Tell me about being a professor

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. I’m hugely interested in psychology, and am considering going for my PhD. Specifically, my area of interest is mostly consciousness, identity, and how groups influence individual behavior.

Is the pressure to PUBLISH PUBLISH PUBLISH really that bad? I read the following comment on Slashdot, and it gave me serious pause.

Is this really how it is?

I don’t have any trouble believing that’s an accurate description of life at a major research university. Professors at smaller teaching-oriented colleges probably have a very different lifestyle.

That’s a pretty accurate description of life at a big research institution. Especially the part about junior faculty being more productive than senior faculty. Though junior faculty understand where the difference comes from, it doesn’t make it any less insulting.

As ultrafilter said, smaller, teaching-oriented schools won’t be quite so demanding of the publications. However, that is changing, with more and more schools expecting “scholarly activity” and publications, even grants. Also, those schools have the added burden of requiring excellence in teaching (research schools tend to value that much less). And the productivity difference between junior and senior faculty is even more pronounced. At small schools, your boss may not even have the PhD that you are required to have.

I think the deciding factor has to be your love for the field. If you really love research and talking to people about your field, the professoriate is a great job. But, if you’re just looking for a way to make money with the degree, it can really suck the life out of you.

It’s the greatest job in the universe, if you’re cut out for it.

Don’t pay attention to the details of the piece you quoted, it’s a hopeless attempt at generalising how things work across institutions, across disciplines and cannot be taken seriously. 90% of all journal papers are superfluous? Sure.

Being a professor at a research-intensive university is a curious mix between complete freedom to think and act as you like, with no-one telling you what to do a day in your life, and crushing, chest-tightening, sleepless nights-inducing pressure to succeed.

Boiling it all down to simple terms (and speaking about research-lead Schools) the people who are cut out for it already experience this latter pressure in their training (degree, PhD, postdoc etc), because they put huge pressure on themselves to be the best. They’re used to it and they can deal with it and put it to a positive use. Those who are not cut out for the professoriate (nice terminology Red Stilettos :)) either feel the pressure and can’t deal with it, can’t work effectively under the conditions; or just don’t feel it in the first place enough to be competitive.

This drive and ambition is the single most discriminating factor that separates appointable and unappointable candidates at interview.

You are choosing to go into a very competitive field. My husband is currently a doctoral student in clinical psychology. He got an excellent undergraduate education, finished with a 3.9 GPA in Honors Psychology, had 4 years of full-time paid research experience and 2 years of part-time direct care experience, and co-authorship on a research project. He applied to 13 graduate schools…

…and got into one. I believe the current overall acceptance rate is something like 4%.

My husband could not breathe without psychology in his life. It is what he was meant to do. He had no choice but to apply. I think people like him are the only sort who are really making it in the field these days. If you love psychology with your whole heart, maybe the politics of academia won’t sting so much. Personally, I don’t think I could stand it. But it’s worth noting you don’t have to be a professor to make valuable contributions to the field.

That’s very specific to clinical psychology, though, and it’s a bit of an outlier. Most fields have slightly higher acceptance rates (although for the top programs, it won’t be that much higher).

I quit the academic life to become a fulltime clinician (I have a PhD in psychology) about 10 years ago. I quit because the pressure to publish, even at small teaching colleges, was tremendous.

As others have said, it’s an extremely competitive field. I work at a small liberal arts college and recently served on the search committee for a history professor. We received over 150 applications for the position–and our college, frankly, underpays its faculty and does not have the greatest academic reputation.

Being a professor also pretty much means that you have to be willing to relocate to wherever the job is. You might be a country boy who winds up at Metropolis City College or an urbanite who finds herself at East Bumfuck University. For me, that was a huge factor in choosing not to pursue my PhD. I was not willing to move across the country from my aging parents, my in-laws and my community of friends for the sake of a job. I also didn’t feel comfortable asking my husband to leave his job and family for the sake of my career. (For the record, he wouldn’t ask that of me either.)

I have no idea about your gender or desire for children, but I’ll also point out that all of the female professors I know who have kids waited until at least their late 30s to do so. That was another deciding factor for me–I knew I wanted children and that I didn’t want to risk waiting until I was past 35 to have them. I know there are women who successfully combine the rigors of grad school, working towards a tenure-track position and motherhood, but it seems like an awfully tough row to hoe.

If you truly have a vocation for academia, go for it. But go for it with your eyes open.

I love being an academic (got my PhD in '98, and have been teaching ever since). I really can’t imagine doing anything else.

There are downsides. The job market is brutally competitive. As a result, you have to go where the job is; you cannot limit your job search to a specific location, or even a specific part of the country. The pay is not great, so you get to choose between being poor at an urban university (where cost of living is high) or decently-off at a rural university. (Although if you are like me and like working overseas, there are a lot of well-paying jobs and not a huge amount of competition for them.)

The slashdot article is wrong about how much it takes to get tenure. Most liberal arts colleges will tenure someone with 3-4 publications, and you have typically 7 years before you must apply for tenure. It’s really not that hard. Obviously, the higher the research profile of your university, the more will be demanded of you. But I enjoy writing and publishing, so I have never regarded the demand to publish as burdensome.

I like teaching, I like researching, I like interacting with the kids, I like having a flexible schedule, I like the intellectual stimulation and challenge of being an academic. It’s a great job.

It doesn’t help you build a decent raft.

I’m not a professor, because when I was at my second grad school I suddenly realized that I’d have to teach stupid people, so I fled into industrial research before it disappeared.

I’m on Conference Steering committees with lots of academics, and they seem extremely concerned about not just publication but publication in the highest prestige journals and conferences. We have write only journals, ones where the circulation is tiny and the number of people who actually read the average paper is tinier still. Those are the ones that count the most for tenure.

Getting grant money is just as important, as far as I can tell. My daughter is in grad school on a fellowship, and part of it involves applying for her own grants, which she is very up with.
When I was in grad school in computer science, that was unheard of. Plus, when I was in grad school there was some interaction with industry, but not much. Now there is tons, pushed by both sides.

So it seems that publishing and getting money are jobs one and two, and in your spare time you teach.