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.
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.