Based on conversations I've had with friends (all three of them, so it didn't take long), the average non-academic has almost no idea what a college professor's job is like. Most people think a professor's job is all about teaching (and getting summers off). Some have heard the phrase "publish or perish", so they know there's writing in there somewhere. But most people have only a vague idea at best about what a professor actually does.
So, I thought I'd spend a little time describing just what an academic's job is all about. Unlike most jobs, a typical academic's life differs based on the seasons - somebody once said that the best three reasons to be a teacher are "June, July, and August". But I'll save summers for later, and start with what goes on during the school year. This installment will be about the teaching part of my job, and I'll cover other parts in later installments.
A "typical" academic's life varies quite a bit depending on the type of institution he's at. The biggest difference is between "research" and "teaching" schools. There's also a big difference between the finance discipline and others (like the humanities or the sciences), but since I'm most familiar with my own little corner of academia (i.e. finance and business), that's where I'll focus.
There are two main differences between teaching and research schools: the normal teaching load and the expectations of the amount of research (i.e. publishing) you'll have to do to get tenure. A finance professor at a typical research school teaches a "2/2" load - that is, 2 classes in the fall, and two in the spring. For most schools, this means two or three "preps" a year (i.e. you might teach two or three different classes in a given year). If you're lucky enough, you may get two sections of the same class each semester (i.e. one prep for the semester), and sometimes you're lucky enough to teach the same class each time (i.e. four sections of the same class each year). This is pretty rare, and happens mostly when you're teaching the introductory class (andoften at a large university), since there are multiple sections offered each semester, and many of the senior faculty don't want to teach intro.
At some of the top schools, a professor would teach 3 classes a year (either 1/2 or 3/0). In contrast, at a teaching school, he would teach at least 6 courses a year, and often more (I have some friends that teach a 4/4 load, and faculty in the humanities sometimes teach even more). As a benchmark, the first school I taught at out of grad school had a 2/2 load, my most recent position came with a 3/3 load, and my new job will have a 2/2 load.
While it might not seem like much (a 2/2 load works out to 6 hours a week in the classroom), there's also preparatory time outside the class. This can run quite a bit for a "new prep" (a class you haven't taught before), and varies a lot by the type of class. For example, in the introductory/principles course, once they've taught it a few times, an experienced teacher can pretty much glance at their notes 10 minutes before class, grab their transparencies (or PowerPoint slides) and a dry-erase market (for the whiteboard) and they're good to go. On the other hand, for my case course, even though I've taught it a half-dozen times, I still need a minimum of 3-5 hours of prep time a week.
At most schools, a new professor gets a reduced course load for the first year or two. This is mostly to help them get set up and rolling on their research agenda. For example, at my alma mater, the typical teaching load is 2/2, but new assistant professors get a 1 course reduction (i.e. to a 2/1) for the first couple of years. Then, starting in year 3, they revert to a 2/2/ l0ad.
It's also possible to get a course reduction (also called a "course release") for taking on additional duties. For example, at my latest school, teaching a doctoral level course gave you a course release (since it takes so much longer to prep for a course like this). In addition, you also get a course release (or two) if you're in an administrative position. I have several friends who are chairs of their respective department (the chair is the academic equivalent of a the mid-level manager), and they typically get a one or two course release per semester. And they earn it, since a good chair has to do a lot of work.
If you focus only on the teaching part of the job, being a professor seems like a pretty cushy gig. And if all I had to do was teach 3 classes a semester, life would be pretty easy. I like teaching, because I get to talk about things that I find very interesting, and I have the challenge of trying to "infect" others with my enthusiasm. I'm also a naturally goofy extrovert, so it's a good fit for me.
But, the research side of things is what really differentiates an academic's job from most others. This is where most untenured academics (and a lot of tenured ones who are at "research" schools) spend the lion's share of their time and energy. And truth be told, if I wasn't doing research, I'd probably get bored.
So, I'll talk a bit about research in my next piece.
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