Should I become a professor?

Prof. Pettigrew: It’s nice work, if you can stand getting it.


Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.

Have you ever looked at the front of your lecture hall or into a professor’s office and thought, “That looks like a pretty good gig”? Probably not. But if you have, you may have wondered how you get from where you are to where your professor is. As you might imagine, it’s neither easy to get there nor always as much fun as it looks. Still, if you’re interested, here’s what it looks like.

Getting the Credentials

First, you have to understand that becoming a professor is not like becoming a teacher. You don’t need a Bachelor of Education degree. What does matter is getting a doctorate – typically a PhD in your chosen field. That means finishing your four-year bachelor’s degree, preferably an honours degree – and then (for most fields) getting a Master’s degree before applying for doctoral work.

Getting into a PhD program is tough, and finishing the PhD is even tougher. If you are doing it in Canada it will likely mean some combination of courses, some very rigorous exams, and a dissertation. The dissertation is basically a book-length study that contributes to the discipline in some usually modest but still significant way. It’s the thing you write to show that you have mastered the discipline and can contribute to it as a professional. My advice: don’t take your time. The longer you take on it, the greater the chance that it will become an albatross around your Coleridge-reading neck. At some point, whoever is paying for you to study is going to stop paying, and eventually your department may even kick you out. Dive right into the thesis and get it done before you lose interest.

Along the way, you are going to want to start publishing articles related to your field. In some disciplines you may publish as a co-author with your doctoral supervisor. In other cases, you may rewrite a paper you wrote for a course to bring it up to professional standards, or publish a chapter from your dissertation (usually after the dissertation is finished).

Oh, and if that’s not enough, it won’t hurt if you get some teaching experience in there as well, preferably teaching a course of your own (as opposed to being a teaching assistant in someone else’s course).

Getting a Job

If PhD student is nobody’s idea of a dream job, getting an academic job can be a nightmare.

The university job market is incredibly competitive because there are plenty of PhDs produced every year and plenty more hanging around from the last few years. What’s more, universities look to hire in very specific areas. Just because you have a PhD in History doesn’t mean you can apply to any opening in a History department. You will need to look for a job in your specific area of history – Canadian or maybe even Atlantic Canadian. There may be literally only one or two tenure-track (ie permanent) jobs in your field in any given year. Some years there might be none at all.

As a result, few people get tenure-track jobs right out of grad school. You may have to spend some time scratching out a living teaching a course here or there where you can. This may mean part-time appointments (which may pay as little as a few thousand dollars per term) or full-time limited term positions (which pay salaries similar to new regular faculty but don’t last). Or, if you’re lucky, you might be able to get a post-doctoral fellowship that will allow you to continue your research while you look for jobs.

Your chances of getting a job will increase if you are willing to cast the net broadly. Not everyone is willing or able to relocate to the other side of the country so, if you are, that will let you apply to a job where you might be one of, say, two dozen highly qualified applicants instead of one of two hundred.

Keeping Your Job

If you successfully land a tenure-track job, you will have a period of relative security for about five years. After that you will have to apply for tenure, which is a type of permanent appointment that allows you to teach and conduct research the way you want without much fear of getting fired.  What exactly you have to do to get tenure will depend a lot on where you are hired, but most universities claim that tenure depends upon strong evaluations in the areas of teaching, research, and, to some extent, service (any number of things you do to help the university and wider community).

In practice, though, how much each element counts can vary widely. At some universities, the emphasis on research far outweighs everything else, and if you don’t have enough published papers, you’re out. At other places, you nearly have to set the building on fire to be denied tenure. Find people in your department and Faculty Association who have been through the process and know how it works.

If you can make it through the slough of papers, tests, and self-esteem-destroying revisions required to get a PhD, being a professor is a job worth having. Sure there are boring meetings, high-pressure research deadlines, and frustrating students. But you have a lot of freedom to talk and read and write about things that interest you. If you’re full time, the money is decent. And you have plenty of time and opportunity to travel or pursue other interests. Plus you get to spend time with like-minded people, most of whom are smarter than average, not to mention being able to wear tweed unironically.

It’s a long hard road with no guarantees. But, if you make it to the end, it is a pretty good gig.

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