The Secret Lives of Faculty: Getting There | Opensource.com

The Secret Lives of Faculty: Getting There

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The path to becoming a college professor is (at best) non-lucrative, typically a substantial debt burden, and at worst a dead-end. Once one "arrives," it is another six years until you are officially a wiseguy of the academy, and if the pyramid scheme doesn't pay out, you're done. Join me in a look at the path faculty must take so they can work with you to promise open source software in higher ed. This is article 1 in the series (previous articles: 0).

This isn't so much my story regarding the grad school experience as an amalgamation of many. And it isn't a "best case," it isn't a worst case, but instead is a bit of a kinda grim case for what people tend to experience when doing advanced degrees. The PhD is typically a long, challenging road, and not one to be undertaken lightly.

I'm sharing this because there's interest afoot in getting faculty involved in introducing undergraduates to FLOSS projects as part of their work. And, if that is the case, I want more members of the FLOSS communities to understand what those faculty went through to get where they are. Before we talk about the actual work of a member of the faculty at a College or University, I'll start with how many of them got in the door: by completing a PhD.

Getting In

To get into grad school, you fill out an application like many others. I remember answering questions about what I wanted to do with my life, why I wanted to study Computer Science, and so on. In 1998, we were fully into the Internet Boom, and I was wondering if there were better directions to go. That said, I was admitted to a program, offered funding as a Teaching Assistant, and thought that was a reasonably good deal.

Getting in isn't the hard part: getting funding is.

Funding Grad School

As a TA, typically your tuition is waived, you make a stipend of $12-15K/year, you get insurance through the school (it probably comes out of the stipend, just like parking and gym access), and you teach in one or more sections of an undergraduate course in your discipline. For me, this was a course that introduced approximately 800 students per semester to word processing, spreadsheets, and HTML. I would have around 90 students per semester that I was responsible for introducing to basic computing and tool usage, and many of my students struggled. I suspect the situation remains unchanged today, as the course is still being offered.

My situation was typical for a student in the sciences at a large research institution; students like myself were probably supported in part by revenue from the institution's endowment, in part from tuition dollars, and almost certainly in part from overheads drawn from grants received by faculty within the department. (I don't know for certain where the money for TAs comes from at a large institution—but I suspect those guesses are close enough for the purposes of this article.) Consider that a large research insitution is probably a $2B+ enterprise, with more than $1B in various financial vehicles and anywhere from $500M to $1B in debt at any given time. Institutions of higher education are not small business.

There were fewer TA positions in the humanities, and grad students in those positions were worked far harder than I was. A TA for three sections of Intro Comp in the English department would have 90+ essays to grade... many times per semester. They would be working so hard to keep up on grading that it was unlikely that they could get work done on their own dissertations. So, while I was well funded and had a relatively reasonable teaching/grading load, I was able to keep up on classes and research without incurring debt. In the humanities, students often need to draw on external funds (read: loans) to complete their degrees, meaning one might graduate with anywhere from $50K to $150K or more in loans. (Memo: it takes around 20 years to pay off $100K in student loans at roughly $700/month.)

Coursework and Quals

Your first two years (in the US) are spent in coursework. If you had your ass kicked as an undergrad, the workload isn't significantly worse, but it is clearly a step up. If you coasted through an institution that didn't challenge you, grad school can come as a serious wake-up call. At the end of the day, if you know how to manage your time, and how to work hard, graduate programs at most institutions are manageable things.

Your coursework will either be breadth- or depth-first, depending on the qualifying process in your department. That is, before progressing on to the PhD, you typically have a series of exams to demonstrate that you are ready to engage in research. (How exams do this I'll never know, but you have to take them, so it's best not to ask impertinent questions.) At my institution, they covered the breadth of the discipline, while friends at other institutions had exams that explored a single topic deeply. So, while I was being examined on everything from languages to operating systems to theory and algorithms, friends elsewhere were digging into artificial intelligence and little else. While the qual process varies in each discipline and at each institution, the effect is the same: it is a hoop you must jump through as you progress towards an advanced degree. Failure to pass the quals means that you cannot move on to proposing a plan for research.

Research

While engaging in your coursework, you'll be learning your department's culture (it has one), getting to know faculty, exploring possible research directions, and so on. You're typically discouraged from getting too involved in research early on, as you are expected to master material and pass the quals in a timely manner.

That said, you want to be identifying the area of research you want to commit to for three or four years, and (for that matter) an area of research that will largely define your work for the next six years after graduation. I say this because the dissertation is a substantial piece of work, and the area you work in will likely define the kinds of faculty positions you can then apply for. Once you commit to doing research on the Semantics of Frobnitzian Scheduling for Multicore Wracksplats, you're going to be expected to have some expertise (and teach courses in, and get grants pertaining to) the broader fields of Frobnitzian Scheduling and Multicore Wracksplats when you are hired as a member of the faculty.

In choosing a PhD topic, you are choosing an area of research that will likely define the next 10 years of your professional career. And in choosing a dissertation advisor you're choosing the one person you're going to work with through 4 of those years, who will play a substantial role in your success at (a) completing the degree, and (b) obtaining work afterwards.

No pressure.

Publish or Perish

I suspect a grad student's life has changed somewhat since I started my degree in 1998. In fact, I know it has, having now served on two search committees: the expectations regarding research publications and publication quality have gone up since I started grad school.  Or, faculty entering the profession in 1998 had it easier than those entering the workforce today.

Today, I think it is fair to say that a PhD student is expected to have one or two quality publications under their belt by the time they have completed their PhD. Candidates who have weak publications (meaning the hiring committee thinks poorly of the publication venue) or no publications are viewed skeptically. This is likely more true for the natural sciences (Physics, Chemistry, Biology, etc.) than it is for the humanities (Literature, etc.). I say that because getting your dissertation published as a book is often a big step in the career of someone in the humanities, while journal publications (in the sciences) and current conference publications (in Computer Science—and there are dangers in that model) are the common path to publication excellence.

I want to say that this is hard to do. It is no longer the case that your first major publication comes out after your dissertation: now, you must be publishing good work on the path to your dissertation. This raises the stakes in terms of getting started on research sooner (rather than later) and choosing an advisor who will support you and encourage you to publish early (yet appropriately). While this may all sound like "academic nonsense" to the working professional, these are the metrics by which academics are hired and fired, and so we must demonstrate excellence along those dimensions—and, in this economy, we must demonstrate that excellence at earlier and earlier stages in our careers.

The Dissertation

You've read hundreds of papers, countless book chapters, and a number of seminal books in your field. You've written scads of code and papers about it (the software doesn't count—only the papers about your work matter), and now you have to write "the dissertation."

At some institutions, the dissertation is a collection of papers you've written on your way to completion. At others, it is a unique document (that might borrow from earlier published work). Regardless, it is around 150 - 200 pages of material that contributes to the knowledge of your discipline. Actually, I think I was capped at 250 pages (including appendices), so my dissertation clocked in at 180 pages plus another 69 of supporting material. In some disciplines this would be considered short, in others long.

Writing a document of that size can be soul-crushing. You're likely at the end of a trying 3 to 4 year process, during which time you've seen friends burn out, relationships start and fail (sometimes marriages born and broken—possibly even your own), financial troubles (remember $15K/year?), and so on. Sure, you had some good times, too, but you now need to bring everything together, focus in on completing your research, and (at the same time) find a job.

For some, this process (called "ABD," or "all but dissertation") lasts years. I've met people who introduce themselves as being an ABD PhD. For the record: it doesn't matter. You either have a PhD, or you don't. It is a binary qualification. There is no "A" dissertation or "C" dissertation: just one that is complete or incomplete.

It is likely the stressful nature of this binary quality that does many students in. And, honestly, I have nothing but respect for people who punt along the way, because a lot of things about the process can really suck. It's a hard choice to make, but kudos to the people who realize that there are other things for them in life than generating 200 pages of text that only three people in the world will ever read.

In Conclusion

A PhD typically takes between 5 and 8 years to complete. If you are in Computer Science, you are likely to have funding to support you for some of your time, and (if your research advisor is well funded) you will be funded the entire time. If you are in Literature, it is likely you will have little or sporadic funding and incur a substantial amount of debt along the way. While it might be better to get a PhD from an engineering school with a TLA (Three Letter Acronym) than Random Large U., the fact is that both grant PhDs, excellent work takes place at both, and in the end, you have the same degree. One just has higher suicide rates.

If you had entered the workforce at $50K/year after completing your undergraduate degree, you would have earned roughly $400K or more during that time (not counting stock options and the like, which would have vested by now). At your workplace, you would have seniority of a sort, especially if you continued to improve yourself (perhaps by completing a Masters in your spare time, or through certification courses offered through your place of work).

As a recent PhD graduate you likely have zero work experience outside of the academy, and now if you apply for a job outside of acadmia, people who work in HR will tell you that you are "overqualified" for any job you might be considering. Further, they will wonder if you really want a job that doesn't involve "research," because that's the only thing you're really qualified to do.

And, even though you have spent five to eight years as an apprentice researcher, your most likely employer (a University or College) will not treat you as an expert. In the eyes of your institution and your colleagues, you are (once again) a n00b.

And so, this is where we will pick up next: the academic calendar, your new working rhythm.

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About the author

Matt Jadud - Matt is passionate about the design and development of usable languages for embedded control. You can some of his work at concurrency.cc, a rallying point for parallel programming on the popular Arduino platform. However, most of the time Matt keeps himself busy as a member of the faculty at Berea College.