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.