14 December 2011

Who wants to be a professor?

A lot About 80% of doctoral students want to be professors, according to this post. It goes on to note that only about 20% of them do become professors. Cue statements about the mismatch between expectation and reality and arguments to reform the system.

Based on my observations, particularly on search committees, I bet a lot of those 80% of doctoral students don’t want to be professors: scholars who are engaged in both research and teaching to some degree.

What many doctoral students want to be are researchers free to study subjects that interest them. For many, teaching, particularly undergraduate teaching, is seen as a necessary evil. I’ve seen it too many times. And I’m sorry, but if you don’t want to teach undergraduates, to me, you’re saying, “I don’t want to be a professor.”

It just so happens that professors are one of the few positions that allow someone to conduct research with a some freedom to follow their own interest. So a lot of doctoral students and post-docs hold their nose and pursue professor positions, because the jobs they truly want – independent researchers – are in even shorter supply that tenure-track professor positions.

Additional: See comment by Dave K. re: correction.


Katie Collette said...

While I enjoy teaching hands-on in the lab, I do not enjoy teaching to large groups and think I would hate teaching large classes of undergrads. If I were to become a prof I would like to teach grad and med students like those at my uni do. You're right though, I'd prefer to do just research with no teaching.

JoVE said...

I think there is also an element of it being a job they are familiar with. They really don't know much about other options and exploring them is daunting.

Unknown said...

I dont think that. I came to research from the perspective of wanting to teach in an advanced field. For people from that perspective, research might be the necessary evil.

Dave K said...

The 80% number in the linked post refers to the number of people who get a PhD and do not become professors - not what they actually want or do not want to do for a career.

The UCSF study which charted aspirations suggests that ~45% of doctoral students rank a professor position #1 in future careers. This number increases to 54% when postdoctoral fellows are asked to produce the same ranked list.

I would agree that there is a disconnect, but it's not quite as large as your opening paragraph suggests.

Gareth said...

It doesn't help that many institutions seem to regard teaching as a necessary evil too. And that success is measured in grants and papers, rather than more intangible teaching achievements.

Zen Faulkes said...

Dave K.: Whoops, I think I was mislead by some comments I saw about this post on Twitter, which cited the 80% figure.

I'm a bad blogger. Apologies.

Dave K said...

Not at all Zen - happy to know that word got out about the entry. I just try to patrol to make sure numbers and stats don't blow things too far out of proportion.

Like I said though, this is a massive issue in the education and training of scientists and your comments around the (sometimes negligible) value of teaching are bang on.

Professors (especially in my field of biomedical science) need to realise that much of the thinking is done by the people they train and bad training = bad thinking. If you don't want to inspire and challenge the next generation of scientists, don't be an academic scientist.