A Writer’s Guide… to Professors and Academics

This is part of the series of blog articles called “A Writer’s Guide…”.  The purpose of this series is to give detailed information on skills and occupations that writers can use when creating characters.

Check out today’s article by writer L.B.Carter on being a Professor.

A Writer's Guide to Professors and Academics. Image of man wearing a satchel, holding a book before a chalkboard full of equations. Image from Pixabay

Professors & Academics

(Graduate Students, too, as they’re the little minions of Professors)

by L.B.Carter

The frazzled, absent-minded, genius professor is really a thing.

But it’s not all of them. And reaching that stage usually means you’ve been tenured for a while, spent so long at the university that you’re now almost as much a part of the institution as the ivy or brick buildings, and have too many students to keep track of.

Let’s start with how to become a professor.

Student Life—avoiding adulting for 12+ years ‘til age 30

First, you have to be a student under other professors. For years. I did all of my schooling in one fell sweep, using momentum to propel myself to the next institution and degree, though many choose to go back to school after working for a while.

After high school, I headed off for a four-year undergraduate bachelors of science. Then (geology specific) I did a summer field camp with another university. And headed onto graduate school.

I went to the UK for my masters, which meant one intense year program. Graduate school is a lot more fluid in terms of time than undergraduate. In the US it can take anywhere from 2-5 years to get a masters.

Then the doctoral degree (Ph.D. in my case) is another 5-7. However, it is now no longer required to have a masters before pursuing a Ph.D. (in many cases—it depends on the particular field, the school, the department, and the program within the department; some allow you to get a masters as a sort of stepping stone along your Ph.D. Some skip it entirely).

Grad Life—no sleep, stress, and minion work

This lack of consistency in graduate school stems from the fact that unlike undergraduate days which are all about classes and projects and exams, graduate degrees usually involve a mix of classes and research.

I’ll speak mostly to science degrees as that’s my experience, but I’ll try to add in about social sciences and humanities.

For science, you take specialized classes in your niche (for me, geochemistry, volcanology, thermodynamics, etc.) and you work with a particular advisor (a professor) who is supporting your career as well as acting as your boss.

Research

S/he oversees some research project in which you perform work. This can vary widely. In medicine, it can include drug testing on animals, designing artificial hearts, culturing bacteria in a Petri dish to understand diseases.

In STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, it can be designing new man-made materials, performing experiments to simulate natural processes (my work was in melting rocks with expensive, giant pressure cookers to understand magma and volcanic gases), using computer simulations to predict properties of materials, the economy, ecosystem health, exoplanetary discovery, and so on.

In humanities and social sciences, I believe it involves a lot more reading of past published materials and performing surveys on people.

Publications

Unlike exams in undergraduate days, progress in research is measured by technical publications. A student will write up their project, methods used, results, and discuss the implications for their novel results or discovery.

It gets submitted to an academic journal (like Science Magazine). If the editor likes it, it goes to peers for review (confirming the methods are sound, the data wasn’t tampered with, and the implications are understood as well as important enough to publish—and don’t just rewrite something someone else has already solved).

The reviewers can also reject it. Then, if accepted, it goes through edits and finally gets published. Most schools will require a certain number of publications before graduation.

That’s not all.

Defending

Besides an advisor, a student will have a committee (kind of like peer review for their academic career, similar to the peer reviewers of their papers).

In my experience, there are two tests a student goes through with their committee: a qualifying exam where they present their project intentions partway into their degree.

If they can’t prove that their worthy of the university and professor’s time, that they have a plan to succeed, and can act as an independent graduate student researcher (not just mindless regurgitating student like an undergraduate), they can get told to leave or to finish up a masters and go without the Ph.D.

And at the end, once your thesis is finalized (which for STEM fields is a compilation of papers published and for humanities and social sciences tends to be more of a fully written out book), you must defend it in a public presentation.

Your committee can then grill you on the work and decide if you’re worthy of the highest, terminal degree.

Postdoc—independence but still a lackey

Okay, so once schooling is done, you’re still not likely to become a professor.

Market is overflowing

Especially these days—the academic job market is oversaturated partly due to more people with higher education, partly because professors as I said at the beginning refuse to retire, staying until they become part of the crew, part of the ship, to quote Pirates of the Caribbean, and partly because for each 1 professor who might vacate a position eventually, they graduate often a student a year—most professors advising 5 or more students at any given time, each student in a different year of their schooling.

Anyway, the point is that next is a postdoctoral position. This is somewhat like a lab lackey.

Not a student but not a teacher

A postdoc either takes on an open project a professor wants done but doesn’t have the time (again, he has 5 students each doing different projects, and he also teaches) or he presents a proposal for a project he’d like to do that the professor can get their name on (they’re called postdoctoral fellows).

This used to be a 1-time, 2-year position, but again, as the market is saturated, one needs more and more experience and credentials to become a professor, particularly at prestigious, research-based universities, most do 2 or 3 post-docs that can last up to 5 years each!

Professorship—pre-tenure Hell

Let’s say you finally get a professor offer… at 30-something. Yay!

You’re still not settled.

Assistant Professor struggles

You’re usually hired as a tenure-track faculty. This means you get another test before your job is secured. The university can kick you out at any time until you get tenure.

Tenure is achieved by again proving your worth: papers/books published, students mentored successfully, classes taught, student approval, peer approval, and most importantly, since most schools are soft-money (meaning you bring in some of the money to pay yourself and the rest they pay you), how many grants you’ve gotten from funding agencies (like NASA, the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Health) to support your (and your students’) research.

That professor lifestyle

So, have you got an idea of a professor’s time yet? S/he’s got a lot to juggle:

  1. Teaching (sometimes those painful intro classes with hundreds of kids who don’t want to be there).
  2. Research (including student advising, lab upkeep and even setting up a lab if your university doesn’t have the facilities you need yet).

Note: the balance between these two depends on the university; some are more teaching heavy like liberal arts schools, and others more research heavy if they offer graduate programs.

  1. Writing grant proposals (which by the way generally have a 15% or less chance of getting the funding you’re asking for) which involves a lot of reading of others’ publications.
  2. There’s always service requirements (being a department chair, sitting on committees, hiring other faculty, etc).

Oh and…

  1. their own career—publishing those papers gets them prestige (ensuring tenure or getting hired at the best university, or the best students applying to them), and attending conferences, giving talks, being invited to lecture at other schools—there’s lots of travel.
  2. All the above, and that’s just your work life

Oh, and work-life balance. A minor detail for an ambitious academic. The plus-side to professorship though is you generally design your own hours.

And of course, it’s rewarding to progress society and make an impact on the young, curious minds of the next generation.

Contact me for more information or to learn about teaching or other aspects of universities or research!

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About L.B. Carter

Author L.B. CarterL.B. Carter is a Freelance Editor and Indie Author of the 2018 Best Indie Sci-Fi Nominee upper YA/NA Climatic Climacteric Series, Adult Suspense/Thriller and Dark Urban Fantasy who daylights as a scientist with a Ph.D. in Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences from Rice University with a specialty in geochemistry, petrology and volcanology.

She’s also a cat-mom and lover of spiced hot chocolate, polka dots and fairy lights.

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I hope you liked this article and if you have any questions for L.B, please drop them in the comments below.  Check out all the current “A Writer’s Guide” articles on their new page for easy access. 

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