Thursday, August 04, 2016

On Being a Professor

Being a professor has many components.
  • Teaching. People think teaching x hrs a week should be easy. It normally takes 3x hrs to prepare, 2x hours to coordinate with the TAs, 2x hours of office hours, and so on. While exams take x hrs, 3 students can't take the exam due to many personal constraints, and each of them will take a different makeup exam at different times. Every one of the 100's of students in the class will meet with you some time or the other and needs to be understood on an individual basis. 
  • Funds. Every x applications might secure you one. Each application might require one to work with y other parties. Each of the xy collaborations might need preliminary results before applying for funds. You have to constantly look ahead, making plans for space, students, travel, equipment, summer salary, whatever, at very minute levels of money.
  • Research: This involves taking ones' mind to the brink, finding new ideas, theorems, or doing experiments, brink of mental exhaustion. Then one has to write to convince an adversarial referee to acknowledge the achievement and accept the paper for publication. Throughout all, one is constantly combating self-doubt, mental highs and lows. 
  • PhD Students: They come to you with self-confidence of having done well in their undergrad program, many lose their focus and confidence when confronted with the uncertainty of doing research, and you have to help them rebuild it. And when they learn to stand up, you have to stand down, and when they graduate and sprint to jobs, family life and beyond, you have to sit back. Each student takes x years of attention from you.
  • Job Environment:  You make x per year, knowing others make 2x or 3x in the industry, and get annual increase of x while others in industry make 10x. Your colleagues are for life, like a family, pros and cons inclusive.
What does it all mean? Being a professor is like doing a startup company, by oneself. You struggle for survival, do many things beyond your expertise that you never even trained for,  work hours beyond pay, effort doesnt matter only the outcomes, and like a CEO, no matter what angst one faces, a Professor talks about the excitement of research results and the quest for the unknown. And like any startup founder, the professor chose to do this. The professor is nevertheless convinced he will change the world, and is driven by the excitement of research, teaching and watching young people grow.

ps: The above is I am sure observations that many in academia have made, these are not my unique observations.
pps: People asked me if I had a message with this post: when you see your academic colleague, treat them with non-judgemental empathy. 


Blogger Chandra said...

Well put.

12:01 PM  
Blogger Michael Mitzenmacher said...

I think you summed it up really, really well.

(Maybe the one thing to point out is that the Job Environment issue seems somewhat particular to CS, and perhaps a few other fields. You rarely hear the industrial salary comparison in many other areas. And there are opportunities for professors to make money, if that is important.)

3:59 PM  
Blogger metoo said...

@MM: You are right, this is (north American) CS centric.

1:57 PM  

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