Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Want to be a College Professor? Some Things to Consider

So you want to be a college professor. 

You enjoy writing, research, and teaching. You want to live in a world of ideas. Why not academia?

It may seem like a nice life. Most professors have almost complete control of their time. They are required to teach their classes and hold office hours, but you may be able to do that work remotely.

Colleges have no dress codes, so you can show up on campus dressed in "business casual," a jogging outfit, or even your pajamas.  The pay is not great, but the benefits may be pretty good: health insurance and a decent retirement plan.

But before you pursue an academic career, ask yourself these questions:

What are the opportunity costs?

Almost all professors have advanced degrees, and it can take a long time to get your doctorate. When I was at Harvard, Professor John Willett told my cohort that the median time for completion of our doctoral program was seven years.

Seven years! Seven years of being out of the workforce! Seven years living off of student loans! Seven years hanging out in the squalid town of Cambridge, Massachusetts!

I will be forever grateful to Professor Willett for his warning. I managed to get my doctorate in four years and be back in the workforce after three and a half years. 

But my starting salary as a professor was one-third what I made practicing law. My opportunity costs were high.

What will you teach?

It is a tight job market for academics, especially in social sciences, education, and the liberal arts. You may write your doctoral dissertation on Balkan nationalism during the Habsburg era and discover that you can't get a job.

On the other hand, the job market is better in business schools and the hard sciences.  And the colleges need more and more administrators--especially in the fields of student services and diversity.

Don't pursue an advanced degree in a field with dismal job prospects. You will end up taking out student loans that you can't pay back.

Where will you teach?

When you are out on the job market, consider where you want to live. Do you want to work at a major research university in a big city--somewhere like the University of Texas or the University of Chicago? Do you have the chops for that?

Or does a small liberal arts college in rural New England look more appealing? 

When making that decision, be aware that the small, liberal arts colleges are under severe stress due to declining enrollments and dwindling revenues. Many will close in the next few years. Don't start your career at an institution that is on the verge of shutting down.  That misstep will be difficult to recover from.

Also, look closely into an institution's benefits plan before taking a job. My first job was at Louisiana State University, which has one of the worst retirement programs in the United States. And Louisiana public employees do not participate in Social Security.

If you make your career in Louisiana, you will be a lot poorer when you retire than if you retire from a Texas or a California university. That may not mean much to you when you are young, but it will mean a lot to you when you are 70.

Conclusion

After reading this, you might conclude that I regret my decision to become a university professor. Actually, I don't. Practicing law--my former profession--was a lot more challenging than teaching, but it was stressful. Being a professor is not stressful--especially if you don't take your job too seriously.

I met a wonderful woman in Louisiana, married into a terrific family, and emersed myself in the riches of South Louisiana culture--its music, its cuisine, and even its 100-proof Catholicism. I've had a good life.

But if you decide to be a college professor, go forward with your eyes open.  It can be a more difficult life choice than you anticipated.

So you want a job like this guy has?


2 comments:

  1. Thanks for another excellent post. I have a family member who went through an economically harmful doctorate program in the humanities.

    My solutions are:

    1. Ban student loans for graduate studies in the humanities.

    2. Restrict admissions to students with very high family net worth.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I like your first solution. If graduate students in the humanities were barred from taking out loans, only people who received grants, scholarships or fellowships would be in those programs. Thanks for writing!

    ReplyDelete