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How hard is it to become a professor

  1. Sep 22, 2014 #1
    I am still working on my undergrad, but am fairly certain I want to get an upper level physics degree so that I can teach. How hard is it to get a good teaching job, and how can I best prepare. I am not shy of hard work, but I am nervous that after a decade of education I won't be able to get a decent job.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 22, 2014 #2

    Andy Resnick

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    There's a lot of variability- typically, when we (4-year univ.) post a 'general' tenure-track slot, we receive 100+ applications, but if we post something specific, say a board-certified medical physicist, the numbers are much different- 30 applicants or less (chemistry recently had a difficult time filling a clinical slot). But that's true for any 'decent' job- the number of applicants will far exceed the number of slots.

    Something to consider- you get hired to solve other people's problems, not to solve problems you think are interesting. How can you stand out amongst the other 100+ applicants?
  4. Sep 23, 2014 #3
    This stress on teaching is a bit worrying; to make professor you should want to do research. If you want to teach, why not teach school?
  5. Sep 23, 2014 #4


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    In the US, there is a wide range of undergraduate institutions with different ratios of emphasis on research and teaching for faculty.

    At major research universities, faculty are hired, given tenure and promoted mainly on the quality of their research and the outside funding they can attract.

    In the middle, there are schools where faculty must publish a certain number of papers or books, but no great significance is expected; it's basically bean-counting. Teaching becomes a bit more important in evaluations.

    And then there are teaching-oriented schools (bachelor's degree only) at which faculty publications are not required, and faculty evaluation is mainly based on teaching and campus service activities. Research is usually encouraged, in the interest of providing students with research opportunities, but it must not override teaching responsibilities.

    You can probably find a continuous range of schools in between these descriptions, as well. At my college, when I started here nearly 30 years ago, there was no expectation of research, and if you did, you pretty much had to do it during the summer with minimal or no financial support from the college. Now, student and faculty research are significant, and get some financial support, but it's (still) not a "publish or perish" environment.

    Even at a college like this, there's a lot of competition for positions. I think whenever we've advertised a tenure-track opening in physics, we've had 100+ applicants. You need to convince the search committee that you really are interested in working at a school like this, and not just looking for something to tide you over until you can get a "real research" position. This is especially true for schools in small rural towns. In my case, I'm sure it helped that I got my bachelor's at such a school, and stressed in my application that I had enjoyed it there and was looking to make a career of working in that kind of environment.
    Last edited: Sep 23, 2014
  6. Sep 23, 2014 #5


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    Indeed. In most institutions teaching is only weakly weighted in your evaluation. As I'm sure you know from your classes, you can be a terrible teacher and still be a tenured professor. However it is rare to be a terrible researcher (more to the point, terrible at obtaining grants) and still be a tenured professor. Think on that for a while and you will gain some insight on how Universities work.
  7. Sep 25, 2014 #6
    Hard. Even after one of the characters above hire you, only 50% of the new tenure track profs eventually get tenure. I work with a lot of would be profs who never made tenure and all of these "losers" are really really smart.
  8. Sep 26, 2014 #7


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    Just out of curiosity, do you happen to know what happened to those would-be profs who never made tenure?
  9. Sep 26, 2014 #8


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    Best answered by this video clip from Ghostbusters:

  10. Sep 26, 2014 #9

    Vanadium 50

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    50% seems low. Yes, the Ivies have rates like that, but most positions are not at the Ivies. The real hurdle is the postdoc-junior faculty transition.
  11. Sep 28, 2014 #10

    Andy Resnick

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    While there is a lot of variation, that number seems high. A few set-up comments:

    1) Since the institution loses the start-up funds if a hire does not obtain tenure, there is some built-in pressure/desire to hire people likely to obtain tenure.
    2) Tenure is granted based on *many* levels of approval: department committee, department chair, college committee, dean, provost, president, and finally, the board of trustees all have to agree to award tenure. Because people make these decisions and everyone is an individual, everyone involved emphasizes different criteria: student evaluations, extramural research dollars, peer-reviewed published material, external evaluations, outreach, etc. etc.
    3) "Tenure" itself means different things at different places. In general, it does not guarantee a salary, office or lab. It does not guarantee a job for life- the President or Board can fire tenured faculty. Tenured faculty are simply guaranteed a hearing prior to being fired.

    At my previous institution, a Carnegie R1-designated school, the 'failure rate' was AFAIK, about 10% and probably lower. There, a person was required to have either multiple NIH R01 or a R01 *renewal* in order to be considered. R01's last 5 years and the tenure clock is 6 years, so if you didn't have a single R01 by year 2, you got a terminal appointment pretty quickly, and I know 3 people who got bounced (out of 30+ hires). They went to other research institutions and are currently doing quite well.

    I'm currently at an R2 institution, and the failure rate is vanishingly small- and I say this hoping not to jinx myself- to the point where people remember the one or two folks (out of the hundreds of hires) who, didn't do what their review committees asked them to do- reasonable things.
    Last edited: Sep 28, 2014
  12. Sep 29, 2014 #11
    It is very competitive to become a professor in a research university.

    1. You need to get a PhD (about 6 years of graduate school).

    2. Do postdoctoral research basically until you are able to get funding and open your own lab and fund your own students/postdocs. I have not researched the statistics of how long it takes postdocs to obtain funding, but 6 years doesn't sound too high.

    3. At this point, I have read this: "Got a PhD? Your chance of becoming a Professor is 0.45%. Good luck."



    4. This is obviously field dependent. I think if you do computer science it may be easier to become a professor because people who do CS can obtain high paying jobs with BS or MS. On the other hand, people who want to become physicists usually do a PhD. I have seen this first hand: my friends who finished PhD in CS obtained assistant professor positions after completing their PhD (no postdoctoral research at all!).

    5. Even in four year colleges they usually ask that you have your own little research program so that you can involve undergraduates in research.

    6. You can, however, get the title "Professor" by applying for a community college (still hard to get!) where you have to teach introductory physics. The pay can be decent in community colleges in California, New York, Chicago, Massachusetts (PhD pay starts around $70,000 and goes up to as much as $110,000).
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