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What it means to be a professor

  1. Jan 2, 2013 #1
    I'm a little confused as to what it is to be a college science professor. So if you get your PhD, your considered a scientist because you have done your own original research (at a university of course). Now you graduate and apply for jobs. I would assume that someone who is hired into, say, NASA, or any other organization alike, AS A SCIENTIST who is doing original scientific research would be considered a working scientist (obviously). So why is it that almost all (if not all, you tell me) the people who take a professorship at a university are considered working scientists when they're really just teaching graduate students science? Do all university teaching jobs require you to do research? Because i would think that full time teaching would be enough work as it is. Also, is the research done through the university? Or is it that the professor is considered a working scientist because he is helping the graduate students with their original work?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 2, 2013 #2
    First off all, you would typically not go straight from finishing a PhD to a professorship. Unless one is extraordinarily brilliant and did groundbreaking doctoral research, several of years of work as a "post-doctoral researcher" (aka a "post-doc") are typically required before having a reasonable shot at a tenure-stream professorship.

    Professorships are typically research positions. There are positions at most universities to work exclusively as a teacher, but such people are usually called lecturers rather than professors (though this is starting to change). However, the majority of professorships are research stream. At a North American university, you would usually start as an assistant professor (untenured) when, on top of your lecturing duties (which tend to be the smallest component of a prof's work) you work to produce more original research. At this point, you would generally have the assistance of graduate students. If you do good work as an assistant professor—generally over the course of 5 years, give or take a few—you get tenure (ie a permanent job) and promoted to associate professor. As an associate professor, you continue to do research but the day-to-day work is mostly done by your graduate students. So, you more or less complete the transition to being a managerial position in your group's research. In some cases, this transition may have already happened at the assistant prof level. There are, of course, exceptions with some professors who prefer to stay very hands on late into their careers—but this is broadly what happens. Now, even as a manager you are still very much actively involved in the research. You're responsible for its over all direction, for getting grant money to fund it, for overseeing the results, etc. In other words, still very much a working scientist. For many professors, this is the terminal position for their career. Those are very good—or, at the very least, long-lived if the university just goes by seniority—will at some point be promoted to "full professor". Aside from the prestige and probably a raise, there isn't much difference when going from associate to full professor.

    Meanwhile, as profs gain experience and seniority they will often be expected to take on various administrative roles, like serving as a department chair for a few years or the faculty dean, vice-dean, etc. They will generally continue their research roles through such appointments, though at a reduced capacity. If they don't have such an administrative position, they will often have to sit on various committees like for thesis examinations or graduate admissions. And, yes, they will usually be teaching undergraduates along the way.

    At universities outside North America, the process is largely the same though some of the formalities and the names of the various positions might be different. Wherever you are, professors will almost always be working scientists—though, as I said, the trend is towards a more managerial role over the course of a career—and are very, very busy people.
    Last edited: Jan 2, 2013
  4. Jan 2, 2013 #3
    I have a question about North American colleges. Are professors sent directly to a research lab related to their post-docs?
  5. Jan 2, 2013 #4
    Well, generally a professor isn't sent to a research lab—they start a new one. A department would announce they are seeking candidates working in some sub-field, to varying degrees of specificity. I.e. a physics department might say they are looking to hire a new professor working in experimental condensed matter physics or in theoretical high energy physics with an emphasis on string theory. It would be expected that applicants would have relevant post-doc experience and that will continue to do similar work—to start, at least—once hired. Candidates would probably submit a detailed plan for a research program they would like to conduct. Then the new professor would start their research group—probably closely collaborating with some of their colleagues—and acquire some graduate students, and get to work.
  6. Jan 2, 2013 #5


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    Don't forget small colleges, where many (if not most) physicists with PhDs end up. While research universities want someone who did 2-6 years of postdoc work, small colleges will often hire someone with no postdoc work or only a year or two. They have research requirements, but not as much (a paper every few years) and you don't have graduate students. You might have a few undergrads working with you, but the professor will continue doing their own research well into tenure because they don't have anyone to turn the lab over to.

    As a new professor, I'm torn between 'professor' and 'scientist' when answering the question 'what do you do?'. Most of my time is spent working on my courses, teaching, and working with students, but I am a trained research scientist and spend my summers working on my research with collaborators at large research institutions.
  7. Jan 2, 2013 #6
    So when one receives a PhD, they would go to post-doc work? Where is that usually done since they aren't at a university which would provide them the necessary tools to do the research?
  8. Jan 2, 2013 #7
    Postdocs are often done at universities or national labs. Occasionally in industry.
  9. Jan 2, 2013 #8
    Post-docs are very often at universities, though as daveyrocket said they may also be done elsewhere (i.e. a particle physicist might post-doc at CERN). However, it's common for larger groups at research universities to have the principal investigator (the professor), a couple of post-docs, several graduate students, and perhaps some undergraduates doing a term project. Sometimes there will also be research associates, who are people with PhDs employed by the department exclusively for research. Research associates are like post-docs, but more senior and less temporary—though they are usually untenured and often rely exclusively on their group's funding for their salary.

    Note though that this is really just the "nuclear family" of research groups. There are plenty of variations and alternative arrangements, including having multiple professors pool their resources into one group and sharing funds, co-supervising graduate students, etc; groups with a research associate as principal investigator (though such a group would not generally have PhD students or undergrads since only professors can supervise students); and plenty of other "alternative family arrangements".
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