CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice

Many times over the years, students and occasionally others have asked me whether they should enter upon an academic career, in much the same manner as persons consulting a priest about the advisability of taking holy orders. I early on determined not to give specific advice, unless pressed very hard by my own students, but I developed this synthesis to explain my position. Recently at a party a young man, the son of a professional associate, asked the same question. As I related the by now familiar ideas, I realized that, except for an editorial effort some years ago to discuss the differences between academia and industry, I had never set these ideas down. Consider this as a spoken answer to the question, "Should I become a Professor?"

The university is a strange and unique place. There are few jobs as extraordinary or liberating as that of university professor, with the possible exception, I suppose, of being Pope (but there is only one such).

You should only consider coming to academia and making a life here if the following three things are important and have value to you. If you see any of them as a barrier or as unpleasant of themselves, then you will be neither happy nor successful here.

There are three opportunities which the academic life provides, which you cannot find together in any other adult occupation:

First, autonomy: To a very great degree in a university you are free to decide what you will do, when you will do it and with whom. As your career advances and more resources come within your control, you will find that you have great freedom to redirect your efforts, without anyone else saying "Boo" to you. I often felt that if I had a really good idea, I could redirect at least half of my effort and that of my students and technicians in pursuit of it, within, say, one or at the most two weeks, without seeking either authorization or permission.

Second, long time constants: The life of the university community moves at an orderly, often glacial pace. Unlike industry, where one worries about starting time, hours, days and monthly sales figures, here one thinks more of weeks, semesters, academic years, the time it takes for a student to finish a degree, the seven year sabbatical cycle. Each year starts in the fall, after the slower summer interlude and year follows year in easy progression. There is time to reflect and to think about things past as well as future. Data obtained or ideas jotted down may sit in files for months, a year, perhaps a decade, before one's mind is finished with it and perhaps a talk or paper results.

Third, the privilege of teaching: For me the greatest joy of academic life was the opportunity to teach. While still in industry, when contemplating a return to the university to work on a PhD and begin a life in academia, a friend of mine remarked, "It should be easy for you, you are always teaching!" Perhaps true, but within industry, teaching and mentoring is a very "catch as catch can" process, with many impediments and restraints. Within the university, student-faculty relationships take root, flourish and often become lifelong collegial connections. Lecturing is a wonderful, self-enlightening process requiring great egotism and performance skills.1 For me, however, the more rewarding form was always the one-on-one conference. If you come to the university to make a professional life, you must be prepared to be father and mother, leader, editor, critic, psychiatrist, judge and disciplinarian, as required, to each of your students. Each student will be different and have different needs at various times: sometimes to be pushed, sometimes to be ignored, sometimes restrained, even perhaps counseled to leave and seek their destiny elsewhere. Each student presents a problem and a mystery which you must successfully solve, for your success will come only through theirs. A 0.300 season won't do here: you have to bat 0.750 or better consistently to survive and prosper.

And the hours will be long, essentially all of your waking ones and some of the dreaming ones. Financial rewards are slight, especially in the early years and the cost to your family will at times seem excessive.

Do not take up challenge unless all of this is valued and makes sense to you. But if it does, come ahead and welcome to the fellowship of scholars!


1 As well as energy, which I increasingly lacked as I moved towards retirement.