A Philosopher's Blog

Why You Should (Probably) Not Be A Professor

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on November 19, 2014

While I like being a professor, I am obligated to give a warning to those considering this career path. To be specific, I would warn you to reconsider. This is not because I fear the competition (I am a tenured full professor, so I won’t be competing with anyone for a job). It is not because I have turned against my profession to embrace anti-intellectualism or some delusional ideology about the awfulness of professors. It is not even due to disillusionment. I still believe in education and the value of educators. My real reason is altruism and honesty: I want potential professors to know the truth because it will benefit them. I now turn to the reasons.

First, there is the cost. In order to be a professor, you will need a terminal degree in the field—typically a Ph.D. This means that you will need to first get a B.A. or B.S. first and college is rather expensive these days. Student debt, as the media has been pointing out, it is at a record high. While a bachelor’s degree is, in general, a great investment, you will need to go beyond that and complete graduate school.

While graduate school is expensive, many students work as teaching or research assistants. These positions typically pay the cost of tuition and provide a very modest paycheck. Since the pay is low and the workload is high, you will be more or less in a holding pattern for the duration of grad school in terms of pay and probably life. After 3-7+ years, you will (if you are persistent and lucky) have the terminal degree.

If you are paying for graduate school, it will be rather expensive and will no doubt add to your debt. You might be able to work a decent job at the same time, but that will tend to slow down the process, thus dragging out graduate school.

Regardless of whether you had to pay or not, you will be attempting to start a career after about a decade (or more) in school—so be sure to consider that fact.

Second, the chances of getting a job are usually not great. While conditions do vary, the general trend has been that education budgets have been getting smaller and universities are spending more on facilities and administrators. As such, if you are looking for a job in academics, your better bet is to try to become an administrator rather than a professor. The salary for administrators is generally better than that of professors, although the elite coaches of the prestige sports have the very best salaries.

When I went on the job market in 1993, it was terrible. When I applied, I would get a form letter saying how many hundreds of people applied and how sorry the search committee was about my not getting an interview. I got my job by pure chance—I admit this freely. While the job market does vary, the odds are not great. So, consider this when deciding on the professor path.

Third, even if you do get a job, it is more likely to be a low-paying, benefit free adjunct position. Currently, 51.2% of faculty in non-profit colleges and universities are adjunct faculty. The typical pay for an adjunct is $20-25,000 per year and most positions have neither benefits nor security. The average salary for professors is $84,000. This is good, but not as good as what a person with an advanced degree makes outside of academics. Also, it is worth noting that the average salary for someone with just a B.A. is $45,000. By the numbers, if you go for a professorship, the odds are that you will be worse off financially than if you just stuck with a B.A. and went to work.

Fourth, the workload of professors is rather higher than people think. While administrative, teaching and research loads vary, professors work about 61 hours per week and work on weekends (typically grading, class prep and research). Thanks to budget cuts and increased enrollment, class sizes have tended to increase or remain high. For example, I typically have 150+ students per semester, with three of those classes being considered “writing intensive” (= lots of papers to grade).

People do like to point out that professors get summers off, it is important to point out that a summer off is a summer without pay. Also, even when a professor is not under contract for the summer, she is typically still doing research and class preparation. So, if you are dreaming about working two or three days a week and having an easy life, then being a professor is not the career for you.

Fifth, the trend in academics has been that professors do more and more uncompensated administrative work on top of their academic duties (research, teaching, advising, etc.). As one extreme example, one semester I was teaching four classes, advising, writing a book, directing the year long seven year program review, completing all the assessment tasks, and serving on nine committees. So, be sure to consider the joys of paperwork and meetings when considering being a professor.

Sixth, while there was at time that professors were well-respected, that respect has faded. Some of this is due to politicization of education. Those seeking to cut budgets to lower taxes, to transform education into a for-profit industry, and to break education unions have done an able job demonizing the profession and academics. Some is, to be fair, due to professors. As a whole, we have not done as good a job as we should in making the case for our profession in the public arena.

Seventh, while every generation claims that the newer generations are worse, the majority of students today see education as a means to the end of getting a well-paying job (or just a job). Given the economy that our political and financial elites have crafted, this is certainly a sensible and pragmatic approach. However, it has also translated into less student interest. So, if you are expecting students who value education, you must prepare for disappointment. The new model of education, as crafted by state legislators, administrators and the business folks is to train the job fillers for the job creators. The students have largely accepted this model as well, with some exceptions.

Finally, the general trend in politics has been one of increased hostility to education and in favor of seeing education as yet another place to make money. So, things will continue to worsen—perhaps to the point that professors will all be low-paid workers in the for-profit education factories that are manufacturing job fillers for the job creators.

In light of all this, you should probably not be a professor.


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11 Responses

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  1. Nancy J. Matchett (@njmatch3) said, on November 19, 2014 at 9:27 am

    To your excellent list I’d add that when professors are honest about these reasons with their best students, and those students sensibly choose other career paths, the fact that so few of your majors go on to graduate school is then used as evidence that your department isn’t preparing them well or that your discipline lacks practical value.

    Thank goodness the job also includes reading thoughtful posts from good colleagues…

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 19, 2014 at 12:16 pm

      That is an excellent point. We do get assessed, in part, by how many students we have go on to graduate school. But, factors such as “market need” and the real conditions in the field are generally not considered.

  2. Sean Welsh said, on November 19, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    I am doing a PhD on robot ethics – and I have already decided to go be a product manager for a robot company when I am done – rather than make an attempt to get an academic position. Even so, I appreciated the candor of your article.

  3. ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 19, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    Hopefully private colleges and universities are better career paths.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 20, 2014 at 5:56 pm

      It depends on the school. The non-profit private schools often treat their faculty very well. For-profit schools tend to be awful. For example, a friend of mine worked at one for $1500 a class. I made much more than that as a graduate student in 1992. Plus I had a tuition waiver and insurance.

  4. T. J. Babson said, on November 19, 2014 at 11:54 pm

    Excellent post.

    In 2000, economist Steven Levitt and sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh published an article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics about the internal wage structure of a Chicago drug gang. This piece would later serve as a basis for a chapter in Levitt’s (and Dubner’s) best seller Freakonomics. The title of the chapter, “Why drug dealers still live with their moms”, was based on the finding that the income distribution within gangs was extremely skewed in favor of those at the top, while the rank-and-file street sellers earned even less than employees in legitimate low-skilled activities, let’s say at McDonald’s. They calculated $3.30 as the hourly rate, that is, well below a living wage (that’s why they still live with their moms).

    If you take into account the risk of being shot by rival gangs, ending up in jail or being beaten up by your own hierarchy, you might wonder why anybody would work for such a low wage and at such dreadful working conditions instead of seeking employment at McDonald’s. Yet, gangs have no real difficulty in recruiting new members. The reason for this is that the prospect of future wealth, rather than current income and working conditions, is the main driver for people to stay in the business: low-level drug sellers forgo current income for (uncertain) future wealth. Rank-and file members are ready to face this risk to try to make it to the top, where life is good and money is flowing. It is very unlikely that they will make it (their mortality rate is insanely high) but they’re ready to “get rich or die trying”.

    With a constant supply of new low-level drug sellers entering the market and ready to be exploited, drug lords can become increasingly rich without redistributing their wealth towards the bottom. There is an expanding mass of rank-and-file “outsiders” ready to forgo income for future wealth, and a small core of “insiders” securing incomes largely at the expense of the mass. We can call it a winner-take-all market.

    Academia as a Dual Labour Market

    The academic job market is structured in many respects like a drug gang, with an expanding mass of outsiders and a shrinking core of insiders. Even if the probability that you might get shot in academia is relatively small (unless you mark student papers very harshly), one can observe similar dynamics. Academia is only one example of this trend, but it affects labour markets virtually everywhere. An important topic of research for labour market scholars at the moment is what we call “dualisation”. Dualisation is the strengthening of this divide between insiders in secure, stable employment and outsiders in fixed-term, precarious employment. Academic systems more or less everywhere rely at least to some extent on the existence of a supply of “outsiders” ready to forgo wages and employment security in exchange for the prospect of uncertain security, prestige, freedom and reasonably high salaries that tenured positions entail.


  5. Glen Wallace said, on November 20, 2014 at 2:45 am

    An irony here is that as automation and artificial intelligence improves, there will likely be a corresponding decrease in the number of humans needed to be trained in any given field that will be filled instead by a robot. But as those human jobs disappear there will be required an increased intellectual sophistication on the part of the populace to decide as to how the wealth created by automation will be distributed in a manner that will take care of those now out of work and therefore out of an income humans. Those displaced humans, now with all sorts of time on their hands, will also likely desire a greater understanding of the humanities and sciences to pursue ideas, projects and hobbies as ends in themselves. But it sounds like colleges and universities are going in the opposite direction from what will be needed and are turning into glorified votech schools.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 20, 2014 at 5:59 pm

      We will have a two (or more) tier system. The top tier will train the elite classes who will run things. The lower tier will train the job fillers.

  6. Eric Teplitz said, on June 24, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    Thank you for the helpful (if sobering and disappointing) analysis of the state of affairs in your profession. “Training the job fillers for the job creators” is the imperative of the new modern biped: Homo economicus. 😦

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