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Free Time as a Professor?

  1. Sep 4, 2011 #1
    It's a long way off for me, being a senior in HS, but I'm thinking about what career I want to aim for in college and after. I'm considering becoming a professor, but, from what I've heard from my high school teachers, teachers have little free time. Beyond the normal 8 to 4, how much time does the average professor spend on their job (including research, grading, and anything required to stay in good standing with the uni.)?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 4, 2011 #2
    I'm just an undergrad, but I'll share some of my observations.

    First, high school teachers and professors can have vastly different job descriptions.

    For example, I go to a big research university and the professors there do research. Most of them teach only 2-3 classes a year, sometimes more sometimes less (I'm guessing the higher ranked profs teach less.) This is about 6 hours of classroom time, and throw in 2-3 office hours and a few hours for planning, and total working time associated with teaching is about 15.

    Now, at the other extreme, take the community college I transferred from. I think most of the profs were only part-time and did other stuff for a full-time job. For example, maybe a guy had a Master's Degree in History and so he taught High School history and a couple courses at the community college every semester. The full-time profs usually taught about 4-5 classes per semester. Clearly, the community college profs were teaching much more than the profs at my current research university.

    So, it seems that the research university people have it a lot better. However, to be a prof. like this, you have to do a lot of research (so it seems.) So, you might have to teach less, but you are expected to do a lot of research to keep your job (Erdos once quipped "A theorem a day gets you tenure and pay, a theorem a year you're out on your ear.") But, this isn't all that bad since you are doing research in something that you actually like to do. You got a Ph.D. in some subject that you love, and then you get a job where you "have" to do that subject. So, your teaching load is low at a big university (and I'm sure there is some continuum between these two extremes) but you "have" to do research, which probably brings your week up to 40 hours or so. But at the same time, the research that you "have" to do is more like getting paid to pursue a hobby.

    Additionally, as Paul Halmos wrote, it is really important to become in involved in your academic community (e.g. referee journals, guest editor of journals, host/give conferences, etc) and I guess this stuff would either displace some research or just add a little time.

    Either way, it seems to me that professors have a rather high level of job satisfaction.

    As I said, I'm just an undergrad, so I could be way off, here. These are just my observations as an undergrad.
  4. Sep 4, 2011 #3
    You don't just get to become a professor. Nearly everyone who gets a phd hopes to get the coveted tenure track university professor- very few do. Most will never even land full-time community college positions. Trying to become a professor puts you on a path that lasts a decade after undergrad (during which you make poverty wages) and is most likely to spit you out into an unrelated career a decade behind your peers.

    Saying "I want to be a professor" is like saying "I want to be a rockstar." Yea, its a good job, but the odds are pretty low, even if you are amazingly talented. I know people who were valedictorians of their highschool, graduated from top colleges at the top of their classes, published heavily, won awards,etc who left science because of a lack of job opportunities.

    If you are worried about free time now, how willing are you doing to be to spend the decade of 80+ hour work weeks for 18-20k a year?
  5. Sep 5, 2011 #4


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    I want to point out that this is probably in reference to being a PhD student.
  6. Sep 5, 2011 #5
    That's kinda the way I look at it -- being paid to pursue a hobby. I can deal with the rather low pay. Being antisocial has a few perks: mainly that I won't tend to waste money on transient things like going out.

    I was aware of the vast differences, because I got the chance to take an independent study with the head of the math department at the local uni. We talked a lot about the stuff related to being a professor(tenor, research, etc.), but, for some reason, I failed to think of this question...

    Yeah, I know it's unlikely. I don't expect it to be like getting a job teaching at HS. I'm not the type to graduate the top of my class, but I'm passionate.

    And, it's not like I don't have a very good backup. HS teaching may be a lot more boring, but it does provide great benefits and 2 months off in the summer. The PhD. won't be a total loss either, because it would bump me up significantly on the pay scale.

    Thanks for the info, but if there's anyone reading this that is a professor, I'd love to hear what you'd have to say.
  7. Sep 5, 2011 #6
    I assumed so. :)
  8. Sep 5, 2011 #7


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    Being anti-social won't help you either by the way. There are almost no jobs where being anti-social is a plus or even neutral. You need to be able to convince people to let you work with them or that they should work with you or that a group should fund you.

    Passion is pretty useless in this case. It's almost by luck that one can get a research professorship. No one you compete against will lack passion. Also, remember, it may bump you up on a pay scale but that's actually a bad thing! Teaching high schoolers doesn't require a PhD or even a masters and schools know this and very very very few are willing to pay for a phd to teach at a high rate.
  9. Sep 5, 2011 #8
    Here is the thing- there are people SO passionate about what they study that they worked their tail off to get to the top of the class. Their passion will lead them to the top of their college programs, to graduate schools where they will work day and night to forge a good publication record. Most of THEM won't make it to a professorship, and they are the people you will be competing with for jobs.
  10. Sep 5, 2011 #9
    I've asked this before, and I'd like to just check that no one else has researched thing because I go off and spend a month trying to figure this out myself but.....

    When, where, and how did the notion of "passion" get associated with physics? In particular, did it happen before the great crash in the 1970's or before that. Reading David Kaiser, it seems as if during the 1950's, when jobs were plentiful that people went into physics for many of the same reasons that people today go into investment banking, and the money that went into physics was for basically nationalistic reasons.

    So where does the idea of "passion" come from?

    Passion stinks.
  11. Sep 5, 2011 #10


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    I agree. During my highschool times, there was a significant variation with regards to people's interest and drive. You could easily identify the hardworking and brightest. During college, the gap closed more, but still you could. However, leave it to attend grad school to show you where all those hardworking and bright people ended up. In grad school, there's no patience for those who can't cut it. Advisors expect results. Qualifying Exams are difficult. Prospectus are challenging. You are basically working at the edge of science. There are not back of the book answers, only you going through books, papers, and your own thoughts to produce answers that do not yet exist.
  12. Sep 5, 2011 #11


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    Have you seen anyone complete a phd that didn't love their subject? I mean, I know some people who have almost made it through their MS with a questionable liking of physics, but I can't imagine getting through a phd.
  13. Sep 5, 2011 #12
    In fact I have. It's pretty common among people whose main motivation for doing a Ph.D. is to get a green card so that they can get out of whatever country they were before.

    There are people that are willing to spend a ton of money so that they can get themselves smuggled into the US in to wash dishes in a Chinatown restaurant, but I've never heard people that do that talk about their "passion for dishwashing."
  14. Sep 5, 2011 #13
    1. I wasn't saying that being antisocial wis beneficial to my career, just to my finances. 2. Antisocial just means I tend to shy away from people I have no reason to believe will like me. If I have something in common, such as a love for math, I have no problem relating to someone. I make friends easy, when we have things in common.

    The thing with state jobs is that if you're more qualified, they have to hire you over other, less qualified applicants. I know HS teaching doesn't require a PhD., but I want to work my life plan in such a way that I can get a PhD in my subject, and make money off it. In short, I want the PhD., but I need the money.

    Actually, I'm into math... :tongue:

    For me, I only think of it as important because of my surroundings. In high school, there's VERY few who are passionate about learning, so it is logical for me to perceive passion for learning to be rather rare. But, as has been pointed out in this thread, it is, in fact, not that rare.

    BTW, for everyone questioning whether I can do it, I'm not the only one who believes I can. The professor I mentioned earlier, who is the head of the math department at the local uni. (i.e. he makes tenure and hiring decisions) is a very strong supporter of mine. Given his superior knowledge of me, his opinion trumps anyone who doesn't know me as well.
  15. Sep 5, 2011 #14
    Ask him how many graduate students he strongly supported during his career , and how many of those graduate students went on to tenure track positions. The answer may surprise you. Talk to grad student mathematicians and postdocs about their career opportunities.

    No, they don't. There is such a thing as "overqualified" and it happens in government jobs as much as anywhere else. I've been told a few times that the reason I wasn't hired to teach highschool was my physics phd put me at too high a pay-bracket and they didn't have the money.
    Last edited: Sep 5, 2011
  16. Sep 5, 2011 #15


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    Where did you get this idea?
  17. Sep 5, 2011 #16
    You'll find that it's important to be able to work with people that you dislike or people for whom you have nothing in common.

    1) No they don't in practice.
    2) Define qualified.
    3) You probably *aren't* the most qualified. Most people are average.

    Think of it as a game of space invaders. You clear one level. You make it to the next level. You are probably the in the top 10% of your class, but you go to the next level, in which you may be the top 10% of that, but that keeps on happening until you get selected out.

    You will quickly find out that tenured professors are some of the worst people in the world to give career advice. It's like trying to ask a winner of a lottery what you can do to win the ticket. They might tell you to do jumping jacks, because they did it and won the lottery. Except they don't know anything about the 99 people that also did jumping jacks that didn't win the lottery.

    And it's not about you. If you ask me what your odds of getting a "one" is if you roll the dice, I'll say about 1 in 6. Nothing to with you at all.
  18. Sep 5, 2011 #17
    Having just transferred from a 4 year college to a research university, I have seen a major difference in professors. At the research university, the professors are still around later in the night (7-9pm). I know for a fact that one of my professors works ~7am-9pm everyday, even Friday. The only reason I know this is because I'm in his first class (8am) and study in the same building until it closes at 9pm. Every night I see him walk out right as I'm finishing.

    At my old college, after 5pm the place was a ghost yard. The professors at my current school are definitely wired differently, these people are freaks.
  19. Sep 5, 2011 #18

    Andy Resnick

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    (tenure-track research-active faculty member here)

    8 to 4... that's funny. Truthfully, it's not the quantity of time that's stressful, it's the lack of 'blocks of time' (that is, uninterrupted periods of time) that causes problems for me.

    Don't get me wrong- I love my job, I'm lucky to have my job, and I work hard because I want to, not because I have to.
  20. Sep 5, 2011 #19

    Vanadium 50

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    What exactly did he say? There is a big difference between "You have a lot of talent. If you work hard and develop it, a lot of doors will be open for you" and "You are guaranteed a tenured faculty position 15 years from now."

    No, you're not. You might think you are, but you're not.

    The passionate student is the one who does whatever it takes to get to the top of the class. The word comes from the Latin patior, meaning to suffer, bear or undergo. It is an explanation for excellence, not an excuse for mediocrity.

    If you are truly passionate, become that person who graduates at the top of their class.

    Now, as far as free time, there is very little. Research, done properly, is a full-time job. Teaching, done properly, is close to a full-time job. Committee work, done properly, can be close to a full-time job. Juggling everything so the most important stuff gets done without it all coming crashing down is no mean feat.
    Last edited: Sep 5, 2011
  21. Sep 5, 2011 #20


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    I just started teaching college this year. I've got two classes. I spend 2-4 hours a day in class teaching, and about 3 hours of prep work for each hour spent in class. Add to that making up homework sets, writing up solutions, meeting with students, grading papers, and job applications for next year (1 year contract at my current school) and I'm working 10-12 hours a day, 7 days a week, and I haven't worked on my research in more than a month. But I need to, or I'm not going to get the next job. Oh, and faculty meetings. Don't forget those. And the committee they put me in charge of.
  22. Sep 5, 2011 #21


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    I think this comment summarizes my thoughts pretty well. Along with the phrase: "Less with the jaw, more with the paw". TylerH don't waste time coming here to asking questions like Free time as a professor when you are not even close to be one. The road is still quite long. I recommend that you start focusing on your real goals at hand such as going to college.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 5, 2011
  23. Sep 5, 2011 #22
    And if you are really, really passionate, keep struggling even after it becomes obvious that you can't and won't win, and no one except for you cares. Mathematically, you won't likely win, because if you graduate at the top of the class, they just move you to another class, and except for a very, very small handful of people, you are going to end up at the bottom eventually. The game is rigged against you.

    The reason people talk about passion is that most people lose in the game. If you think that after decades of hard work, you are going to win, that's not passion. If I tell you that you are going to work your tail off for a decade or two, and after all of that hard work, you *WILL* get *ABSOLUTELY NOTHING* and you still are willing to do it, that's real passion.

    If you think that what you are doing is important enough that you are willing to do it even if people spit in your face, whip you until your back is shredded, and nail you to a a cross which they make you carry, that's passion.

    Most people aren't willing to do that. There's a limit to what I'm willing to put up with. But before you say "I'm passionate" you really should look up where the term came from.
  24. Sep 6, 2011 #23


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    That reminder could be engraved over more than a few doorways.
  25. Sep 6, 2011 #24
    epic quote
  26. Sep 6, 2011 #25
    It's also IMHO, quite wrong. It gives people the idea that there is this pot of gold at the end of the road when in fact the road never ends.

    It gives people the wrong impression that if they work hard enough, they'll get to the top of the class. What happens is that you do end up in the top of the class, but then you get promoted to the next level. At some point mathematically, you are going to find yourself at the middle or the bottom.

    You may end up being a Nobel prize winning physicist, but you'll be average or below average among Nobel prize winning physicists, and you'll be working just as hard then as you did in high school.

    If you want to be at the top of the class, give up and cash out. Working hard will merely insure that you end up at the middle or bottom of another class. That's not to say that you shouldn't do it, but doing something when there is no reward at the end tells you how passionate you really are.
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