the perspective! Many of the same kinds of tasks are shared, as you mention.

  7. Barbara Reply | Permalink

    Great post Chris - insightful and beautifully written as always. This and the many other science blogs are such incredible resources, especially for younger grad students whom are asking - what does a professor really do? Before my undergrad I believed professors spent most of their time teaching. At the onset of my grad studies I thought that professors mostly do research, and then teach. At the end of graduate career, I realize that professors spend most their time doing just about everything else that keeps their research and teaching ticking - including admin, grants, ++++

    For your point 1: as a grad student, especially a PhD candidate, you actually can receive accidental training to do far more than research or teaching (actually the latter you get very little training for unless you seek it out independently). This is why I highly advocate for more 'hand-holding' for a MSc to build a strong foundation on how to do good science, and a more 'hands off' for a PhD so that you learn everything else! From designing a study, researching all the details on setting up a field site, interviewing and training field personal, learning and designing new methods and analysis techniques, and writing your own grants. This will all take away from the 'science' time, and may lead to less publications (which sadly is the sole metric by which young scientist are often measured) - in my case I spend probably half my time (at least) on all these other tasks, including writing ~ 20 grant applications. But this is obviously part and parcel of what a professor/researcher is!

    As for point 3, like Crystal this is one of the main things that attracts me to being a professor, this and the (relative) independence to deciding what you work on in a day-to-day basis. Critical though, decision-making, and inspiration does not always fit a schedule :)

    As for the research - I would look at it as a different timeline. In one's graduate or post-doc career this is a time of intensive research and undoubtably a lot is achieved in that time, often by sacrificing other aspects of professional growth. As a professor or researcher that now turns from a 2-year or 4-year sprint to a lifetime marathon. You may progress at a slower pace but in the end you get so much farther, and may even have time to do other things on the way.

    As someone who has stood on either side of the mentoring line - let me echo Elena's sentiments that having a mentor that guides, challenges, encourages, and inspires your work is priceless and can lead to incredible science. Getting caught up on the latest literature may take weeks, but having years of experience and knowledge takes… well... years!

    • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

      Thanks Barbara, for the very useful and interesting comments. Yes, I think you are probably correct - it's more about the pace and speed of research later in a career and that is perhaps more important that, say, a particular % spent on doing research. Also, your point about additional training is equally valid. Perhaps these options were available when I was a grad student, but I certainly didn't take advantage of them. Good comments!

  8. Nate Reply | Permalink

    Thanks Chris for this insightful post and to all who have commented. As someone who is contimplating beginning a PhD program with hope of one day becoming a professor, these comments helped me to understand the rewards and challenges of this career path.

    The journey ahead of me in this pursuit may be difficult as I have spent the last 8 years in industry R&D for a large house hold name brand. Where we were not allowed to publish due to the proprietary nature of our work.

    What advice would you have for an aspiring professor coming from an industry background?

    • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

      Thanks for the comment Nate! It's really appreciated. Having not working in R&D in Industry, I'm a bit at a loss about what to suggest; however, I suspect the biggest different may be the 'intangibles' i.e., the sort of ways that academia is a slow-moving machine in many ways, and it takes quite a few years to figure out the system, understand how things get done (and don't get done), and building a lab really requires getting some good graduate students, so learning the ropes about how to attract, fund, and support the best graduate students is quite important. Good luck with the transition!

  9. Nate Reply | Permalink

    Besides learning how to spell Contemplating ;-)

  10. Sven Hendrix Reply | Permalink

    Dear Chris,
    I came along your post while I was doing research for a post on the question "Should I become a professor" and I decided not to write it because you said it all - great post! I would love to add two points: Young researchers are not aware that only about 3% of all doctorate holders and only 10% of all postdoctoral researchers will finally get a professor position while nearly 80% of all postdocs favour an academic career. Read more here:
    I also agree that the irregular work patterns of the academic life may have considerable impact on your family life, however, there are a few rules which help to find a balance between a scientific career and a healthy family life. Read more here:

    All the best,

    • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

      Thanks for the comments and links, Sven - I appreciate them - you hit on some key points in your writing, and many of your points complement what's also written in my post, and in many of the comments. Also a great point about how many young researchers actual end up becoming tenure-stream: the reality is that it's a very competitive job market, and that fact needs to be front and center.

  11. Mahi Reply | Permalink

    Nice article. Beside the scenes you described I would like to know a little about the financial things too. Me and many of my friends discuss a lot about it, we can never make a conclusive discussion. Some say that if you get a job at Intel, IMB, MS or companies like those, you should prefer those jobs than becoming a university professor. On the other hand I have seen many professor have left jobs from very good positions and joined the academia. Yes, there are many non-financial reasons too like- personal choice, future of the company etc. But I just want know a financial comparison for the first 10 years between these two fields.

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