In May 2020, the EECS Comm Lab, in collaboration with Prof. Saman Amarasinghe, hosted a seminar series for MIT EECS PhD students and postdocs who wished to learn more about what it’s like to be a professor and how they can prepare for a career on the tenure track. You can find an overview of the event here, and a summary of each session is available:
Session 1: Being a Professor is the Best Occupation
Session 2: Getting Through the Junior Faculty Years
Session 3: Getting a Faculty Job
Session 4: Preparing for Your Own Faculty Application
Session 1: Being a Professor is the Best Occupation
Session 1 was a reflection by five MIT EECS professors on the responsibilities of their job and why they think it’s the best job in the world. The panelists were:
- Prof. Saman Amarasinghe
- Prof. Regina Barzilay
- Prof. Srini Devadas
- Prof. Martin Rinard
- Prof. Ronitt Rubinfeld
This blog post is divided into four major themes: research, teaching, community, and stresses of the job. Although each panelist focused on a specific topic, they all weighed in on multiple themes. Each section below summarizes the relevant discussion of all panelists. Let’s dive into why being a professor is the best occupation!
Research is the most familiar responsibility of a professor to grad students and postdocs. Research is the part of the job the panelists were most passionate about and were thrilled to talk about. One of the best parts of their job is the freedom in doing research that comes from being your own boss. As a professor, you are uniquely able to determine your research direction and work on the problems that captivate you. You have total control over how to organize your research team to solve challenging problems. This level of autonomy makes them excited to come to work every single day. In Regina’s case, the freedom allows her to work on research problems in seemingly disparate fields: natural language processing (NLP), oncology, and chemistry.
With being your own boss comes some of the stressors of being a professor. When wanting to move from working solely on NLP to doing research in oncology to improve breast cancer outcomes, Regina experienced one of the hardest parts of being a professor: the rejection. Her first attempt at securing funding for her newly proposed research direction led to three out of three grant rejections. All the professors on the panel had their own similar stories of rejection. The key is to not let the rejection discourage you. Persistence is an essential characteristic of being a professor. In Regina’s case, she reformed her strategy and focused on delivering presentations globally and applying for funding from industry and philanthropic organizations. After obtaining her first successful grant, she carved her path in an entirely new domain.
According to the professors, there is really no other job where you have complete control over what you want to do. However, securing funding can sometimes get in the way of pursuing ambitious ideas. As long as you have the persistence to see your ideas through, the ability to not take rejection personally, and the creativity to be on the lookout for the next best idea, you can successfully navigate some of the stressors of being a professor. Stress is a part of the job, but that is clearly outweighed by the excitement of working on topics you are passionate about.
Teaching is another important role of a professor and is arguably one of the most time consuming parts of the job. Srini outlined the different types of classes you can teach, the benefits of teaching, and some of the pitfalls.
First, we start with the three kinds of classes a professor is likely to teach.
- Introductory undergraduate class. This can be the hardest class to teach. You will have the technical knowledge, but you need to learn to stand up and perform in front of a large audience. Keeping freshman and sophomore students engaged can be challenging. This skill comes from a lot of practice.
- Senior undergraduate class. The students in these classes are more technically strong, but they will still be lacking context for the material. You need to find a way to deliver the content at the right rate. For Srini, switching from slides to the blackboard made a big difference in helping to slow down to the right teaching pace.
- A seminar-type class in your research area. Many graduate students or postdocs already have experience that would translate to teaching a class like this. In a way, these lectures can be similar to delivering a research talk in a conference.
Other than being required to teach, why should you care about being a good teacher? Srini finds teaching highly rewarding and said it actually helped him become a better researcher. By teaching courses in different technical areas, he developed a breadth of knowledge to draw inspiration from. Teaching allowed Srini to transition from being an electrical engineer doing research in hardware to a theorist working on cryptography. He had gone through the gamut of teaching classes from circuit design, computer architecture, computer security, and finally to cryptography. To teach, you need mastery. By teaching with experts in these areas, he learned to master the material and transition his career.
So, how can you become better at teaching before becoming a professor? Practice! Srini recommended getting a variety of teaching experience as a teaching assistant and through other experiences. Step outside of your comfort zone and teach an introductory undergraduate class to see what it is like to deliver material at a basic level to eager minds. Teach a course in an area adjacent to your research to expand your horizons. Get one-on-one teaching experience through office hours or mentoring students to see what it would be like to mentor your own future graduate students.
One word of caution: it can become easy to get carried away with teaching as a new professor. You need to be able to balance teaching and research. As a new professor, teaching can easily take up all of your time, so it is important to remember to manage your time effectively.
The academic community is another reason being a professor is a great profession. In academia, you join a vibrant community and get to work with eager students that bring fresh ideas, highly driven postdocs that inspire, and junior and seasoned professors that have the same excitement as they did in graduate school. The enthusiasm and excitement makes this job fun. Academia is an energetic environment surrounded by people passionate about their work and keen to discuss new ideas. Compared to her experiences in industry, Ronitt feels that the academic environment is more dynamic with less homogenous thinking. New ideas make the work exciting.
As a part of this community, many of the panelists echoed similar personality traits that made them successful: resilience, self-confidence, competitiveness, and independence. The job of a professor is tough and requires being resilient to overcome rejection. It requires self-confidence to the point of being stubborn to stick with your ideas. A self-competitive drive is needed to push your ideas to succeed. If these don’t resonate with you, don’t worry. Many of the panelists felt the same way early in their careers, and many experienced a strong feeling of imposter syndrome. These qualities often start to emerge as one makes progress in research, and discovers a passion for their field.
Stresses of the job
All these benefits of being a professor do come with some costs. Since faculty are free to pick their research directions, there is a lot of stress in making sure that they pick the right research projects. Picking the right project for the right student can also be difficult. Balancing teaching, doing research, writing grants, and mentoring students is challenging. The pre-tenure portion of one’s career can be especially difficult. The key to success in academia is to balance one’s time effectively, a skill that it’s never too soon to work on. With all of these stresses though, the panelists felt that it was a good stress, a busy stress. There is always so much to do, and they are excited to come to work every day.
The job of a professor is unique in that it allows you to have total control to work on problems that you find meaningful. As a professor, you get to join a community of passionate and driven people to draw inspiration from. Through teaching and mentoring, you can inspire the next generation of students. If you’re passionate about your research, enjoy teaching and learning from others, and enjoy being a part of the vibrant academic community, then this is certainly a profession to consider.
Blog post by Mazdak Abulnaga, MIT EECS Communication Fellow