Thursday, February 27, 2014

Why Become a Professor

Someone took me to task because in November I posted that the CRA News had 50 pages of job ads but didn't note that very few of those ads specifically were searching for CS theory faculty. Yes, it is true that theory is not as high on the search agenda as big data and other applied areas, but many of these schools will hire theorists after they fail to find qualified applicants in the other areas. My advice is to apply widely and it's not too late to do so, as many CS departments are just starting their interview process.

Why is it so hard for universities to hire in applied CS? Because you are not just competing against other universities, you are competing against industrial labs. Besides the usual arguments of typically hire base salary and no required teaching or grants, a place like Facebook or Google can give you access to data that you just can't get a university and your research will have a real-world impact faster than basic academic research.

So why be a professor? Money isn't as big an issue as you expect, professors can consult, own significant portions of their IP (depending on the school) and can start companies. Teaching is time-consuming but extremely rewarding. To me there are two aspects that make being a professor the best job in the world.

  • Freedom to set your own research agenda: Very few labs these days give you the freedom to choose your own research topics and even fewer will reward you for that. In academics we expect you to develop your own research areas and succeed in them. 
  • Working with students: The relationship between advisor and advisee is not unlike a parent and child. And there's no better feeling than watching them succeed. You can often get summer interns and postdocs in industry but it just isn't the same.


  1. always great to hear of a hard core researcher who enjoys teaching/working with students. yrs ago a professor lended me an old book by morris kline on the subj "why the professor cant teach" (1977), a polemic of sorts but nevertheless worthwhile reading. have not forgotten it. in many ways the issue has gotten more extreme over the yrs. iconoclastic but nevertheless he was a visionary & it seems few still confront this issue directly.

  2. Is "hire base salary" a pun or typo?

  3. You forgot to say that not only do professors set their own research agenda, they do not have a boss. Nobody tells them what to do or where to be (except perhaps for teaching, and even this is flexible). This for me is one of the main reasons to be a professor.

    1. They have many people who can mess with their lives and careers who might not be called "boss" but have all the power of one and more.

  4. "Working with students" is a great reason to become a professor if the students are any good. If that precondition is not satisfied, you're basically stuck teaching pesky undergraduates and MS students.

    "Freedom to set your own research agenda" is definitely a nice perk, but even here, that "freedom" is overrated. For practical reasons, most professors pursue research agendas that will get them funding, which might not necessarily be the research agenda that they would pursue in an ideal world.

  5. Worthwhile reading for young academics.

    The End of Higher Education's Golden Age
    by Clay Shirky
    The value of our core product---the Bachelor's degree---has fallen in every year since 2000, while tuition continues to increase faster than inflation.

    The Golden Age [of academia] was a nice time, but it wasn't stable, and it didn't last, and it's not coming back.