Monday, December 3, 2012

What I Didn't Know about the Prof Business

In the recent conversations about Policy PhDs and such, one of the frequent assertions was that people  going into PhD programs had no idea what they were getting into.  Why do we assert such things?  All I can say is that I had no clue not just about what was involved in a PhD program, but also what was involved in being a prof.  Let me review some of my beliefs and the realities I have experienced over the past two decades.*
* I will leave aside the job market stuff (like not controlling where I would live).
  • Despite warnings from my adviser at Oberlin, I thought profs spent much of their time reading cool books.  Yes, I had the intellectual curiosity that the posts of the past week posit as a requirement for the pursuit of a PhD, but I was not sufficiently curious to do the research ahead of time.  I really spend a very small portion of my time reading cool books about International Relations.  Of the non-grading, non-supervising, non-internet reading I do, most of it is of academic articles and books I need to read for my research and teaching.  While much of that stuff can be quite interesting, a good portion is essentially required reading--what I need to read to get the literature right so that reviewers do not poop all over my stuff. 
  • The funny thing is that I did not really think of myself as a writer or that I enjoyed writing while in college.  What was I thinking?  I guess I was thinking I was going to spend most of my time teaching? So much of my non-grading, non-supervising time is spent writing, and, as this blog illustrates, I actually don't mind writing anymore.  Indeed, I like it.  So, I have found multiple media in which to write and write.  
  • Of course, I spend a heap of time talking.  That is playing to my strength--not that I am good at it, but I do like to talk.  And always have.  But I didn't expect to be doing media stuff when I went to grad school.  Nor did I do that much of it until I got to McGill and especially when I started doing stuff on Afghanistan.  
  • I never expected to spend significant amount of my time either chasing or administering money.  Grant writing can take a heap of time.  I spent most of my fall on a major development grant (which means that the big bucks would be after we prove ourselves and spend much time with a second application).  And a big grant can be like a dog that catches the car it has been chasing--what now?  Well, if I get the grant, I will be spending much time accounting for the spending.  In my ninth and tenth years at McGill, I was still filing annual reports about a grant that built a lab several years earlier.  Oy.
  • When one watches a prof depicted in TV or movies, they get two things wrong,* one being that movie/TV profs never do any administrative stuff.  Meetings, committees, reviewing stuff for journals, for presses, etc.  I remember in grad school asking my adviser how I can get in on the article reviewing business.  He wisely said do not rush it.  I have viewed it like shaving--when you are growing up, you want to start shaving as soon as you can (well, for guys, mostly), but then you wish you didn't have to. 
*Yes, the other involves sex with students.  As I discuss elsewhere, the movies/TV get this wrong as well but perhaps more destructively so.
  • I didn't realize how social the entire enterprise is.  That while we largely work alone in our offices, not only do we co-author a heap more than I expected, but also that we are constantly reviewing and being reviewed by folks in one's intellectual community.  
To be clear, I love my job and my profession.  I could not imagine doing anything else (which is one of the key reasons why I stayed in grad school--I have a lousy imagination about the alternatives).  I am sure that it is true for most careers that what we expect and what we experience are two different things.

So, what else am I forgetting about expectations vs. realities of the life of the professor?


Joshua Foust said...

What else are you forgetting? How about the terrible academic job prospects for new PhDs?

Steve Saideman said...

Notice the first caveat--that I was not going to discuss the job market. I have exhausted that elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

One aspect I was unaware of has to do with elapsed time and projects. There are long, and sometimes unnecessary, delays with projects. Once you have an idea for a paper, it takes time to collect data. It takes some time to turn a first draft into a version that is ready to be sent to reviewers. It takes time for editors to send reviewers’ reports. Once accepted, it takes time for a paper to come out in an issue. It takes time to see if your project if a “dry hole” (no one cites it), or if it makes its way into someone else’s bibliography. As a prof, you need to love your topics, because feedback from the discipline is received far after a project in finished.

Steve Saideman said...

Excellent point--the time lags can be crucial, especially for junior faculty. I have gotten three year grants where one is supposed to show output before going back to the same well, but it takes longer than three years to start/finish a project. My new book in 2013 was funded in part by a grant I got in 2006.