Thursday, November 27, 2008

Not a bad job, not a bad job at all

There's no doubt about it, being a professor is a great job. There's a lot to be thankful for.

First of all, there are opportunities to work with a range of students. The most fun is teaching (and learning from) the students who are at the top of their game. These students engage you by asking important questions that you never thought about and by bringing their own analyses and research into the classroom or office hours. The most rewarding students are those who start off struggling with material and then find their way. The biggest challenge is in finding what works for the class you are teaching; it's often different from what worked for the class before. For various reasons, I've done less teaching overall and no undergraduate teaching since coming to UNCG; I especially miss the undergraduate part.

Second, academic jobs provide time for research and thinking. They allow you the freedom to research questions that interest you and to follow evidence wherever it goes. In practice, this means unlimited access to libraries full of books and journals and also the chance to work with or collect new data. The research leads to many provocative conversations with colleagues and collaborators over how to pose, frame, and interpret analyses. It sometimes also involves being given extra resources from your institution, the government, or private sponsors to gather more data or conduct more analyses. This aspect of the job is pure "nerd-vana."

Third, there is a wonderful cycle to the job. Things are crazy during the term while you are teaching, with work spiking just before the term as you prepare materials and near the end as big assignments and tests are made and come due. Between terms, things are quiet (at least if you are successful in hiding from deans and other administrators with committee assignments). When you are not teaching, the work is mostly self-paced. Salaries are usually provided for nine months' work, meaning that the summer can be your own.

Fourth, the job can offer some neat travel opportunities. I'm not sure if my trip in a few weeks to Ann Arbor (burr) counts as something to be thankful for but trips this year to Bonn, Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, Taipei, and Washington certainly do.

Lastly, there is tremendous job security, at least for those lucky enough to have made it over the twin hurdles of finding a permanent job and then convincing our colleagues to grant us tenure. Tenure-track positions usually come with multi-year renewable contracts, so you can be sure of your status for that period of time. Those who don't get tenure (it took two tries for me) are typically offered an additional year of employment, during which you can search for the next position. If tenure is awarded...well, you can't be thankful enough for that kind of job security.

Academic jobs don't come without a tremendous amount of support. While some people pay their entire way through undergraduate and graduate school, I was fortunate to be supported by my parents in undergraduate school and by fellowships, assistanceships, and grants in graduate school. Schools public and private also receive copious amounts of taxpayer support. Graduate students require a lot of advice and guidance, so there are many generous and patient professors to be grateful for; several of those professors continue to provide advice and support. Along the way, there are mentors inside and outside your institution. These colleagues read and offer advice on your research, answer questions, help you with your teaching, call and write letters on your behalf to potential employers and sponsors, invite you to their institutions, and generally serve as a sounding board on the days you might not feel so thankful (but should). The help from families is also invaluable, from the ramen-noodle days of school, through the ups and downs of the job, and even through disruptive relocations. I can't thank them enough.