Have an intellectual bent and thinking about becoming a professor? Do you entertain notions of one day ambling through gothic arches, smoking a pipe and crunching over piles of autumn leaves while contemplating the phenomenology of Hegel? With good reason, the life of the professional academician is often romanticized. College professors (at least those with tenure) enjoy flexible hours spent in research, writing, teaching and meeting with students and colleagues.
Beyond the classroom
At four-year universities, professors who have achieved senior status also have administrative duties: serving on academic and administrative advisory committees that deal with issues such as curriculum, budgets and university politics. Some also serve as advisors, fellows and department chairs.
The amount of time professors actually spend teaching in a classroom setting is about 12 to 16 hours a week. They also meet with students during their weekly hours of office consultation time. At large universities, professors usually teach both graduate and undergraduate courses. For the undergraduate classes, they frequently have teaching assistants to help grade papers and exams and lead recitation sections. The student-to-professor ratio at smaller universities affords professors more one-on-one contact with students, allowing them to grade papers themselves. Most large universities also have honors programs where professors and students can interact in smaller classroom settings, much like at liberal arts colleges. Professors can also work one-on-one with students as advisors and academic mentors.
College professors are also professional researchers and writers. In order to be considered for tenured positions, professors must consistently write articles for scholarly journals and publish books. Professors in engineering and the sciences conduct laboratory or field research. Depending on the size, budget and mission of the college or university, professors may feel pressured to focus most of their time on research and publishing during the academic year, while others are afforded frequent sabbaticals so that they may give undivided attention to teaching and research.
Experts are in high demand for lecture tours and speaking engagements, so travel plays a large part in their jobs. These lectures and engagements can sometimes yield significant supplementary income. Even though professors work during the summer, their hours while students are on vacation tend to be shorter, and they can do the bulk of their traveling. Often professors have the opportunity to be guest professors at universities around the world, requiring them to live in foreign cities for a semester or two.
Grades aren't just for students anymore
The days of academic superiority (and even job stability) are numbered for professors who think the importance of their research outweighs molding the impressionable minds of students. With the increasing popularity of teacher-rating web sites like www.ratemyprofessor.com, professors' teaching abilities are coming under heavy scrutiny. Comments such as "speeds his lectures a bit too quickly" blur the academic prestige of a published professor. The modern college student (paying modern college tuition) expects a professor to be as dedicated to teaching the material as the student is to learning it.
College and university faculty appointments adhere to a strict hierarchy: professor, associate professor, assistant professor, instructor and lecturer. Most faculty members are initially hired as instructors or assistant professors. Four-year colleges and universities generally consider only doctoral degree holders who are published for full-time, tenure-track positions but may hire master's degree holders or doctoral candidates in certain disciplines, such as the arts, or for part-time and temporary jobs. At two-year colleges, master's degree holders can qualify for full-time positions. However, with increasing competition for available jobs, institutions are becoming more selective in their hiring practices. Master's degree holders may find it increasingly difficult to get hired as they are passed over in favor of candidates with PhDs.
Newly-hired tenure-track faculty members serve a period of usually seven years under term contracts. Their record of teaching, research and overall value to the institution is reviewed; tenure is granted if the review is favorable. With tenure, a professor cannot be fired without just cause and due process, which is seldom followed through. Those denied tenure must usually leave the institution. Tenure protects the faculty's academic freedom to teach and research without jeopardizing their jobs for championing unpopular ideas. It also gives faculty and institutions the financial stability they need to continue researching and teaching. Six out of 10 full-time faculty members at universities in the U.S. are tenured, and others are in the probationary period.
One contact in academia explains that, "getting someone to understand, if not love, a subject, is a great feeling." Another adds that he loves being able to "help people understand themselves and grow." For professors, their "love and enthusiasm" for their subjects keep them "constantly engaged in the job" at a level that excites them. "I love my life!" says one communications professor. Professors who are engaged with their fields are "never bored teaching or talking shop" and rarely feel "burned-out."
The biggest perks, according to many professors, is "interaction with students," (while one humorously adds "getting the good parking spaces" to the list). Another perk: Every day is potentially "dress down day" and there is the potential for "lots of autonomy" and "freedom" to research. Professors "hang around interesting people" from whom they can "learn neat stuff" for the rest of their lives, although one contact notes that his colleagues "run the gamut from academic snobs to true free-spirits."
The main problem with pursuing college professorship as a profession is, of course, "difficulty in getting a tenure-track job." Other downsides are that "educational institutions are driven by profit like any other big business;" the result is that schools are filled with a "tremendous amount of bureaucratic and political garbage." Advancement can be based on "a lot of petty administrative politics." These politics, our contacts say, are what drives many people out of the profession.
Flexible hours; Wide variety of career options; Tenure provides security; High pay once full professorship is achieved
University bureaucracy; Ungrateful students; Extremely difficult to achieve tenure; Competitive
Intellectual; Creative; Studious; Inquisitive
Average about 40 per week
Average salary, professor: $98,974; Associate professor: $69,911; Assistant professor: $58,662; Instructor: $42,609; Lecturer: $48,289