What is the job of a university professor?

In this blog post, I will discuss the job of university professor. And, I will discuss why I have chosen to become one. This post is especially aimed at students who are considering working in academia after their Ph.D.

A professor

What is the job of university professor?

When I was an undergraduate student, I did not know much about what the professors were really doing at my university beside teaching.  In general, there are three main tasks that a professor must do:

  • Teaching. This consists of teaching courses for students. This is a very important task since it is the reason for having professors in universities. The numbers of courses that a professor teaches every year can vary greatly depending on the university and the rank of the professor. Some university are known to put more emphasis on research, while other put more emphasis on teaching. When I was working as a professor in Canada, I first started with about 220 hours (5 courses) / year, which did not give me much free time for doing research. Then after receiving some funding and having several graduate students in my team, my teaching load was reduced to about 3 courses / year to let me do more research.  Now in China, in 2016, I have taught about 100 hours.
  • Research. The second task that a professor must do is to carry innovative research that lead to the publication of research papers. Why a professor is doing research? Some key reasons are to attract top talents in university, and to ensure that the professors stay active and keep their knowledge up to date. Now, what is the difference between the research that a professor does and the research that a graduate student do?  The main difference is that a professor is expected to carry a long-term research program and have several students carrying research in his team. It is a bit like going from the job of an employee to being a team leader or business manager, in the sense that the professor has to manage not only his own research projects but generally also the research of a team, and have a clear plan for the next years to come. Many of the tasks related to research that a professor does is related to the management of his team. For example, a professor typically has to apply for funding from the government, or find projects with companies to supply funds to his research team. This may involve writing numerous grant applications and attend many meetings.
  • Service to the community. The third task that a professor must do is to provide service to the community. This can be various activities at the university level, national level, or international level. For example, when I was a professor in Canada, I was involved in a programming competition for high schools, and recruiting students for our university. I also helped to organize a LAN party for students every year, and other activities with students. Another task that I was doing was to evaluate the applications of the master degree students applying to the university in our program. This latter task was consuming many hours of my time every week.  At a national and international level, my service to the community has included tasks such as reviewing articles for conferences and journals, being the editor of a journal, and the founder of an open-source data mining software.

Thus, to be a professor, one should enjoy doing these three tasks. If one only enjoys teaching but does not enjoy research, then perhaps that it is best to become a lecturer (a professor not carrying research – in the North-American system of education). Or if one only enjoy research but does not enjoy teaching, then it is probably best to become a researcher rather than a professor, and work in the industry. But there are some exceptions. Nonetheless, a professor should ideally enjoy doing all these tasks, and should do them well.

What are the advantages/disadvantages of being a professor?

As for any other jobs, there are advantages and disadvantages for choosing this job. Let’s analyze this:

  • Salary: Depending on the country and university, the salary of a university professor can be quite high. But it is generally lower than working as a researcher in the industry. Thus, the motivation should not be only about money.
  • Schedule: One of the greatest advantage and disadvantage of being a professor is the work schedule. A professor may be extremely busy. He may have to work during week-ends, evenings, and often more than 10 hours a day to keep up with research, teaching and other tasks. The first few years of being a professor can be really hard in terms of schedule. The reason is that a new professor typically has to teach, prepare many new courses and apply for funding, and setup his research team. This is quite different from the life of a Ph.D student who often can concentrate on only doing research. After a few years, the job of a professor becomes easier.  However, although the schedule of a professor is very busy, what I like about it is the freedom about how to organize my time. A professor may typically decide to work at home if he is not teaching and may decide to wake up late but finish working late a night.  This is different from working in a company.
  • Traveling: Another thing that I like about being a professor is the opportunity for traveling.  A professor typically has to attend international conferences to present his research and meet other researchers, and may also visit other universities for collaborations. This is interesting from the research perspective. But it is also interesting from a personal perspective. Of course, it depends on the funding. Not every professor has funding for attending international conferences and travelling.
  • Being your own boss: Another advantage of being a professor is that a professor generally has a lot of freedom for the topic of his research. A professor may decide to work on topics that he like rather than work on the projects of other people (as someone would typically do, when working in a company). I often think of being a professor as someone running a business. The professor must decide of the research directions and manage his team. I enjoy this freedom of being able to work on the topics that I like, and also to publish the result of my research freely as open-source programs that can benefit anyone.

What is required to become a university professor?

In terms of academic skills, good universities require to have a Ph.D. degree. But having a PhD. is often not enough. It is also generally required to have several publications in good conferences and journals.  Now, if we analyze this in more details, a professor should have the following skills:

  • teaching: A professor must be able to explain concepts in simple ways, clearly, and concisely so that students can learn efficiently.  A professor must also be able to make the classes enjoyable rather than boring, and prepare their courses well, assignments and exams.
  • Carrying research:  A professor must be good at doing research.  This includes being able to find interesting research questions and find innovation solutions to solve these problems.
  • writing: A professor must also be good at writing. This is important as a professor must write journal papers, conference papers, grant applications, and many other documents. Being good at writing is related to being good at teaching, since writing often requires to explain concepts in simple ways so that the reader can understand (just like teaching).
  • Managing a team/sociability: A professor should be able to manage a team and also ideally establish collaborations with other researchers. Thus some management and social skills are required.
  • Being good in his field: A professor must also be good in his field of study. For example, for the field of computer science, a professor should ideally also be a good programmer. This is different from being a good researcher, as a good programmer is not necessarily a good researcher, and a good researcher is not necessarily a good programmer.
  • Being a workaholic 😉 :  actually, not everybody can work or likes to work 10 hours or more every day. And also not every professor work very hard but to become a professor it still generally requires a huge amount of work. And the first years of being a professor can be quite hard. When I was an undergraduate student, I saw it as a challenge for me to see how far I would be able to go into academia, and since I like working, the amount of work did not put me away. I have worked very hard in the last 10 years . For example, during my studies, I typically just took a few days off during a whole year, and worked every day from the morning until the evening. For me, it is worth it.

It might seem like a long list of skills to have. But actually, all these skills can be developed over time. When I was an undergraduate students for example, I did not know how to write well. I remember that the first paper that I attempted to write by myself during my master degree was quite terrible. Over the years during my master’s degree and Ph.D., I have greatly improved my writing skills by practicing writing many papers. I also greatly improved my research skills, and teaching skills. In terms of teaching, it requires some practice and dedication to become a good teacher.

Conclusion

So why did I choose to become a professor? The short answer is that I really like research and the freedom of doing my own research. I also like to be able to manage my schedule, travelling, and I also enjoy teaching.  Would I move to the industry someday? No. Even if I could probably earn more in the industry, I am happy to do what I am doing in academia.

If you have enjoyed reading this blog post, you can continue reading this blog, which has many other posts related to academia and data mining.

Philippe Fournier-Viger is a professor of Computer Science and also the founder of the open-source data mining software SPMF, offering more than 120 data mining algorithms.

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