When you think of a university professor, what do you picture?
In general, there are two different types of professors: those that conduct research and those that teach. At large universities, an academic department (say, the Biology Department) will have mostly research professors, plus a few others whose sole duties are teaching. Although the research professors typically teach one course per semester, their main job is to obtain funding to perform scientific research. To do this, they write grant proposals, which outline their future research plans. These proposals are (hopefully) funded by private or government agencies, and the money pays for graduate students working with the professor to conduct that research. At smaller schools, including liberal arts and community colleges, all professors’ main focus is on teaching, but they might also conduct small research projects with students from their classes.
Whether you plan on teaching or conducting research at a university, the path to becoming a professor in the natural sciences is a winding one. First, you must obtain a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree, which usually takes 4 years. Then, you attend graduate school, where a university professor is your adviser and you perform research that is complementary to his or hers. For example, if your adviser studies how pollutants impact an ecosystem, you might study a sub-section of that field, such as how insecticides affect local frogs. In the past, most people went through two separate graduate schools, first obtaining Master of Science (M.S.) and then Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degrees. Depending on the field, this takes 3+ years for the M.S. and a further 5+ years for the Ph.D. Nowadays, it is very common for undergraduate students to do research while completing their B.S. and go straight into a Ph.D. program. After graduating with a Ph.D., you work with a new adviser as a post-doctoral researcher. “Post-docs” are similar to graduate students in that they conduct work related to their adviser’s research, but they do so with more autonomy. You are typically qualified for a professorial job after 2-3 years as a post doc. Although most people go to separate schools for each stage (B.S., M.S., Ph.D., post-doc), it is becoming more common for two of these degrees to be obtained from the same university.
Wow – that’s 15 (or more) years of school! Why go through all of that? Well, first, once you get to graduate school, it’s a lot less like “school” and more like being paid to do something that you find really, really interesting. Second, being a professor carries a lot of perks. Schedules are generally very flexible, and travel to exotic (and not-so-exotic) locales for conferences or field work is common. Plus, this travel is often paid for by the university or other funding groups. University departments, comprised of 10+ professors and their graduate students, can also be hotbeds of creativity – just imagine, dozens of the brightest minds in the field, all together under one roof. As a professor, you are the “parent” of your group of graduate students and post-docs, so if you enjoy mentoring, it can be very rewarding to instruct the next generation of scientists. However, there are drawbacks, too. One of the most formidable obstacles is that you first need a Ph.D. to become a professor. Unfortunately, more Ph.D.s are produced than there are available jobs for professors, so you need to be very pro-active while in graduate school to be hirable after you graduate. You can do this by publishing many scientific articles, learning to write grant proposals that get funded, and networking with other researchers at professional conferences.
So, is the job of university professor right for you? Are you constantly solving problems and looking for answers to your questions? Do you wonder what your chemistry, physics, or biology classmates are complaining about, because this homework is fun? If so, academia might be for you!