Thursday, January 29, 2009

this is my job

I have some family and future-family who read this blog, most likely to check whether I'm still alive (I don't call that often - I know, I'm a bad person). During my last visit with some of these family members, someone commented on the fact that being a "teacher" at the college level is not quite the same as being a "teacher" at any other level -- and I realized that, although no one in my family has ever REALLY understood what I do (I was asked at one point to remind them what my "major" was in grad school), it might be time to actually explain what the hell Professor (of any rank) actually means (just in case it becomes a permanent title). So for those who read this from the "outside," it goes something like this.

At any University or College, a Professor is theoretically there to teach -- that's what brings in the tuition money, after all. But depending on the school, that can be either a major or extremely minor portion of their actual job. We're supposed to be "scholar/teachers" or some variation on that term, and those of us in the sciences are scientist/teachers. We're supposed to be doing science, least some of the time.

At a small liberal arts college (SLAC), most of the job is teaching - multiple classes per term, generally without hired help (teaching assistants). This includes preparing materials, teaching lectures and labs, writing exams, grading, etc. And that may come off as what we "do," but from there we have:

Research - We should be pursuing our own research projects, preferably including students when possible.

Grant Writing - In order to do that research, we need to bring in some money. A large University will be expecting some pretty big checks to come their way, but a SLAC generally has lower expectations. Even so, we should be writing grant proposals. Most of these proposals are submitted to competitive funding sources and will not be successful, but no grant writing at all is a guarantee of no money.

Publishing - As a result of the research we do with all that grant money we bring in, we should be publishing papers in respected scientific journals. Being first author (doing most of the work) is best in terms of getting "credit" from your University, but being on the list of authors at all counts for something (well, some of the time). The caliber of the journal matters, particularly at big Universities, so it's better to be published in journals that are less likely to accept your work. This means lots of paper-writing, rejection, rewriting, resubmission, etc.

Advising - We have students to advise; at larger Universities we might be mentoring graduate students. At smaller colleges this is mostly advising majors in our departments (telling them what classes they should be taking, etc) and advising research students (students completing honors projects or theses by working with us or doing some of our research). This can take up a lot of time, particularly if we have a lot of undergraduate students doing research projects. They need a lot of help.

Service - This is primarily committee work, or other service to the College. The time sink involved varies significantly.

Other - Random things, including faculty meetings, other meetings, safety training, paperwork, etc.

In my personal case, I'm at a SLAC, so my grant expectations are relatively low. I should bring in some money at some point, but a small grant would be pretty good and a big grant would take some significant pressure off of me in terms of tenure. Publishing is also less of a burden, since I can publish a few papers over the next few years and not have to worry that it isn't enough. I'm also fairly lucky in that my SLAC is pretty transparent in terms of their tenure requirements - I think I have a pretty good handle on what I need to do to succeed.

At the moment I'm teaching two courses (new preparations for me) and starting to plan some field research. I have one advisee, no committee work until next year, and no imminent deadlines. And my schedule today still looked like:

6 am - up
Work - Write lab exercise for this afternoon's class
Meet with sales rep for expensive field equipment, talk about options
Answer student questions regarding this afternoon's exam
Finalize and print Exam while eating lunch
Set up lab for afternoon class
Give Exam
Write Quiz for Friday morning class
Lecture & Lab
Update lab computers with new software
Answer student questions regarding lab activity
Write portion of lecture for Friday morning class
Upload assignments to course management website
Clean up equipment in the lab from yesterday's class
Home - 6 pm
Write rest of lecture for Friday morning

Things I should have done today, but didn't because I didn't have time, include: deciding on a book for one of my courses, filling out warranty cards for the new lab equipment, checking my mail, talking to a colleague about a research project, grading anything (and the pile is getting very large), calling the vendor for the second expensive piece of lab equipment I need to buy, and writing about ten emails that I now don't feel like writing.

I sometimes feel guilty if I come home after a 9- or 10-hour day and don't do any work after dinner. Usually, I have to work in the evening in order to be ready for my class in the morning. As far as Academics go (and by that I mean people working in Academia), I think my schedule is actually pretty light at the moment - I don't have service responsibilities or students to keep track of in my lab (yet!). I don't have my lab quite set up yet and have therefore not done any real research in the last few months. When those things set in, I expect to be working longer hours.

And then there comes the issue of being "off" - as in, summers, and long winter breaks. Which are great, except that, for me, this is when I do all that writing of papers and grants and all the research I'm supposed to be doing. I don't have time for much of this during the term. So I write grant proposals and revise papers over the winter break (as I did this year) and do my field work in the summer (as I plan to this summer). I get paid a 9-month salary, with the option to pay my own summer salary if I get a grant. Which might happen, but even if I don't get a grant I'm still going to be doing some research during that "free" time.

I'm not saying I have it bad - I wouldn't be here if I didn't enjoy it, and I'm actually really loving my job. I enjoy working with my students and I've always looked forward to the field work aspect of the job - particularly when I get to visit new places, as I will this coming summer. But, it's not QUITE as great a deal as it may seem - extremely flexible, yes. Sometimes exciting, often invigorating, extremely independent work. But it's not the leisure life by any means. I highly recommend it.

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