Being a professor may not be as sweet as it used to be

September 23, 2008 – 6:30 pm

On her 27th birthday, one of the graduate students in my department was told by her adviser that when he was 27, he got his first tenure-track job as an assistant professor at CU. She said, “Yeah, well, standards were lower back then.”

And in fact, it is the rarest of circumstances these days when a tenure-track position in a science department at a research-one university is handed out to a fresh off the boat 27-year old Ph.D. Nowadays there are one or more postdoctoral positions that are necessary for most candidates like myself who are interested in an academic position.

Being a professor is in many ways a totally sweet job, which is why it’s been my career goal for some time now. The tenure system affords unrivaled job security; the pay is more than adequate for the non-money-obsessed; the work is varied and interesting, including teaching, service, and research. Perhaps most appealing is the autonomy.

Earlier this year, there was an article in the New York Times about the declining prestige of traditionally prestigious professions such as law and medicine. I agree that the decline in prestige is real, but not necessarily for the same reasons that the author suggests. In the article, it is argued that changing social constructs of “success” are what has led to the decline in prestige. Specifically, the author cites the rise of entrepreneurship as the new standard for success.

That analysis may or may not be correct–there have always been successful business people to envy–but I also feel like the actual performance of these “prestigious” jobs is now more onerous than it used to be, which was discussed less in the article. People in these professions are expected to put in ridiculous amounts of time. This reduces prestige in two ways: first, as the amount of time increases, the job itself sucks more; and second, putting in ridiculous hours has, I think, become less socially acceptable. It’s pretty common these days to be accused of workaholism.

So this brings me back to being a professor. Because of increased competition for federal grants, the amount of time that it takes to be a successful science professor at a research institution has gone up. Combine that with lower pay and prestige during the years as a postdoc and the job is less appealing than when you could get a tenure-track job at age 27.

My hypothesis is that the institutions that employ these high-end professionals–universities, law firms, hospitals, etc.–are basically getting better at milking a talented and educated class of workers for all they’re worth. But there could well be other reasons driving this trend as well. I still think being a professor is a great job, but maybe just not as sweet as it used to be.

  1. 5 Responses to “Being a professor may not be as sweet as it used to be”

  2. Autonomy. That’s the keyword for me and the primary reason why I wish for a job in academia or related. I’ve worked in industry for 2 years and it sucked. Yeah, the pay was good, almost too good for my standards, but I really hated how I had no real freedom.

    The competition, etc. with becoming a professor and being a professor really kills the beauty; that’s capitalism’s fault (I’m not anti-capitalism, maybe a little).

    Anyway, someone, somebody needs to protect the academic world. If the funding is steady and more or less guaranteed to be there, then things would be better and becoming a professor may be sweet as it used to be.

    By Brian on Sep 24, 2008

  3. Grad school itself may be as sweet as it used to be. I’m still absolutely flummoxed that an entity is paying me to read about both cyborgs and the Serengeti.

    By Marissa on Sep 25, 2008

  4. @Marissa

    I’ve always looked at being a graduate student as a serf that works on pet projects.

    Well I’m fortunate enough to have my own funding from NSF, so I’m immune to this catastrophe!

    But, grad school life is pretty sweet.

    By Brian on Sep 28, 2008

  5. I agree that from a lifestyle perspective, graduate school is still a great deal and it’s much easier to get into than a professorial position. You have good control over your time and there is a good community of other grad students, though the culture of your department and advisor-mentor match can be important factors in the experience. Also, some people find the expectations overly stressful, so it depends on personality.

    On the other hand, there’s this clip from the Simpsons…

    Brian, I think you’re not the only one who thinks we need to change the funding system: here’s a recent article in Science. I don’t know if I agree with the necessity of “saving” or with any particular proposal, but these things are on the table.

    Finally, thanks for linking phdcomics! Good stuff.

    By Anthony on Sep 30, 2008

  6. Nice topic, and controversial I think. In my opinion it all depends on how much you’ve accomplished by the age of 27. If you look at it statistically, I doubt back then more people were getting professor jobs at the age of 27 than they are today — my guess is that it was probably a rare case even then. Well, and as you said those cases are rare today. However, don’t write off the possibility of that happening today either. I know of a few cases in the last 3-4 years of people who’ve landed tenure-track positions before age of 28. Only one of them was directly out of PhD (she actually got the offer when she was 18 months into her PhD) and happened to be in my committee (I was 3 years older =). Other cases I know are of people who’ve gotten tenure-track jobs while still during their PhD (though they are 30 or 30+ since they did something else pre-grad school), but still job offers during PhD days. I think it all depends on how much they have accomplished by the time the time they get their jobs. Impressive nonetheless… but finally and to express my real opinion, it does not make me excited thinking of getting a prof job at age of 27, because this implies being one-minded since you go to college pretty much… and yeah, back then, I had a lot of other things I wanted to do…. like ‘nothing’ for example…

    By Diego on Jan 23, 2009

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