The variability of "professor"

Jan 15 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

What does the term "professor" mean to you? If you check Google it means an old white guy with glasses and a 60% chance of bearedness. As we found out from Forbes report Susan Adams two weeks ago, it someone with a leisurely lifestyle and takes summers off. I think there's been enough response to that article (including an excellent response at Forbes by David Kroll), but what I've been mulling about in my head while tending to a sick family is the singularity of the title.

I'm betting that for many of us, the perception of what a professor is has been heavily influenced by our own college or university experiences. Oddly, however, the title itself spans such an enormous spectrum of jobs that the name seems to be the only link between them. If you asked an adjunct professor or even a tenure track prof at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution for a job description, how much to you think it would have in common with a soft money NIH-supported professor at a medical center? Anything? Probably not. Maybe someone who had some teaching responsibility at a med school might find some common ground with the PUI prof, however tenuous.

Even WITHIN a single institution there is an enormous difference is what professors do. My engineering and art history colleagues have very different jobs than I do. It is often amusing to compare notes over beers to get a better understanding of how they spend their weeks.

All these jobs have their merits, stresses and rewards, but they serve different purposes and are responsible to different audiences. I am no more interested in teaching four classes a semester than I am raising my own salary entirely via grant funds, which is why I fall where I do on the spectrum. Others have made different choices, but it's time to ole' yeller the fantasy that one can describe a typical professor.

12 responses so far

  • Bashir says:

    I was trying to explain this once and drew up a nice graph with two perpendicular axis. One was type of institution (CC, SLAC, R1, etc). The other was area of study (Sciences, Social Science, Humanities, etc). The idea was that your point on the spectrum determined what your job description was. Everyone has a mix of teaching, research & service, but in VERY difference proportions.

    That seemed to be a pretty efficient way of explaining things.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Sure but ALL of them are low stress, easy jobs for lazybonses, right?

  • pyrope says:

    Nothing to do with this post, but I wanted to say thanks for your advice last month to contact POs about serving on panels. I did that day and got an invite a few days later - so hopefully that will put me further up the grant learning curve for 2014. Appreciate it. Maybe I'll even see you there?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Bashir - Thought about that, but didn't have time to pull it off effectively. Plus, there is a lot of variation even within those categories.

    DM - Obvs.

    Pyrope - Awesome! Good luck. It's a lot of work but worth it.

  • Liz says:

    Well I can say that just about every non-academic in my life considers the career of professor to be 90-100% a teaching role. This includes primarily university educated people whose personal experience with professors was in the role of teacher. Almost all of these people also consider a career as a professor to be pretty relaxing as pretty easily obtainable, based on their comments to me.

    I am just finishing up a phd in the biological sciences and when I tell people in my life that I am not planning on an academic career, their number one response is usually "oh, you don't want to teach?" When I explain the challenges of getting an academic job when you are very restricted in location, as I currently am, they are generally shocked to hear that in a city with 2 universities I wouldn't be able to get automatically find a professor position.

  • Viola says:

    I'm in the same boat as Pyrope, PLS - I got an invite for this spring's panel as well. Too bad you can't list your recruitment of panelists for NSF as a 'broader impact' or something!

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Ha, not sure the university gets too excited about me helping NSF fill a need unless it comes with overhead attached. However, I'm glad you got an invite.

  • Dr Becca says:

    Whenever I meet someone and tell them I'm a professor, the next question is invariably "What do you teach?" I tell them I teach neuroscience classes, but am always quick to point out that my primary function is to run my lab, which is usually met with some confusion.

    I like Bashir's axis, though--that's a great idea!

  • Alex says:

    When I explain the challenges of getting an academic job when you are very restricted in location, as I currently am, they are generally shocked to hear that in a city with 2 universities I wouldn't be able to get automatically find a professor position.

    A few years ago I got a short-term visiting appointment in an institute at an elite research university. A friend was all "Great, maybe you can transition into a full-time job there!" I had to explain the astronomical odds against that sort of career move. What's funny is that this person is married to a PhD scientist who works in industry and does a bit of adjunct teaching, so you'd think they'd have a vague idea of how hard it is to move up the academic ladder.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    My experience in describing myself as a professor has been met with the same response as DrBecca gets.....including, but not limited to: serious incredulousness as to why I'm working in the summer (!), followed by a second question: 'No seriously, what do you teach?'. Other folks think that I look through a microscope all day long...I wish! 🙂

  • Mac says:

    I have teaching release this term and my family thinks this means I am "off". Uh no - not so much. It is easier in some ways - one less thing to juggle - but it doesn't change how much I'm working it just changes what it is I'm working on (100% research instead of 75% research). It's tough because I think teaching is an important part of my job but conveying where the bulk of my efforts go (research) never seems to get through and in trying to explain what I do I end up sounding like I think teaching isn't important. Why is a nuanced idea of faculty jobs so hard to convey?

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Professors deal with knowledge. They do research to create new knowledge. They teach to conserve knowledge by transmitting it to a new generation. They do service by applying their knowledge to bettering the human condition. There is also peripheral stuff, like helping run their institution, professional society, whatever.

    I am an Emeritus Professor, because I was so designated by my university. I did not know until recently that a former professor, no longer active, should not use the title of Professor unless they are a designated Emeritus Professor. I got interested in this seeing someone on TV being called an Emeritus Associate Professor.

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