This post is really a follow-up to my last post, in which I tried my damnedest to talk people out of going to graduate school. The rationale there was that grad school is a serious commitment with some very high hidden costs, and that while those costs may be worth it for some people, they would go to grad school no matter what I said. If I could possibly talk you out of grad school, therefore, you really shouldn't go.
When writing that post, I was planning to take the same position in this one: that if I could talk you out of being a professor, you shouldn't be one. But between then and now, I gave it more thought and realized two things:
- There is absolutely no way that I would be able to talk anybody at all out of taking a professorship.
- My feelings on professorships are more mixed than they were about graduate school.
So, I'm not going to try to talk people out of professorships after all. In fact, I'm not even going to try to answer the question in the title of this post. Instead, I'll just lay out my observations on the matter and let people decide for themselves.
- If there is one thing I'd like you to remember from this post, it is this: a professorship is not winning. It is not the equivalent of induction into academic heaven, or a trophy you get for being the smartest. What gets so easily lost in all the glamor surrounding professorships is actually the simplest and most obvious thing about them: a professorship is a job. It is work. An occupation. A career. And it can be a surprisingly annoying and stressful one.
First of all, there's the teaching load. I happened to like teaching immensely, but (1) you may not, and (2) there typically is a lot of it. And teaching takes an extraordinary amount of time. My advisor confided that for the first time he teaches a class, he typically spends eight hours of preparation for each hour of lecture. I got it down to four-to-six, but that was because I was teaching (only) eight hours per week. And that doesn't include grading, office hours, and so on.
Also, this doesn't include all the other time-sucks that come with the job: reviewing papers, serving on committees, the non-stop hustle for grant-money, and so on. Trust me on this-- the demands on your time start early and do not relent for quite some time. Every new professor, I suspect, wakes up at time point in their second or third year and realizes that they've somehow accumulated 50-to-60 hours per week in various commitments and that none of it will count for tenure. All with the tenure clock, by the way, ticking away non-stop in the background.
- Another thing that seems obvious but is often overlooked: a professorship is not like being a grad student. If your grad-school career was anything like mine, you got to spend all day researching a single interesting problem and collaborating closely with your fellow grad students. Yeah, there were the classes, but even there, you got to spend your time standing at a white-board bouncing ideas off of people who were working on the same thing as you. A professorship, on the other hand, is not like this. When you're a professor, (1) you are usually much further away from the actual technical work, and (2) you're probably going to be on your own.
Unless you go to a large university, you're probably going to be hired to fill some 'hole' in your department's background. Almost by definition, therefore, you will be the only person at your school with your background and interests. Gone are the days of working closely with peers: your peers went to other institutions, and you're too busy to do the work anyway. Your grad students do the work now, with guidance/advice/mentoring from you once or twice a week. While they get to think about their research problem all day every day (just like you used to do) you are now juggling as many research problems as grad students, giving each problem only as much attention as it needs before you can move on to the next student/problem. This is not necessarily bad, but it will be quite different from your grad student experience.
So if a professorship is not like being a grad student, what is it like? The best analogy I can draw is that becoming a professor is a lot like starting a business. There is a lot of selling, as you work to keep the grant-money coming. Your employees (i.e., students) do the work, but you are responsible for deciding what work should be done. Also, you have to manage your students, and make sure that they have what they need to do the work (and are doing it). Everything that happens is ultimately your responsibility. When things are all going right it can all be very exhilarating, but things don't stay right for long. And even in the best of times, it can be very lonely.
- So, that first observation was negative, and that second one was neutral at best. Surely there are good parts? Yes, there are, and let me get to one now. No, not the research freedom, though I will get to that next. Instead, and in keeping with the "it's a job" theme, let me first discuss the money. I don't have good data on this, but my academic salary was about on par with my industrial salary. A little lower, mind you, and the academic position was in a more-expensive part of the country than the industrial job. But the difference in effective salaries was not as bad as I feared.1 Your mileage may vary (and I suspect the situation is very different outside of the STEM fields).
More importantly, though, the academic job allowed me to consult, and that's where the real money is to be found. Not only was consulting a valuable source of real-world experience and interesting-and-important problems, but it was extremely lucrative. I quoted a rate of $120/hour to non-profits and government agencies and $240/hour to commercial clients-- and I got it. Being able to say 'I'm a professor' was a huge credential that allowed me to charge these rates. There's a lot more to say about consulting in another post, but it is a possibility for professors and not usually an option for corporate drones.
- And then there's the research freedom and the invigorating intellectual environment. I don't want to sell these short---they are great---but I think most people are already familiar with these advantages. More importantly, they are not unique to academia. The environment at Lincoln Laboratory, for example, rivals that of my grad-school experience. It's different in nature, as we're older and take a longer view, but just as intellectually stimulating. And as for the research freedom, every research lab I know about has some program by which people can propose research to pursue. There will be some constraints (which will vary from institution to institution), of course, and some sort of competition or proposal process you'll need to complete to get the money. But the same holds true for professors-- you're just going through the NSF's process instead of your employer's process. In fact, I actually find it easier to get research money at Lincoln Laboratory than it was as a professor.
Having said all that, let me be clear: there is not as much research freedom at industry or government as there is in academia. And this, I think, is the clearest difference between academia and non-academia. There is research freedom outside academia, to some extent. I have some say over what projects I work on, am able to propose new work to our external sponsors an internal programs, and have wide discretion over how to proceed with regard to technical matters. But at the end of the day, I have a boss. And that boss ultimately has the power to assign me to a research project of his choice, not mine.
For me, the trade-off is worth it: my interests are wide enough that I enjoy a variety of projects; I take great satisfaction in knowing that my research will solve important real-world problems; and I actually get to do more interesting research each day than I did when I also had to teach and serve on committees. (And I don't have to worry about tenure, besides.) But that's me, and I'm not you. The only one who can make the equivalent decision about you is, well, you. So if you're trying to decide whether or not to pursue a professorship, the key question to ask yourself is this: how much do you really care about doing your specific research? What do you really enjoy: the process, or the topic? To put it another way, when I say that I have research freedom 'to some extent,' how much does that 'to some extent' actually bother you? If the answer is not 'a lot,' if you can imagine life being worth living if were you to be researching other topics in your field, you might find happiness more readily outside academia than inside it.
Both salaries were about $120K, for what it's worth. ↩