Thursday, April 24, 2014

Things I didn't know before becoming a professor (and that i'm still not very good at)

July 2009. I deposited my dissertation.

September 2009. I started a tenure-track position at CUNY.

Coming up on the close of my fifth year, I'm convinced of a simple proposition.

I was unprepared to be a professor.   

This is not a reflection on the academic preparation I had, or that my weaknesses went unnoticed by the search committee that hired me.  Neither do I think I've done a particularly bad job over the last five years.  Rather, there is a disconnect between the skills that are required to become a professor and the skills that are needed to be a good professor.

To land a tenure-track position you must:
  1. get a PhD
  2. get a solid publication record
  3. get good recommendations from important people
  4. give a good job talk
  5. be personable enough to not ruin your visit to campus
  6. get lucky (there are fewer tenure-track positions than in the past)
(If you're very lucky, you've got some funding when you walk in the door.  But this is a catch-22.  It's really hard to get funding until you're already a professor.)  

The only one of these that is non-negotiable is having a PhD.  
In order to get a PhD* you must:
  1. do good research.
  2. survive on little money and less sleep
That's it. 

Over the last five years, I've repeatedly found myself in situations where I have no idea how to do things that I am expected to do well.  I was a good candidate for a tenure-track position, but a mediocre professor. 

Here's an incomplete list of things I didn't know before becoming a professor (and that I'm still not very good** at).
  1. how to teach
  2. how to write a (successful) grant
  3. how to head up a research group
  4. that project collaboration is different from research collaboration
  5. how to manage my time
In all new jobs, there are things that you have to learn how to do, skills that get developed through practice.  But this isn't figuring out where the closest printer is, or how to fill out a TPS Report.  Most of these skills are central to the job.  There is a disconnect between the requirements to get a tenure-track job and the skills needed to do it well.  

Over the next few weeks, I'll drill down on each of these.  Hopefully, this will be some comfort to other pre-tenure faculty members, and a preview for graduate students.  It's helpful to acknowledge these challenges and the gap between what we expect from graduate students and professors.  In a perfect world, this points to opportunity for graduate programs (including mine) to provide more support to better prepare good graduate students to become good professors.  

* specific requirements vary by institution
** I've gotten better... But mostly through missteps and course corrections.

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