Q & A about Life as a Professor

I received an email from Mark, a student who is interested in pursuing a career in academia, studying the psychology of religion. Here are his questions, along with my responses.

Mark: What is a typical work day like?

Me: I normally arrive at work by 8:00, and deal with email and administrative matters. Currently, these involve making plans for next year's graduate assistants (determining which assistant will work with which faculty members), planning the Spring 2012 semester curriculum, and dealing with student and faculty concerns. During the day I will also do some reading for a research project that I'm working on. (At the moment, it is putting the finishing touches on an article I've written. Other times, it might be doing library research, collecting data, or analyzing data.) Depending on the semester, I teach one or two classes as well. I usually leave the office by 5:30.

Mark: What are some of the rewarding/gratifying aspects and negative sides to your career?

Me: It is a privilege to be able to study things that I am naturally curious about, and to do this as part of my job. I have many questions about why people do what they do, and believe what they believe, and being able to investigate these kinds of questions as part of my daily work life is absolutely intriguing.

I also enjoy working with people who are interested in related questions, whether they are fellow faculty members or students. This helps create a stimulating intellectual environment. I have also found it to be very rewarding to work with scholarly journals, whether as reviewer, editorial board member, or coeditor. In this way I can learn what other people are studying, and help them improve their work for publication. I greatly enjoy doing this.

The negative aspect is that there are sometimes students attending classes because they are avoiding work, which makes it frustrating. They do not realize how fortunate they are to have the opportunity to learn; fewer than 1% of the world's population has a college degree, I am told, but too often we take it for granted. This is quite aggravating at times, but the benefits of this career outweigh these kinds of frustrations.

A different negative aspect of my work is that the nature of higher education is changing. It is becoming more routinized, and people in general seem to discount the role of educators in improving society. Instead, I am seeing more cases of students (and their parents) expecting good grades for mediocre work, or credit merely for showing up in class. This is disappointing, as the main benefit of education comes when the individual pursues knowledge. It isn't received, it is pursued.

Mark: How is you day to day work different from what you expected when in school?

Me: When I was a student, I was relatively clueless about what a professor or teacher actually did. I was blissfully ignorant about administrative matters, in particular. While in college my first major was music education; I planned to teach band. Two things led me away from that career. One was the realization that high school band teachers needed to be good at "crowd control", and that this was not my strength. The other was taking education classes. In one class, we spent 3-4 days learning minutiae regarding different systems for recording class attendance. It was mind-numbingly tedious, and after that class I changed my major to psychology. I have since learned that administrative matters are important, although there are far more important things than whether to use a single hash-mark or a large X to indicate a student's absence in a roll book.

More substantively, I learned that I don't spend nearly as much time as I'd like engaged in research. Preparing to teach a class takes more time than I expected, especially when grading exams, etc. Committee meetings also intrude on the time that I'd like to devote to research. Committee work is important -- it is how educational institutions get work done -- but they can be agonizingly slow.

Mark: How did you pursue your career?

Me: I was interested in why people do what they do, and decided to study it in graduate school. I selected my graduate school based on a combination of factors, including the faculty research interests (at the time I was interested in moral development, and the faculty member's research was intriguing to me), cost of living, and the availability of graduate assistantship support. Once I arrived at that university, I learned that the person I intended to study with was about to leave for a year's sabbatical, and communication was not very easy in those pre-email days. I was fortunate, however, in that another faculty member's research was interesting to me, and he was very good to work with for my master's thesis. Chuck Miller's work in group decision-making remains interesting to me to this day. During that time I became more interested in the psychology of religion, and a new faculty member, Jim Fultz, arrived on campus. He had studied with Dan Batson, and was agreeable to supervising a dissertation in the psychology of religion even though he had worked with Dan on his altruism/helping research, rather than his religion research. Jim was an excellent mentor, and gave me a good start.

As I say in my piece on Graduate Study in the Psychology of Religion, it is very important to study religious behavior and belief from the perspective of one of psychology's more dominant sub-disciplines. Job openings specifically targeting the psychology of religion are rare, but if you study religion from a social-, developmental-, clinical-psychology (or other) perspective, you will find it much more feasible. I was also fortunate in teaching statistics and research methods in my first job after graduating. This allowed me to apply for more faculty positions, and ultimately led to my getting a one-year position at Georgia Southern University. Now, 18 years later, I am still here and am serving as department chair. It all became possible because I was absolutely fascinated by psychology, actively researched the field, and sought out opportunities to teach and publish research. It has been a very rewarding career.

I hope that this helps you understand what is involved in university teaching and research!

Best wishes
Michael Nielsen

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