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Saturday, August 9, 2014

Why I want to be a Professor

The placement season is just starting for the 2015 graduates. (In IITs, it will start on 1st December.) And newspapers are already talking about a crore+ salaries this year. That it would be for a very small number of graduates is lost on most people. And in this race to get the biggest package, one career that is often forgotten is that of an academic.

There are some obvious problems with the career options. You can't join it just after the under-graduate education, and hence your parents can't boast about it to their neighbors and relatives. In fact, even after 10 years, they won't be able to boast to people whose only parameter of success is money.

However, there is an equally obvious advantage. If you can monetize smiles, you will be amongst the richest persons on earth very soon.

Just to give an example of how our compensation package works, a couple of months ago I went to UAE on a tourism trip with my family. About 2 months before the trip, I posted on facebook seeking advice. We had lots of advice, but we also had lots of offers of hosting us, of taking us around, of arranging everything for us, many of them from people unknown to us. The only common bond was that they had studied in the same institute in which I am a Professor. (Not all were alumni. We had other wonderful people too, like my batchmate from school days who went completely out of his way to help us in so many different ways, my wife's co-worker who hosted us for two nights and made sure that we had all the comforts. But I am focusing on alumni because every profession will have friends.) We decided to still go ahead with a tour operator, but kept a couple of extra days to meet some of these wonderful people and enjoy their hospitality.

One of the IITK alumnus hosted us for a day. We had not known him. He just called us up one day and told us that we had to accept his hospitality. That he understood our reluctance and shyness since we did not know each other. But for him the fact that I was a professor was an excellent reason to offer that hospitality. When we reached his home, the affection that we received was tremendous. Our kids still would like to go back to this "uncle" and "aunt". They took us around for the whole day. My son only had to mention that he would love to see the Sharjah Cricket Stadium where India and Pakistan have played so many cricket matches, and this alum just drove all the way there. It wasn't exactly next door. Money can buy an overnight stay in Burj Al Arab, but money can't buy the affection with which a professor is treated by an alum.


The satisfaction that you get when you are able to explain a concept to someone who did not know it earlier is immense. Sometimes it could be straightforward, and sometimes it could be frustrating. But the end point is always the same - a smile on the faces of those students. Money can buy all the books, but can't buy that smile. If only there was a way to monetize those smiles, ...

You work on a problem that you want to work on, and not what would add value to the company in the next quarter. I am not trying to belittle the value of next quarter, but there are times when you want to think of next year, or the next decade, or the next generation. Sometimes you don't want to think of just one company, but of the society, of the nation, of humanity at large. Very few professions allow you to work on such a broad canvas.

As a professor, I end up meeting with successful people from all walks of life. When we invite such people to visit our campuses, they usually accept our invivtations. If you are a professor, you are more likely to meet such amazing fellows than any other profession (unless you have really been highly successful yourself and is in the category of people who get invited to campuses). Now consider this. What is the metric of success (other than money) - that you get invited by educational institutions. By this metric, all professors are successful by definition.

I can't think of any other profession which allows you to come home for lunch with kids, or even stay withing walking distance of the office. And if that does not impress young students (they obviously can't imagine what is the value in having lunch with kids), at the very least what must impress them is that I have a bigger area of the house than a majority of my batchmates (many of them don't even live in a bungalow - but in an apartment). Yes, I can't sell this house. But I can live in it for a large fraction of my life, and by the time I have to give it up, I would actually be happy to shift to a smaller flat.

If I compare myself with the top 1% of the countrymen, I guess I can call them rich, there is pretty much nothing that they would have in their household that I don't have. And as I have often said, if one is not happy being richer than 99% of the countrymen, one won't be happy being richer than 99.1% of the countrymen. If you think happiness is relative, you would never be happy. If you think happiness is absolute, then faculty salaries are actually quite attractive. So even in terms of what money can buy, this profession is not bad. But if you add what money can't buy, then this profession is absolutely awesome.

I can go on and on. Actually, I haven't even started to say how great is this profession. So before you plan for that placement interview, think about higher education - MTech/PhD. Give GATE, or any other relevant exam, if needed. But don't trade the wonderful world of academia with the instant fame in the batch of a high paying job.

31 comments:

SKT said...

I don't really know how to respond to this post. At large, I agree with you but I still feel that this is more of an absolute experience. I doubt that other non blogging, not IIT, socially lazy faculties would have received such hospitality. Second, the career in academics takes too long. I am not complaining but One can not be sure about outcome (academic position). Most of us who had B.tech/M.Tech/PhD from IIT(s) would not like to end up in a mediocre institute. The numbers of PhDs produced by IITs are far more greater than the faculty positions available. There are a lot of things to be changed and people like me are scared enough of politics and lack of freedom to do academic innovations in non-IITs/IISERs. Reinventing academics and faculty recruitments are certainly bigger challenge. There are many of us who are in postdoctoral stage and dream to serve the country (obviously with minimum satisfactory compensation). It would be really nice of you if you could come up a blog post about faculty recruitment procedures in these institutes. Basically busting the myth that all is about publications.[I doubt it is not].

liszt85 said...

Dr Sanghi, you clearly love your job and the respect that comes with it. :) I am a 2009 alum, currently in my final year of a PhD program. I have to tell you though that while a career in the academia has all the advantages that you stated, it is actually quite a gamble to pursue such a career. The reason is, you typically need to do multiple years of post doc before you can even get into a tenure track job and at least in the US, tenure is not exactly a cake walk. So you spend close to a decade (!) after your PhD in various post doc positions + seeking tenure and then a committee decides whether or not the past 15 or so years of hard work means tenure for you. Students also need to know about the statistics behind these tenure track positions. If students look at the number of PhDs with similar qualifications competing for each tenure track position (in most fields), then not many will pursue a career in the academia if they go into it fully knowledgeable of these numbers. We are doing students a disservice by not educating them completely about the odds before we encourage them to devote 10 or more years of their life seeking such a position. So any advice column/article to students about the advantages of a career in the academia should also talk about the cons, without which it would be unfair to the students, in my opinion. Great post otherwise.

Thanks,
Vishnu

Prashant said...

I don't think it is the money factor which turns people away from academia, it is the thought of doing a PhD which stretches for an indefinite amount of time, not everyone has the tenacity to sustain it. Perception that it is extremely hard to get a professor's job even after a PhD probably scares away a few more people. Also, for the high-paying corporate jobs which you mention - make a list of students who get them; few years from now you may observe that many have switched back to research, academics, startups etc. I can think of a lot of my batchmates who became professors. As people inch closer to graduation, they get a better understanding that money isn't the only driving factor. Else this quora answer wouldn't have been the most upvoted one. At least from what I observe a large number of EE, CS, Math students go back and do a PhD after a couple of years in the Industry.

गलियारा said...

Sir, I am from IIT Gandhinagar. I want to become a proffesor like Mr Feynman. There are still many students in IIT who think in your way.

Meera Vigraham said...

Thank you for this article. My son is a gifted teacher, right from his kindergarten days he has always tried to teach kids smaller than him. I can see the joy in his face when he is able to get across to someone and make them learn or understand something. In tenth standard on teacher's day when it was mandatory for students to teach other classes he kept the entire 9th standard spellbound teaching biology, what was to be a half hour session turned into a two hour session where he taught several chapters. He taught using examples, humor, anecdotes and diagrams. The teachers were so impressed that they watched standing at the back of the class room and told me all about it. Two years later students still come to him and say they remember the entire chapter of the Human heart from what he taught and have had no need to learn it from the text book for the board exams. Sadly he is considering a career as a boimedical engineer. His other consuming interest is in prosthetics and therefore the choice. I am very keen on showing this article to him so he may consider teaching as an option.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@SKT, Number of PhDs produced by IITs is far more than the number of faculty positions available could be true. But then, isn't it also the case that the number of BTechs produced by IITs is far more than the number of 10+ lakh jobs available in the market.

I think for an undergraduate in a top institution (and this post was primarily for 4th year UG students), the chances of landing a 10+ lakh job in industry and keep climbing the corporate ladder for the next several decades is lower than the chances of landing a faculty job in the top institutions in India.

And while I may get respect and hospitality because of my being active on social media, it means that anyone else in my place could also be active on social media and get all what I get.

The process of faculty recruitment is rather simple. Just express your interest in a job to a few people in the relevant department/institute, say, head of the department, Dean of Faculty affairs, Director, may be a friend or research collaborator in that department, and after that the department/institute will chase you.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@liszt85, the situation in US is bad in the sense that the stress levels in academia are worse than in industry. I was advocating faculty position in India in one of the better endowed places - may be the top 50 places in each discipline. There is a huge need for faculty positions in all these places, and getting a job is not that difficult, and keeping it is even easier.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Prashant, The struggle in the academia is visible to the under-graduate students in terms of poor PhD students struggling to debug that code, or make sense of that data. They don't see the struggle in industry, and they believe what they don't know must be nice. Of course, it also helps that industry knows how to motivate its employees, while we professors have no training in dealing with our PhD students.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Meera Vigraham, your son can work on prosthetics and still be a professor. This is the beauty of the profession. You have much wider choice of doing things.

Girish Elchuri said...

I feel there are two reasons most people chose their profession. One, who follow their passion, what the society think of them. Two, follow the herd. And there is there is the real Three, where they can make lots of money (over the table or under the table). From the description you have given the life a Professor, is far superior to being a bureaucrat, where you have to work in harsh conditions, to unfriendly bosses, in a possible below average work environment. But tons of guys dream to get into that line.

I feel, what people can make in any profession should be made decent and thus at least those who are not behind money can pursue those professions, if that's their passion.

While I see a trend of many students treading a non-traditional path and getting into professions of their passion, we probably need to market the teaching as cool and comfortable to make it attractive to more.

Also, do we need only PhDs getting into teaching at technical institutes. Why not non-research folks ?

In conclusion, I say, market it, and make it practical.

Abhishek Anand said...

I agree with your comment that "the situation in US is bad in the sense that the stress levels in academia are worse than in industry.". However, is there a document/blog going in more depth on the differences between the responsibilities and expectations from a Professor in the US vs. a professor in India? If not, is there a document/blog that just explains the responsibilities and expectations from a Professor (at all career stages) in India? Thanks.

liszt85 said...

Dr Sanghi: Thanks for your response. True, there is a lot more pressure on academics here in the US than in India. However, many of them thrive in spite of the pressure. One of the reasons for that I believe is the terrific research environment here. The top 10 Indian universities/institutes will find it hard to match the quality of research environment (availability of funding, infrastructure and a brilliant team) of even mid-ranked American universities. While there are exceptions (e.g. the CS department at IITK), there is just not enough support for research in many departments in India. One other major difference I've observed is in how people do collaborative and highly interdisciplinary work here in the US. I myself am getting a PhD in Psychology but I'm collaborating on papers with computer scientists and physicists. I would love to do such work in India. However, there is just not enough mutual respect between these departments, at least in my personal experience (at IITK, where my physics advisers and colleagues scoffed at the idea of me doing higher studies in cognitive science). I hope I'm wrong about the latter because Indian academics have the potential to do some great work at the intersections of these different fields. Finally, one major deterrent to pursuing an academic career in India for me is the amount of red tape. I'm not sure I want to spend a huge chunk of my time fighting red tape and bureaucracy. I can get things done much faster here. As for the funding situation, while the competition is stiff for funding in the US, at least funds are not non-existent. If anything that I said here is inaccurate, please do correct me because I'd love to come back to India and help advance cog sci research in India.

Prashant said...

Dr. Sanghi I *think* the smiles part you have mentioned is partly because you are a professor but also because you communicate, are active on social media, reach out to people etc. There just about 5 professors who I found really friendly and approachable and did make an attempt to stay in touch with them after college. Many were just neutral (which is understandable) but many were just plain hostile and seemed to derive pleasure in lording over intimidated students. A batchmate of mine who recently joined one of the IITs as a professor told me that the generation gap feels huge and it is hard to get along with the older generation to the point that he just ignores them. Also, my personal observation is (I know this is a bit of a generalization) that professors who did their higher education outside India had an extremely different behavior and were a lot more approachable than those who had done all their degrees within the country. The behavior was downright rude to an extent that such people would have been fired immediately for HR violation in a corporate workplace (flinging files etc.) Until this gap is bridged students will not feel completely comfortable stepping into this profession. After all, many people leave their jobs and work on their own ideas for long periods of time without income - leading to so many startups - pay is not key issue which people worry about while thinking about becoming a professor.

sunil said...

Anyone who is teacher by choice, would agree that the biggest motivator of being a teacher is not the monetary reward but the satisfaction of sharing and spreading that one has carefully learnt over the years .
It is true that everyone cannot be IIT professor but I can assure anyone who has an iota of doubt that if a teacher has done his job sincerely and passionately for the benefit of student he or she is remembered and respected for the whole life of student no matter what the level was. That really , is the biggest reward of this profession . many of us will fondly remember our mentors from primary and intermediate level of education .Level does not matter what matters is the intensity that touches a chord in mind and heart.Even if one has never met a teacher in person and interacted one one can have enormous respect for the knowledge and presentation.
It is sad that in our times the measure of person is success and measure of success is money one makes , but one needs to know and understand there is more to life than success and more to success than money .
Hope the article will encourage motivated and driven people into the profession of teaching.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@liszt85, I wouldn't want to compare US and Indian situations, since I don't think I am competent enough to do so. I do hear about US, but that is not enough to make an informed opinion. However, I would say that unwillingness of faculty to engage UG students in inter-disciplinary research or even discourage him from doing so in Masters and PhD is not the same as unwillingness to do inter-disciplinary work as faculty. Second, the funding situation has hugely improved. To get a Rs. 1 crore funding is not a big deal in India. And mind you, the Institute takes care of all infrastructure needs, pays to all your PhD and Master's students, gives you some default support (telephone, Internet, books, travel to conferences, etc), and the overheads are very small compared to India. All this means that 1 crore in India is equivalent to about a 1 million dollar grant in US. There is more red tape and bureaucracy, but very soon you figure out how to handle these things.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Prashant, when I look at the behavior of my colleagues and divide them into student-friendly and not-so-student-friendly I really do not see any alignment with PhD-abroad and PhD-India kind of groups. Second, I also notice that there are many faculty members who have a student-friendly image would be the most hardcore opponents of any proposal that seek to help students. So you really can not generalize on one input parameter.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Prashant, when I look at the behavior of my colleagues and divide them into student-friendly and not-so-student-friendly I really do not see any alignment with PhD-abroad and PhD-India kind of groups. Second, I also notice that there are many faculty members who have a student-friendly image would be the most hardcore opponents of any proposal that seek to help students. So you really can not generalize on one input parameter.

Ankur Kulkarni said...

I am a professor as well, but I am not sure if the reasoning you have offered is convincing.

- The offers to host you have come because you are a part of an institution that many have high regard for. This may happen for other institutions as well -- I know for instance that people who are RSS supporters often host RSS workers.
- In an IIT professor's job, there is autonomy, but there is not enough power. For example, do you have the means to be the best in field (or at least did you have it when you became a professor)? If not then of what is the point of the autonomy.
- Teaching does give joy. But that could also happen for a teacher in a coaching class. A person is a professor because he likes not just teaching but also research.

Living close to work is perhaps the only thing I agree with.

I think the reasons to be a professor should not be tied to side-benefits or inadvertent benefits, but rather in the core definition of the job. It should be based on the assessment of how this job helps you in your own career. So the right question to ask is: what do I want to accomplish? And how does this job let me do it?

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Ankur, I am assuming that students will evaluate their own interests and hence core job of the professor. My reason for writing this was to focus on things that students tend to miss out on. Obviously, this was written in the Indian context, and to place it in US context would not be proper. When students take up an industry job, they often talk about not just the core job content, but the side benefits of it, including money, and hence I am asking them to compare the whole package.

Your comments are in the same line as the question, "have you stopped beating your wife." If I were to say that we do have the resources to be the best in the world, your next question will be but where are the world leaders. And if I were to say that we lack resources, you will be able to say then why become professor. And I think the issue is irrelevant. Nobody joins industry job to become world leader. Some do become world leaders, and there are examples in Indian academia too of such world leaders.

Because Indian academia is not performing as well as US academic institutions in general does not mean that Indian academic jobs are worse than Indian industry jobs.

Ankur Kulkarni said...

Prof Sanghi, if your intention is to compare Indian industry to Indian academia, I think I would agree with your reasoning. No Indian industry has as high a regard in public eye as IITs, plus I believe governance standards are higher in IITs than in industry and the quality of peers one gets in industry may not be that great too.

In any case, I should clarify that I wasn't talking of the US context. I am a professor at IITB.

L said...

One day, I explained some concept to the class and at the end, there was a loud "oh WOW! " from one student. It didn't just make my day, it makes me smile even now after some 6 or 7 years. I don't regret the small size of the pay packet too much.

SatishKAmara said...

Most of the jobs in Industry don't have opportunity for innovation. Universities is the place where real innovation happens and Industry it's more commercial. For example Internet first development happened in Universities and it's true for many innovations also.

Prashant said...

I think this lovely little essay by Walter Noll, an eminent Mathematician, fits quite nicely in the discussion here

http://www.math.cmu.edu/~wn0g/RP.pdf

SKT said...

Thanks for the reply Sir.

Just a suggestion about the blog.. I think discussion could be broadened if you use google plus comments on your blog than the current comment system.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@SKT, I receive too many spams. And hence restricted comments.

Prathosh Ap said...

Hello Prof. Sanghi, thanks for a very motivating article. I'm a young (26 years) PhD from IISc working for an MNC research lab as a Scientist. I get paid very heavily as compared to IIT salaries, but I greatly miss being a teacher. One of the points that may be added here is that, working for an IIT gives one a sense of national service while MNCs can never.

Mukesh Prajapati said...

Hello Prof. Sanghi,
I liked the post and very idea of encouraging students to take up academia as a career as there is a dearth of good teachers as a whole.
I think the article and all comments are regarding a professor job in IIT or some other prestige institute in India. What if someone wants to apply for job a lecturer/assistant professor job in other-than-iit-nit college/university? Do they always look for PhDs? As per minimum criteria, Masters's in relevant field + UGC NET qualification is not enough? Is research experience is mandatory? What about those who have required qualification and good industry experience and what to come to academia?

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Mukesh Prajapati, In many colleges, Masters would be ok as the minimum qualification, but even then, for Professor's position, there will be a requirement for completing a PhD. One could, of course, do PhD while being a faculty member, but that is often very difficult, and in many cases I have seen that people are not able to do justice to both their teaching and their PhD. I would suggest that one might as well finish PhD before joining academia.

Mukesh Prajapati said...

Thank you for the answers, How about the acceptance of candidates in academia with only industry experience?

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Mukesh Prajapati, it depends on the institution and the discipline. For example in Management, it is well accepted and even desirable. In engineering, it is agreed but not excitedly. In terms of institutions, a teaching focused institute will be happier hiring from industry than a research focused one, unless of course, the job was a research job.

Mukesh Prajapati said...

Thank you, sir, for the satisfactory answers. I was talking about computer science / IT discipline.