February 04, 2011

Waking up from the "Dream Job"

In earlier posts I have touched on the general sense of unhappiness I felt during the first two years of my graduate program. Each time doubts rose as to whether graduate school was the right place for me, the desire to attain that dream job -- being a professor at a small liberal arts college -- would keep me hanging on.

by flickr user StuartWebster
So why did I want to be a professor so badly? Several reasons: 1) I loved the chemistry faculty at my undergraduate institution. They were charming, friendly, enthusiastic, and very encouraging. Any of them would let me sit down in their offices for hours to chat about classes, science, life. I only realized after coming to graduate school how different professors must behave at large schools. 2) I loved teaching, and I still do! TAing the organic chemistry lab is what got me through my first year of graduate school. I enjoyed my students and I felt a great sense of pride and accomplishment when I was able to communicate science to them and see them understand it. I also put a great deal of effort into including stories in my lecture that would relate that day's lab experiment to something in real life. When we did distillations for the first time I talked about liquor and gave them an understanding of Smirnoff's claim to being triply distilled. I always tried to find ways to highlight chemistry in action in the "real world" and many of the students thanked me for it. 3) From my observations as an undergraduate, it seemed like the best job you could have. You interact with and inspire students, you spend some time grading, you get time off in the summer (sort of, most schools expect you to carry on a small research program). Perfect.....right?

The fact that I am leaving the PhD program with my MS means something about my aspirations must have changed. What happened is that I got a wake-up call in the form of experience. I was allowed to co-teach a course, and really got knee deep into what it's like to be a professor. I think I had to deal with a little bit of everything in that one course. I felt under-prepared for lectures and had trouble getting the timing right, seeming to always go faster or slower than I had planned. Toward the end of the course I had worked out that issue, but I also began to see just how repetitive lectures would become as I taught the same course year after year. Between preparing for class and grading (and having a life) there's not a lot of time to revamp and revolutionize a course.

by flickr user rocknroll_guitar
I also struggled somewhat with the students. Previously as a TA I was responsible for grading lab reports and quizzes but the students understood that I was just an underling and they seemed mostly appreciative of my help. In this new experience, as a co-instructor for the course, many of the students seemed to think I owed them explanations and advice. I had the clingy students who were constantly by my side and in my office hours, asking questions about things I had already explained to them three or four times. I had the students who just seemed to go through the motions, --average scores on homework and exams-- never or rarely asking questions. And then I caught one student cheating. He fully copied one of the lab write-ups from a student who took the class two years earlier, data, graphs, everything. After looking back through old records we found the original lab report, but when we confronted the cheater he adamantly denied it. He even went so far as to blame us, saying if we knew him better we would know that he wasn't the type of student who would cheat. Overall I truly enjoyed interacting with the students, but the experiences highlighted here also took away from the rosy hue I had always had when viewing academia. I realized that not all students would approach their studies as actively as I had, and many of them would not respond to my most earnest efforts to educate them. Basically, I realized that professorship isn't the rose garden I thought it was.

Finally, I was surprised by the number of committees and non-teaching responsibilities that faculty have to attend to on a daily basis. Faculty meetings, department meetings, committee on committee meetings. I had the opportunity to attend some of these meetings and I realized how politics are intimately involved in academia. Each faculty member, each department have their own strong opinions on how the college should be run and their own agenda on how to accomplish this.

My disillusionment complete, I realized that even though I would enjoy teaching I wasn't sure it would be the perfect job I once thought it was. I also started reading more blogs and hearing stories from older grad students and post docs that the job market (even when the economy wasn't in the toilet) for academic positions is ├╝ber competitive. To be considered for a professorship at some institutions you have to have a remarkable publication track record as a graduate student AND complete one or two (maybe more?) post docs. So not only was the light at the end of my tunnel (perfect professor job) getting dimmer, the road was getting longer and longer (now I have to do a post doc too?).

Now what? I don't like research, being a professor seems less exciting. What are my options? Come back later for the next part of the saga.


  1. You have a clearer idea of the life of a professor than a lot of Ph.D's do. It IS a long journey, and too many people go through the process without taking their blinkers off and really thinking about whether it is really what they want. Congratulations to you for having the courage to walk your own path.

  2. Thank you masterorganicchemistry.com! I admire what you're trying to do with your site. I wholeheartedly agree with your goal of making organic chemistry less frightening. I would love to take that goal and extend it beyond students to the general public. If I come across any useful tips I'll share them with you.