What do professors do?

When most people are asked what professors do, they generally respond, “they teach classes, of course.”  If you ask a professor, though, you’ll hear quite a different story.  First, it’s important to realize that not everyone with the word “professor” in his or her title is doing the same job.  I would start with “adjunct professors,” folks who work very hard and get the very short end of the stick.  Adjuncts get paid far less than other professors, and yet they are tasked with teaching an ever-growing fraction of university classes to undergraduates.  Their involvement in research is generally non-existent.

The rest of the professors essentially split into those who have “tenure track” positions and those who are not eligible for tenure, sometimes called “research track.”  One way to think about the research track is to think of it as “working scientists.”  A research professor probably started as a post-doctoral fellow (after emerging from Ph.D. work in grad school).  The researcher demonstrated his or her skills in publication at that level, and he or she then climbed the ladder of positions in the research track.  Some schools use the title “instructor” for the first rung, with “research assistant professor” following that.  While a research assistant professor may offer a lecture or two in a course offered by the university, the course director is far more likely to be someone from the tenure track.  Most research assistant professors share an office with someone else of similar rank.  Many research assistant professors will contribute to grant proposal writing, but if the grant is funded, the money is under the control of the principal investigator, generally a person from the tenure track.  A really outstanding research assistant professor may achieve research associate professor status, and a very small number will achieve research professor status.  These last two titles seem to be fairly infrequent at my campus; researchers may spend more than a decade in the research assistant professor role; very few have the opportunity to transition to the tenure track once they are appointed in the research track.

A tenure-track position, then, is what most young researchers crave.  A university decides that a particular area of research is one where it needs to push, and they publish an assistant professorship in that field.  Many people send resumes, and the university interviews a few of them to determine their match to the field and to estimate their prospects of success in grant funding.  One gets the appointment as an assistant professor.  To become an assistant professor is really thrilling; you have been selected for a role that very few will achieve.  Immediately thereafter, though, the rush and the pressures begin to set in!

As an assistant professor, you will learn that achieving tenure must be accomplished by a particular date (often around seven years, potentially extensible to ten), and the “tenure clock” is ticking.  Achieving tenure means success in three areas: Service, Mentoring, and Research.

Service refers to an assistant professor’s contributions to the department.  Among biomedical assistant professors, this service may be clinical work (for M.D.s) or committee work (such as interviewing and evaluating students for admission to the department).  An assistant professor who teaches a required course for the department may also acquire service credit.

Mentoring evaluates an assistant professor’s contributions to the education of students.  Assistant professors generally contribute lectures to university courses, but in a medical department, most assistant professors will not serve as course directors simply because the department offers far fewer courses than it has professors.  Since each course has only one or possibly two course directors, few professors actually bear ultimate responsibility for a course.  In many cases, an assistant professor’s contributions to mentoring are limited to their interactions with a small number of students that join his or her research group for a Master’s or Ph.D.

Research is frequently treated as the most important component of the tenure process.  An assistant professor must “publish, or perish!”  Assistant professors are expected to produce peer-reviewed manuscripts every year.  At first, those manuscripts will largely flow from his or her own pen (with the assistant professor listed as first author), but over time, the department will expect that the manuscripts will be contributed by students more frequently (with the assistant professor listed as last author).  These papers, however, will be evaluated more seriously if they result in grant submissions to the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation.  Grant submissions, however, do not imply grant funding.  At present, around one in ten grant proposals lead to funding for researchers.  Most medical departments, however, often perceive success in research to mean success in drawing grant dollars.  By the time an assistant professor is facing the tenure deadline, he or she should ideally serve as principal investigator for two major research grants.

Perhaps you thought that the easy answer to “what do professors do?” is “teach,” but hopefully this post changed your mind a little bit.  Tenure-track professors in biomedical research fields provide service to the department, serve as mentors to researchers earlier in their careers, and conduct research, most heavily emphasizing the production of grant proposals to the federal government.  If they achieve tenure through grant success, they generally gain the title “associate professor,” and if they persist in this level of accomplishment, they may even gain the title (full) “professor.”  This is the ladder we climb, and each rung is slathered with a substantial amount of grease!

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