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What is a professor?

Yesterday at dinner my 12-year old son asked me if I used to be a professor. „No, I didn’t.“ But I did teach at a university, right? „Yes, I did.“ And thus began a 20 minute explanation of what it is to be a professor. I thought I would summarize it up here, since it is something I think about frequently.

I got my Ph.D. in Germanic Linguistics in 2007. When I started graduate school in 2002 I wanted to become a professor. I had the good fortune that I had a fair amount of personal insight into what it means to be a professor from my father, who had also studied Germanic Linguistics back in the 1960s. He also did not become a professor (or maybe he was for a short while?). He was what they call „ABD“ – „all but dissertation“. He had completed all of the necessary coursework for the Ph.D., but he never finished his dissertation. One of the main reasons he never finished was that he accepted an adjunct professor position before he had finished, on the advice of his advisor.

In the 1960s academia was very different than today. Jobs were much more plentiful, partly because of the cold war. The government was throwing lots of money into universities for research into the hard sciences, to work on building better bombs and spaceships, but also into foreign languages and linguistics, to train people to spy on the Soviets and decipher secret codes. This also meant that a lot of people got funding to study Goethe and the like, for free – actually, you would even get paid a little bit! Because of my father’s experience (and my mother, who was offered a fellowship for classical studies, for which she didn’t even apply), I knew that one could go to graduate school for free. So when I was finishing up my undergraduate degree, I decided to apply to gradate school with the feeling that „as long as I am having fun studying, why not keep going, as long as it is free“. I learned from some classmates that the idea that graduate school was free was news to them. Going to university in the USA for a bachelor’s degree is very expensive, as are most master’s degree programs and professional programs like law school and medical school. But if you decide to get a Ph.D., there is usually funding available. In the humanities, (like German and Linguistics), this is usually in the form of teaching assistantships. You teach one introductory course per semester, and the university pays your tuition, and gives you a living stipend. While I was studying at the University of Michigan from 2002-2007, the living stipend was around $22,000 I think, which was one of the highest across the country. It was plenty enough money to live on. I even saved a bit for retirement. If you figure that a typical graduate student works about 60 hours per week, this works out to around $7-8 an hour, which was a bit more than working at a fast food job at the time. But! But! When you are done, you might be able to become a professor!

Albert Einstein as a Professor (from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Professor)

So, back to the question – what is a professor? Well, that is a complicated question actually, and it depends a bit on what country you live in, whether or not you get to use the title „Professor“ in front of your name. I will focus on the USA, since that is what I know best. There are usually 2 main criteria you need to fulfill to be a „professor“ in the United States:

  1. Finish your Ph.D.
  2. Hold a job at a college or university

However, that second part is tricky. There are 2 main types of positions at colleges and universities – tenure-track, and non-tenure-track. Tenure means permanent. Once you have tenure at an American college, you basically cannot be fired, unless you commit some gross misconduct. The purpose of tenure is to try to maintain academic freedom. Colleges are supposed to allow free thought. It is important that professors not be fired for holding unpopular beliefs. Usually when people think of a „professor“ they are thinking of tenure-track or tenured professors. Let’s look at the distinctions a bit more closely.

Tenure-track positions

  • Assistant professor – sort of like a trial period – a 6 year period. At the end, you will be evaluated by your peers in your department, from other departments at the university, and from peers at other universities. If you have published a lot of papers in high-quality journals, you will get tenure, and you can finally relax (a little). If not, you might be able to get a tenure-track position at another university, but it is unlikely (though I know of a few cases where someone got denied tenure once and then got it at another university)
  • Associate professor – you have tenure. You cannot be fired
  • Full professor – if you published a bunch as an associate professor, and have developed an international reputation as a great scholar in your field, you can get a promotion to full professor. This is mostly just a raise. I would say that most people who make it to associate professor eventually get to full professor, but not all. Somewhat disappointingly, the people who do not make it to full professor are usually people who focus on teaching. There are not many rewards at universities for being a good teacher
  • Named professor – There are some positions at universities which are named. That is, someone donated a bunch of money (probably at least $10 million) to fund a professor position for life. If you get a named professorship, then your title will be something like „the Marie Curie professor of Chemistory“. It is an honor, and also probably comes with a pay raise

Non tenure-track positions

  • Lecturer / Adjunct Professor – these are frequently used interchangeably. Adjunct professor may imply a Ph.D., while lecturer may not, but that is not always the case. These are temporary positions, and in spite of the word „professor“ in „adjunct professor“, I would not really count that as a professor, but perhaps some people might disagree with me
  • post-doctoral fellow – These are usually 1-3 year positions for people who recently finished their Ph.D. In Engineering and the sciences, they are usually just research positions. In the humanities, they also sometimes require some teaching. There are even some positions which are only teaching post-docs. From my experience, most people trying to get tenure-track jobs today first do a post-doc. This is particularly helpful for actually getting tenure, since the „tenure clock“ starts ticking as soon as you have a tenure-track position, and articles you publish during that time count towards tenure. It frequently takes 1-2 years to get research published. Thus if you start a bunch of research during your post-doc, and submit it for publication, if it gets published while you are on the tenure clock, it will count. That gives you a great head start towards achieving tenure.
  • research assistant / research scientist – In the sciences and engineering, it is relatively common to have people who don’t teach, but just focus on research, but never got good enough to have a tenure track position.

The wikipedia article on adjunct professor has some nice additional info. I found this fact quite striking: „In a 2018 analysis, AAUP determined that 73% of university teaching positions in the United States are non-tenure track“

The Ivory Tower doesn’t exist

Perhaps I am biased because I have quite a bit of experience in Academia, as well as outside of it, but I feel that the general perception of academia is perhaps farthest from reality than any other perception. The general perception of being a professor is that it is an easy job where you get to sit around all day thinking about whatever you want. In reality, getting a job as a tenure-track professor is an arduous journey with a relatively high chance of failure. If you do actually get a tenure-track position, a great deal of your time will be spent asking for money, in the forms of grants. Writing a grant application is a very time-consuming process. Some smaller grants might only require a 5-10 page application. Larger grants might be more like 20-30 pages, and require hundreds of hours of work to get. While I was a postdoc at Indiana University, the team I was on had a 5 year National Institutes of Health training grant, which funded 3-5 postdocs and 2-3 graduate students. It was a very prestigious grant, and Prof. David Pisoni had gotten it renewed four or five times already. Whenever it was up for renewal, we would all start working on writing, editing, and re-writing all the research we had done and which we planned to do about 6 months before the deadline.

Let’s say that you really wanted to study underwater basket-weaving. It is unlikely that you would get a grant to do that. The idea that professors can do whatever research they want is simply not true. They can only do research that they can get funding to do. In the humanities, this is sometimes not a problem. If your research only requires you to read books and write about them, say as a professor of literature, then you probably don’t need much of a research budget. It used to be that professors would sometimes travel to other cities to go to their libraries, but that is also becoming less necessary due to digitization of books.

I recently finished watching The Big Bang Theory as a family. I am still surprised that it lasted for 12 seasons! It was not the best show ever, but it provided some nice relaxation in the evenings, and it is nice to find a tv show that the whole family can enjoy. From what I can tell, they got the science parts of the show correct. However, they got academia totally wrong. There were so many unrealistic scenarios about academia in that show. I would like to enumerate some of them

  1. Attending fundraising dinners – sometimes the dean would ask the scientists (who were likely postdocs or research scientists, not professors) to come to a fundraising dinner. I have never heard of such a thing. There are fundraising dinners, and deans probably to to these, maybe some professors, but not research scientists. That sort of funding is usually for buildings or sports teams, not for research. Research funding comes from grants, which involves writing long applications to some government entity like the National Science Foundation or the National Endowment for the Arts
  2. HR – Frequently the guys are called into HR for doing something stupid. I don’t really know of a human resources department in general at universities. That is much more of a corporate thing. If you were to do something bad like sexual misconduct, it would probably be handled by a committee of professors and/or deans, not HR
  3. Hiring – at one point a professor dies, and the guys all scramble to try to get his position. It is true that frequently professorships only become available when a professor retires or dies, but the position is not filled immediately. Rather, a search committee is formed, which takes 6-18 months to hire a candidate. They will likely get hundreds of applications from all around the world, select a few for phone interviews, and then eventually two to five candidates will be chosen to come to campus, give a talk or two, maybe teach a class, meet the other professors and graduate students in research groups and such. This is done entirely within a department usually, thus there is no HR or dean involved, and no amount of flattery will help. On occasion, the candidate who finally gets the job offer accepts an offer from a different university. Sometimes a second candidate will then be given an offer, but sometimes the process gets repeated from scratch, with a whole new search process.

Should you strive to become a professor?

This post sounds fairly negative. I am not meaning to be negative, but rather just realistic. I knew some people in graduate school who didn’t learn some of these facts until they were starting to look for jobs, and it was a rude awakening for them. The Linguistics department at the University of Michigan actually had a course for first-year graduate students which covered a lot of these topics, and was very helpful, but I knew people in other departments that didn’t get that sort of preparation.

I am glad that I got a Ph.D. I had a great time, learned a lot, made great friends, met my wife, and gained new perspectives on life, in particular about how to form a research mindset (I am going to post about that soon). I am also glad that I left academia. I watched one classmate move from post-doc to post-doc for five years, working tirelessly, until he finally got a tenure-track position in Kentucky. I personally am not interested in living in Kentucky. I don’t think he was either, but there wasn’t much else to choose from. When I completed my Ph.D. in 2007, there were nine tenure-track positions for phoneticians in North America, and that was a good year. In previous years there had only been two or three. I think that getting a Ph.D definitely helped me prepare for my current job as a computational linguist, and I have been quite happy working in industry. I certainly make more money than if I had stayed in academia (my father also made more money as an insurance agent than he would have as a professor).

Would I recommend getting a Ph.D. to other people? If you read this post, and still want to be a professor, absolutely! If you realize that it can be a long and difficult journey, but still want to do it, I would give it a try. I think that spending your life in an environment surrounded by other curious people, and in particular, young people with fresh perspectives, can be very rewarding. There is still probably more flexibility as a professor than in other jobs to pave your own path. If you are considering getting a Ph.D., but are less certain about whether you want to work in industry or in academia, I would also say to go for it. However, here is one last, yet crucial trick. You can get funding to a Ph.D. program, take enough courses to get a masters degree, and then drop out. You got a masters degree for free! If you apply just for a masters degree, you will likely have to pay. Just be sure to fill out all the paperwork required and make sure you have the diploma before you actually drop out. If you looking to make a lot of money in life, your best bet is to get a master’s degree. You will never be able to catch up to people who quit after a masters while you spend the extra couple years earning near-minimum wage as a graduate student. That is just an FYI. Money does not equal happiness.