Today I asked my little girl what she wants to be when she grows up. She smiled at me and responded as she always does: “A Pah-fessor like you, daddy.” So foul and fair a day I have not seen. I’m obviously flattered that she wants to follow in my footsteps, but every time she says that she wants to be an academic, part of me cries on the inside.
Let’s start with the positives. Tenured professors have it pretty good, from a certain point of view. We get paid good money to research and teach. We are generally free to write about what interests us. Our jobs are relatively secure and flexible. The role carries with it a certain social and intellectual prestige.
But I have found, over my many years in academia, that the negatives are starting to outweigh the positives. The life of a professor is not what it used to be.
“I have found, over my many years in academia, that the negatives are starting to outweigh the positives. The life of a professor is not what it used to be.”
If my daughter someday decides to get a Ph.D., this is what she likely faces.
Over four (or more) years of doctoral studies, she will battle for the resources she needs to complete her research to the highest standard. During this time, she will compete with her fellow doctoral students in a brutal publication “Hunger Games” where only an elite minority will survive to eventually secure a post-doc or, even rarer, a tenure-track position.
If she fails during her Ph.D. to publish multiple articles in her field’s top journals, she’ll end up joining the industrial reserve army of Ph.D.s working as casual or adjunct professors with no health insurance and a high probability of needing food stamps to feed herself.
If she gets a postdoc, she’ll spend the next year or two doing all the work while her Principal Investigator just adds his (or her) name on the papers. At the end of the postdoc, she could easily fall into the industrial reserve army or, if she’s lucky, get another postdoc or a tenure-track position.
Let’s assume she’s fortunate and lands a tenure-track Assistant Professor job. She’ll spend the next six to seven years playing the publication “Hunger Games” with at least a 50 percent chance of being dumped into the industrial reserve army of adjuncts even after those years of survival.
Throughout this timeframe, from 1st year Ph.D. student to the tenure decision, she’ll have to deal with potential sexual harassment in a university that would prefer to cover up the truth than admit liability. She’ll be torn apart and belittled by anonymous peer reviewers who are probably just jealous of her research. She’ll likely suffer at the hands of powerful bullies who are untouchable within her university. She’ll spend every day thinking she’s an imposter.
At the end, it is possible that she’ll end up tenured, but that wouldn’t mean the end of her participation in the publication “Hunger Games” or her vulnerability to exploitation. She’ll then face new pressures around leadership and research funding. Like many of her tenured colleagues, she’ll experience burnout and will have to seek professional counseling just to stay afloat.
Don’t get me wrong. There are worse jobs out there for her, but I can’t help but fear for her future if she decides to become a “Pah-fessor” like me.
Prof. Andrew R. Timming
This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 license.