From Professional to Professor?

I often have acquaintances approach me for advice on how to become a professor. Most often they are in advanced professions, such as law or medicine. One incident from two decades ago is a good example of how the conversation goes.

A lawyer friend confided that he hated his job and wanted to be a professor, preferably at a flagship public university. Since I was nearing my Ph.D., he approached me with questions that he framed as statements: “I love the idea of only working nine months of the year.” “I am tired of working 12-hour days.” “Professors have cushy jobs, and I am as bright as most faculty members I’ve known, so I think I’d like to get in on that.” He had a half-dozen others before he got to the actual questions: “Do I have to get a doctorate to do this? How do I go about getting one?”

I explained that even with his law degree, he would probably need to start with a master’s degree and then proceed to the doctorate if he wanted to teach history or political science (teaching at a law school was not what he wanted to do, he’d said), especially in a tenure-track position at a top-tier university. He asked how long that would take, and I told him at least four to six years. He asked how much they would pay him while he was in graduate school, and I told him that a graduate assistantship typically covered tuition and a small living stipend, but that many graduate students took on student-loan debt for their living expenses. This genuinely surprised him. I suggested that he take a graduate course as a non-degree student to see what he thought about things, which he agreed was a great idea.

I checked back with him at midterm, and he was loving the class. Adored it. Was passionate about it. Couldn’t wait to apply to graduate schools and was working on his essays. Asked about institutional reputations.

When the semester concluded, I touched base again, and he admitted that he no longer was applying and was trying to become excited about his law practice again. When I asked him what had changed, he said, “I found out how much entry-level assistant professors make. I can’t live on that! It’s not even half what I make now. I thought they paid you to go to graduate school, too, like a fellowship that provided lots of perks and a decent salary. When I saw how little those paid, I knew there was no way I could do that, either. So, best of luck to you in your career.”

This path of conversation has been taken more times than I care to remember: Someone in a profession completely misunderstands what goes on in the professoriate, particularly where finances are concerned. Indeed, when job postings are made, I am party to a steady stream of whispered inquiries about making the jump. More times than not, the financial realities provide a conclusion to the chats.

What advice might you offer to professionals who are considering a transition to academe? What positive information might be an incentive in spite of the economic challenges?

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