So You Want My Job: College Professor

by Brett on July 8, 2009 · 30 comments

in Money & Career, So You Want My Job

Baker_Hunter

Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable man jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

This installment was written by Dr. Hunter Baker. Dr. Baker has the dream job of any man who has ever wished to extend his college years in perpetuity: he teaches government and political science as a professor at Houston Baptist University. Hunter shares his advice on how you can get paid to read, write, and teach for the rest of your life.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Where did you go to school? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc).

I was born in Decatur, Alabama in the northern part of the state along the Tennessee River.  It is an industrial town with a lot of natural beauty.  Decatur’s claim to fame is that it had the nation’s first ever wave pool!

I am 38 years old and took a while to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.  I began my career as a corporate analyst for a large insurance company in Jacksonville, Florida but figured out almost instantly that I wanted to do something different despite the fact that I did well and was promoted.  By that point, I had a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Georgia and was 26 years old.  I then went on to law school, which I loved and became a lobbyist for a family-oriented public policy organization in Atlanta.  The job gave me experience writing for a broad audience, appearing on radio shows, and testifying at the capitol, but I was still unsatisfied intellectually.  The more I’ve learned and studied, the more I’ve wanted to learn.

My wife and I had some money saved up to live on and I accepted a fellowship to study for a Ph.D. in religion and politics at Baylor University.  She stayed home with our children and took a break from her medical career.  Going after the Ph.D. was one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done in my life.  What I lacked the confidence to do as a 24 year old when professors encouraged me to continue my studies, I was ready to do as a 33 year old.

Today, I teach in the government/political science department at Houston Baptist University and also operate as special assistant to the university’s president.  I have been in that job for two years.  After spending many years jealous of my wife because she knew what she wanted to do with her life, I have finally found my own true vocation.

You can learn more about me at my personal blog.

2. Why did you want to be a professor? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I wanted to be a professor for several reasons.  First, I needed a job that encouraged a life of learning.  I must continue reading and investigating in order to do my job well.  Second, I have always enjoyed being on college campuses.  Being a professor puts you right in that environment.  Third, and most important, I knew I wanted to influence young people to be interested in ideas and to be curious about first principles.  We take so much for granted without ever getting down to the essence.  I wanted to push students to really learn how to think.  Generally speaking, people are intellectually passive.  They are spectators rather than participants in the great debates.  I want to get more people out on to the field

My parents had told me since I was a child that I should become a college professor, but I didn’t begin to believe them until I reached my late 20′s.  In law school I began to see myself as the kind of person who could write a dissertation and instruct others.  And, frankly, I eventually came to see college teaching as a calling for my life from God.

3. There’s criticism out there that professors are quick to encourage their students to follow their footsteps and get a Ph.D, when the reality is that getting a professorship is extremely difficult. What is your take on the reality of the professorial job market and a Ph.D student’s chances of landing a good job?

The job prospects differ tremendously based on your field.  I think those who get their doctorates in professional fields like business or public administration will typically have a very good opportunity.  I also believe the scientific and technical fields have good outlooks.  My area, which is in the social sciences or the humanities depending on how you see it, is very competitive.  People who study things like political science or history do it because they love it.  The one thing that protects you in the job market is that there are lots of people who get as far as the ABD (all but dissertation), but far less who actually grab the brass ring.

If you do it, get your degree from an established institution.  I would not recommend getting an online Ph.D. and then trying to find work.  That is going to be an uphill battle.  The situation may change, but right now it is the reality.

4. What sets a candidate apart from others when he’s applying for a professorship?

The answer depends greatly on the institution.  If the school prizes teaching and character formation of students, then they will be looking for a candidate with a passion for the classroom and mentoring.  They will put a lot of weight on teaching evaluations and your teaching demonstration when they bring you to their school.

My university, like other religious private institutions, cares deeply about a candidate’s Christian convictions.  Others may have no stated litmus test, like a faith question, but may still be looking for someone who “fits in” by having similar ideas about higher education, politics, worldview, etc.  Universities are communities, and they like to hire the like-minded.  That will come as a shock to those of you who have heard about academic freedom all your life, but it is the truth.  Conservatives like conservatives.  Liberals like liberals.  Right now, the liberals dominate.  It used to be the other way around several decades ago.

5. Can you give us the ins and outs of what it means to “publish or perish?” How difficult is it to attain tenure?

Many schools are highly research driven.  They will be looking at the quality of your scholarly work and the number of your scholarly publications.  If you have none besides your dissertation, they will be looking at your potential to publish in the near future.  At such schools, young faculty face an up or out kind of scenario.  You publish and move up or you are out.  Getting tenure can be a harrowing process.

The downside of tenure is that it encourages faculty to work like crazy for their first seven years and then to settle into a sinecure.  I prefer the idea of multi-year contracts.  Tenure is supposed to protect academic freedom, but I’ve seen people denied tenure because they had different ideas about things.  The edge cuts both ways.

6. How much of your working time do you spend on research versus teaching?

At a school more oriented toward teaching, like mine, most of the time will be spent on teaching.  Faculty typically teach four courses a semester and that is their main focus.  At a research institution, you might teach only two courses but will have a high research expectation.

I’m a bit of a hybrid doing both teaching and managerial work at the school.  But I still make time for scholarly work and will be publishing a book this summer titled The End of Secularism.

7. What is the best part of the job?

The best part of the job is teaching students who care.  I can be dead tired before going to teach a three hour class.  When I come out, I’m energized.

The other best part is the flexibility of the schedule.  Academics are probably more free to set their own hours than almost anyone.

8. What is the worst part of the job?

The worst part is teaching students who don’t care.  Nothing takes the wind out of my sails faster than seeing a student who is obviously using class time to send text messages or to read Facebook.  As the student, you may think the professors don’t care if you’ve checked out, but we do.  This is heart and soul stuff for us.

9. What is the biggest misconception people have about the job?

I don’t know.  Many of the ideas people have about higher education are probably real.  Are professors often eccentric?  Yes.  Do professors sometimes wear their socks and glasses in the shower?  I have.

10.  What is the work /family/life balance like?

The lifestyle issue is a big reason why many people want to be professors.  You sacrifice much of your youth and money you could have made in order to be an academic, but you get back the chance to teach and study what you love and to have a lot of control over your schedule.  College teaching is great for a family man.  If I need to go see my kids at gymnastics practice in the late afternoon, I can get away to do it.

11.  What advice would you give to a graduate student that you wish you had known when you were a student?

Use the papers you write while completing your coursework to build a foundation for your dissertation.  If you have developed 50-100 pages ahead of time, the dissertation won’t seem like such an unconquerable mountain.

Also, with regard to the dissertation:  Don’t make it your masterwork.  The key is to focus on finishing.  People get all tied up in knots and never finish.  Be single-minded and don’t let anything, not even your own doubts and insecurities, stop you.

12. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

Absolutely.  When you are a graduate student, seek to serve the professors in your department.  Do good work for them and encourage a mentoring relationship.  These are the people who are going to help you find work when you finish.  If you go through in a semi-anonymous fashion, you will not have the advocates you need to help you secure the positions that are available.

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michael July 9, 2009 at 1:38 am

As a college professor, I would like to add two things:

1. Be prepared to move. The institution that gives you your PhD will almost never hire you and job prospects will be scarce, so you must be willing to move far afield for a job. This is a very serious consideration that is treated lightly by grad students, but I have seen my fair share of disgruntled New Yorkers “stuck” in a small town in the deep south, or Midwesterners who leave the field because the only professorship they were offered was in Asia, or Brits who constantly pine over “real beer and football” from their office in Canada. You will have to move a lot, so it’s better to see this as an opportunity to see the world, not as a tragedy that you must leave the hallowed halls of Harvard, Oxford, or wherever you did your PhD. Be adventerous.

2. Be disciplined. When you finish your Ph.D., you need even more self-discipline than you needed to get through the dissertation. For the first seven years (if in the U.S.), or the first 2-3 years (if in the U.K.), or the first 10 years (if in Germany and many parts of Asia), you will have no one urging you on to carry on researching, but you have to if you want that all-fabled tenure. Make a plan. Publish your first book in two years; your second in 6 years. By the time you’re up for promotion, you should have about two monographs and five articles.

If you have an adventerous spirit and are a bit of a loaner, academia is for you. You will be on your own, no matter what you think. Your peers are your competition, and will often treat you as such. At least in the humanities, most professors get their jobs because of their personal connections, not because of their talents or intelligence. Your dissertation supervisor will forget about you after you graduate unless you become a bigger name than him. Academia is a game all about prestige and networking–never forget that.

2 Punditus Maximus July 9, 2009 at 3:35 am

Also, the outlook for a job is horrible, was horrible, and will be horrible. It’s a lot of work to get a degree that won’t get you much money. This is true for the sciences as well; the only exception really appears to be business and maybe public administration.

If you’re interested in a technical field, stop at a Master’s and go out and make some dinero, IMHO. There is a demographic crisis and you will be sucking it up.

None of these rules apply if you are actually a genius, as versus merely very bright. But if you’re a genius, you don’t read this; you’ve already been snapped up by some program.

Seriously, don’t get a Ph.D. I am getting one, and I am doing my dissertation on the academic job market. I’m committed and I’ll finish, but if I had to do it over again, I’d've gotten a Master’s and gotten into the applied end of things.

3 Jared Cramer July 9, 2009 at 10:15 am

This is a great one, one of my favorites SYWMJ articles so far.

BTW, if you’d like to do one of this series on someone who is a priest (Episcopal), I’d be happy to oblige. :-)

4 Hunter Baker July 9, 2009 at 10:51 am

Jared, I’d love to see that one! I’m quite curious about the life of clergymen.

5 fred July 9, 2009 at 11:12 am

The End of Secularism? Secularism can’t solve the problem of religious difference?
Makes me laugh.
Typical theist

6 MM July 9, 2009 at 12:09 pm

This is one very rosy article on academe. I have a PhD in the same field, famous school, had scholarships etc and 8 years after graduating – no academic job. Sure, I made 8k here and 6k there some years (while wandering through different cities) but that is not a living. This has been true of my entire graduating class – and of friends from other fields!

There were 7 (yes, seven) jobs in my field in all of North America the year I graduated – and that was a bumper year! Worse, the non-academic world will consider you too ‘cadillac’ to stay slumming it with them and won’t hire you. I cannot express just how awful your predicament will be…..If you avoid mentioning your PhD on your CV – and you will resent this – you still have to invent work for the missing 6 years. Do NOT do a PhD unless you plan to be a self-funded ‘gentleman scholar’.

Being a prof is one of the worst jobs if you want to have a family, mainly because generally speaking you won’t have enough stability to even start your family until you are in your 40s. If you married one of your female peers, well, the clock is over by then. If single, your lack of stability/material goods compared to ‘the competition’ will be a serious date-killer. Sadly, the cute 20yo students will not see you as a stud (thinning hair, academic wardrobe, arcane references). As for multi-year contracts vs tenure, at least with tenure you can live in the same city for more than 3 years (and your kids can keep their friends and your spouse can keep her/his job or profession….)

Do NOT pick this career before reading The Chronicle of Higher Education’s job pages at http://chronicle.com/jobs/ and checking out the life of a ‘Road Scholar’ at http://www.adjunctnation.com/

Bottom line: About than 1 in a 100 chance of getting any academic job after 7 years of grad studies and an additional 6 years of academic temping. Most of these jobs are 5-6 courses per term (in colleges) for about 40K. Spend your youth more wisely! You can read anywhere.

7 Brian July 9, 2009 at 12:53 pm

As another university professor, I would like to balance out some of the negative responses for anyone who is thinking about a PhD in a professional field such as business, law, or computer information. As previously stated, the salary and job prospects differ greatly depending on your field of study. My PhD is in finance, and I know many business professors (including recent graduates) who earn a 6-figure salary, while social science/humanities may earn 40-60K. Granted there is still the pressure to research, but the job prospects for the professional fields are quite a bit better than in other areas, and the length of stay at the same university is longer if you do a good job at research and teaching.

I would also echo Dr. Baker’s comments about how intellectually stimulating a job in academia can be, and the great balance it affords you with family life. I can truly enjoy the summers with my children, and although I may be grading papers or doing research at 11:00 p.m., if they want to go to the park or swimming in the afternoon, I can go with them.

One piece of advice I would make to anyone thinking about going into academics is to test it out first if possible before committing yourself to a PhD, since as Michael stated, you will have to move away from the university you graduate from. If you have a masters’ degree, you can teach as an adjunct for a college or university to see if teaching is for you. That is actually how I started – I was working as a controller for a corporation but had my MBA, and I started as an adjunct at the local college and found that I loved to teach. Like Dr. Baker, I have found my calling.

8 Jim Dennard July 9, 2009 at 1:31 pm

This article was a very interesting read. I have recently finished a Master’s degree and I am very interested in pursuing a doctorate in the future. It was nice to read pro and con arguments for this career.

9 Will July 9, 2009 at 1:57 pm

It’s a wonderful job, great flexibility, great job security once you get tenure, you get to pick your own projects to some degree… the trouble is very front-loaded (that is, getting a PhD. is no cakewalk). In my area, CS, the job prospects were not so bad; I did fail to get a permanent post one year after my PhD., but got one the next year. (In the meantime I worked as a visiting professor, same benefits, just no prospects for tenure and promotion.)

…and I also would love to read about the life of a priest!

10 TM July 9, 2009 at 3:31 pm

Of all the professors out there it is unfortunate that you chose to interview someone representing an institution that selectively surpress science that contradicts their chosen personal beliefs.

It does not surprise me that Dr Baker spend most of his time teaching – it is typical for staff at these institutions to mainly engage in teaching rather than research as their motivation is more of an evangelical nature rather than scientific interests.

It is further controversial that such religious institutions are being accredited as universities. A better choice would be someone from a less controversial university. Or was this a deliberate choice? Am I sensing a religious bias here on TAoM?

11 Brett July 9, 2009 at 3:41 pm

@TM-

We do not “choose” who to interview really. They choose us. People who want to take part in the series contact us and volunteer themselves. I thought the job of professor was a good one to cover. There’s absolutely no religious bias on AoM. If an atheist professor from an Ivy League school who studied evolution would have contacted us first, I would have been just as happy to interview him.

12 Santa July 9, 2009 at 4:58 pm

I was an adjunct professor for a few years once. Loved it. When you prepare and teach well you get respect from your students and faculty, and it feels great. Also because I taught in computers it was nice to get software/hardware to play with at the university’s expense. I just wish it would have paid more, as now I am behind a desk in the corporate world… but I still daydream of those days when I could get into intellectual conversations with students that cared.

13 Hunter Baker July 10, 2009 at 11:36 pm

TM doesn’t know anything about my institution. I’m more than happy (man-style since this is the AoM website) to invite him to provide me with evidence of his charges. That’s hbaker@hbu.edu, buddy.

14 CEOmum July 11, 2009 at 2:00 am

I found this article and the ensuing discussion quite informative.

My son is heading out to freshman year in college this fall. He is not sure what he wants to do but college professor has been bandied about, so has law, anthropologist etc.

The comments from and about those in the business/technical fields vs humanities are rather enlightening.

How does one advise a youngster who doesn’t have much of a clue of what he wants to do but worries about job prospects and financial stability?

15 Hunter Baker July 11, 2009 at 12:38 pm

CEOmum,

If I had it to do all over again and knew that I would likely pursue some form of graduate education (MBA, law, etc.), I would spend my undergraduate years on a great books style program such as they have at St. John’s, University of Dallas, or a few other schools.

16 CEOmum July 11, 2009 at 3:14 pm

I wiIl go and look at those programs. In the fall he’ll be heading to Princeton. He will take his time before deciding on a major.

It is so funny that you mentioned that however because his favourite class in his senior year was Hons. European History – Great books.

17 Hunter Baker July 11, 2009 at 6:22 pm

CEOmum, the great books are a fantastic foundation for further learning. They develop powerful habits of mind. A person who works on the great books will go on to find professional programs relatively easy.

18 Will July 12, 2009 at 12:44 pm

CEOmum, when your boy goes to college, he’ll be exploring careers *by* exploring majors. He might also take a career development class. When he finds what he loves, unless it’s in the arts maybe, he should be able to find a financially stables career that touches on it.

19 Wesley July 20, 2009 at 4:45 pm

I’m glad I came across this interview. I’ve been in a personal battle over where to direct my focus after my undergrad degree. I love to learn and share – especially on the subjects of faith, and politics – so the prospect of engaging young minds sounds wonderful. Law school seems to be the channel through which many of the big players in the Great Debate arrive, though I have no interest whatsoever in being a lawyer, so I’m trying to figure that one out.

I am 27 and married, so the next hurdle is trying to provide a stable family environment while advancing my academic career. Perhaps a Ph.D. will have to wait until my future children are out of the house!

20 Christatos Aristad July 23, 2009 at 3:55 pm

This article is of particular interest to me because if I had not become a gambler, I probably would have pursued a doctorate in statistics or higher math and tried to teach in a collegiate setting. It’s interesting to see what might have been.

21 Ray August 1, 2009 at 9:05 am

I chose a slightly different approach that has certainly worked well for me… After completing my doctorate in Astronomy, I looked at the teaching prospects in colleges and universities and decided that the prospects were not pretty for a married man (with two young children) who didn’t want to move every three years and who wanted to make more than minimum wage and needed benefits to boot. So I spent several busy months looking around and finally secured a sweet position teaching Astronomy and Physics _at the High School level_ in a posh suburb of one of our major American cities. Twenty-five years later, I make close to six figures, plus benefits, I have summers off, and teach the “cream of the crop” students in the school. The work has been very intellectually stimulating and has been a great choice for me. I will retire in 5 years (at 55!) will a great pension. High schools need smart teachers… those with a PhD should consider such work.

22 Thinkerer October 29, 2009 at 1:17 pm

I have a PhD in engineering and walked into a tenure-track job directly out of grad school (through sheer dumb luck and a lot of prep work), although I had industry and consulting experience between my MS and PhD. I am now tenured at a research oriented institution and enjoy reading about the experiences of “liberal arts” graduates.

If you’re in an undersubscribed technical field, there will be more complications because you will be deciding between a relatively lucrative job in industry that gives you a lot of resources but little in the way of choice in what you work on or job security, and a university gig with a shot at tenure which guarantees nothing in terms of resources but complete discretion in what you do and how you do it, and allows you to do it essentially for life.

Have no illusions though – whether you find the profession joyous or utterly frustrating (most of us find it both at times), you will be judged on “output”, and this usually comes down to cold, hard cash and numbers of publications. If you don’t have funding and lots of it, the publications won’t be forthcoming so essentially you’re a used car salesman being judged on your “numbers”. Some schools such as MIT have a direct formulation for this – so many dollars per year per square foot of lab space.

You are hired to filter money out of any institution you can find, give more than half of it to the university (we lose 57% off the top) and then spend the rest on students, equipment and publication costs. If you’re lucky, you may be able to pay for a few “summer months” of salary since you’re on a 9-month appointment anyway but most of the time it gets eaten up in student salaries (student pay, plus their tuition costs and benefits which goes back to the university again). A graduate student currently costs approximately $50,000+ per year in “raw” funding to keep in the lab at a dismal final salary (ca. 20K per year).

Note that teaching hasn’t been mentioned here, since it is a non-priority at research universities. Nobody who brings in a lot of research funding has ever been denied tenure or otherwise penalized because they’re a lousy teacher. Bring in enough money and teach poorly and you’ll find that you’re simply not asked to teach. Fortunately, for the most part, faculty take both their teaching and their responsibilities to students very seriously as a matter of professionalism – in my 20 years here I have never heard a sexist or racist comment about students, which I find remarkable and admirable.

Why do it? Because you’re free to indulge your mind, free to take on any task you can make work and free to tell your boss “no” when it becomes necessary. This last one is important because, unfortunately, university administrations hire the brightest people they can find and expect them to be selectively stupid about poor management methods and decisions, so the hard-won tenure that was originally awarded to avoid retribution for unpopular opinions or public criticism is often used for bureaucratic infighting.

It’s quite a ride, and requires both hard work and a good sense of balance so that your personal life doesn’t disappear among the many demands, but I don’t regret it for a moment.

23 Lugh November 18, 2009 at 8:25 pm

This is late, but… I’m curious. Is Education considered to be a liberal art or a professional field? I’m currently studying for a BS in Education, and while I obviously want to be a teacher, I’m considering the idea of attempting to end up as either a school principal, or a professor of Education. If I want to be a principal, should I stop with a Master’s? Will I be “overqualified” otherwise?

24 Ryan February 3, 2010 at 6:46 pm

I’m currently an undergrad studying for a Bachelor’s (History – Social Sciences Secondary Education). I’m intending to join a district and use professional development programs to earn a Master’s in History on the public dime. Teaching at university is where I want to end up. However I’ve been told that, if the goal is a tenured position at a university or college, that I should just go from undergrad studies straight through grad school and TA to gain experience. Any suggestions, Hunter Baker?

25 MBA/PhD March 12, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Suckers! Got the MBA and PhD in business…set for life. HAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHA! Have fun studying English and Art and all that other hippie-shit.

26 Studying Hippie-shit April 13, 2010 at 4:48 pm

Set for life? You would think that MBA/PhD would have better things to do than practice thread necromancy, but I guess that’s from all that free time. Shouldn’t a business major be able to recognize trends and be ahead of them? With the exception of Ryan, your post came four month later, in the business world being that behind would be embarrassing wouldn’t it?

27 Indiana Jim June 24, 2010 at 11:22 pm

The internet has a lot of stupid, stupid people.

Good interview. Love the site. Ignore the trolls.

28 Tim August 1, 2013 at 3:04 pm

I know this comment is four years behind, but I’m about to start my college education majoring in English this upcoming fall. I desire to one day teach English as a professor (despite the negative opinions about the field). I will be getting married next summer (and am firm about that decision). My question to any professor out there that reads this is where do I start? I want to gain experience in the field, and I need a job to support myself and my wife in one year. Without any degree, I just want to get my feet wet while getting something more than minimum (it doesn’t have to be a high income). I also need something with flexible hours so I can, of course, continue pursuing my education. Thank you in advance.

29 Alexander McDermott September 12, 2013 at 6:30 pm

Partly with Tim’s saying.

At 21 years of age, September 12, 2013, I face the realization that so-ever encloses me of circumstances for success. My Passion? Performing Arts, I love to make a show for the audience. However, as you all very well know, circumstances changes overall experiences, stems inevitable limits, and barricades confidence, but rather stresses ego. I have always loved school, from my first day in preschool, (as far as I can remember with clarity) to the present where I am a second-year student at a community college. I pay my entire tuition from my efforts at work, management, moral, and focus. I love History and I love this article with many great commentaries. I have learned a lot from just a single article and the brilliance of the feedback at hand. I wish to teach History, (chuckle you may, well that is a given.) Limitations for everything, great risks involved. I wish to teach a history subject at a college atmosphere and so much interests in many histories of histories upon A History. I do have a strong second-half of my built for business. I work at retail and I am a great sales associate, however, not my passion nor my interests at a career but I have a backbone in that matter.

It is hard, for I must read more, and more to understand this pitiful world with slim chances for my Passion, (even hope) to prevail.

Perhaps I should just become good at everything. Perhaps I…

Should Just Soldier on…

30 Pondering Future September 16, 2013 at 2:56 pm

I know this is WAY after the fact but thanks soooo much for this article. It confirms some things I have discussed with other MBAs. I have a B.S. in Business Administration and have wondered what to do with a Masters program. Does anyone know if it helps with the job prospects if you have 18 years experience in multiple industries? (Telecommunications, Energy, Software Development & Healthcare) How much does practical experience play into obtaining a professorship after all the schooling is finished?

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