Why did I start this blog?
When I mention this blog to my friends or colleagues, a common question I get is: “What made you start a blog?” After pausing for a few seconds, my response is for the following three reasons: 1) to educate the general public about the job of professor, 2) to keep track of my experiences, and 3) if successful and useful, to eventually compile the content of the blog into a book.
Educating the public
A common perception of a professor is that of a teacher because most people interact with their professors in a classroom setting. The face-to-face interactions are limited to two to three lectures per week and office hours (which are typically only used around the time of exams or quizzes). Many people also experience a poor teacher and wonder why the professor still has their job. The reality is that professors only spend a fraction of their time and effort on teaching, and at most big (i.e. research-intensive) universities, teaching is not the reason they are at the job.
Professors are typically driven by research, that is, discovering or inventing something that nobody in the world has seen or built before. The unsolved problems of humanity and the potential to provide a solution get us out of bed in the morning (or makes us stay up all night for those of us who are night owls). While every professor wants to teach well, keep their students happy, and pass on their wisdom and knowledge, within academia (the profession of professors), they are known for their findings in research (in the form of peer-reviewed publications and conference presentations).
For example, most students probably look up their professors on ratemyprofessors.com. On the other hand, most colleagues in academia will look professors up on Google Scholar (my profile is here). A Google Scholar page provides a quick overview of the type of research that a professor is doing and how impactful it is (as indicated by the number of citations of a publication, i.e. how many other papers have cited a particular publication). An even better way of finding out about someone's research is to attend a talk given by the person. Some people present well, others not so well, but we all get better with practice. In addition, the questions at the end of the talk indicate how engaged the audience was and also offer an opportunity to generate new ideas—one of the key driving factors of research.
Often when people think of “research,” they think of looking something up. For example, let us research what is a good computer to buy by comparing specifications, performance, and cost. In academic research, literature review—looking up what other people have worked on in your field of interest—is a starting point, but that's all it is. Actual research involves brainstorming, designing experiments, obtaining funding (mostly the job of the professor, also known as the primary investigator or PI of the research group), executing experiments, troubleshooting (lots of troubleshooting because often the experiments are new and nobody has done them before, which increases the chances of unexpected problems), analyzing results, repeating experiments, forming a story, and sharing results. Research (especially in engineering) can also lead to the development of new technologies in which case research also involves the testing of a concept and demonstrating a feasible prototype.
My personal interests lie on both sides: discovery and invention. I am curious about underlying rules of life and about building diagnostic and rehabilitative technologies, all of which could help us stay healthy.
On the invention side, professors often file patents and either license them to relevant companies or form a startup company to build the technology further. The advantage of founding a start-up as an academic is that you still have the security of a job (to cover your living expenses) and yet, you get to venture into new avenues.
On the discovery side, professors focus on publications and conference presentations. These discoveries could lead to breakthrough technologies years down the road, and the best of them are awarded Nobel prizes.
Research involves obtaining funding from federal agencies, foundations, or industrial partners to pay for the expenses associated with hiring students and staff, purchasing materials and equipment, and paying for a professor’s summer salary (in the United States). Conducting research also involves then spending this money appropriately by purchasing equipment and materials, interviewing and hiring personnel (postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, lab technicians, undergraduate students), obtaining services (e.g., for characterization of materials), and travel (for conferences/meetings).
Most professors do not spend much time in the lab conducting experiments (even though most of the training during Ph.D. and postdoctoral fellowship focuses on lab work). It is the other lab members that run the experiments. We typically spend more time designing and troubleshooting experiments and analyzing results. In my group, this exchange takes place in the form of weekly group meetings, when everyone presents the results from the previous week and outlines their plans for the upcoming week.
Professors also spend a lot of time writing/revising research papers and this is important because it creates a story about the work that goes on in the lab. If we do not publish our work, it might as well not have been done (as my postdoctoral advisor would say).
To disseminate our research, we also present our work in the form of oral or poster presentations at national/international conferences. These conferences involve traveling to a variety of destinations all over the world. Professors will attend anywhere from a few to tens of conferences/meetings every year. During these meetings, we are still typically continuing with our usual work, e.g. writing grants and papers, reviewing other grants and papers, and responding to e-mails (when we have internet access). So, it is not really a vacation even though some destinations make it seem like one. It is a good networking opportunity to meet people in our field of research. My best experiences have been at smaller focused meetings (e.g. Gordon Research Conference) because I get to interact closely with the attendees and potentially start future collaborations.
Besides research and teaching, we also spend time on “service.” which could range from serving on committees that keep the university functioning (e.g., see my previous experience from serving on graduate admission committees) to serving on grant review committees (where we offer our expert opinion on which grants should be funded). We often serve as judges to evaluate posters or oral presentations at a variety of symposiums on campus. We spend our time on thesis committees for graduate students and on writing recommendation letters for students we teach or mentor. In addition, we serve as advisors for student clubs. Most commonly, work in these committees is conducted in the form of hour-long meetings (for every committee) once every week or two.
In a future blog post, I will probably have specific numbers for the hours spent on different aspects of the job and what a typical schedule for a week looks like, although there isn’t really a “typical” week.
Keeping track of my experiences
I am also using this blog as a journal. I feel like we grow from our experiences and it is easy to forget the challenges and joys of overcoming these challenges as time passes. By writing down some of these experiences, I can reflect back on them years down the road and maintain a relevant perspective when interacting with younger colleagues. I also hope that some of these posts resonate with other faculty members that are in similar situations and they are inspired to share their experiences (maybe even write articles as guest authors on this blog). In addition, these posts can shed some light on the realities of the job to prepare graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who are looking to get a tenure-track position in academia. The journal also helps me track how my skills are improving over time, e.g. writing and teaching.
Building content for a book.
If enough readers (like you) find the content of this blog useful, I hope to compile it in the form of a book someday. If I set out to write a whole book, it would be a daunting task (I have written book chapters before, which was the same amount of work as writing a journal article, but a complete book would be a different story). Instead, if I write a little bit at a time it seems like a plausible project.
When do I find the time to write this blog?
I write most of the content when I am traveling (e.g. when waiting for transfer between flights). Then, I dictate the text one of the evenings and format it into a blog post. Once a month has been feasible so far and each post has taken a few hours to prepare. It does not take away too much time from work, maybe just from watching a couple of extra episodes of Netflix shows.