So You Want to Be a…

So You Want to Be a Professor

I feel like that should be the title of my next book. Lately, I've been having a lot of conversations with people who are intensely curious about my job -- how many hours I work, when I have to be on campus, how flexible is it, etc. and so on. Mostly, they're thinking of making a career switch, and I guess professor sounds pretty good. Not as high-intensity as doctor (fewer actual lives on the line, and no 80-hour weeks at the hospital). Less drudgery and soul-sucking than lawyer (or so they imagine). Similar social cachet -- it sounds good to say, "I'm a professor." (Although I imagine my family would argue that doctor is several notches above that in prestige.) And we get paid pretty well, right?

There are lots of reasons why I love being a professor. I particularly appreciate the flexibility of the professor job, which aside from class time and office hours, lets me do most of my work (generally more than 40 hours / week total, I'm afraid) from home or coffee shop or library, on my own schedule. (If you prefer to work at 3 a.m., the professor's life may be well-suited to you.) I get to be home @ 3 p.m. when my kids get back from school, which is pretty awesome.

But the truth is, much as I love being a professor, I warn people away from attempting it, especially in the humanities. (I know less about the social and physical sciences -- I think many of the same issues apply, but with a bit more money at stake). Here are a few relevant factors, in case you're one of the people dreaming of life in the ivory tower.

  • Unless you're a superstar (of which there are very few), the pay is significantly lower than doctor. Even the lowest paid doctors in America usually start with three times the salary of a tenure-track professor, and after six years, they're likely to be making double what professors are, if not much more. (http://www.profilesdatabase.com/resources/2011-2012-physician-salary-survey) So if you're looking for the money, look to medicine, not academia. I don't know as much about law or engineering or similar fields, but I'm pretty sure they pay a lot better than academia too.

  • The training is longer -- it'll take 5-10 years, probably, to get a Ph.D. Med school is 4 years (sometimes just 3 years outside the U.S.), and while you're still in training during the next 3 years of your residency, you're getting paid a decent salary then (average $45,000; http://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/medical-resident-salary-SRCH_KO0,16.htm). So you're going to get a return on your investment of time a lot faster with med school. Now, to be fair, med school is almost certainly more expensive than the doctorate (typically, good Ph.D. programs will waive tuition charges, and may offer you a stipend in exchange for some teaching of freshman classes), and odds are you'll be taking out government loans to pay for it. Ditto law school. So do the math and factor that into your plans.

  • Here's the big one -- you are unlikely to get a full-time job in academia on completing your Ph.D. Here's "a particularly grim statistic for those who completed a PhD in the humanities: only 62.6 percent had a �definite commitment� for any kind of employment whatsoever. Remember that this is what faces those who have already survived programs with very high attrition rates; more than half of those who start PhD programs in the humanities do not complete them." (http://100rsns.blogspot.com/2011/04/55-there-are-too-many-phds.html)

    If you're top of your class at a tip-top school, well, maybe you can be reasonably confident that you'll get some sort of job on completion of your doctorate. Maybe. But as far as I can tell, right now, most folks finishing their doctorates end up cobbling together a variety of adjunct positions in a desperate scramble to make enough to pay their rent. It's horrid. This is in direct contrast to medicine, where the AMA has set up a match system that guarantees you a job as a doctor (not necessarily in your city of choice) if you manage to actually graduate from med school.

So, that's the unhappy news. Financially, it's just a bad bet to go into academia right now. It's like trying to be an actor or a dancer or a rock star -- there are a ton of people who want to do it, and most of them will not get the career of their dreams.

Now, they might find a way to make a living, with a lot of hard work. They may love their time in the classroom, and/or their time researching. They may not mind all the hours in the car (audiobooks?), driving from one adjunct position to another. (Universities are typically reluctant to give adjuncts more than half-time work, because they'd have to give them benefits then, so many adjunct instructors teach at multiple institutions, teaching two or three times as many classes as I do, for a barely living wage.) They may have a partner who makes sufficient money that they themselves can just teach a class or two, for $10K or so a year, as a supplement to their household income, and a way to spend more time at home, with children or aging parents or with their own other interests. And of course a significant number of Ph.D. graduates will take their doctorates and find interesting careers outside academia.

It's not that your time in grad school would be wasted. But it probably won't give you the lifestyle you're dreaming of.

And truly, I'm not going to tell you not to try for it, just as I wouldn't tell you not to be a writer. I just want folks to do a little research before they make a big career shift, especially if they have partners and/or kids to factor into their decisions. Because grad school is a long-term commitment of several years of your life, with a deeply uncertain outcome at the end. Be sure it's what you really want before you apply.

4 thoughts on “So You Want to Be a…”

  1. Conventional wisdom says that a Ph. D. in science or mathematics is a little more likely to result in academic employment, but it is still not a certainty the way it was a half century ago.

    Also, there was once upon a time an ethic amongst professors not to take on a Ph. D. student unless and until the professor could pretty well guarantee that the student would have a job. This kind of thinking ended about the time I got out of grad school, in the late 1960’s. I don’t know why, exactly, but I suspect it was because of the need for TA’s to help with large undergraduate enrollments. I still remember professors’ being reluctant or even unwilling to take on the supervision of doctoral students because they were not sure that there would be a position for them. Some advisors told graduating students who were contemporaries of mine something like: “Write to Colorado and Mississippi. One of them will have a faculty position to your liking.”

    Do you know whether this sort of culture existed in the humanities in the early to mid twentieth century?

  2. For anyone thinking of starting a doctoral program, something to consider in addition the availability (or lack thereof) of tenure track positions is the actual challenge of getting through a program. It can be an invigorating learning experience…or sheer drudgery…or, the reality for many, somewhere on the spectrum between those two.

    I worry about my doctoral students who start the program because “they want a PhD”. It seems a like a reasonable next step for some who have completed a masters and have enjoyed schooling for the most part. But a doctoral program is a bit different than all prior educational experiences. You do need that “fire in the belly” about your research area to get through some of the long, solitary parts of a doctoral program. Many of my students love the coursework part where things are defined, but flail when it comes to that self-directed part of comprehensive exams, proposals and dissertations. Having a passion for whatever research area, topic or burning question that you’ll be focusing 3-5 years of your life on in a doctoral program definitely helps with getting through a program. I have just seen too many students get to the self-directed parts (after courses end) and come to a grinding halt because they started the program because the end outcome of being “Doctor” beckoned seductively, not realizing earning the title requires some serious intrinsic motivation and perseverance unlike anything they have had to do in prior educational programs.

  3. “For anyone thinking of starting a doctoral program, something to consider…”

    It took me a long time to understand this. I was reading it as: Anyone who wants to create [start] a new Ph. D. program at the university where they are on the faculty, and where such a program currently does not exist, should consider these things. The ambiguity of language is endlessly fascinating!

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