Being a Professor is a Job
And not always the one that you think it is
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
This week, we’re talking about the conditions of producing knowledge.
Being a Professor is a Job
Non-academics hold a variety of impressions about what being a professor means. State legislators in redder-hued provinces are likely to think that the fact that we teach only four or five hours a week means we only work four or five hours a week. Extended family members can be more generous about allowing that we might work longer hours than that but can still assume that “summers off” is a real thing. Undergraduate students can sometimes assume we’re impossibly busy but also occasionally make requests that betray that at least some of them think that we live at school (this hits hard the first time you get a request for an appointment at 8 or 9 p.m.).
In general, these all stem from the same confusion: that being a professor isn’t really a job. And in some ways it isn’t. I don’t have a boss, not really; my projects are mostly self-assigned; and my performance evaluations take place only every few years. (I’m in the middle of waiting to learn about my tenure decision, so I can attest that there are evaluations.) Nevertheless, being a professor is a job, and it’s neither the utopia higher education’s critics (and starry-eyed applicants to grad school) imagine nor the bitter hellscape that academic Twitter sometimes makes it sound.
Perceptions and Misperceptions of the Academy
Some of these confusions derive from the oddities of academic employment contracts. The notion of tenure itself is a hard thing to explain: “ah, you can’t be fired!” normal folks react when they learn about it. The more suspicious conclude that people who can’t be fired therefore can’t be working too hard at all. There are orthodox responses to these objections—we can, in fact, be fired post-tenure, and most tenured professors work very hard—but there is also something to this viewpoint. Yes, you can be fired for misconduct even with tenure as we’ve learned, even serial predators in the academy won’t necessarily lose tenure protections—and if you don’t know a senior professor who has taken advantage of tenure to work somewhat less than a 35-hour work week, well, you’re either at Harvard or you don’t really know all that many senior professors.
Other confusions result from the range and distribution of professorial responsibilities. There are professors who don’t teach; there are professors who teach a lot. There are professors who live for research; there are professors who haven’t read anything in their field since before they finished their doctorate. There are institutions where being a good teacher will get you fired; there are institutions where being a good researcher can’t save your job no matter how many grants you get.
Then there’s the distribution of institutional types. Elite schools like Amherst, Harvard, and Stanford represent about two percent of the total number of higher educational institutions in the USA; add in major state universities like UMass Amherst and we are at maybe four percent—but we’ve also probably accounted for more than 80 percent of the colleges and universities depicted in pop culture and 95 percent of panicked articles about indoctrination and “free speech” in The Atlantic. (At least the Evergreen State crisis brought attention to a university outside this charmed circle.) Most higher education in the United States looks more like Community than Mona Lisa Smile.
(Many misapprehensions about higher ed reflect a lag between generation and current population distributions, as well as ignorance about policies that matter a lot. Did you know, by the way, that the state that employs the most political science higher ed instructors is … Texas, with more than twice as many such jobs as California? Thanks, Texas, for your statewide government requirements!)
And we should acknowledge that the category of college faculty also includes folks who aren’t “professors” in the tenure-track or tenured sense, including long-term (even permanent) instructors who may teach many courses and, of course, adjunct faculty who are hired on a per-course basis. The former are a little closer to the quotidian sense of the term professor; the latter are not, even as they make up a major share of the people who go by the title of professor.
So what does this sum up to? Well, the biggest thing about generalizing about what professors do is that, to the extent you can do this, the reality of being a professor is the opposite of the popular and elite impression. Most professors teach something like a 3/3 or a 4/4 (that’s three or four courses per term, two terms a year), and many more teach 5/5s than 2/2s or 1/1s. For many professors, research is something they consume, not produce. A lot of them work in places that nobody would confuse with Harvard teaching students who are far from pampered elites enjoying the “college experience”—they are working, sometimes at multiple jobs, as well as providing care for siblings, children, or other relatives. Summers are a time for outside employment or for picking up extra money by teaching, online or in person.
In other words, being a professor is a job. It’s not a seriously high-paying one, either: yes, the BLS suggests that political science faculty at the 75th percentile make $122,690, but read the footnotes and you’ll see that is converted into an annual wage by multiplying the hourly average into a year-round, full-time figure of 2,080. Most of us are on nine- or ten-month contracts, so that conversion immediately inflates all of our pay by a substantial figure. In reality, across all institutional types and all disciplines (including the much higher paid ones, like business), the average full professor salary is closer to $124,220, and the average for all ranks is more like $87,359.
These are nice salaries, to be sure, but it can take decades to achieve them—and in many fields your first five to ten years of employment (graduate school) pays well under the average wage. In fact, it might not be until someone’s mid-forties or even later that they will finally catch up to the total earnings of a teacher who started in a public school just out of college (this is more or less true depending on your local school system). It’s possible that faculty are “overpaid” but it’s not, actually, immediately obvious that they are.
What This Professor Does
Being a professor at a major research institution means that I have substantial freedom in how I organize many of my days. (I can, for instance, take 25 minutes to write this newsletter for you.) (Update: 40 minutes.) It also means that I’m evaluated on research, almost full stop. (You can be denied tenure or renewal pre-tenure for really bad teaching.) Contractually, research represents 50 percent of my hours, and teaching only 40 percent, with service making up the balance.
Research means publication. And, yes, publication still means (and I think defensibly) publishing peer-reviewed articles and/or books with academic presses. Those are the arguments we make. I take that phrase literally: My job is to make arguments in the same way that a cabinet-maker makes cabinets. It is my craft. The arguments that scholars are judged on are those published in scholarly outlets, where they are judged by other scholars. Public-facing work is beneficial to society (I hope), but it’s a form of service or outside income. It’s not the core of my job, even if it is a major part of my vocation.
As a result, I don’t have one boss: I have dozens of them, the community of scholars who evaluate my argument-making products. Their decisions, in aggregate, shape what I publish and how it is received, and thus how I am employed and under what terms. All of this, basically, happens beyond my institution. Since I don’t really have a supervisor, I don’t have a boss to please but a community to impress.
That also means that my institution does not, in the aggregate, particularly value my time in the sense that it calculates tradeoffs between my commitments to research and other things the institution would like to have done, whether that be teaching or doing service work (like sitting in meetings). The recent Twitter discourses about calendars and professors should be understood in this context: for a research professor, calendaring is about saving time, not making time available for others in my organization.
Indeed, the neat 50-40-10 time split that my contract specifies rarely happens. To make my research quota, I have to work whenever I can. There have been stretches of weeks—and once, I believe, months, but only two or three—when I did not take a day fully “off”. This is not pleasant! Even with this, I feel like I never have time to read in my field, much less write everything I need to. The fact that a common bit of advice for young faculty is to relax by reading a novel or something outside of our discipline is, in itself, guilt-inducing: what, you have time to read fiction but not Journal of Politics? As for vacations, well, sure, Jan: I know there are people who can make this work, but I’m not one of them.
Economically, faculty life in many disciplines is a bad bet, at least for now. Salaries rarely keep pace with inflation, and even when our faculty union negotiates a contract with an increase, it’s both paltry and—in the case of our pending contract—not funded by the state. You can get raises, but that entails getting outside offers, which in turn means being substantially more productive than others. Since there’s only three normal professorial ranks (assistant, associate, and full, with some others sprinkled throughout depending on the endowment fairy), there are limited opportunities to have exceptional performance rewarded. Indeed, thanks to a stingy governor, for the last several years my university hasn’t had a merit pool at all.
The daily business of being a professor involved in research entails squeezing out time to make arguments while also being chased by paperwork, usually incomprehensible, and teaching responsibilities, sometimes rewarding but almost always demanding. As I’ve written elsewhere, the pandemic and its consequences have made teaching substantially less enjoyable and rewarding than it once was. There are still very high highs, but there are more low lows.
Teaching is also weird as part of the job of being a researcher. It requires a mindset shift from research. For me at least, there’s a disjuncture between research, where you want everything to be new or at least new-ish, and teaching, where you want to cover the same ground, with some modifications, in each class. (Because of the particular circumstances of my department, almost all of my teaching is in large, introductory lecture courses, and I don’t teach graduate courses, so others in similar but better resourced institutions will have a slightly more optimistic take here.) I actually appreciate how teaching intro courses has deepened my appreciation for some concepts, but it’s disorienting to go from teaching the basics to applying far more advanced techniques in the same day.
The party line is that research contributes to good teaching because a good researcher can provide more insight into the material. I think there’s something to that, but it’s far from perfect. The best way to devise better courses is to invest time, but that’s something that researchers can’t really do easily. The biggest return of time is in teaching the same courses, updated only rarely. This is not happy for the instructor if they (like me) care about teaching, because you do want to update and improve your materials. But remember the hard trade-off: time spent updating a course is not time spent researching, so it represents either overhead costs or a form of recreation. You can (and I have) become a more productive teacher through learning by doing and by mastering new techniques, but at a certain point institutional type and job responsibilities shape where the marginal hour of effort will go. (I still probably spend too much time on teaching compared to where my ruthless evil twin, Pavel, would invest his time.)
There are comparatively few supports for teaching and service if you want to offer a bespoke service. Nobody will design my course websites for me, for instance. Textbooks, if adopted, come with question banks and pre-made lecture slides, but those have all the disadvantages of one-size-fits-all solutions (although I’d never blame an adjunct for using them, given pay rates). For all the proliferation of administrative support staff, mostly faculty teaching courses are on their own, rather than working with teams. That gives you freedom, but at comparatively great costs.
Then there’s service. What a mixed bag—and I don’t mean that it’s all bad, as there are nice bits. But my service includes advising student groups on how to plan events, talking to the media about current events, helping students plan their path toward completing theses, and then occasionally helping to hire colleagues. And this is a light service load! Note that none of these are jobs that draw on the same core skills as my research and teaching jobs.
It’s a Weird Gig
For all the commonplace notion that professors just sit around and “think great thoughts”, the bulk of what I do, then, is type papers and (badly) write code in R and Stata, which means mostly I’m focused on the details of constructing arguments. Far from being a gig that feels easy, it feels rough: the majority of these arguments will be rejected at least once, so the modal outcome of my research is frustration—and when a paper is accepted, I don’t feel elated, but rather relieved that I don’t have to see it again. The bulk of what students see is delivering lectures, but the bulk of time I spend teaching is revising those lectures and creating assignments. (Thanks, TAs, for removing “grading” from that list—seriously.) The bulk of what my colleagues in my department see on a routine basis are service tasks loosely connected to my core tasks. What my administrators see is, mostly, occasional lines on faculty reports, but in a department of a couple dozen faculty members and a college of several dozen (and a university of a few thousand), I’m just another line in a spreadsheet.
In other words, being a professor is a job. I know there’s a lot of folks inside and outside the academy who think that it’s an ennobling vocation, and maybe that’s the loot that drops after you complete the tenure quest. Mostly, though, on a daily basis I don’t feel ennobled: I feel like I’m working. There are parts I quite like and there are parts I don’t. Ironically, for all of the ways in which it’s different, there are definitely days in which mostly it feels like the same job everyone else (in the white-collar world) has:
Good analysis. A few additional thoughts.
Whether a faculty compensation package is sustainable can partly depend on the cost of living of the region where the college or university is located. For example, my preference was to teach on the west coast, but almost all of the programs where I might have plausibly been hired were located in metropolitan areas with high housing costs. Moving there would have doubled my monthly mortgage payments, but take-home pay was not commensurably higher. Paying off a mortgage by age 65 would no longer have been realistic.
To make matters worse, few of the positions had as strong of a retirement plan as the one I enjoyed as a government bureaucrat. This led me to wonder: Were the charms of academia worth the financial hit?
One attractive quality of a faculty position is the relative autonomy. Even so, I saw a paradox there: Getting published required navigating a gatekeeping process that could be just as politically challenging as what I experienced in the practitioner realm as a public policy analyst. Indeed, it could be even more challenging if one specialized in a topic or a theoretical school of thought that was considered suspect by old-school scholars. At least in my academic field, these were the folks who tended to have the most power at peer-reviewed journals and scholarly presses.
In general, the stakes are higher in a scholarly career track. For example, as a practitioner I could usually find another gig down the street if I didn’t like the new management in my organization. That would typically not be possible in my scholarly field, where the job market is national – and increasingly tight.
Teaching can be great, good fun, but building a successful life in academia can be “fraught with peril,” as one of my professors once warned.
I find reading some of the subreddits associated with professors really interesting in terms of getting a sense of what some people think the job of professor is like, a sense of what is common about the job of being a professor in almost all contexts, and a sense of just how different the job of being a professor is across institutional political economies and cultures in some domains or areas.
One really sharp example of this is the obsession that a lot of working faculty have about cheating--about catching it, about not being able to catch it, about anger over cheating. I always have to stop myself before responding that it doesn't seem like it's that big a problem, because at that point I realize:
a) I have different students than a lot of the folks who are posting
b) I teach subject matter that is harder to do 'easy cheating' on simply because there's a relative lack of online materials dealing with African history
c) And most importantly, I have a completely different institutional environment to deal with, where the fuzzy production of cultural capital is at least as valued as the achievement of specific qualifying credentials that have a known and tangible ROI; the faculty who are highly focused on cheating are trying to hold the line on making sure that certified graduates can actually do specific work that the credential says they can in an institution that is pushing through huge numbers of students while undervaluing faculty labor and professional diligence--these are folks who are trying to handle hundreds of students at a time while maintaining standards and most of the students are struggling with resentment and financial precarity as they try to make it through an academic program.