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The State of Being a Professor - an insider's view

  1. Jan 5, 2012 #1
    Izabella Laba has an interesting article up about the rigors of being a professor: The state of the profession.

    I think it should be required reading for every graduate student thinking about an academic career path.

    The article is interesting in that it ponders the feasibility of creating a research track and a teaching track at all levels of the university system. It also asks the question of why one is required to be an innovative teacher to be a successful academic researcher. Those are two seemingly disparate things. What does everyone here think?

    Personally, I would love to see more options for the researcher and teacher to be more independent paths. At least some flexibility would be a welcome change. As someone trying to enter the tenure track, I often doubt my desire to take on this extreme profession. I enjoy spending time with my kids and wife. How much of that will I have to give up in order to achieve some stability as an academic? Is it worth it for the stability it brings - because having to jump from postdoc to postdoc to research faculty position is stressful. Very stressful.

    I look forward to the discussion.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 5, 2012 #2

    Andy Resnick

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    Thanks for the link. The only part I disagree with is:

    "The university professors of old were not evaluated on their ability to inspire interest in otherwise indifferent students, nor did they have to teach the addition and multiplication of fractions. They were not under constant pressure, either, to use clickers, classroom technology, or innovative teaching techniques. "

    To me, that's a bit like saying "music was so much better in the 1960s, when people cared about making music instead of making money". Both comments are drastic oversimplifications.

    For whatever reason, teaching is not prestigious. I'm not sure it ever was, and most likely, it never will be. Academia has trending towards a business model for several decades now, and in business, whatever brings in money or 'adds value to the brand' is more important than anything. If I want teaching to add value, I need to devise a curriculum or course that is unique- that's possible to some degree, and is reflected in specialized degrees/course offerings that sporadically occur- getting a MS in nanotechnology, for example.

    What is missing from her post (and others) is an objective comparison between academia and industry. Guess what- if you want to excel in industry you also have to be willing to give up evenings and weekends. You will also have a boss who tells you what to do, who probably doesn't understand what you do, and isn't particularly interested in what you do as long as your work helps him/her to please his/her boss. From that perspective, the only difference between industry and academia is that I exchange some financial stability (a portion of my salary comes from grants) for the privilege of choosing what I want to do with my time- I don't have to get approval from a supervisor.

    The blog post should be read in terms of balancing priorities, rather than issues specific to her profession.
  4. Jan 6, 2012 #3
    This is spot on.

    Though I think there is an interesting discussion to be had about the lowered level of mathematical preparedness the average incoming freshman has. All my data is anecdotal and through a very skewed lens (my own, since I don't think comparing a large body of students to a single person is very scientific). I also wouldn't be surprised if the preparedness of the average college student is actually higher now compared to 30 years ago, but our expectations have grown more rapidly. I still tend to fall under the students today are less prepared for college mathematics (and therefore physics), however irrational it may be.

    Does anyone know of any apples to apples comparisons of average incoming college students mathematical preparedness? I am being lazy and haven't really started looking. I will start looking into later next week, but if anyone has anything handy, it would be helpful in giving me a place to start.

    But aren't those two notions sort of at odds with each other? Uniqueness is not the only way to bring value. Doing it better than the next provider is another way. Creating a better product so to speak. Wouldn't treating students as consumers drive up the prestige of teachers and therefore create an atmosphere where teaching is more valued? That just doesn't seem to be the case (in my experience). Now, I really have zero understanding of business, so I may be completely off basis here. Feel free to say so and educate me. I would appreciate it.

    Andy, I am very glad you responded in this thread. As someone who has done both industry and academia, I was especially looking forward to what you had to say about this.

    I do find it interesting that in a setting known for creativity, expression, and independence that there seems to be such a lack of flexibility in academia when it comes to the academic career.

    We also have not touched on this notion put forth by Dr. Laba that cutting edge math (and science by extension) is missing out on some brilliant minds simply because they do not want deal with teaching. In physics, I am not sure this is the case. The a small, but available, number of research only institutions (national labs, NASA, and research centers (are their others?)), the opportunity exists to do research without having to teach.
  5. Jan 8, 2012 #4

    Andy Resnick

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    First problem: the difficulty of quantitatively defining 'better' in the context of a standard curriculum. By contrast, I can easily create metrics for research productivity. Second: I am totally against treating students as consumers. It's an increasingly common point of view, but I feel it is totally inappropriate for a variety of reasons I have written on other threads.

    Academia is a very conservative environment: the only thing that is valued is *success*. Innovation is only rewarded if that person is *successful* being innovative.

    As for the final paragraph, I'm not sure that's fair either. At least, she didn't offer any substantive examples. In any case, I can buy out my teaching time with grant dollars, so not wanting to teach isn't much of a barrier to being productive in academia.
  6. Jan 8, 2012 #5
    Isn't this a bit dangerous, though? Most people go to a University to gain an education. At the moment, an undergraduate education is a truly expensive investment. Wouldn't treating academia like a business make it more damaging to a student's bottom line? Let's imagine that by some chance, a radical new method of educating people were to enter the market which is introduced by someone who is particularly charismatic. Suppose that it does a better job of teaching someone skills that are necessary in the modern world than traditional academia. What if this method of education is significantly cheaper for the students? Based on the supposition that as demand for research from the professors and demanding more quality teaching adds more stress for the traditional professor, which leads to the dilution of their efforts in both areas. My hypothesis is that our traditional academia which we all know and love, which is already under strain, might collapse.
    Last edited: Jan 8, 2012
  7. Jan 8, 2012 #6


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    ... except that much of what passes for "univserity education" isn't education, but high level vocational training. For evidence, pick a random sample of posts on PF and analyse the questions being asked.

    Of course there is nothing at all wrong with high level vocational training, but calling things by their right names is the first step torwards understanding - even if politicians and marketing consultants usually disagree.

    It seems entirely possible that somebody will invent a more effective way to deliver training than the current model, which was invented centuries ago and often only uses 21st century technology as a replacement for 16th century technology (e.g. give a 16th century style lecture, but with a 21st century video camera pointing at the lecturer.)
  8. Jan 8, 2012 #7

    Andy Resnick

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    Treating academia like a business *is* damaging to both the student and the institution, I agree with that. How then to deal with the pervasive pressure by upper administration to commodify learning?

    Certainly, shared governance is an essential part of this, at the top level. It also requires faculty committed to experimentation with teaching and the curriculum. Students should also play a part- for example, our Society of Physics Students chapter is highly active in recruiting and outreach activities, and sponsors regular informal interactions between the students and faculty. Students should also get involved with faculty research projects.

    Students are increasingly being made responsible for their own educational outcomes- by taking the initiative on research projects, scholarship activities, and semiprofessional social activities.
  9. Jan 9, 2012 #8
    The far bigger threat to missing out on brilliant minds is the tremendous career uncertainty, the long training period and low payoff, etc. The labor market for science works like any other- and it should be clear that many brilliant minds turn their talents toward better prospects.

    The people who do remain in science do it despite sizable hurdles- one more hurdle (the need to teach) isn't going to dissuade the people who have already signed up for the career.
  10. Jan 9, 2012 #9
    Depends on the industry. I don't have to give up evenings and weekends, although I'm usually too dead tired to do anything research-y.

    From my perspective, the main difference is that industry jobs exists for what I want to do whereas academic ones don't.

    The original poster asks ....

    1) In fact, I know people that do that. The issue here is that the people that do that tend to be reasonably senior managers that the company "trusts" to do this sort of work. The problem with anyone junior doing this sort of thing is that the pressures to produce are going to prevent you from moonlighting.

    2) Employers are *NOT* used to part-time work arrangements. Employers that I know hate part-time work arrangements because the effort in coordinating two people working 20 hours each are greater in getting one person working 40 hours a week.

    There is one thing that makes academics different. Academics are supposed to think about general, abstract issues and to be "thought leaders" of society.
  11. Jan 9, 2012 #10
    The first step is to realize that upper administration really isn't the problem since they are being driven by social pressures. People are willing to spend money on a university because they think that they can make that money back. This is true for government grants, research funding, and undergraduate students.

    If you had people do things for "pure learning" I don't think you'd get enough money to fund professors salaries. Now, you might argue that society shouldn't be based on money, but at that point it's such a big a radical change that my imagination fails me as to how things are run.

    As long as you expect professors to get paid, it's going to be a business.

    The problem with shared governance is that it becomes difficult once you realize that people want different things. What happens in most universities (and in fact most institutions) is that you put real power in the hands of people that can be "culturally selected" to "make the right decisions." If you really share power, it gets interesting when you find that the people that you share it with *don't* have the same beliefs.

    If you give graduate students or undergraduates real power (i.e. power to make budgeting and personnel decisions) that will radically change things, but I don't see this happening (since frankly I don't trust most undergraduates to make those decisions wisely).

    The problem I have here is that it's throwing out responsibility without giving up any real power. This is not shared governance. Shared governance would be having students elect professors (not that I think it's a good thing).
  12. Jan 9, 2012 #11
    One other thing is that I get suspicious when people talk about the "good old days". As far as I can tell, academia has been a rat race since at least 1970, and we've *never* had a situation in which there were enough jobs in academia to absorb most of the people coming out.
  13. Jan 10, 2012 #12

    Andy Resnick

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    That is not what shared governance is:


    ""Shared" governance has come to connote two complementary and sometimes overlapping concepts: giving various groups of people a share in key decision-making processes, often through elected representation; and allowing certain groups to exercise primary responsibility for specific areas of decision making."

    Shared governance concerns the relationship between faculty and administration. There is student representation as well, via the elected student government officers.
  14. Jan 10, 2012 #13
    This makes sense, and something that can be all too easy to start denying is that the research and education world seem to be tied together because universities can bring in money by getting their teaching work done as cheaply as possible.

    If you hire a researcher full time, you have to pay the researcher enough for him/her to scrape by at least barely, and if on top of that you have to pay a teacher to scrape by, that's simply a bad deal.

    As for funding pure research by itself, it exists. One can read Feynman or know just from basic knowledge of a career in academia that there are celebrated positions where no teaching is required, but not surprisingly, they're also near-impossible positions to secure, even more so than traditional professorships.

    An additional issue which twofish addresses is something that I've felt is a bit unfortunate -- when one really thinks about it, it's really kind of random that the universities are supporting postdocs and such on the basis of their being cheap teaching labor in addition to the benefit of what they produce as academic members (why else would there be so many dirt cheap postdocs and so little desire to give positions with more security?). Why couldn't the postdocs do something else with their time to get funding? The answer seems to be exactly that part-time arrangements are not something most employers will deal with. In relation to the point about coordinating two 20 hour jobs as opposed to 1 40 hour job, perhaps this is because in teaching, the semester's work is pretty much left up to the individual running in the course, and he/she needn't be accountable to anyone else, merely making sure TAs submit their grades and stuff on time. Half the time the TA won't even know where the lecture is, and lectures according to some pre-made schedule, or based on student requests occasionally.

    This is also a really good point; as far as I can tell, the PhDs who DO continue on to take postdoc positions and don't leave academia aren't always clearly the brightest minds or the ones with the most interesting ideas. They're the ones who will put up with the system.

    Sure, if you're talking about MIT computer science or so, then it's a high likelihood that the people taking positions there are most likely around on basis of amazing contributions.

    At some of the less competitive schools, you can have people just as great, and everyone they hire is probably quite good. But I get the feeling the people "who make it" in academia are not necessarily the "best" in any meaningful sense. A lot of extraordinarily bright people who don't want to maintain a publish or perish lifestyle amidst poor pay and no geographic certainty leave the academic job market, something I wasn't as aware of until recent years.
  15. Jan 10, 2012 #14
    I am particularly interested in hearing comments on this from the article:

    It's pretty easy to teach basic quantum mechanics if one is researching advanced topics related to that, but preparing a lecture still takes time! Modern research isn't conducted on the same wavelength or format as the textbook.

    I imagine someone who has to constantly learn new things and think about them in various ways can learn something else that is simpler and still provides benefits to someone else.

    Adding a non-teaching involvement would still mean an exceptionally overcrowded day, conceivably making it hard to spend time on family, etc.
  16. Jan 10, 2012 #15
    Ah, now you hit a point I'm really curious about. How do those who provide research funding expect to profit from doing so? I never really understood that.

    I can understand if X company put money into a research group that develops algorithms that can be used in several years to maybe come up with an amazing product that will make the company a ton of money. But why fund say, pure math research, or string theory research?

    There are two sources of money that I can think of: government, and university money, which fund such disciplines that have no immediate connection to nearly all of industry. I already find a gap in my understanding when I ask how the university exactly benefits from having such smart researchers - what exactly does it buy them apart from name and fame?
  17. Jan 10, 2012 #16
    1) Back in the cold war it was simple. If we don't spend money on physicists and those EEEEVVVVIIILLLLL Russkies build better bombs and toasters, we will all be waving red flags and quoting Lenin. Hence lots of cash for physicists.

    2) There is the argument that if you spend cash on physicists, you create new industries and ultimately that means more jobs, tax revenue, good stuff.

    Also the fact that people ***don't*** see the connection is why basic research has gotten cut. What I'm hoping to see in the next decade is some "friendly competition" between the US/China/India over who can spend more money on science for the purpose of economic growth.

    Because all that weird stuff turns out to be useful in a few years or decades.

    Name and fame -> cold hard cash -> more name and fame

    There is a lot in common between the Hollywood system and academia, in that you have stars. If I go to Congress and say, you must give X several tens of billions of dollars or else something really bad will happen, no one is going to listen to me. If a Nobel prize winner does it, then there is a good chance that they will get the cash.
  18. Jan 10, 2012 #17
    This is called "cross-subsidization." Technology is going to make this much more difficult. MIT can force people to pay huge amounts of money for a basic calculus course in order to support research, but if you put everything on the internet, that's going to be difficult/impossible.

    Postdocs don't have a huge amount of teaching duties, but they are cheap researchers. One problem I react badly to terms like "shared governance" is that a university looks a lot more like a factory (or even a sweat shop) if you think of graduate students and post-docs as workers and tenured faculty as management. There is this ideal of the university as the "community of the mind" in which people have freedom and that social status isn't that important. This only works if you ignore graduate students and post-docs and adjuncts.

    The basic problem is one that mankind has faced for thousands of years which is that the "life of the mind" is available only for the wealthy since someone has to work the fields. You'd think with technology that there would be more equality, but it doesn't seem to be working out that way.

    It gets tauntological. People that make it in academia are the best in the sense that they make it in academia. Now whether or not this correlates as being "better" in some other sense, is another question.
  19. Jan 10, 2012 #18
    The other thing is that it's relatively easy to prepare a class if all you are doing is to teach things the same way that you've taught it in the last decade. If you want to do something new and different, at that point it takes a huge amount of time and effort.

    Also the thing about textbooks is that someone has to write the textbook. Also someone has to think about what a "textbook" means in with all of this technology that is coming down the pipe.

    Something that is interesting is that it wasn't until the 1960's that people even tried to teach quantum mechanics to undergraduates. One good thing about MIT is that there is a lot of interesting "cutting edge" stuff that's going on there as far as physics education. It's now "standard" for undergraduates to be involved in research, but this was unheard of in 1970, and someone had to come up with that idea (and I was lucky to have known the person that invented that.)

    I don't think that's true. I found that out teaching Algebra. One problem with me teaching Algebra is that Algebra is trivially easy for me, which means that it's often difficult and frustrating to put myself in the shoes of someone for which it doesn't made sense.

    And family is important. Most of my science/math teaching actually involves helping my kids to their homework. The other thing is that I'm going to have 100000x more impact on how my kids view science and technology than I am against someone else's kids.
  20. Jan 10, 2012 #19
    Well, that's the whole thing - one doesn't have to provide a benefit to everyone. Even if the student you're teaching stuff to is unhappy, perhaps the university you work for is happy that they kill 2 birds with 1 stone, namely they get cutting edge research done along with teaching their students for nearly nothing.

    When you're teaching your kids, it's different of course, because you're teaching not out of profession but out of good will towards the kid. Ideally, the two aren't distinct, but are these things ever ideal...

    What I wish is that teaching wouldn't be the one and only major thing you can do "part-time" where the rest of the time you're doing research. Realistically, only a few people seem lucky enough to get positions where they research all day doing something interesting to them. I'd think the next best thing would be to do part of each, but it looks like it's all or nothing.

    One of the unfortunate things is that postdocs will have to keep switching schools, switching what their non-research responsibilities (both towards the university in terms of teaching various subjects and in terms of adjusting to a new area) are.

    If there were one thing I could point to that I wish could be eliminated, it isn't even having to teach - it's being forced out of a certain location by default after a short period.
  21. Jan 10, 2012 #20


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    Not a bad thing, is it? There are many sorts of intelligence and many difficult problems that require different personalities outside of academia. "If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is." – John von Neumann

    The only problem is that all the good physicists went to finance and crashed the world economy :tongue2:
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