Why You Should (Probably) Not Be A Professor


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While I like being a professor, I am obligated to give a warning to those considering this career path. To be specific, I would warn you to reconsider. This is not because I fear the competition (I am a tenured full professor, so I won’t be competing with anyone for a job). It is not because I have turned against my profession to embrace anti-intellectualism or some delusional ideology about the awfulness of professors. It is not even due to disillusionment. I still believe in education and the value of educators. My real reason is altruism and honesty: I want potential professors to know the truth because it will benefit them. I now turn to the reasons.

First, there is the cost. In order to be a professor, you will need a terminal degree in the field—typically a Ph.D. This means that you will need to first get a B.A. or B.S. first and college is rather expensive these days. Student debt, as the media has been pointing out, it is at a record high. While a bachelor’s degree is, in general, a great investment, you will need to go beyond that and complete graduate school.

While graduate school is expensive, many students work as teaching or research assistants. These positions typically pay the cost of tuition and provide a very modest paycheck. Since the pay is low and the workload is high, you will be more or less in a holding pattern for the duration of grad school in terms of pay and probably life. After 3-7+ years, you will (if you are persistent and lucky) have the terminal degree.

If you are paying for graduate school, it will be rather expensive and will no doubt add to your debt. You might be able to work a decent job at the same time, but that will tend to slow down the process, thus dragging out graduate school.

Regardless of whether you had to pay or not, you will be attempting to start a career after about a decade (or more) in school—so be sure to consider that fact.

Second, the chances of getting a job are usually not great. While conditions do vary, the general trend has been that education budgets have been getting smaller and universities are spending more on facilities and administrators. As such, if you are looking for a job in academics, your better bet is to try to become an administrator rather than a professor. The salary for administrators is generally better than that of professors, although the elite coaches of the prestige sports have the very best salaries.

When I went on the job market in 1993, it was terrible. When I applied, I would get a form letter saying how many hundreds of people applied and how sorry the search committee was about my not getting an interview. I got my job by pure chance—I admit this freely. While the job market does vary, the odds are not great. So, consider this when deciding on the professor path.

Third, even if you do get a job, it is more likely to be a low-paying, benefit free adjunct position. Currently, 51.2% of faculty in non-profit colleges and universities are adjunct faculty. The typical pay for an adjunct is $20-25,000 per year and most positions have neither benefits nor security. The average salary for professors is $84,000. This is good, but not as good as what a person with an advanced degree makes outside of academics. Also, it is worth noting that the average salary for someone with just a B.A. is $45,000. By the numbers, if you go for a professorship, the odds are that you will be worse off financially than if you just stuck with a B.A. and went to work.

Fourth, the workload of professors is rather higher than people think. While administrative, teaching and research loads vary, professors work about 61 hours per week and work on weekends (typically grading, class prep and research). Thanks to budget cuts and increased enrollment, class sizes have tended to increase or remain high. For example, I typically have 150+ students per semester, with three of those classes being considered “writing intensive” (= lots of papers to grade).

People do like to point out that professors get summers off, it is important to point out that a summer off is a summer without pay. Also, even when a professor is not under contract for the summer, she is typically still doing research and class preparation. So, if you are dreaming about working two or three days a week and having an easy life, then being a professor is not the career for you.

Fifth, the trend in academics has been that professors do more and more uncompensated administrative work on top of their academic duties (research, teaching, advising, etc.). As one extreme example, one semester I was teaching four classes, advising, writing a book, directing the year long seven year program review, completing all the assessment tasks, and serving on nine committees. So, be sure to consider the joys of paperwork and meetings when considering being a professor.

Sixth, while there was at time that professors were well-respected, that respect has faded. Some of this is due to politicization of education. Those seeking to cut budgets to lower taxes, to transform education into a for-profit industry, and to break education unions have done an able job demonizing the profession and academics. Some is, to be fair, due to professors. As a whole, we have not done as good a job as we should in making the case for our profession in the public arena.

Seventh, while every generation claims that the newer generations are worse, the majority of students today see education as a means to the end of getting a well-paying job (or just a job). Given the economy that our political and financial elites have crafted, this is certainly a sensible and pragmatic approach. However, it has also translated into less student interest. So, if you are expecting students who value education, you must prepare for disappointment. The new model of education, as crafted by state legislators, administrators and the business folks is to train the job fillers for the job creators. The students have largely accepted this model as well, with some exceptions.

Finally, the general trend in politics has been one of increased hostility to education and in favor of seeing education as yet another place to make money. So, things will continue to worsen—perhaps to the point that professors will all be low-paid workers in the for-profit education factories that are manufacturing job fillers for the job creators.

In light of all this, you should probably not be a professor.

 

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19 Comments.

  1. Just curious, but what career choice would you recommend for the kind of person who in a world where learning and the examined life are valued (unlike our society) would have become a professor, who values learning and the examined life themself, who feels comfortable with ideas, and who wants to play their small part in creating a better society (including one in which learning and the examined life are valued)?

  2. ” So, things will continue to worsen—perhaps to the point that professors will all be low-paid workers in the for-profit education factories that are manufacturing job fillers for the job creators.”

    That’s the plan. Taylorism, also known as “scientific” management (I weep). Is it a model for making better widgets, or is it a model for organising a society around class hierarchies.

    The good news is, the apocalypse is at hand. The current state of American education is absolutely economically unsustainable. What exactly are these jobs graduates over recent years have been filling. They’re mostly low waged service jobs; burger flipping. And the cohort of recent graduates are buying cars, and taking out mortgages at half the rate of graduates a decade ago. Why are they so much poorer. Well, it’s not just the loans. There’s other intangible and slightly nebulous and indirect ways they have to transfer more of their wealth to college administrators, facilities, and the property developers who build facilities, and the football team, administrators vanity projects.

    But the problem doesn’t begin and end with 3rd level. The American public school system spends on average over ten thousand dollars per student, with an average of 20 students per class, can you really say they’re getting two hundred thousand dollars of education. Can you say the teacher is grabbing all this money. No, not even half it. where is it all going. And you have to recognise many American children are impoverished. Many even have inadequate nutrition due to their poverty. Could the funds vanishing into the education system be of better use to them.

  3. I’m also curious to hear an answer to S. Wallerstein’s question.

    I’m a post-doc in biophysics and have always enjoyed learning for the sake of expanding my world view and helping others to grasp new concepts. Over the last year or two I’ve accepted that an academic job is not currently a good way to do this.

    What are the alternatives? Do we have to accept that a secure, well-paying career and helping others to learn and improve their world through careful thought are mutually exclusive?

  4. “I got my job by pure chance – I admit this freely.”

    Chance is a convenient Shadow beneath which man keenly conceals his ignorance.

    For though a dress of blind and devious chance
    Is laid upon the work of all-wise Fate,
    Our acts interpret an omniscient Force
    That dwells in the compelling stuff of things,
    And nothing happens in the cosmic play
    But at its time and in its foreseen place.

    ~ Sri Aurobindo, Savitri – The Book of Love.

  5. Mike,

    Another interesting posting, clear and well written. I think I can cover more ground with questions than comments so I will start there.

    My first thought/question is, if not a professor then what? The same logic applies to all professions. We can’t all be truck drivers either. Most economists want to let supply and demand determine our roles but those forces are sluggish and inefficient.

    So…… what is the correct procedure to choose a profession? Do I pick something I don’t like because the demand is high now? Or pick something likely to have a high demand at the conclusion of my study? Or follow my bliss? What are the valid factors to be used for selecting a profession?
    Once we define the carrier choosing algorithm, will it be constant? Will it need to adapt? Why? Are not the rules of carrier selection eternal?

    Are we letting the tail wag the dog here? Isn’t love of wisdom the true reason for study?

    Our world society seems to vacillate, with disturbing certitude, in every conceivable socioeconomic direction. Do you really think that anyone can successfully chose a lifelong profession while world leaders pursue economic policies that promote boom and bust conditions and schools teach capitalism as a way to achieve the American Dream; the dream, I might add, that was shaped years ago when the world seemed to offer unlimited resources and Manifest Destiny guided our thinking?

    Don’t we fundamentally need to live in a world with stable economic systems to make good predictions about the future and thus good decisions for ourselves, what we need to know and how to acquire useful knowledge? Who knows, maybe 10-15 years from now college professor will be job du jour.

    Do you think the average man on the street can predict the direction the economy will take 7-10 years from now? Would you agree that the rapidly changing social vortexes economic eddies and currents of our world constitute a confused jumble of aspects that leave all of us without the ability chose a direction? Or at least to make a choice with a good chance that it will lead to a stable and content life?

    I say, if you don’t (or can’t) know where you are going then, any road will get you there. If you want to be a professor, be a professor. There are worse choices a person could make.

    Paul

  6. Paul,

    I recommend to my students that they pick a profession they believe will make them happy. I do include the practical aspects, noting that happiness is harder if one is living on the street and scavenging from dumpster.

    As far as the choice…that is a good question. On the one hand, there is what the person’s excellence would be–that is, the best choice for her in terms of being fully the person she should be. On the other hand, there is the often soul-crushing practicality of our economic system: one must have an income or be supported to survive. So, if a person is lucky enough to have a real choice, then she should find that balance between the ideal and the practical.

    In the ideal, I would agree that the study of wisdom is worthwhile in and of itself. As Socrates argued in the Republic, it is better to be the truly just person who is in obscurity, false infamy and poverty than the successful unjust person. But, as Aristotle said of that situation, no one would call such a life happy unless he was defending a paradox.

    I went into teaching for the ideal-I loved learning and loved teaching even more. But I think that these traits are unjustly exploited in academics so that people labor for love and pittances.

  7. Ian James,

    Oh, I know it was pure chance. I saw the machines of chance toss the dice of destiny to roll my lucky number.

  8. KMD,

    Some people can have a secure career helping others, but the number of such jobs is declining (at least in the United States). Currently the majority of instructors are poorly paid adjuncts with no benefits. The trend points towards this majority continuing to grow.

    One interesting option might be for professors to create new universities with minimal administrative apparatus so they can offer lower cost, high quality education while earning decent wages. However, this effort would face powerful opposition from the for-profit schools and their politician pals.

  9. I have always loved the Samuel Clemens quote, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education”. Sam understood that schooling especially brick and mortar schools are less important than the value of the knowledge and wisdom gained. I hope that the internet will offer learning opportunities to truly learn from great educators around the world. Maybe a life time score, perhaps the number of educational experiences completed times set difficulty level will someday replace our reliance on degrees and allow the effort of self-education to speak for itself. Then each professor would be granted a license to bestow credits on an individual basis. We might have education tracking agencies like credit agencies and to be hired a company would check your education score.

    Paul

  10. Paul,

    The internet can provide access to learning, but there are also serious problems there.

    Like you, I have given some thought to the idea of professors offering their own courses. For example, I could just take my courses and teach them directly and eliminate the costly middlemen that come between a student and her education.

  11. Mike LaBossiere,

    “One interesting option might be for professors to create new universities with minimal administrative apparatus so they can offer lower cost, high quality education while earning decent wages. However, this effort would face powerful opposition from the for-profit schools and their politician pals.”

    That has been done. And America has some very interesting small universities. If you haven’t watched Ivory Tower (2014 documentary on the state of American universities), you really should – it’s free somewhere online. There’s a near hallucinatory quality to it.

    Cooper Union is covered in the film. This issue isn’t always a hand rubbing nefarious entrepreneur. Sometimes very mediocre administrators can destroy a college by building a monument to themselves.

  12. To Mike LaBossiere

    Professor,

    I decided against this career path after obtaining my Doctorate (not in philosophy, though I studied a couple of years in Birkbeck), pretty much for the same reasons-it would have cost too much time and money. Essentially it would have cost me too much of my life.

    Perhaps a comment if I may: It sounds a little as though the main problem might be dissatisfaction/disillusion through the lack of direct interaction with the students. 150 students sounds extremely tough. I mean a good lecturer can get a lot across and I imagine there’s a little time for questions and answers, but probably students are pretty much in the history of philosophy learning mode rather than actively doing philosophy. So probably you get little nurturing back…I imagine a teacher in the true sense of the word thrives on seeing students start to question their beliefs and to discuss and argue with him/her…and especially in philosophy.

    In the UK there are tutorials, where academic staff give individual attention to students, which provide more opportunity for dialogue.

    I assume it’s naive to ask in how far the conditions in Plato’s Academy might be reproduced in order to practice philosophy more directly in a way that might be more satisfying for the philosopher than lecturing ex cathedra.

    😉 How about letting the students watch the recorded lectures videos at their leisure and use the time slot for having a stroll with them in the university grounds doing philosophy?
    I’m sure you’d have no shortage of ideas and don’t need suggestions…
    But just to give an example what I’m getting at: I tried out the Socratic method (in a very small way). I had a great time with a friend and fellow student of philosophy with me trying to elicit a la Socrates the definition of a table from my friend, who at the outset was quite sure he knew what a table was; he got a little bit angry midway-just like Socrates’ interviewees-, but when he realized I was serious he got with it, and succeeded to his great satisfaction in working out a dictionary-worthy definition. We both agreed that the exercise had been worthwhile, that we had learned something about knowledge, that knowing but not being able to tell is less preferable than knowing and being able to tell, and that language and its use is not entirely precise and consistent. I learned with astonishment that the dialogues, which sounded to me stiff and contrived are probably much closer to reality than I had previously thought. Also it took really a dogged determination and dedication to the pursuit of knowledge to stay on target and keep my interlocutor cooperative and focused. Also I thought originally that Socrates only pretended not to know and was manipulating the dialogue, and that was why the dialogues sounded (to me) so unnatural. However I found that I-who only knew that I could not give a proper definition of a table-was able to extract the definition from my friend. Essentially by examining every definition he came up with and presenting images of tables that would fall outside the definition or other objects that were clearly not tables but according to the definition would be tables. Again my experience proved the dialogues to be realistic and the method effective. And yes, I know that the knowledge Socrates was looking for when asking about virtues far surpasses a dictionary definition. Call it finger exercises. It was real and it was fun. I had a peek at your Critical Inquiry Practice Tests and I think you could have fun e.g. with rapid fire fallacies, asking people to name them and in turn to give examples.(You could start them off and then form subgroups). Or casting doubt on ‘knowledge’ by alternative stories e.g. I know my parents. But I could be adopted. etc….Or ask the students to teach. One of my best experiences was one time my math teacher gave 3 of us the teacher’s version of the book and asked us to prepare a lesson for our mates. I’ve never worked so hard with it being fun or learned so much…You could let students look at discussion threads of e.g. of conspiracy theories or some fundamentalists and try to identify all the fallacies and whether Godwin’s law applies (if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Nazism.) i.e. Reductio ad Hitlerum 😀
    Or really get down to questions how to lead a happy life, or how to be a good citizen?

    Well, probably something like Plato’s academy is not practicable in today’s world, but one can play around with the idea, right?

    Best wishes

  13. Nok,

    That is a good point. While most future professors will be badly paid adjuncts with no benefits, they can also get value from their jobs in other ways. As you note, the interaction with students and so on is valued a great deal by many people who want to be or are teachers.

    I have tried creating videos for my classes (no budget, no support, no talent) but students mostly seem to regard those as a way to just skip class altogether-and most never watch them. If I had a budget/support and could create high quality videos, things might be different.

    I do like the idea of an institution focused on teaching. I have suggested that professors follow the example of the for-profit schools and create their own colleges. However, they should make them for-education schools since the for-profits have largely been a disaster for the students who are lured into them.

  14. JMRC,

    You are right-the ruin of an institution is often just the slide into mediocrity rather than the work of a villain.

    Working in academics itself sometimes takes on a near hallucinatory quality. 🙂

  15. To Mike LaBossiere

    Esteemed Professor,

    maybe the real problem is that the students are not fit to study philosophy. Aristotle I believe said no one under 30 was ready for the subject. Buddha reached enlightenment at 35, Jesus was about 30 when he began his ministry…
    I believe too many people have turned their back on striving for wisdom and seek knowledge of facts and strategies instead…
    It reminds me of thirsty youngsters coming to an elder of the tribe…”let us drink from your wisdom” they say and hold out their bowls…”Your cups are already full”, he points out mildly. Many leave, a few pour the contents of the cups on the ground and ask again. The elder indicates a huge jug-he can pour a little-but their cups are too small 😉

    Greetings

  16. I think there is some refreshing honesty here, which will be invaluable for people considering this career path. However, I feel this article focuses on quite a negative bias and not once is there any mention of what is enjoyable about the job, the passion for what motivated you to pursue this career, etc. While I think this article is useful, I feel a more balanced indication of the life of a professor could be even more beneficial. There must be reasons why you continue to work in this field.

  17. I feel like this mainly applies to the academic structure of the United States. What about getting a degree and working in another country?

  18. Mike,
    If education has lost it’s magical luster and regard for professors has fallen, then who has brought this about? By all measures kids coming out of school, high or college don’t have the skills prior generations did, but they know their rights!
    I’d say this; democrats and leftists i.e progressives have been running higher ed for a generation, both administratively and in teaching. So if there really is a problem, look no further for those responsible. They have designed the mess we now have and can only clamor for more money. And one could say the same thing about the affordable housing crisis and a host of other critically important issues effecting urban American lives, homelessness etc..

    fyi: The people who know how to do things (as opposed to many in the academy who simply know how to talk and make things more expensive and pointlessly complex) would now rather hire a robot than a kid with a liberal arts degree, or a SJW with a degree in gender studies, and for obvious and practical good reasons. As US Colleges and universities continue to create evermore new and useless degree programs ( inquiring into and writing about the things people used to do in their spare time) the American people are cast further adrift on the sea of bad ideas and the idealogs who push them.

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