Tuesday, July 14, 2015

New Directions

I quietly reached a milestone this week--I submitted a job application.

I have spent the last twelve years in universities, nine as a student of various stripes and three as a post-doctoral researcher.  A post-doc is what happens to someone with a PhD in science after they graduate.  They have a PhD, but don't have the experience or seniority to be a professor.  So they hunt for a research grant that lets them work on another research project for two or three years.  Post-docs oversee the day-to-day running of the research and training of students, and in large collaborative efforts like mine, start getting involved in the organization of the collaboration and publication of papers.  Most new science professors have held two or three post-doc positions prior to getting their professorship; with their PhD work, they have experience in three or four different types of work and a developed network of contacts to use in getting an assistant professorship and moving towards tenure.

This means that I have worked closely with four professors in the last twelve years and taken classes from and talked with many more.  I have the utmost respect for a research professor--it is a challenging position to do well.  From my perspective, a good professor needs to be able to wear four or five different hats.  A good research professor must be a good researcher, with a deep understanding of the history and current knowledge of their field.  They need to be critical thinkers and able to create and implement experiments and research projects.  Professors must also be good lecturers, since a large part of their time will be devoted to lecturing to hundreds of students at a time and organizing the homework and testing of those students.  They need to be good bureaucrats, since professors serve in several but not all of the positions in running departments and colleges.  They will be working in committees with each other and interacting with lots of offices and departments around a university, and need to be able to be productive in those settings.

As their less obvious tasks, professors also need to be good marketers.  A professor's ability to hire students and post-docs is dependent on their ability to get grant money.  I have seen PhD students be given less time than their peers to finish their degrees not because one was more entitled to the time but because the grant money to pay for the project had run out.  A post-doc who's professor loses a grant or changes university (which often means losing the grant) could suddenly find themselves jobless just after moving to a new country, or expected to move again immediately.  PhD students and post-docs strongly depend on their professors for their livelihood.  So professors need to be able and willing to do 'marketable' research to keep a lab running financially.

Professors also have to be good mentors, in that they really should excel in one-on-one teaching, and need to be good leaders of their small research team.  A professor typcially has one or two post-docs and one or two PhD students.  All of these people have two or three years to accomplish enough to be able to get their next position.  You don't learn how to do research in lecture classes, so most PhD students start with no knowledge whatsoever.  Often, it is the post-doc that starts to fill in those blanks, as post-docs have worked on one or two projects and are learning to organize research projects themselves.  But I know I benefit greatly from whatever insights my professors have been able to give me throughout my research, and I needed my professor to be sensitive to my career prospects in creating research projects.  Many professors do not want their post-docs pursuing research other than what the professor mandates, so a professor insisting on some project that won't produce results in the time the post-doc has is a problem for the post-doc. 

If it sounds as if I have high expectations, I honestly don't feel I've worked with many professors who had mastered all these areas.  Of the four professors I have worked closely with, one definitely had.  One was brand-new and struggling to learn the leadership, mentoring, and marketing aspects.  Two acted without consideration for what their choices did to their students and post-docs.  All were great researchers, but that didn't cover everything.

I salute all the good professors out there.  I've seen several: ones who could lecture through the first month or more of Jackson E&M without using notes, ones who could grasp and improve a research technique after a few minutes of halted explanation from a nervous students, ones who made a science of collaboration so that their students were exposed to other professors, included in projects, and graduated on time.  I've seen professors who were trying, as they experimented with different lecture techniques to find the best one for a particular class and worked on their first major grant applications.  To you all, you have my deepest respect.

But, after twelve years of dealing with professors, I know that I don't want to be one.  My contract is drawing to a close, and I am applying for a job outside of academia.

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