Being a professor is too many jobs, perhaps?

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Some while ago, a colleague mentioned how his job as a professor was a “triple position.” Teaching well is a full time job. Doing research well is a full time job. And the service that we do, if done well, can or should be a full time job. We professors have three jobs rolled into one salary (and a 9-month one at that)!

This has been a lot of food for thought. I’ve come to realize that for nearly everything I do for the university on part-time basis, there are people who do that work on a full-time basis with a higher degree of specialization.

I suspect these worries might sound odd for folks in campuses that have embraced the “Teacher-Scholar Model” that came into vogue in teaching-focused institutions in the 1990s. This approach emphasizes that excellence in scholarship is not in conflict with excellence in teaching. And yes, I entirely agree that you can do teaching and do research at the same time, and do both of them well, and this creates a robust and student-centered learning community.

But.

We get evaluated on scholarship, teaching, and service, but that’s not all our job is. I think most professors are doing much more than classroom teaching and academic scholarship — I don’t even think teaching and scholarship together add up to half of what we do. Especially in the sciences, where running a contemporary research program involves a lot more than the research itself. Let me add up the different roles that I and other science faculty fill.

Classroom Teacher. We all are teaching in the classroom, but there are other people on our campuses who are hired to teach full time and do very little else (and for reasons that are not rationally defensible, they get paid less).

Academic Researcher. Many universities often have postdocs, technicians, and research staff whose job full time is to make research happen. Whereas I have to protect stretches of time in my schedule for research, among everything else on this list.

Administrator. The administrative service/leadership work on and off campus adds up, especially if we don’t do a slapdash job at it. Setting policy in the curriculum committee, reviewing and editing for academic journals, planning conferences, representing the campus at community events,  ad-hoc task forces for an issue on campus, and so on. A lot of these tasks are done full-time by associate deans or other administrators on campus. I think it’s wholly appropriate for faculty to be involved in institutional governance, but also recognize that a lot of our “service” is the exact kind of work that is done by others on a full-time basis. If you’ve ever wondered why it takes forever for things to go through curriculum committee, maybe it’s because those committees are chock full of people who are doing several jobs at the same time, and curriculum is not their highest priority?

Grantwriter. For a lot of senior PIs, “research” is synonymous with landing grants to support the lab. The skillset to do and publish research is often independent of the skillset to write a compelling proposal. Regardless, if we’re spending time writing proposals, that gives us less time to actually do the science. Of course, if/when we get funded, the funds generate a capacity to increase personnel to do the research. But, still, I’m not sure if the teacher-scholar model envisions the scholar spending all their time writing proposals to federal agencies instead of being in the lab or the field.

Academic advisor. A bunch of us at teaching-focused institutions do regular academic advising appointments for students. (Until recently, faculty in my department have been doing this for four hours per week!) I think it’s normal at expensive small liberal arts colleges for faculty members to be paired up with individual advisees. Meanwhile, at many university, being a trained and experienced academic advisor is a full-time position.

Lab manager. Some folks hire people to manage their labs full time. At institutions like mine, this is a rarity. Which means that we manage our labs ourselves, or hire a student to do this kind of work on a part-time basis (which is a constant exercise in training because of turnover.) So there’s a lot of work when it comes to ordering, logistics, and all that. Which if you squint real tight, you could consider to be “research” just like you could do with grant writing.

Secretary. When I talk to people who work in non-academic environments, I quickly realize that they spend a lot less time on routine logistic stuff than I do. They have people to do paperwork for travel arrangements and reimbursements, and following through on purchase orders, and filing out various forms (in paper and online). For example, once you’ve drafted up an article for submission, submitting it through the journal portal is taking longer and longer. This kind of thing used to be handed with support staff. Now, we are our own secretaries. Academic support staff are in short supply and critical for student success.

Mentor. Getting research done with students is one thing, and properly training junior scientists to become successful scholars is another thing. This might get lumped under “teaching” or in “research” criteria, depending on where you work, but it’s clearly a job expectation that comes on top of standard expectations for teaching well and being research productive. And time invested mentoring students, which is always well spent, can come at the cost of research productivity.

Outreach specialist. We operate social media related to our academic work, and are expected to give public talks, and spending time with the local community seen as a big positive. There are people who do scientific outreach and informal science education as full-time jobs! And this is yet another thing that we’re doing on the side.

This summer, I’m feeling my time ever more divided among these different roles. It doesn’t feel like a triple position, it’s more like an octojob. I have a great latitude to choose which of these are higher priorities than others, and they’re mostly things that I think are important. But I can’t do them all well in adequate volume. Ugh. I hope you’re having a nice summer. (I actually am having a nice summer, having a wealth of good choices isn’t really a bad thing.)

13 thoughts on “Being a professor is too many jobs, perhaps?

    • It’s actually getting worse, because at many universities now, to all these other jobs one has to add “accountant,” “HR specialist,” and “purchasing agent.” Especially for those of us who are fortunate enough to actually succeed in obtaining grants, we are now rewarded by being required to take care of balancing and maintaining the books on the accounts, doing all the hiring paperwork and fringe benefits calculations for postdocs and graduate research assistants, doing all the purchasing paperwork for everything from lab supplies to capital equipment, etc. When I first started as a faculty member we had skilled administrative staff to do each of those jobs, and do them well; and those tasks are tricky in a bureaucratic institution. Now at least at my institution those positions have been cut and it’s the PI’s job. Along with the eight or nine other jobs you mention…

  1. You have set forth more clearly than I ever did the reason I left a tenured position in the Biophysics Department at UC Berkeley many years ago. Pulled too many ways at once, not enough time to do any of the jobs to my own satisfaction.

  2. Good post showing exactly all the things you do as an academic scientist. So many skills that can be translated easily into another career if you so desire.

  3. Nice post Terry, and I agree, though I’d also add some other roles:

    Advisor and public expert – to government, NGOs, media outlets, etc.

    External reviewer – for manuscripts, grants, tenure applications, and (in the UK at least) courses at other universities.

    Of course, it’s still the greatest job in the world, but no doubt we are pulled in many directs at once.

  4. Perhaps I should bring up what Thomas Malthus said and apply it to academics, or any other part of human life. Populations (and job requirements) increase exponentially while resources (salary) increases arithmetically.
    Teaching, at least in higher academics was probably once an easier job, but as population pressure and competition increase the requirements and responsibilities increase, making it a more challenging task. Eventually, like in any environmental niche 50% of the population does well and 50% struggles, or perhaps the 68% that fall within 1 degree of freedom do well while 16% excels and 16% fails.
    Perhaps an academic position has devolved into a sink or swim struggle like every other niche in the world.

  5. Missing a few more things… Repair technician/Equipment maintenance specialist; Safety officer; Permit filler-outer; Mental health advocate; Travel agent.

  6. I agree 100% and made a big list of our roles in this opinion piece:
    https://elifesciences.org/articles/31083

    “We are teachers, mentors, managers, writers, editors, peer reviewers, statisticians, fundraisers, accountants, travel agents, recruiters, conference organizers, small business owners, science communicators, graphic designers, web designers, ethics compliance monitors, project managers, data storage and sharing experts, political activists, science advocates, public speakers, science outreach specialists, public relations gurus, mental health monitors, mediators, cheerleaders, life coaches, career counselors, therapists, immigration consultants, role models, and social directors… just to mention a few. “

  7. Very nice post, thanks for sharing tour thoughts. In addition to burnout and decreased efficiency due to mega-multitasking, there is also another problem related to this multiplicity of jobs. We, scientists, are not trained to perform many of those extra tasks. Especially the tasks related to people management are worrisome, because a bad performance in this sector may lead to a terrible work atmosphere, mental illness, toxic relationships, waste of public funds, and many other consequences.

  8. Now imagine doing just about all of that while not even being tenure-track (let alone tenured) and still hoping one day it happens… This is where things get a bit, erm, frustrating…

  9. It’s interesting to me that while on the one hand there seems to be less institutional support for profs than ever, on the other hand we seem to also have the proliferation of administrators and “academic middle management.” What’s up with that? When did that happen and why?

  10. Education, and research as well, have become very profitable business.

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