Monday, September 26, 2005


I am an average professor. Correction: I am an average assistant professor, which is the lowest rung on the tenure-track ladder, if you don't count the bad assistant professor, of which there are not many because they don't last very long. Average assistant professors last only about 6 years, until the tenure committee asks them to leave.

I work at an average state university (ASU), and I have a half-n-half appointment, which means my duties are nominally 50% teaching and 50% research. What this actually means is that my time should be divided into 100% research, and teaching is considered sort of like a compulsory hobby: something with no professional value but that you do anyway, solely for your own satisfaction. In this, the teaching, I am actually above average, but because it has relatively little to do with my professional success, I can't count that into the figuring of my prospects. Ironically, I believe I got this job primarily because of my teaching skills. My teaching seminar during my interview has subsequently been a little bit legendary; it raised the bar for faculty candidates that came after me. I must admit, I was really good that day. Some days I am really good in the classroom; other days I am just okay, but as far as I can tell I am never truly bad (except on the days I hand back exams, when I get a lot of attitude from petulant students).

So, the teaching got me this job - the teaching plus my pedigree, really, since I would not even have been considered except that I went to a well-known university for my graduate degrees.

And now here I am. What makes me average is that I am not a superstar researcher, I don't bring in millions or even hundreds of thousands of research dollars, and I publish an average amount of journal articles. In fact, to date, I myself have earned a measly $8K in grant money, and even that was from university internal funds, though they were competitive. To be fair, I am a co-investigator on a million-dollar grant, but this matters little as I am not the top dog on the project. There's no glory in being a team player.

Why not be better than average, and thus insure my career success? There are two reasons. One, and most importantly, it's not as though I'm not trying. But what I have observed so far, after two years of the assistant professor gig, is that it's not enough to be bright and hard-working, you also have to be very savvy and not just a little bit lucky. So far I have not proven to be particularly savvy (knowing what the hot topics will be so that I can come up with some fabulous, imaginative, yet un-risky grant proposal) nor particularly lucky (being the right person in the right place at the right time). The second reason is that I'm just not in love with this job enough to pimp out the rest of my life. I value my limited free time. I used to think, for example when I was an undergrad and later a PhD student, that I was simply an efficient worker. During my PhD, I never worked in the evenings unless I had some menial task like a little grading or a little reference-checking that I could do in front of the TV, and yet I was successful. However, I have come to realize that efficiency was not really the issue, it's just that there was a single, well-defined expectation of me, and that is the situation to which I am best suited. I know how to do what is asked of me, and how to do it well. The problem with the faculty job is that there are no concrete expectations of you, except to be super. Literally, my job description is "develop a world-class teaching and research program." (So, imagine how much guidance this provides one in terms of what to do with one's time at work.) I am my own boss in many respects except one: I have a series of actual bosses who assess my performance despite not telling me what I'm supposed to be doing.

There are a lot of things that are nice about this - I don't have to work on things I'm not interested in (except that the funding agencies have things that THEY are interested in, and it's in a professors best interest to be interested in THOSE things), I can set my own schedule (except that really, I ought to be working all the time), and I make my own decisions about how to manage my research group (except that I'd prefer not to have to manage them at all, since I don't feel like I'm any good at it; feel free to pity my graduate students).

Or, why not find an alternate career? I've considered this, except that I'm not sure there's a lot of demand for the types of things I do, at least at my educational level. Having a PhD has severely limited my career options. Fortunately, I am confident that if the faculty thing tanks, I would probably be able to find SOMETHING, as unlike with many academics, there is an industry in my field (an obscure-sounding technical discipline; you have undoubtedly heard about the sorts of things people do in my line of work, it just probably never occurred to you that there was an entire profession devoted to those things). I just don't think any of those jobs would be better than this one, both in actual work, and just as importantly, in where they might be (probably not anyplace I'd really want to live).

There you have the basics of my conundrum, and the focus of my very own blog. Perhaps you are wondering if I'm worried about the repercussions of publicising my concerns, since they are work-related, but I am hoping that academic ideologies and the value my business places on freedom of speech will be kind to me in this regard.

(And, I'm thinking, what does it matter? I don't think I'm going to get tenure anyway!)

1 comment:

Ms.PhD said...

Really glad I found your blog. Just wish I had found it sooner.