Tuesday, April 19, 2011

P is for Professor

My thesis for this particular blog post is this: Ph.D. graduate study and post-doctoral training do little to prepare you for being a professor.

Of course, they do something.  A Ph.D. is a prerequisite for any tenure-track faculty position.  Post-doctoral training has become a de facto requirement for getting a faculty position in the sciences and engineering.  Both provide you a strong background in doing research.  These are important for becoming a professor.  But what does a professor do all day?  Well, what I have discovered as a new tenure-track assistant professor is that I do the following (in no particular order of importance or time investment):
  • Attend committee and faculty meetings
  • Meet with interested undergraduate and graduate students
  • Prepare for and teach classes
  • Write grants
  • Advise my own graduate students
  • Balance my lab budget
Sounds very different than the average day for a Ph.D. student or post-doc, right?  I do not do much bench science, except when I have been training my graduate students or lending a hand.  Instead, many of my responsibilities are largely administrative.  My contact with research is largely in an advisory role (in meetings with my students) or through the writing of grants, which are necessarily much larger in scope than what I normally encountered as a Ph.D. student or post-doc.  I spend a lot of time mentoring students, both my own graduate students, as well as students in my classes, and other students who are simply interested in what I do or what I have to say, apparently.

I am fortunate in many ways -- my Ph.D. and post-doc advisors gave me ample opportunities to write grants, mentor students, critique manuscripts -- so those aspects of my new job are not entirely mysterious to me.  But in other ways, I was totally unprepared for being a professor -- I have very little teaching experience, no management experience, and I do not have the intrinsic talent for navigating the tricky political waters of the university and academia at large.  But I am learning.

Since I can't do it over again, the best I can do is offer advice to graduate students and post-docs out there.  It is easy to keep your head down and focus on just your own research, but if you are serious about getting a faculty position, and want to be as prepared as possible for when you start (and even then you will still be woefully unprepared), I would take every opportunity you can find to participate in research-related activities separate from doing research, and to try and teach at least part of a course, if not two or three courses.  You will be glad you did -- and if you find you really dislike all these seemingly ancillary activities, then perhaps being a professor is not the profession for you.

P.S. If anyone has any suggestions for Q, I am in need of some help :)

1 comment:

  1. Ah...this is why I got an MFA! Almost every class was a practicum in how to teach. But then, people look askance as an MFA as dirty hippie degree--as somehow being not as rigorous. It is, only in a different way.

    But I would say that key to learning how to be a professor is to find a good mentor in your field. They can show you the ropes much better than trying to slash through the undergrowth of academia all on your own.