My father is a professor (of physics), my only brother is (approximately) a professor (of math), my uncle and my cousin are professors (of law), and my grandfather was the index case. So it never occurred to me to do anything other than be a professor — it’s just the family trade. But this choice is not obvious at all, and students and postdocs sometimes ask me what it’s like to be a young faculty member; these questions are fueled by discussions on the blogosphere about academia vs. industry, and the success industry labs like Microsoft Research have had in recruiting researchers away from seemingly desirable faculty positions. So I thought it would be interesting to write down some thoughts from my incredibly specific early-career-faculty viewpoint.
Professors sometimes use words like “crazy” and “all-consuming” to describe their first few years as faculty members. I don’t think it has to be that way. I guess I work 50-55 hours a week, which is definitely more intense than the average job, but hardly qualifies for “all-consuming”. So how do I spend my time? Here is a rough breakdown.
The 25% time I devote to teaching is interesting: On the one hand it’s quite low, because I co-taught all of my courses so far; on the other hand it stays constant, because so far I have taught a different course each semester. Spending a lot of time on getting funding was one of the things I was worried about when I was on the job market, but so far it hasn’t been a big deal (probably because I haven’t done enough to get funding).
“Other” includes many things. For example: organizing the summer school on algorithmic economics, COMSOC’14, and a local seminar; co-editing an upcoming book; editing SIGecom Exchanges; a couple of journal editorial positions; program committees and internal committees such as PhD admissions; reviews, outreach, and, well, blogging. What I discovered about this “other” category is that most of the time is spent on getting people to do stuff: give talks, serve on program committees, write book chapters, write letters for Exchanges, do reviews, etc. In return, people ask you to do even more stuff! In any case, many of these things are actually quite fun (so far) so the fact that “other” is on the rise is not bad in and of itself, but it does come at the expense of research time, which went down from 60% to 40%. The more worrying trend, though, is how the time I devote to research is divided between thinking about research and talking about research:
Research is arguably the most fun part of the job; it’s almost always fun to think about research, and it’s often fun to talk about research. Yet Matt Welsh complains that “only about 10% of [academic meetings] have any tangible outcomes”, and (assuming most meetings professors have are research meetings), I think this graph may be the reason why. For a research meeting to have tangible outcomes, I feel I need to spend at least one hour thinking about the problem offline for every hour I spend talking about it. Otherwise, typically one of two things happens: Either my collaborators have made progress and then I struggle to keep up, or they haven’t made progress and then I have little to contribute — leading to a scarcity of tangible outcomes in both cases. My research meetings are still mostly productive and fun, but to keep them that way I really need to reverse this trend of increasing talking/thinking ratio. And I also just realized that, if I believe my graphs — a big “if” — I’m currently spending only a measly 12% of my time thinking about research.
Now for the good news: What do I love about the job? Many things, but let me single out the top two. First, I love being able to spend time at work writing this blog post. But it’s more than just “academic freedom”: I love that I can spend time at work writing this blog post and feel that I’m actually working. What’s amazing about being a professor is that there are so many ways to make an impact, and you can choose whichever ones fit your talents and mood.
Second, I love advising. Matt Welsh writes:
In an academic research group, the professor defines the technical scope of the group as well as mentors and guides the graduate students. The big difference here [in Google] is that I don’t consider the folks on my team to be my “apprentices” as a professor would with graduate students. Indeed, most people on my team are much better software engineers than I am, and I lean on them heavily to do the really hard work of building solid, reliable software. My job is to shield the engineers on my team from distractions, and support them so they can be successful.
The word “apprentices” sounds medieval, and there’s nothing wrong with that — it’s actually spot on (although I prefer to leave my sword at home). The 4-6 year apprenticeship called “grad school”, at its best, builds a unique relationship between the student and advisor, which can inspire the advisor and the student alike. When my students’ papers are accepted, I am as happy as I was when my first papers were accepted. And long after I stopped feeling excited or anxious about my own talks, I find that I am tense (in a good way) before theirs. Some of the nicest unexpected moments are when I identify something of myself in my students (for example, in their writing or speaking).
In conclusion: Yes, it’s really fun to be a professor. In fact, almost as fun as being a grad student.