The state of the profession

There’s plenty of talk about the crisis in higher education. Countless books, articles and blog posts have professed the deterioration of college education and blamed it, for the most part, on the faculty who don’t care about the students. Instead, we spend most of the academic year on research, then take a nice long vacation over the summer.

I would have a different story to tell, and then a mental exercise to suggest.

There are indeed many of us who have made research our lives’ work. We’re in it for the challenge and the pleasure of discovery, for the outlet that it provides to our creativity. That’s why we ended up in academia in the first place. We’re good at research and we’ve demonstrated this to everyone’s satisfaction.

And yet, a full professor at a large research university in the U.S. or Canada often has to work a full-time job, 40 hours a week or close to it, before any research gets done. We spend that time on teaching, writing grant proposals, supervising graduate students and postdocs, serving on committees, attending faculty meetings (here, attendance at promotion and tenure meetings is mandatory), editorial work, refereeing, writing evaluations and reference letters, and more. Much of it (calculus teaching, many committees) is completely unrelated to research. Some tasks (refereeing, various evaluation exercises) call for the scholarly expertise we’ve gained in the course of our work as researchers, and some (grant proposals) are quite directly related to that work, but writing about research and actually doing it are two different things.

The time we have left for research while classes are in session amounts, essentially, to evenings and weekends. (The actual schedule may vary: we may carve out a weekday afternoon or two for research meetings, then prepare for classes after hours instead.) Maintaining a quality research program requires a good deal of time, preferably in long uninterrupted blocks. From the time classes start to the end of the final exams, we’re, for the most part, dead to the rest of the world.

It would be unrealistic to expect that more than a handful of us could make a living purely on research. Traditionally, academic jobs have always combined research with teaching. But the same tradition also defined university teaching in terms of making advanced knowledge available to students, with emphasis on the students’ own agency in partaking of that knowledge. That’s what I remember from my own undergraduate days. The university professors of old were not evaluated on their ability to inspire interest in otherwise indifferent students, nor did they have to teach the addition and multiplication of fractions. They were not under constant pressure, either, to use clickers, classroom technology, or innovative teaching techniques.

This is not to defend bad teaching. Boring and pointless lectures are boring and pointless. Better teaching requires more time and effort, though, and so does maintaining the current quality of teaching when classes get larger and students come in less and less prepared. This rewrites our job description, increasing our teaching workload in terms of hours spent on it even as the number of courses we teach remains unchanged. Such work can be worthy, challenging and satisfying; but, in the present quantity and combined with everything else we do, it is barely compatible with research, the activity that (as I said already) attracted many of us to academic jobs in the first place.

It’s not just teaching, either. The demands placed on us get ratcheted up across the board. NSERC has effectively made “HQP training” mandatory for all scientists who seek Discovery Grant funding. Projecting from current data, it may well become next to impossible to get a research grant 10-15 years from now without some form of outreach activity and/or engagement with the industry. New administrative tasks get added on a regular basis. Promotion and tenure committees have been known to raise questions if there is some specific type of activity that we did not engage in (why did this person not teach large classes?).

Research still gets done. We still have the summer (the “4-month vacation”, in the popular opinion), we learn to guard our time, and some semesters are lighter than others in terms of teaching and administrative loads. And we still have sabbaticals, although with the multiple postdoc jobs at the beginning of the career it can take a very long time before we’re eligible for one. (12 years, in my case. But at least I didn’t have to teach throughout graduate school, as many students do nowadays.)

But the cracks are beginning to show. I’ve known talented and accomplished young researchers who quit academia so that they could spend evenings and weekends with their families. There’s often a slump in a researcher’s productivity around the time the administrative and HQP duties really kick in. People burn out and give up. The plague of “least publishable” incremental papers is due not just to the constant pressure to publish, but also to the lack of time to work out something more substantial.

More importantly perhaps, the mindset required by the ever expanding non-research part of our job – entrepreneurial, businesslike, competitive, often adversarial, well suited to running multiple tasks in parallel on tight schedules – is not at all what it takes to do mathematical research, a quiet, focused, intense pursuit, sometimes playful, sometimes contemplative, almost always unstructured. Some of us combine the two well enough, be it through natural predisposition or learned skill. Others don’t.

True creative talent in mathematics is rare. It should be nourished and encouraged wherever it can be found. And yet we’re apparently willing to discard it unless it’s coupled with a passion and gift for teaching, a comfort with the pressure cooker of paperwork and deadlines, and any number of other skills completely unrelated to research per se. We saddle top researchers with more and more duties that just barely (if at all) touch on their particular exceptional talent.

Now, here’s the mental exercise. With all the above in mind, what other hypothetical models of an academic career might be feasible that would give us more research time and attract those potential researchers who may be discouraged by what they see now?

I, for one, would be very interested to see a world where teaching is highly valued and well rewarded, where being asked to teach three courses instead of two is a mark of prestige, where financial compensation for teaching is higher than research pay. That would make teaching more desirable for those who wish to go that way, but by the same token, it could provide opportunities for others to scale back or opt out. We’d earn less money and miss out on teaching prizes, but we’d have a more manageable workload and more time available for research. Some of us would find it to be a reasonable trade. (I also wonder how gender dynamics might work in that world. It could well turn out that women are only good at research, and only interested in research careers, but never as good as men when it comes to teaching. But I digress.)

(And yes, this would cost money. Teaching, at every level from kindergarten to college, is demanding and difficult work that has long been underpaid, especially in the U.S. Want better teachers? Pay them better.)

Universities may have to become more flexible in offering workload-reducing arrangements. This is already being done on a small scale, from personal and family leaves to sabbatical leaves to teaching buyouts. Part-time appointments might become more common, not just for health or family reasons, but also for those of us who are willing to accept a lower salary in return for a lighter schedule with more research time.

Some European countries (e.g. France) have government-sponsored research institutes that offer research appointments with no teaching. The system varies from one country to another, but there’s usually some trade-off involved, for instance lower pay or lack of job security. Perhaps someone better informed could fill us in on that?

And why not combine a part-time research appointment with a non-academic job? We could make our living working elsewhere, say at a financial institution, in the tech industry, or at a start-up, and combine that with a university affiliation through which we could supervise graduate students or apply for grants. No, really. Think about it. Many employers are already used to part-time work arrangements, and a grant system similar to the NSF summer salaries could supplement our income. Most of the possible objections from our individual point of view – the other job has little to do with our research specialization, it would take time and effort to learn it, and so on – apply equally well to teaching. Much of the administrative overhead might just disappear. NSERC is encouraging us to “engage” and “interact” with industry – what better way to do so than actually working there? There must be institutions or start-ups out there that would be happy to have some of our time.

Well, that’s enough speculation for now. But please feel free to add more in comments.


Filed under academia

16 responses to “The state of the profession

  1. Very interesting remarks!

    Concerning France, I think you refer to CNRS, which is a pure research national institution. People working there have no teaching duties, though they often teach graduate classes voluntarily. The jobs are permanent, and the salary is comparable with that of similar French university positions (so relatively low; “university” is here shorthand for the usual professor-type jobs — the place where most CNRS people work is also a mathematics department in a university, they just have a different status).

    What drawback is there? These positions are few and far between, especially at the senior level (around 10 to 15 junior positions per year in mathematics, and around 5 senior, at least in the last 10 to 15 years). So many (especially) good (or very good) young French mathematicians, although they of course apply to CNRS, do not get these positions. And the real negative is there, to my mind: one gets a two-tier system, with a few people able to concentrate on research, while many others, who are not necessarily (!) worse researchers have to go through all the other university duties in parallel with research…

  2. Just to add to what Emmanuel says – there is a bit of a tradeoff, in that pay is a little lower in CNRS and progression a little slower: the salary table for a CR1 is very close to that of a maître de conferences classe normale (not to that of a maître de conferences hors classe), and (word on the street has it that) people tend to become DR (senior researchers) a little later in the careers than they become PF (full professors).


    (a) the indice majoré needs to be multiplied by 55,5635/12 to give the monthly salary. There are usually small bonuses along the way (the ‘standard’ one you get without asking for it is about 100 euros).
    (b) figures given in source II under “euros nets” are after deductions but before income taxation. Experience suggests that income tax for somebody earning ca. 3000 euros a month is very roughly about 300 euros a month, though of course this depends on many variables.

  3. – and of course you can make a bit of money on the side by teaching undergraduates if you feel like it, unless you do so at what may arguably be the most prestigious undergraduate-centered institution, in which case you would end up doing it ad honorem (little birds tell me).

  4. Kevin O'Bryant

    We have a grad student here at CUNY who this year eschewed teaching in favor of freelance programming, and seems to love the change. I know a professor (at one of the UC schools) whose professorship is unpaid: he’s involved with mentoring, Putnam training, math club, and the like, but instead of teaching heads regularly to the local casinos. There’s also Stan Wagon’s arrangement; iirc, he and his significant other split one professorship.

  5. anon

    I’m still a grad student so we’ll have to see what the future has in store… …but I would rather live on the streets and eat out of garbage cans than sacrifice my whole life to teach calculus to kids who are only there because they’re required to be there, and they’re only required to be there because of politics. One of the big huge problems though is if I live on the streets, how will I get articles which are hidden behind Springer and Elsevier paywalls?

  6. Kevin – yes, that’s the sort of thing I had in mind, except that it’s not clear how this would scale. The casino model might be difficult to replicate.

    Anon – I could think of jobs that are worse than teaching calculus, and I’m guessing that most street people would still take them if they had a choice. But as for the paywalls, I think they’ll have to go the way of the dodo. Most current papers are already on the arXiv for free, and commercial journals are being replaced by open-access journals. I’d be more worried about access to libraries (books, old journals). Still, if someone quits teaching for freelance programming and wants to continue doing research, some minimal kind of university affiliation should take care of that side of things.

  7. I’ve heard people say that in principle they’d prefer to go on, say, 2/3 workload for 2/3 pay, in order to have more time for research, family, etc. But the trouble is, the job of an academic is so ill-defined that ensuring you really were only doing 2/3 of the workload would be very difficult. A 2/3 teaching load wouldn’t guarantee it, because unless you were extremely disciplined about saying no, you’d still have all the other tasks piling on.

    And actually, I’ve seen this in action. Some of my colleagues have retired in phases, going part-time for a year or two before retiring entirely. The amount of non-research work they’ve done in those intermediate years seems to have had little to do with the nominal workload, and everything to do with their personalities.

    So, I like the idea of flexible workload-reducing arrangements, but it seems to me that implementing them fairly would pose some difficulties.

  8. Basically, yes. 2/3 of an undefined quantity is not very well defined, either. Perhaps a specific amount for each course we teach, with some cap on how many course we can add or subtract? Or another amount for a clean break from all service work for a period of time? The amounts would have to be fairly high, so as to make it a choice between reasonable alternatives (as opposed to just everyone opting for the lowest possible workload).

  9. I don’t think ad hoc arrangements are going to do it; they will always be seen as unusual, and hence likely to be harmful to one’s career.

    One possible question is whether Canadian academics would find it appealing to have the option of having research-only positions with French salaries. (In the US, that wouldn’t really be an option, given many personal expenses that are moderate in Canada and non-existent in France: health, college for one’s hypothetical kids…) At any rate, I do not know whether individual institutions would be willing to provide such positions; in France, as we have made clear, the CNRS is a country-wide state body.

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  11. Sabrina

    I am an undergraduate, and believe it or not, I ponder this issue all the time. I am sure that the workload is counterproductive both for the research and the teaching, and that it may threaten the quality of life of persons who are overloaded. It is sad to see very, very, bright, motivated individuals who are simply spread too thin to ‘shine’ as it were. I have had so many amazing professors whom I would love to see…more rested, at least. I usually think of an improvement as something like this: Hire a handful of full-time teachers, ie. those people who love to teach, and chose to teach as their full-time profession. Set them loose on the students. You can find them at any college, and in general, are all fantastic at what they do. Then, schedule your associate or full-time professor’s teaching load in alternating ‘spells’, ie 2 years with ‘full-time’ classes, then 2 years with little to no classes. Or something of the sort. The salient question is fiscal, of course, but I would argue that there may be fiscal benefits gained in this model, too numerous to list. Does this seem unreasonable?
    I plan one day to make a change, or at least a dent, in these systems. They worry me. I know we can do better, for our students and our professionals.

  12. observer

    When academia turned into an industry vicious circles started kicking in, resulting in the degradation of this line of work. Calculus as it was taught for 5% of the population can’t be understood by 30% or more (just like there is a limit on the number of chess players that can reach the grandmaster level), making teaching frustrating and introducing all kinds of saving schemes, e.g., graphical calculators (sometimes honest teaching would have to cover no more than operations on fractions, but then the course couldn’t be called calculus). Requiring the same publication standards on expanded faculty results in incremental progress papers – actually, quite often trivialities or copyright infringements, e.g., presenting the same algorithm in countless qualitatively the same but different looking equations in the overfunded area of mathematical biology. Then such abhorrent stuff has to be refereed, eventually driving people mad, etc. (actually, one of my co-authors, an old timer critical of this circus, really liked getting a paper with sth new in his area of interest to referee). Instead of introducing changes to reflect a new environment (e.g., putting an upper limit on the number of publications of an academic employee per year – to get people interested in the dramatically growing number of posed open problems instead of journal games), people are waiting until the system becomes unsustainable and starts falling apart, like e.g., in the euro-zone debt debacle.

  13. anon prof

    Hi, I’m a math prof at a Canadian university. I love doing research. I like teaching too but if I had a choice, I’d be doing research close to 100%. On the other hand, I am grateful to be teaching because:

    1. Nobody would pay me to do research if it wasnt for teaching. In fact I think this is true of the majority of my colleagues, at least in the math world. Let’s face it, 90% of math research has very few “real world” applications, despite what many mathematicians will yell from their rooftops.

    2. Basically, I view teaching as a “justification” for the existence of professor position. While I enjoy research much more, I view it more of an “entertainment”. I do not expect the society as a whole to pay for my research; I do expect it to pay it for my teaching. So given all this, I’m more than happy to teach a few courses.

    3. Let’s compare prof’s load to that of a school teacher: a prof typically has 3 classes per year; maybe a TA to grade most of the homeworks. I estimate I spend perhaps 10 hours each week on teaching, and that includes grading.
    And about that calculus: it basically requires zero preparation and zero grading because of TA’s. Grad courses, while much more interesting to teach, usually require an enormous time investment in comparison. Compare this to a high school teacher: maybe 40 hours per week in front of students; plus all the school teachers I know always end up doing grading at home!

  14. If you spend 10 hours per week on teaching, you’re lucky. Here at UBC Math, I would estimate it at about 5 hours per 1 hour of classroom time, or 15 hours per week per course, not counting final exams. We have TAs to help with grading, but we are explicitly instructed *not* to leave the grading to them exclusively, especially given that many of them are undergraduates who only just took the same class a year earlier. For homeworks, this means providing detailed solutions and grading instructions. For midterms, this means a grading session together with the TAs, or else splitting the grading, detailed instructions for the TA again, and checking their work afterwards.

    The TAs do not normally help with grading the final exams. The largest calculus classes have TAs especially hired to help with that, but most of us don’t. Last semester I taught 2 courses, for 60 and 75 students, with final exams on consecutive days, and had to mark both exams by myself within a week. It was not the best week I’ve ever had.

    I would certainly expect having to do something else in addition to research. On the other hand, I do not treat research as “entertainment”. If I weren’t getting paid for it, I wouldn’t do it. And while there are plenty of us who are happy to combine research with teaching, I would love to see more opportunities for combining research with other (non-teaching) types of work.

  15. anon prof

    Really? 5 hours per one hour lecture? Perhaps for a course you’ve never taught before… But for something like calculus/linear algebra?

    For me, if it’s a course I’ve taught before, I will typically spend maybe 20 min before the class to review the material [ok, I also turn it in my head while say eating dinner the night before; or changing diapers]. Homework does take time to prepare; I typically give a homework every 1.5 weeks. But 5 hours?

    For graduate classes, yes that does take alot of time. Indeed could easily take a day [or more] to prepare a lecture for grad course I’ve never taught before.

    Ok, I was overly optimistic: considering that in a typical year, I might have a course I haven’t done before, perhaps I spend 50% of my time teaching related activities… also I spend alot of time looking after graduate students.

  16. Yes. Really. And at this point I’m writing a separate post about that. Just so it’s clear, I’m including homework and midterm preparation, writing up and posting homework and midterm solutions, posting sample midterms, meeting with the TAs, grading, regrading, office hours (3 scheduled, additional on demand), sending broadcast emails to class list, answering email from students, coordinating with other section instructors, maintaining the course web page, picking up a microphone before each class if necessary, sending exams to the disability centre, preparing and reading midterm teaching evaluations, uploading the syllabus to several different webpages, and so on. All of this is either required by the department or expected by the students (if you don’t do it, it will be reflected in your teaching evaluations).

    And courses you have not taught before? Happens here all the time. For calculus and linear algebra alone, there are several varieties of each (calculus for science and engineering students, for life sciences, for social sciences and commerce, for honours students, for students who need remedial work, and more). Existing courses get reorganized and new ones get added all the time.

    The routine you are describing sounds similar to back when I taught in Princeton (1997-2000). A 4-course teaching load there (with 2 sections of the same course, courses repeated from year to year, common midterms, etc) was significantly lighter than a 3-course load here.