Even though jobs, relationships, and cities make you unhappy or uncomfortable, you stay in them because of loss aversion. Loss aversion keeps you where you are, because the fear of losing what you have is greater than the reward associated with pursuing what you want. Don’t worry– we all do it.
My job isn’t perfect by a long shot. But, I would be remiss not to indicate the positives associated with being a college professor. First, although most think the job is limited to teaching and meeting with students during office hours, it actually entails a multitude of other responsibilities.
In addition to reading, learning, and teaching, I run an undergraduate research lab, which means I’m a budget officer, entrepreneur, manager, scientist, interviewer, mentor, and career advisor. I suffer from boredom no more than three days a year. Of all the possible roles I satisfy, I feel most valued and gratified when I’m in a leadership or mentoring role, but that’s not because it’s required to inflate my ego. In fact, I practice service leadership, which offers both personal and professional satisfaction when I provide others with the knowledge and resources required for them to achieve the objectives of our research or their own professional goals.
One common misconception is that interactions with students in the classroom (i.e., lecture halls) provide teachers with a high degree of satisfaction and strong sense of purpose. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen as often as one might think. True, this is my opinion, but it’s an opinion shared by many of the professors I’ve met during my ten-year long career as an academic. If you teach sixty students a semester, it’s likely that you will only develop a strong connection (i.e., I’m reaching them!) with five or six students in a lecture class of 30 students. Consequently, most of my “life changing” or influential moments have occurred while mentoring research projects or providing career advisement. On paper, these two functions only represent ~30% of my job description. But in terms of where my greatest impact as an educator is, 80% stems from these functions.
Like graduate school and my postdoc, my career offers scheduling flexibility. However, that flexibility comes at a cost. One thing that differentiates scientists and educators from other professions is our willingness, reluctant or otherwise, to bring our work home. If you’re considering this profession, you need to recognize that in addition to the 40-50 hours a week you spend on campus, you will spend another 15-20 off campus writing lectures and letters of recommendation, grading exams, developing research projects, and writing grants.
So, yes, it’s flexible, but it’s not–under any circumstances–cushy. For those daydreaming of summers off, this is not a reality for most professors in the Sciences. Why? There is limited time to do research during the academic year, which means that if you want to secure tenure you will do research during the summer. And, if you think you’ll stop coming in during the summer once you win tenure: you won’t. I share an office suite with three tenured professors; they come in almost every day. If you want the summers off, become a high school teacher. That’s not a slight. There are a host of benefits to working at the secondary level.
We gradually shifted away from the positives of the profession to the drawbacks. What comes next is an eyes wide-open view of the negatives. First, the pay sucks. Sure, you’ve heard it before but you can’t possibly appreciate it until you’re in your mid thirties and all your friends, holding nothing more than a bachelor’s degree, are making six figures and vacationing in Bali. I barely make my student loan payments (~$420 a month), I own a modest house ($55,000 purchase price), and I drive a Subaru Forester.
To remove any question whatsoever over what the pay is: I made $52,000 last year. Granted, that’s not a horrible salary. And, if you really only worked 9-months a year it might even be justifiable. But the reality is that I assumed $50K in debt and 8 years of earning potential to get this job. Unfortunately, if you’re reading this, you’re likely in the same position or worse. You have my empathy. The fact of the matter is, there are plenty of jobs that don’t require a Ph.D. and pay ~$50K a year. I’m not trying to be a negative Nancy, but that is the reality of this profession. Still, loss aversion is compelling. That nagging voice in your head says, “you worked so hard to get here, you have to stay and try to be happy, you should be happy. This is what you wanted.”
As I alluded to above, the typical work schedule observed during the school year is incongruent with a healthy work-life balance. Most academics I know don’t have children for two reasons: they don’t have time, and they don’t have the necessary means (i.e., money). Sorry, this career is not as family-friendly as some suggest.
Moreover, when many academics retire, they continue to frequent the campus they worked at for 30-plus years. Sure, they might be here because they loved their job so much they never felt like they worked a day in their life, or they had no time for hobbies or money to support them when they were younger, so now their hobby is the job they retired from.
Nonetheless, in the interest of providing a balanced view of the profession, I can tell you that in the summer I work closer to 30-35 hours a week and I don’t take work home. It is amazing! With no teaching demands, I’m able to fully dedicate myself to summer research students. We solve problems every day, and they learn more in a week than in an entire semester. The same might also be true of me. Still, this is short lived. From the second week of August to the first week of June, it’s a totally different way of life. And it is just that, a way of life.
There are other challenges to be considered. Academia is in the midst of an unprecedented upheaval: massive open on-line courses (MOOCs), evaporation of federal and state funding, nationwide reduction in tenure-track lines, administrative top-heavy institutions, mushrooming unemployment, and political finger pointing. At a small liberal arts school, this almost always equates to shrinking enrollment numbers, which not only thwart prospects for cost of living increases (COLIs) and raises, but also seriously jeopardize the future of the university that employs you. No, it’s not a pretty picture at all.
So, colleges are doing everything they can to attract students and cut cost– two endpoints that are seemingly at odds with one another. Faculty are under increasing pressure to develop on-line courses, teach larger class sections, aid in recruitment efforts, and create initiatives that promote retention of underprepared students that have been admitted not for their academic record or potential, but for their debt capacity.
Lastly, you have a Ph.D., which means in all likelihood you’ve loved learning and the challenges it poses your whole life. Only a handful (less than 10 percent) of students you interact with will share your enthusiasm for learning, experiencing new things, and personal growth. Society has nurtured a generation that wants the Cliffs notes, Wikipedia version of education, and maybe even life.
Don’t come to the academe expecting to find clones of you or your closest colleagues. Graduate schools might offer an enriched population of driven, intellectually curious people, but undergraduate universities are a cross-section of American youth. More often than not your colleagues and superiors will encourage you to find ways to make the material more palatable to your students. They themselves stopped assigning full chapters a decade ago. Now they only assign 20 of the 50 pages that comprise a chapter. What could students possible learn from reading those extra thirty pages of text? And if you teach it but don’t test it, you taught them information that wasn’t related to the course or required for their educational goals. Believe it. The majority of students think this way.
But, it’s like science: with so much failure around you, you cling to that 10% that’s motivated and passionate about your subject. That 10% keeps you were you are, though. Because loss aversion tells you that 10% is better than being a sales engineer for Zeiss or going back to school to become a dentist.
Overcoming loss aversion is difficult, but not impossible. This entry was designed to provide a clear view of where I am, what makes me anxious to leave, and what has kept me where I am. Next time we’ll talk about how to find opportunities that suit you and networking. Until then, seek to understand what’s good about where you are, what makes you want something more, and what prevents you from taking that death defying leap into a new career.