What I Do

So, this one isn’t so much for the academic scientists out there as it is for friends and family who aren’t quite sure what a college professor who is also a scientist does with her time. (Note: I write this because people have asked, and because there are a LOT of repeated assumptions about my job as a professor. Let’s start with one thing: I don’t take the summer off.)

For those who are curious, read on:

I am a tenure-track (TT) assistant professor at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution (PUI), in my case a very large state university. What that means is that I am on the professional track that leads to tenure, and, theoretically, lifetime job security. I’m in my fifth year, so my tenure file has just gone in.

Pretty much all TT faculty jobs have a three-pronged system of duties: Teaching, Research, and Service. So, that’s what I do. We’ll take each one in turn.

All PUIs tend to place a lot of weight on teaching, so I teach a lot by comparison with most faculty at the research-heavy institutions you may be familiar with (places like Stanford, UCSF, UC Berkeley…heck, any of the UCs, MIT, etc.) Those places are often referred to as “Research One” or “R1s”. My teaching load here at my PUI theoretically maxes out at 12 units a semester, which is roughly 4 courses. Realistically, almost no one teaches more than two classes a semester in my department. I’ll get to that in a bit. My own teaching load is currently two courses a semester, for a total of six teaching units. What that means is that I spend 6 hours a week in the classroom, another two in office hours, and another 10-12 doing prep work and grading (on average).

The next chunk of time is Research. This is where I think the casual observer of my job is often confused. I am the Principal Investigator of a research lab, which, at present, includes 8 undergraduate students, 4 graduate students, and one research technician. I am the research supervisor for all 13 of these people – I design their projects and help design their experiments. I meet with them to discuss their results. I also write grants to fund research (research costs money, as does the salary of the technician I mentioned). My lab is well-funded by the standards of my university, and this is because I have devoted a lot of time to writing grants. If there’s money available, be it $5,000 or $500,000, I apply for it. Finally, I write the manuscripts that report our data to the outside world. When I think we have enough data for a paper, I write one up and submit it. So, in addition to being a teacher, I run a large and reasonably successful research group.

(By the way: faculty who aren’t in science still have a research-equivalent. It’s called “scholarship”, and they do have to do it, and publish it, to get tenure and promotion, and to keep their reputations in their fields.)

Because my lab is large, I get one course-worth of teaching release each semester – in other words, they count the mentoring of my students as teaching, and that helps me avoid the 9 unit load I would otherwise have pre-tenure, according to my contract.

Finally, Service. What is “Service”? Well…committee work. And student advising. And everything else that I have to do that doesn’t fit into the two categories above. For me, that includes serving on two department committees (one of which I chair), being the chair of one of our current search committees, serving as the chair of a College of Science-level committee, and serving as the chair of a University-level committee. It also includes reviewing grant proposals for one of the University-wide faculty research grant programs, and academic advising for about 100 students. And probably a dozen other things I’m currently forgetting. The University figures we spend about 9 hours a week on Service, so we all get about 3 hours of course credit for it, which is why we have a 12-unit course load rather than 15, which is considered full time.

So there you have it. College professors work a lot. All the time. Seriously, today was the first “real” day back on, no teaching until Thursday, and I had 5 minutes to eat my lunch. (I had 20 total, but I didn’t have a lunch with me, so 15 of it was burned getting food.)

So, just so we’re clear: college professors don’t just show up, teach their classes, and get paid a bunch of money. We work all day, and get paid…well, not a huge amount, really.

And, now: summer. We don’t get paid for summer UNLESS we pay ourselves. Which means that faculty in the humanities work on their scholarship in summer for free. It also means that faculty in the sciences, who by and large continue to do their research over summer, are working for free unless they have a research grant from which they can pay themselves summer salary.

Folks who say to me, during summer, “Oh, what are you doing with your summer vacation?” Erm. It is to laugh. Although getting to JUST do research and not a lot of teaching is a major relief, I will admit.

So, there you have it. That’s What I Do.

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