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What is it like being professor?

  1. May 2, 2014 #1
    I've always wanted to teach at the university level, so I was interested in working as a professor. However, I've recently been reading that professors are pressured to crank out publications every year. I am not so enthusiastic about this. I understand research is important, but my main passion is teaching. Is this not a very good reason to become a professor? I would love to do research, but I do not like the idea of being forced to come with something every year.

    Also, how are the academic job prospects in mathematics, physics, and statistics? Which field has more demand for professors?
    Last edited: May 2, 2014
  2. jcsd
  3. May 2, 2014 #2
    At my universities full time and part time teachers were labeled as "lecturer" rather than professor and they had no research responsibilities. The positions are still quite competitive from what I read/hear. Some of them had a regular physics PhD but others had a PhD in physics education.

    I would guess that teaching math would be the higher demand since everybody has to take a few algebra or calculus classes. But that has to be contrasted with the, perhaps higher, supply of math teachers.
  4. May 2, 2014 #3
    Do lecturers get the same benefits as regular professors, or are they like adjunct faculty?

    Also how would teaching at a liberal arts college be different from teaching at a research university?
  5. May 2, 2014 #4
    http://adjunct.chronicle.com/about/ [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  6. May 2, 2014 #5


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    In the US, there are also small liberal-arts colleges where teaching is more important than research. However, at most of these schools nowadays, you still have to be able to do some kind of research-type activity that students can be involved in, to help them get into graduate school (if that's the path that they choose).
  7. May 3, 2014 #6
    I am fine with doing research, but I do not know if I can publish so frequently. Teaching math or science at the university level is my passion, however, I'm still not clear if I will be able to become a full time professor by just being a great teacher. Also, do you think a math professor or a statistics professor will be more in demand?

    From what I read on this forum, I've accepted the fact that becoming a professor is extremely competitive, but would you say it is as competitive as a quantitative finance job or more?
  8. May 3, 2014 #7
    Trying to become a physics professor because you like teaching is a bit like trying to become a brain surgeon because you like to wear a white coat.

    You could work as a tutor or as an adjunct professor though those jobs are neither well paid nor stable. In the US liberal arts colleges employ something closer to what you want, but even they want their people to do research with students. These jobs are very cushy and so still extremely competitive.

    Have you considered teaching at a private high school? The quality of the campus and student body, and overall feel may well be better than at a middle or low ranked university, and your PhD will put you ahead of the competition rather than being just the minimum requirement to submit a resume. Pay and conditions will also be comparable to a full professorship and much better than adjunct or tutoring.
  9. May 3, 2014 #8


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    At a research university, your main job is research, with some teaching. Whether you get tenure depends mainly on your research. At a LAC your main job is teaching, with some research, so you have to teach more courses. At the college where I work, the standard teaching load is seven courses per year, with labs counting as 2/3 of a course. It used to be eight courses, but it was reduced so faculty would have more time for other activities like research, campus or community service, etc. Even so, whether you get tenure depends mainly on your teaching.

    Classes tend to be smaller. Here, a big class is 35 students, and it's likely to be one of the intro courses. Intro labs are 15-20. Upper-level classes are smaller. Here, upper-level physics classes are usually 5-10 people.

    Another factor to consider is that LACs tend to be in small towns, with limited social and entertainment options off-campus. Socially, I got lucky... I married one of the other professors. We like not having to deal with traffic jams, being able to walk to work, etc., and don't mind driving to a "big city" an hour away once or twice a month to do stuff we can't do here. But a lot of people would probably feel isolated here.

    Salaries are lower than at the big schools, but the cost of living is usually lower, too. It's often possible to earn extra money by teaching during the summer semester.
    Last edited: May 3, 2014
  10. May 7, 2014 #9

    Andy Resnick

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    We have multiple classifications for faculty. Crudely, they are first divided into full-time or part-time. Part-time faculty (adjuncts) are not voting members, are not eligible for tenure, and have semester-to-semester employment contracts. We typically draw retired professionals/teachers and people with 'regular' jobs who are interested and willing to teach evening classes into these positions.

    Full-time faculty are again subdivided into various classifications, for example: visiting professor, college lecturer, assistant professor, clinical assistant professor, research assistant professor, etc. Each of those have different expectations: visiting professor contracts are for 1 year and only renewable 1 time. College lecturers have renewable 3-year contracts and are eligible for tenure after 6 years. Some are voting members, some are not. Some are eligible for tenure, some are not. For example, research assistant professors are funded 100% from their own grants ('soft money') and are not eligible for tenure.

    For college lecturer, assistant professor, and clinical assistant professor, there are different requirements/expectations for the award of tenure. College lecturers are expected to teach full-time. Clinical faculty are expected to see patients as opposed to run a research program.

    Competition for any tenure-eligible position is very high, with the exception of searches looking for someone either very specific (for example, a medicinal chemist) or someone who is highly paid in a non-academic setting (for example, a board-certified medical physicist).
  11. May 8, 2014 #10
    forget teaching research all the way
  12. May 8, 2014 #11

    Vanadium 50

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    Two detailed messages from faculty outlining the various opportunities and their requirements should probably be given more weight than a six word non-sentence from an undergrad.
  13. May 20, 2014 #12


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    I'm a professor at a small liberal arts university, of which there are many in the US. I teach 2-4 classes per semester, and I'm expected to publish once or twice before going up for tenure (6 years). I'm not expected to bring in much if any grant money or to publish every year. I'm not expected to publish in top journals, and involving students in my research is highly recommended (even if it's not ground-breaking stuff). Many of my friends have similar jobs. Sure, we don't have our own labs or postdocs or even grad students, and we don't often get to teach upper level classes (I teach about one a year above the calc-based physics level). But it's a great job if you have a PhD, like to teach, like your research, and want tenure someday.

    There's really no demand for professors. We produce far more PhDs who want to teach in pretty much every field than we can hire back to teach. Don't count on getting your dream job; I have friends who applied for over 100 jobs and only got a couple of phone interviews. Statistics is probably your best bet as far as being very employable with a PhD, but math and physics are useful as well.
  14. May 25, 2014 #13
    It's OK--but it wasn't for me

    I was also a professor at a liberal arts college.

    Your mileage may vary a lot depending what school you are at, but here were the positives and negatives I came across:

    Positives: Some schedule flexibility during the academic year, lots of opportunities to interact with students, sabbaticals every few years, no direct supervisor, not a great deal of pressure to publish but lots of encouragement to do so, little pressure to bring in grants, interesting work, unscheduled time over the summer and over breaks, total job security if you get tenure, probably family-friendly after you are tenured, some conference travel, freedom to do research on what you want, society respects academics, nice university facilities (gym, pool, library, etc.)

    Negatives: Not as much schedule flexibility during the academic year as you'd think, two-body problems, can't actually take advantage of the sabbatical and travel if you are married or have kids (unless you are married to another professor), very low salary relative to non-academic jobs, brutal teaching load, no TAs so lots of mindless grading, lots of focus on teaching evaluations and constant feeling of providing customer service, mostly introductory classes for engineers/pre-meds, very rural area, entitled students from wealthy families, lots and lots of office hours required, inter and intra departmental politics, no sick leave (if you get sick, other professors cover your classes and you spend the rest of the year paying them back), no direct supervisor but you need to please every tenured person in the department, little time to do research during the academic year and planning courses cuts into summer too, no real "vacation" when you are totally free, awkwardness of running into students at all university facilities (gym, pool, dining halls), very hard to move to another institution.

    Overall it wasn't for me. I was really surprised; I expected to love it, but I didn't; I basically felt like a high school teacher. Between teaching multiple lectures a day, office hours, grading, and preparing the next day's lectures, I was frequently working 14 hour days and had no weekends to speak of. The worst was when the college would schedule some outreach event at 8 a.m. on a weekend, and after working hard all week I would have to be there as part of the "service" component of my tenure evaluation. There was a ton of bureaucracy too, with constant meetings to revise a curriculum that I thought was perfectly fine.

    To be fair, I think if I had stayed longer and repeated more courses, the workload would have dropped. But I don't think it would have dropped enough to make it worth living where I didn't want to live and in a place that caused two-body problems for me. I liked teaching but I didn't want to be doing it constantly--when you do research, you gain in terms of professional reputation and career development, but time you spend teaching is really pure service. To me that got frustrating after some time--I wanted to do something for my own career development, not just train future doctors to pass the MCAT.

    Ultimately I left for industry where I work 40 hour weeks, have time for my family, and can save enough money to feel comfortable. I have a boss and little freedom on what I work on, but when I am sick I can actually take sick leave, which is a great relief. I remember that there were people at my college who were in permanent long-distance marriages, etc. It just blew my mind that they would make that sort of sacrifice to do a job that honestly was, at best, just okay. I wonder if they would do that if they knew what else was out there.

    When I was making my "stay or go" decision, I found that many if not most of the professors in my department had considered leaving academia at one point or another, which is surprising given that postdocs consider tenure track positions the Holy Grail. Ultimately they all stayed--less out of love than out of inertia, for family reasons, because they didn't want to give up the tenure they spent seven years earning, and probably from some fear of not being able to survive outside academia after years of teaching the same classes. Nobody was very surprised when I left, and I suspect more than one person envied me.
    Last edited: May 25, 2014
  15. May 26, 2014 #14
    That’s really informative. I spent some time as a contract lecturer at a large public university before moving on to industry. Once I was fully established in my new profession, I started having second thoughts about not pushing to stay in academia (either in the type of place I was or at a liberal arts college) and even occasionally daydreamed about trying to get back into it. Your insight makes me feel better about the direction I took, thanks.
  16. May 26, 2014 #15
    I'm glad it was helpful!

    I think it's a natural human tendency to think "what if." There were good points about being a LAC professor, and some people thrived there. Just...other jobs are OK too. If you like teaching, there are ways to make it part of your life without necessarily devoting your entire life to it.

    I saw people making some incredible personal sacrifices to make their lives work around the LAC job, and while of course it depends on the person I do think most of them could have been happy doing something else, if they tried. I guess the problem is that once you are out, it is very hard to go back.
  17. May 26, 2014 #16
    I do like teaching, in fact helping co-workers is the part of my job, software developer, I find most rewarding. The difference from this type of mentoring, vs teaching in the lecturing job, is that co-workers much more motivated to learn. As I'm sure you experienced, many students want to learn, but there are also a lot that just want a good grade to meet some requirement.

    A while back a community college had an opening teaching a cosmology class, which seemed perfect to me since I did pen and paper theory in the areas of string theory and general relativity (also have an undergraduate degree in astronomy). The amount of money it paid was negligible, but I still wanted to do it. Unfortunately, the latest start time they could arrange for the class was too late for me to get there from the job I had that paid the bills.
  18. May 26, 2014 #17
    That opportunity does sound good; maybe it will come up in the future again. I know that at our college the department always needed adjuncts, to the point where they would hire local high school teachers to teach some of the lab sections.

    I have seen a number of MOOC classes on various branches of physics--so maybe you can even teach via distance somewhere.
  19. May 26, 2014 #18
    Thanks again, I sincerely appreciate the insights and suggestions, it has been very helpful.
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