How difficult is it to become a professor?

I’m a student thinking about my career, and I love mathematics (and computer science), and I want to teach and research it as a career.

I know that it takes up to 6 years of intense graduate school. This is not what worries me. What worries me is that I have read that professors in the future will have no chance at tenure, and will get paid $20k/year. (They’re called adjunct professors, I think.)

I know that is true for the liberal arts Ph.D’s, but what about mathematics and computer science? Am I safe if I study those fields?

Do what is in your heart. The rules will probably all be changed six or eight years from now.

I’ll second Not In Anger’s advice. I went through college to get a degree in a field where I thought I would be able to get a decent, and well paying job. Now, after realizing it’s not what I want to do I’m back in school following a path to what I would like to do - money be damned.

Do what makes you happy, the rest will take care of itself.

To make $20K a year as an adjunct, you’d have to work at multiple campuses with a more-than-full-time load. I know. I’m one of those adjuncts.

It doesn’t seem to make much difference re: the subjects you teach, at least not around here.

I was in the PhD program at a major mid-western University 10 years ago going after a history doctorate.

Then I found out the year before there had been 5 (!!!) openings for history professors nationwide.

There’s almost always a glut of PhDs in the soft subjects. Far better to get it in one of the difficult subjects like engineering or quantum mechanics or something.

Don’t worry too much about someone’s predictions of the future; they’re almost always wrong. At least, partly wrong. Tenure is an ancient tradition, and it probably won’t go away entirely; even if it becomes less common, it will probably remain possible, and universities will continue to have professors at various ranks, including tenured full professors. The $20k/year salary is ridiculously small. I’m not sure what your source was, but it’s just not possible – universities couldn’t keep a faculty if they paid that little.

You’re certainly right that it takes a lot of work – four to six years, generally, of graduate school depending on your college and field. (I’ve known PhD candidates who’d been in the program for even longer, but not many of them.) After that, it’s necessary to spend several more years doing postdoctoral work. Then you get to be a junior lecturer (or the equivalent).

My guess is that math and compsci are safe choices (though my plans are in chemistry, so I have similar hopes, and there’s always a chance I’m horribly wrong). Supposing the direst predictions about professorship come true, you’d still stand a strong chance of finding a high-paying position outside academia.

Anyway, most of what I’ve read about the future of post-secondary teaching has been more positive than what you mentioned. A large number of tenured professors are reaching retirement age, and many replacements will be needed within the next 10 years. (I’m not sure how well this applies to compsci.) Enrolment rates are generally increasing, so the demand will probably continue. Note that many fields – math and compsci included, I think – essentially require a post-graduate degree for employment in industry.

One other thing – I’m not sure how far you are in your studies, but it’s my opinion that double majors are not a good idea. Computer science requires a lot of math, so you might find you qualify for a math major or minor, but it’s highly unlikely if not impossible that you could pursue both math and compsci at the graduate level. It’s far more likely you’ll end up specializing in an area of one of the two fields that interests you. Your choice of graduate supervisor will probably determine your career path.

Do not heed the predictions of ‘what’s hot and what’s not’ in higher education. What is a trendy degree now will be an oversaturated job market when you graduate. I mean, don’t study an area of your field that some ‘experts’ are calling the next big thing… study what you’re interested in and what you do well. You don’t want to study something you’re not absolutely passionate about for six or eight years just because someone else told you it’d be profitable.

I’m a 3rd year PHD student in medical research. I make ~18k now, and once I graduate I can expect to make 30-40k as a post-doc (depending on location) at a university/acedemic setting. Industry supposedly pays post-docs ~45-50k depending on demand (if you’re a specialist in certain areas you may make a lot more). When I finally am able to get a faculty position at a university I’ll probably start anywhere from 45-60k a year, but in industry or an industry/academic hybrid (like a research hospital) you can expect to make 75k+ plus stock options and other things. The amount made later in life depends on research grants, promotions, etc; but I do know a lot of professors that are very well off, driving fast little sports cars and living in big houses.

But we’re not supposed to be in research for the money, it should be for the thrill of science :slight_smile:

As as post-doc with dreams of professorship, I saw my peers slogging through multiple post-docs, just to only make it to a “lectureship” or adjunct professorship and stall out there. I decided I couldn’t drag my wife and family through the process any longer. And this is why I’m possibly the most over-qualified (in terms of subject matter expertise) high school science teacher for 100’s of miles around. From my first day teaching I was making >50% more $ than I was making before as a post-doc (plus full benefits that I was lacking) and I earned tenure after only two years in the classroom. I’m now making ~$50K after 3 years of teaching. Sure, some may not want to deal with hormone-filled teenagers, but I personally find the little creatures hilarious to observe. If the university route doesn’t pan out, and you enjoy working with kids, don’t overlook taking your degree and applying it to secondary education. Math and computer sci teachers are in great demand.

There is no job market of any note for Math PhDs. There is one for CS PhDs. An assistant prof. in CS should get $35-50k salary starting off, depending on the level of the school. Communications of the ACM publishes salary surveys every year or so. Head to the library and check it out.

Some industry places hire PhDs in CS but not that many do research. There is a huge bias against them in industry. You would be better off with a Masters if you want to work in industry.

5 years is typical for getting a PhD in CS assuming you are motivated.

My recommendation: If you can’t imagine doing anything else but getting a PhD and going into academics, then you aren’t movitivated enough to compete against the others. It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you are compared to the others finishing up at the same time as you. Loving research is a good start though.

If you are brilliant and know how to kiss keister, tenure is a snap.

Thanks for the advice, everyone. One thing I’m wondering is how research could continue if everyone is an adjunct.

That’s true, but I don’t think I want to spend my life teaching kids how to program VB or Algebra 2…

I’m not sure ftg is entirely accurate – I would not say that there is a huge bias against PhDs in industry. It might be fair to say that there are fewer research positions than there used to be (alas, no more Bell Labs, BBN, or Digital).
Also, $35-50K seems pretty low for Computer Science professorships at first tier universities, although it’s in the ballpark for smaller liberal arts colleges.

To address the OP in the field of computer science – it’s becoming harder to get an academic position as the computer science field matures. Competition is quite fierce and universities can take their pick of the graduating crop. You have to be a top-notch researcher with an impressive list of publications just to get considered at any of the major research universities. It also helps to specialize in whatever field happens to be hot at a given time – in the early 80’s, it was AI and in the 90’s it was networking.

Boy, lots of conflicting advice about the computer science field… I just read an article reporting on a CS faculty shortage, because the best PhDs are getting tempting offers from industry. To fill faculty slots, universities are offering pretty nice start-up packages to promising PhDs and young professors. That’s not salary but rather support for equipment and travel and graduate student hires.

Getting the PhD can be great or it can be miserable–depends on you, your program, your advisor, your emotional and financial support. Like Rochet said, it’s important that you like the field you’re in.

Adjuncts do conduct research, but they rarely get paid or supported for it, from what I hear. I was just reading about this in the Chronicle of Higher Ed.
I may go see if I can find the link later.

As a data point, my wife was just hired last year as an Assistant Professor (tenure-track) in music history. Her salary is in the high 40’s.

When she was interviewing two years ago there were only two openings in her specialty nationwide. When she got the offer for her current job we felt like we’d hit the lottery.

I have a masters in CS myself. I had originally planned on getting a PhD, but once I was in the program and I got a taste of what the academic life would be like, I decided to leave after two years.

Keep that in mind – if you go into a CS graduate program you’ll have a couple of years to decide if its what you really want. If you decide to bail (like I did) the time it took to get your masters will still have been well-spent. And once you’re in a graduate program you’ll be in a much better position to judge your future academic job prospects.

Based on my wife’s experience I have to echo what others are saying: Don’t go for your PhD unless you really love your field with all your heart. Grad school can be a soul-destroying grind and without a deep well of enthusiasm to draw upon when things get rough you’re likely to have a hard time finishing.

Quick answer: it’s pretty difficult! First, you’ve got to finish your Ph.D.–and that’s the relatively easy step!

I’m finally in a full-time, tenure-track position at a good university where I hope to remain until I retire. Prior to this, I spent a year as a Visiting Assistant Professor (read: “Adjunct”–no job security and it paid $8k/year less). Prior to that I spent two years as a part-time lecturer earning a whopping $2500/class, with no guarantees–I might teach anywhere between two and zero classes per semester. Prior to that I spent a year as a full-time, sabbatical replacement visiting lecturer (for $6k less than I made at my next visiting job and $14k less than I’m making now [which is the average national salary for a new assistant professor at a public Master’s-granting university]). Of course, prior to that I was a fresh-faced optimistic grad student happy with my $15k/year!

Each year as a visiting/adjunct whatever, I applied for almost EVERY position that come open that I was qualified for. Usually, there would be between five and a dozen or so ads for a mineralogist/petrologist/geochemist. For the first three years, I didn’t get a single call for an interview. A last-minute attempt at the end of my third year of teaching got me… another visiting position (but at least it was full time), and I travelled 1800 miles to take it! Repeating the process in my fourth year, I got a great interview–and came in second–but finally… FINALLY… the very last ad that came out that year proved to be golden and here I am!

Now, I just got to make sure they re-hire me each year for the next several years until I can get tenure.

Through my several adjunct positions, I did manage to keep doing research by working with full-time faculty who had University support. Otherwise, Universities seldom support lecturers to do anything but teach (but it also means no committee assignements, etc.)

I’ve been hearing the exact same thing for seven years now, and I’ve been waiting patiently for it to come true. There’s still technically three years left on that first ten-year window, but I’m starting to think that “Don’t trust other people’s predictions of the future” advice cuts both ways.

I have known a few engineering professors who became adjunct professors solely to gain access to the university’s labs and do research. In these cases, they had grant support to do research and needed facilities. The universities were willing to hire them as adjuncts even when there were no open teaching positions because the researchers were self-supporting and had grant money to pay students. It was a win-win-win because the researchers got access to the labs, the university got the grant overhead, and the grad students got employed by grant money that would have been otherwise unavailable. Oh, and a little bit of useful work got done too. Many universities may be unwilling to support adjunct research themselves, but there may be lots of opportunity for outside support.

Re: the every receding “wave of retirements.”

I was hearing it 15-20 years ago when I started grad school, too. It still hasn’t happend. Gradually they stopped making those promises and added a seminar on how to find jobs outside of academics. There are retirements, but they are not reliably being replaced by tenure-track positions or even being replaced at all. Departments are reorganized, funding is cut or disappears with the person who “owned” it, full-time professors are replaced with adjuncts and grad students.

That’s absolutely true: some universities are cutting costs by hiring fewer full-time faculty (by not funding tenure streams when the occupant retires) and more part-time lecturers (adjuncts).