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What is a professor?


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I know this varies drastically among types of institutions (R1s vs SLACs for example), but I'm just curious about everyone's opinion.

What is a professor? What is their role? Is it to be a celebrity researcher, always giving the next big talk, traveling on a weekly basis, and only fitting in students when time permits? Should teaching and students be the top priority, with research only a side gig? If a middle ground between these two, what is the proportion of research v teaching/students that you think is ideal? Do academic celebrity superstars make good professors/advisors when it comes to working with students, in your opinion? 

Again, just looking for opinions. 

 

On a more specific note looking for experience, for those of you with superstar advisors with insane travel schedules, how did you manage to have face to face meetings when meetings become infrequent and those that do occur often abruptly get cut short? Is it possible to maintain a good professional relationship with these types of advisors? 

 

 

 

 

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A professor has three duties: research, teaching, and service to the university (and discipline at large). What they choose to focus on of those three depends both on the norms of their position and university but also where their interests and strengths are. Not all professors are going to be really good at research, teaching, and administration and/or service. Sometimes some focus on one  (or two) at the expense of others. 

And to answer the second question, yes, it is entirely possible. One thing I think a lot of people don't understand is you should be utilizing their office hours, a lot of grad students expect appointments; but most things can be figured out by dropping in to the time they set aside for students.

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1 hour ago, Comparativist said:

One thing I think a lot of people don't understand is you should be utilizing their office hours, a lot of grad students expect appointments; but most things can be figured out by dropping in to the time they set aside for students.

Ah yes, unless they don't hold office hours because they're so busy! 

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For some professors their roles are teaching, professional practice, and service to the community over research. But @Comparativist spelled it out nicely.

In my experience, there's no real correlation between teaching, research, or professional skills. Some professors are good at only 1-2 areas, some are great at all, others at none. Big name professors are usually good at what they're acclaimed for, but again, that says nothing about their skills in other areas. Contrarily, if all their focus is only on building one skill set (i.e. researching) chances are that they haven't really practiced or honed other skills. So again, all individually bases.

As a former grad assistant, appointments are preferrable.The appointment gives professors and the student time to prep and consider the meeting. It also doesn't interrupt the train of thought when working on other aspects of the job. In spite of that, walk-in are welcome and sometimes a great diversion from a problem you've been working on for the last 2 hours.

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I agree with you that this definitely depends on the school and how each school writes the "job description" for their profs. That is, I don't think there is a right answer because each school is hiring profs to do the job the school wants them to do. The school has the prerogative to define the duties expected of their employees.

However, we can still have our preferences on what we'd like, individually, so I'll answer your question with what I'd look for in a graduate advisor! I did my PhD at an R1 school where profs have a teaching load of 3 quarter-length (10 week) courses every 2 years. Most teach one core course per year and one speciality course that only runs every other year. The core course rotates every 3 years-ish, so it's more work for the prof the first time but it gets a lot easier for years 2 and 3. They also have some department service duties, for example, sitting on or chairing various committees. It seems like some committees are reserved for tenured faculty (e.g. the quals examination core committee) while others tend to be for junior faculty (e.g. the colloquium committee). There are also university level commitments for administrative type things as well as research promotion type things, e.g. the fundraising office will often ask profs to present their work to donors, alumni etc. in order to get people to donate to the school. If the prof holds grants or other fellowships funded by the school or outside sources, these might come with some service requirements as well.

In all, I would say that at a primarily research focussed school like my PhD program, I would expect that profs spend around 50% of their time on research-related activities, 35% on service and 15% on teaching. Teaching is easy to define: it's time spent preparing for and delivering courses. I would define service as everything that doesn't directly advance their own (or their group's research). For example: the talks/committees mentioned above, but also peer review, serving on conference organizing committees etc. Research is everything related to their group's research. This includes **both** supervising/advising their grad students as well as conducting their own research. 

I think this part is the most interesting to me. In my opinion, the main effort of a professor's research time should not be doing their own research but to lead/supervise research carried out by those who work/train under them. One example is my PhD advisor: all of their papers since 2014 have only been led by their students or postdocs. They might come up with some new research ideas but it is their group that carries it out. My advisor got tenure this year. There are usually 5-7 grad students and 3-4 postdocs in their group. I feel that my advisor's main research output is to ensure that their group are productive scientists. And in my field, this counts as your own work too, since you win awards and earn tenure based on what you and your group produces. But this is just one style.

Another professor in the same department only ever has 1 full grad student at a time and 1-2 postdocs. They still produce their own research and actually spend most of their time doing what they want to do. This person is many years past tenure (but not a super senior prof either) and has been working this way since the beginning. I've talked to this person about their stance on mentoring and advising and they basically said that they don't take on more than 1 student at a time because the time it takes to mentor/train a student is not worth the science that student produces. So, clearly this person has a different view on why they train students compared to others. But this is also acceptable to my department! I think this is a good thing, as long as people know what their potential advisors are like before committing to a group.

 

Finally, on the topic of tracking down busy profs: My advisor is a superstar with a super busy schedule but they are also super organized. We have a regular weekly meeting time and we always give each other 1-2 weeks advance notice if a meeting needs to be rescheduled. This really works well for my advisor and I because we both have similar organizational personalities. For another advisor, I sometimes had to stalk them on Twitter to see if they are even on campus. I remember one day I wanted to find them so I checked their Twitter and learned that they were in DC receiving an award from the POTUS (the previous one, not the current one). For another busy prof who was on my committee, I had to camp outside their class in order to ask them a quick question about scheduling my defense date as they were leaving. I did work with both of these super busy people for a short while but our personality fit wasn't good. I would get stuck on things that would have immediately moved forward if I had a 10 minute chat with them but sometimes it took 2 weeks to actually get that 10 minutes. I also felt that cancelling meetings minutes before they are scheduled is a sign of a lack of mutual respect for each other's time so I found it very unfun to work with these people (they are generally great people to have as colleagues or to bounce ideas of off, but not as an advisor). But this is just me---clearly plenty of other students prefer this flexible, non-scheduled style :)

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Interesting thoughts, everyone. Thanks! 

If a professor is successful at earning an international reputation, publishing seminal works, and speaking at talks around the world but is inaccessible to their students and neglects them, should we still consider that person "successful"? How should we define success? 

Just interested in opinions.

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2 hours ago, serenade said:

If a professor is successful at earning an international reputation, publishing seminal works, and speaking at talks around the world but is inaccessible to their students and neglects them, should we still consider that person "successful"?

At most high-level research institutions, absolutely, yes, that person would be considered successful. 

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16 hours ago, serenade said:

Interesting thoughts, everyone. Thanks! 

If a professor is successful at earning an international reputation, publishing seminal works, and speaking at talks around the world but is inaccessible to their students and neglects them, should we still consider that person "successful"? How should we define success? 

Just interested in opinions.

It's my opinion that you should stay focused on the task at hand and not focus on the feelings of resentment that you may be experiencing.

Right now, the definition of success that matters the most to your personal professional development is passing your oral exam. WHEN you pass that exam, you'll have time to process your emotions.

Edited by Sigaba
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On 10/6/2017 at 5:50 AM, serenade said:

Interesting thoughts, everyone. Thanks! 

If a professor is successful at earning an international reputation, publishing seminal works, and speaking at talks around the world but is inaccessible to their students and neglects them, should we still consider that person "successful"? How should we define success? 

Just interested in opinions.

I know tons of professors that considered highly successful. Schools would work hard to either convince people like this to join their department, either by convincing them to leave their current appointment, or if they're on the job market, by offering better packages. I have heard of one school offering someone like this tenure directly (this person had just graduated with a PhD not long ago). A common recruitment tactic in my field is for high ranking research institutions to find assistant (i.e. untenured) profs at other schools (of all levels) and offering them a tenured position at their school and a bunch of money to move their current students over. 

So yeah, people matching your exact description are generally considered very successful by the "powers that be" in academia. Whether we agree with these metrics are not doesn't change what they are. In fact, at my PhD school, there are people that get tenure reviews saying that they spend too much time mentoring students or teaching instead of developing international reputation, publishing field-changing work, etc. 

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7 minutes ago, TakeruK said:

I know tons of professors that considered highly successful. Schools would work hard to either convince people like this to join their department, either by convincing them to leave their current appointment, or if they're on the job market, by offering better packages. I have heard of one school offering someone like this tenure directly (this person had just graduated with a PhD not long ago). A common recruitment tactic in my field is for high ranking research institutions to find assistant (i.e. untenured) profs at other schools (of all levels) and offering them a tenured position at their school and a bunch of money to move their current students over. 

So yeah, people matching your exact description are generally considered very successful by the "powers that be" in academia. Whether we agree with these metrics are not doesn't change what they are. In fact, at my PhD school, there are people that get tenure reviews saying that they spend too much time mentoring students or teaching instead of developing international reputation, publishing field-changing work, etc. 

To be clear, I don't mean to say this is the only way to define a successful professor. There are definitely more than one way to succeed in academia and I think what you described is certain one way to be very successful. Not necessarily the way that I would want to be successful but that doesn't invalidate that mode of success.

Also, I don't mean to say that every institution would define this person as successful. As I wrote above, it really all depends on what each institution is looking for in their employees. The University is the entity that sets the job description for their faculty members so whether or not the description you gave is going to be considered a "successful professor" at any given school depends on what that school wants out of their faculty members. But to answer the question generally, many schools, especially the research intensive ones, would count this person as very successful. To expand on what I wrote above, some schools do not even consider mentoring/advising/graduating students as a necessary part of a professor's job (i.e. having done so might help a prof on their tenure/promotion review, but not contributing much in this area might have no negative effects at all).

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On 10/6/2017 at 8:50 AM, serenade said:

Interesting thoughts, everyone. Thanks! 

If a professor is successful at earning an international reputation, publishing seminal works, and speaking at talks around the world but is inaccessible to their students and neglects them, should we still consider that person "successful"? How should we define success? 

Just interested in opinions.

At most R1 institutions, such a person would be considered successful. To get tenure at such an institution you need to publish and have a successful research program, and you need to not suck at teaching and service. Doing great at those two but not succeeding in research will probably not be enough for a person to get tenured. As a result of these tenure requirements, people learn to apportion their time, and students may not come first. That's unfortunate, but in some cases very true and encouraged by the system.

There are actively bad advisors and teachers out there, but more often than not they're just not as good as they could be, or they have priorities that aren't the same as yours. So now the question is how you manage it, and that depends on the people involved and the situation. Maybe you need a second advisor who's more available. Maybe you need to learn how to communicate with your advisor better (if they're not good at email, maybe there are other ways to get a hold of them, etc). Maybe you need to be better at managing the time you do have (I personally like it the best when a student has a pre-prepared list of things they want to discuss so they don't forget anything, and bonus points if they email it ahead of time so I know what to prepare for). Maybe you need to have an explicit conversation about what you need that you feel you're not getting, and how to go about getting it. Some (many!) advisors will not know something's wrong or missing unless you tell them, and when you do, they will work to help you. But not everyone is good at guessing there's a problem, even if you think it's glaringly obvious. Or maybe you just need a new advisor, because you've discovered that your work styles and expectations are incompatible. 

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