The Secret Lives of Faculty: Getting There |

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.


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.



Gary Scarborough

The biggest problem I see in most PhD programs is that there are too many hoops. Having a MS in IT, the only reason for me to get a PhD is to do research. I know faculty who practically endured slavery to get through their PhD. Some faculty I know believe that since they had to go through hell, their students should as well. Does it make them better researchers? Does it make them better teachers?

Why do we put such obstacles in the way of people who want to teach? There is little that people learn in their PhD program that has anything to do with effective teaching. Yet a PhD is like some rite of ascension that suddenly means you know what your talking about. The people who know any subject the best are the ones who do it on a daily basis, not researchers who only care about grants and publishing.

Universities also seem to have trouble accepting non traditional scholarly work. Some tenure committees only care about the number of papers you have gotten published. What about doing community work in open source? Working on Gnome or KDE or some other project doesn't seem to matter, even when its proven to benefit the university.

Matt: As a faculty member, does your university count your work on this web site or with Arduino towards your tenure work? Or do you work at an institution that only really cares about the number of papers you get into ACM?

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The best research mentors are those who help their students learn to be productive, obtain funding, publish good results, and do so without abusing the people around them. Just because it is academia should not mean that humane operating procedures don't apply. Sadly, there are plenty of examples (too many?) where abuse, negligence, or just plain poor management damage the lives and careers of would-be PhDs.

At my institution, the requirements for tenure and promotion are spelled out in the faculty handbook:

My teaching matters most, my research second, and my service to the institution and my community third. I have no idea whether writing for "matters" in the eyes of a tenure and promotion committee. It is almost certainly the case that peer-reviewed publications matter and blogs don't. (That said, if FLOSS is to continue to play a role in my teaching, and if I want others to collaborate with, my writing here might be useful/valuable -- so... evaluating utility is a bit more complex in reality, but we'll ignore that for the moment.)

My work with the Arduino is part of a larger teaching and research context. I'm ultimately interested in programming language usability, as it blends my passions for computer science education research and programming languages. The Arduino is a physical manipulative that I can use to motivate both student learning of parallel programming as well as provide an authentic, resource-constrained space in which to explore VM and compiler technologies with colleagues and students.

So as a "scholarly activity," my work on developing and distributing language tools for the Arduino becomes a core part of both my teaching and my research. Because my institution is teaching- rather than research-focused (and collaborating with undergraduates on research often has a pedagogic quality to it), these things come together nicely. I would focus my energies differently if I were in a different institutional context.

That feels like a long non-answer. I think, however, that my work with students must, first and foremost, be excellent for me to remain at my institution. Maintaining active research and involving students in that work is necessary and good. What, however, is "good enough" in any given context is not something I'm able to easily define at the moment.

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Matt Butcher

I think I'm about to start year #3 as ABD. When the dissertation is done, I'll have a Ph.D. in philosophy. One of my primary interests is the philosophy of computers -- particularly the ethics of FOSS. (A subject upon which I made my first and second forays into the "publish or perish" world).

One point that I think is interesting to reinforce is that while research is stressed and the emphasis of the dissertation is on producing a new contribution to your field, there is a catch (in my field, at least). Research while doing grad work and while writing the dissertation has to be fairly orthodox. Working on the ethics of FOSS as a dissertation topic, for example, is outside of the realm of possibility for me because it is outside of the main stream of standard philosophy. That particular issue stalled me for quite some time until I found another more traditional topic that was more traditional.

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As someone from the open source community who's looking at walking down the long road of becoming a professor myself someday, thank you for the preview. Two (somewhat-related) thoughts came up in my mind while reading, and I'll attempt to articulate them here.

One of the things that many - not all, but a pretty good portion, in my experience - people in the open source community take for granted is an environment where abundance is the default. Try things out, toss ideas around... computing power is cheap, the software is free, and you've pretty much got nothing to lose except the small amount of time you've invested. But the process of becoming an academic takes a long time and comes at a high cost to the grad student or new professor (time-wise, financially, and in terms of career opportunity and mobility), and that probably changes the perception of risk.

When a newcomer enters the world of open source, failure is expected - even encouraged as a way of learning. The same happens in good classrooms, I'd argue. The difference I've noticed (and had pointed out to me) while working with your class at Allegheny is that classrooms have a timeout for success - by the end of term, that failure must have turned into learning, and for every single student in the class (ideally). In the open source world, individuals can keep running down a path as long as you have the interest and the inclination; there's no need to stop and pause for an exam, because you're on your own learning timeline and going for a task you've set rather than a degree that someone else has written the requirements for. So the assumptions we have about the kinds of learners that come into FOSS communities, the rate at which they'll enter (individually, rather than 40 all at once) and the sort of scaffolding they need in order to hit what they define as "success" within the timeframe they're looking for... may need to be reexamined when working with classrooms.

I'm still forming these thoughts in my head - my thinking here is not yet clear - but these were the first two things that came to mind.

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John Beetem

... does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Just one, but it takes him nine years.


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I knew some of the details of the process, but had never seen them laid out in one place. Forwarding to several friends who are considering the PhD path but not sure what to expect.

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David Wurmfeld

During my academic career, I have spent more time teaching myself then I ever spent in the classroom or lab. Using the Internet and discovering, designing and implementing real projects taught me more than any course taught by a disinterested professor.

I did get the paper, I did grad school, but in the end I still had to teach myself those skills needed to do as well as think.

Why not an open forum of peer reviewed research? Why not an open degree program predicated on the foundation that if you can demonstrate your proficency that you are "worthy" to be considered "educated".

I would like to contribute to the knowledge base with research that interests me; it may or may not be up to any particular standard but then again, it just might be. Why must it be associated to a particular school?

If peer review before publication is "good", then why not open peer review?

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