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Why is that hard to become a professor?

  1. Nov 17, 2009 #1
    I've heard from PhdComics, a fair few members here, and from a person I know that's not from the internets that becoming a professor is basically impossible.

    I have a hard time believing this. It seems to me that if you get a PhD at a decent university, did a legitimate thesis, and found a decent post-doc position, it shouldn't be that ridiculously hard to go from lecturer then to professor.

    Why is it so difficult to become a professor? Lack of funding? Too many people competing for the positions? Or what?

    Is there anything you can do to help ensure that you'll have a better chance at becoming a professor? (outside of the obvious PhD, post-doc, etc)
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 17, 2009 #2


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    Depends on your country here.
    in the US professor is either anyone with teaching duties or anyone with tenure (not a temporary contract)
    In the UK (and most of europe) professor is generally the head of dept, there is only one or sometimes two. You can also be an emeritus professor, which is an honorary professorship for staying alive for log enough.

    Eat properly,take healthy exercise, try and persuade any faculty older than you to take up dangerous sports.
  4. Nov 17, 2009 #3
    I think it may depend a fair bit on your area of study, but particularly in things such as theoretical physics and pure mathematics there are a very large number of people trying to go the academic route (PhD -> Postdoc -> Lecturer), because there are relatively few jobs in industry directly related to the area, and so it's super competitive for positions; the universities can only support so many staff (they can typically support more staff in areas that attract industrial funding, which these ones aren't). You also need to factor in that different universities will have different specialties and most likely won't support someone outside of their normal areas of research, so people in a fringe or dying area will have a hard time.

    The difficulty would also depend on what languages you speak and where you are willing to move to.

    I believe the situation is a bit nicer for some experimental physicists and statisticians, but that still doesn't mean you can just walk into an academic job.

    I suppose there are a number of ways to get a better chance; being well known in the area and having good connections would probably be the biggest boon. Having teaching/tutoring experience would definitely help for some positions.
  5. Nov 17, 2009 #4
    Think about it this way that will make the numbers game clear:

    Let's estimate that a typical professor advises 20 PhD students over the course of their career. Let's say half of those want to pursue an academic career. But, professor positions usually only open when another one retires. So, for every current professor, there are then 9/10 students who wanted an academic position who won't get one.

    These numbers are clearly a bit off since I'm not taking into account undergraduate-only colleges, and my numbers were just guesses, but it is rather clear that there are far more PhDs than there are academic positions.
  6. Nov 18, 2009 #5
    In physics, your chances of getting a tenure track position once you have a Ph.D. is 10-15%, and you have no chance of getting a professorship without two post-docs of three years each. In other fields it's different. In finance, Ph.D.'s from big name schools are practically guaranteed some sort of professionship once they graduate, but it is ***extremely*** difficult to be admitted to these sorts of programs.

    In physics you have the situation in which one professor must produce a certain number of Ph.D.'s to do research. These Ph.D.'s become professors, which they produce more Ph.D.'s. Eventually you have vast numbers of Ph.D.'s.

    One other issue is that you can't easily fire a professor so universities will be very, very careful before opening up a position.

    The easiest thing that you can do to increase you chances of getting a professorship is to marry an academic. Usually when a university offers a position to one person, they also try to find a position for their spouse, so if you are a husband-wife team, you double your chances of getting a professorship. There are several very well known husband-wife teams in astronomy.

    (Alternatively, you can marry a rich lawyer or doctor. I know of at least one person that is able to do professional astronomy research because they happen to have a spouse that is loaded.)

    Other than that, have a dissertation advisor and thesis committee with a huge amount of political connections. Political connections are vital in getting a professorship. The trouble is that for any position is that there are dozens of qualified applicants, ten of which can walk on water. The person who can walk on water *and* has better political skills and connections is likely to be the person that gets the job.

    One thing that frequently happens in academia is that you have a job description that is *theoretically* open, but they already know who they want to hire and the design the professorship around the person they want to hire rather than look for someone that meets the specification.
  7. Nov 18, 2009 #6


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    :rofl: and of course this can backfire. The situation occured at my university where the... uhm, less deserving of a professorship got one and was so bad that it cost his wife her professorship as well.
  8. Nov 18, 2009 #7


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    I think "basically impossible" is an inaccurate description. I think a better way of looking at the process, just like any other desireable job, is "highly competative."

    Here's some numbers to add to this discussion:
    Over the last 40 years, it appears that the number of PhD graduate student enrollments has been reasonably stable, if not decreasing.

    I'd love to find a similar graph for tenure-track hires over time. From a financial point of view I suspect this is decreasing in favour of temporary (cheaper) instructor/lecturer positions over the same time period.
  9. Nov 18, 2009 #8
    Your chances of getting a professorship if you have a Ph.D. are 1 in 10. You need to go into grad school thinking that you won't get a professorship otherwise you'll make extremely poor career decisions. Also, "highly competitive" is a very bad way of thinking about it, because it makes you think that if you are really good and smart, you are more likely to get a professorship. In fact, getting a professorship depends a lot more on luck and politics than anything else. It's not a competition, it's a lottery, and lotteries are not "highly competitive" even though few people win them,

    The reason it's a lottery and not a competition is that there are so many excellent candidates for professorships, that who wins basically boils down to things other than anything really objective. Think of it this way. I think that we can come to something of a consensus about the difference between a super physicist and an average one. However, at the level of professorships you are choosing between the #1 candidate and the #2 one, and at best that's going to be very random.

    You really need to track this back to about 1945 if you want to see the malthusian curve. Also the demand for Ph.D.'s has varied wildly. In the 1970's, there were a lot of faculty openings in mid-western universities, and in the 1960's, you had the space program.

    One other thing is that it would be interesting to look at career statistics for a Ph.D. that graduated in 1970. At one point I looked at the career paths for physics undergraduates graduating in 1965, and the odd thing was that the chances of them ending up with a professorship were quite low.

    Also we just got to stop think of adjuncts as "temporary". If you look at where the demand for instructors are. It's in community colleges and adult education, and I think one big goal in fixing the system is to start making these jobs much more attractive, and one way to do this is to stop pretending that adjuncts are "temporary" and hence "disposible."
  10. Nov 18, 2009 #9


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    I don't know that "lottery" is a more accurate way of looking at it, although your point is valid and taken. I certainly agree that we don't live in a perfect merritocracy. However, I don't think everyone who manages to obtain a PhD has an equal chance of obtaining a professorship. Hard work and inginuity are big factors. So are things (perhaps more so) like writing skills, public speaking skills, organizational skills, and social networking skills - skills that are all part of the competition, but no one every really talks about.
  11. Nov 18, 2009 #10
    Based on some of the professors I have had I would've guessed these skills were actually frowned upon. :rofl:
  12. Nov 18, 2009 #11


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    :rofl: I lucked out and picked a field where the majority of current faculty are within about 5 years of retirement.

    But, really, why shouldn't it be hard? You get pretty good job security with it, and are responsible for teaching a couple generations of students, so I think it's good that it should be highly competitive.
  13. Nov 18, 2009 #12
    Is it viable to do post-docs for say 10-20 years, or is there an unwritten understanding that after "X" post-docs you "suck" (for lack of a better term)
  14. Nov 18, 2009 #13
    Random but interesting point. The term "meritocracy" was first used in 1958 in a "future history" book in which the author was trying to argue that meritocracies were *bad* things that would inevitably lead to social revolution.

    But the basic problem is that the supply/demand function is so skewed that you basically *can't* have a meritocratic process because there are just too many good candidates.

    How many Ph.D.'s do you know that don't work hard and aren't ingenuous? If you can't walk on water, then you are already out of the running. The trouble is that there are still too many people that can walk on water for the positions available.

    I think that there is a lot of self-delusion among Ph.D.'s as to their actual chances of being a professor. As long as you think you can get it by working harder than the next guy, you can pretend that the odds don't matter, but the trouble is that the next guy is thinking the same thing.

    You have 100 Ph.D's, 10 places. If you work harder, but no one else does, then you can win. The trouble is that everyone works hard, so you just end up making life more hellish for everyone, and the number of places doesn't increase.
  15. Nov 18, 2009 #14
    You need two post-docs (three years each) to qualify for tenure track. You might be able to convince someone to give you a third if you beg and plead, but I don't see how anyone is going to give you a fourth. The other issue is that post-docs don't make the starvation wages that graduate students do, but it's not a huge amount of money.

    After you do get tenure track, you have seven years to get tenure or it's bye-bye.
  16. Nov 18, 2009 #15


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    The world's top N-body guy is still doing post-docs well after retirement age (http://www.sverre.com) - although i think he has a bunch of honorary profesorships around the world
    Last edited: Nov 18, 2009
  17. Nov 18, 2009 #16
    I am not sure whether this is true, but I seem to remember that university classes (especially in the sciences at public or low-end private universities) are taught a lot more by lecturers than in the past because they are cheaper and easier to fire if public funding decreases.
  18. Nov 18, 2009 #17


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    Careful about this sort of advice. These are not universal rules. What universities look for in applicants varies, people can get a tenure-track position with only a single 2-year post-doc, and some do end up in 3 or 4 post-docs (especially during times when positions are very scarce). Though, generally, after about 4 to 5 years of experience as a post-doc, people start looking for research faculty positions. It's not tenure-track, but will give you an assistant professor title.

    In tenure-track positions, that varies greatly across universities. Some places can give you as long as 10 years, some as few as 5. And, it's not always "bye bye" if you don't get tenure. It DOES mean they will take away your lab space, but if you happen to be good at teaching, sometimes you can continue on with a contract appointment just to teach. On the other hand, people can circumvent this system if they are worried they might not get tenure (hardly anyone really gets denied tenure unless they are atrocious and have pissed off all the administrators). As people approach their tenure year, they start applying to positions elsewhere, and negotiate that since they are in their tenure year, they should be hired at the associate professor level with tenure. So, they just move but still get tenure.
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