Archive for November 27th, 2010

On a career choice, or, why I love being a professor

November 27, 2010

From here (Via Abi):

I suppose the question that’s left is why I’m staying at Harvard — that is, why I still like being a professor.  (And thank you to those of you who think the obvious answer is, “Who else would hire you?”)  I enjoy the freedom of working on whatever I find interesting; being unrestricted in who I choose to talk to about research problems and ideas; having the opportunity to work with a whole variety of interesting and smart people, from undergraduates to graduate students to CS colleagues all over the globe to math and biology professors a few buildings down; the ample opportunity to do consulting work that both pays well and challenges me in different ways; the schedule that lets me walk my kids to school most every day and be home for dinner most every night; and the security that, as long as I keep enjoying it, I can keep doing this job for the next 30+ years.

The job is never boring.  On any given day, I might be teaching, planning a class, working with students, thinking, writing a paper, writing some code, reading, listening to a talk, planning or giving a talk, organizing an event, consulting in some form, or any other manner of things. In the old days, I wrote a blog.  These days, I’m administrating, making sure our classes work smoothly, our faculty are satisfied and enabled to do the great things they do, and we’re able to continue to expand and get even better.  Once I wrote a book, and someday I hope to do that again.  Perhaps the biggest possible complaint is that there’s always something to do, so you have to learn to manage your time, say no, and make good decisions about what to do every day.  As someone who hates being bored, this is generally a good feature of the job for me.

While we are on the topic, let me also link to another piece on what it means to be a professor by Walter Noll (pdf); it is a very fine piece as the excerpt below will tell you; have fun!

When I am being asked what I do for a living and then answer that Iam a professor, the next question invariably is: “What do you teach?” This shows that to most people, a professor is just a glorified teacher. The university administration expects me to do research as well as teaching, and it is assumed that these are the only important duties of an academic. In fact, sometimes I get questionnaires in which I am asked how I spend my time: what percentage on “teaching” and what percentage on “research”. I amvery uncomfortable when answering such questions. Recently I realized thatI have spent most of my professional life neither with “teaching” nor with”research” in the narrow sense: rather, I have been mostly occupied with professing my subject: mathematics. There are important distinctionsbetween a teacher, a researcher, and a pure professor. Let me make themclear.

The teacher’s focus is on his students. His task is to convey a fixedbody of knowledge to his students and to worry about the best way to do so. He normally follows a textbook and a “syllabus”. A very important part ofhis job is to assign homework and to give tests to find out how much hisstudents are learning. He pays attention to what the students think of himand his performance. He sympathizes with his students’ worry about theirgrades.

The professor’s focus is on his subject. He “lives” his subject andcannot easily switch it off, even while lying in bed awake or on vacation. Herecreates the subject in his mind each time he lectures on it. He cannot know, in the beginning of a course, exactly how and in what order he will present the material. He may even, in the middle of the course, change his mind about what material to include or exclude. He always tries to find anew approach to and better insight into the subject of his course. He almost never gives a course twice in the same way, and he considers it anathema to2have to follow a textbook and a syllabus. He is pleased if some studentsfollow and appreciate his efforts, but he finds homework, tests, and grades anuisance. As the famous British mathematician G.H. Hardy put it in his bookA Mathematician’s Apology: ” I hate ‘teaching’, and have had to do very little,… ; I love lecturing, and have lectured a great deal to extremely able classes;…”

The researcher’s focus is on the discovery of new results. He is the creator of new knowledge. His nightmare is to get stuck in his search or to learn that what he has found has already been discovered shortly before by somebody else. Priority is very important to him and will sometimes induce him to rush into print prematurely.

The professor’s focus, on the other hand, is on understanding, gaining insight into, judging the significance of, and organizing old knowledge. He is disturbed by the pile-up of undigested and ill-understood new results. He is not happy until he has been able to fit these results into a larger context.He is happy if he can find a new conceptual framework with which to unifyand simplify the results that have been found by the researcher. Before goinginto print, he lets his ideas ripen. Priority is not an issue for him.

I and most of my colleagues are teachers and researchers as well as professors in the senses described above. Most are very good professors, but many are only mediocre teachers or just adequate researchers. I know only one who is very good in all three categories.