I have been looking forward to writing this post ever since I decided to start a blog. When I tell people that I am planning to leave my faculty position in higher education by the age of 45 it elicits some puzzled looks. Why would I give up on a career that essentially guarantees me a job for life (under most circumstances), a flexible schedule, and three months off per year? The reason is quite simple, regardless of all the perceived benefits, it is still a job. Originally, like many people, I put too much emphasis on what I did as a career being directly related to who I am as a person. The idea of pursuing an intellectual passion and sharing that with others through research and teaching, however, is not the same thing as having a job or career as a university professor. In fact I find that in my research area, working at a university can sometimes get in the way of my true intellectual pursuits. So my plan is to leave academia by the age of 45. Below I have listed some pros and cons of working in higher education that influenced my decision to ultimately leave this career behind. Realize that not all academic institutions share every one of these attributes, but I do think there are some strong generalizations that can be made. This list is based on my experience working for both a large public research university, and a medium sized private teaching university.
- Flexibility in Schedule (also a con, see below) – Compared to an office job, being a university professor provides far more flexibility in your work schedule to a point. Aside from my teaching schedule, office hours, and committee meetings I generally can determine when I want to come to campus and when I want to leave. I get three months off in the summer and almost one month split between December and January.
- Intellectual pursuit and career – I get paid to think, research, talk, and demonstrate. While there are parts of my job that are tedious, the majority of the time I am actually trading my ability to think and teach for money.
- Travel – While there are limits, I get to travel a fair amount to conferences and workshops that are paid for by the university. As a result, I also get to accumulate airline miles and hotel points that I can personally use throughout the year.
- Potential job security – If you land a tenure-track line and receive tenure you have one of the most secure jobs that a person can obtain. Baring a financial crisis at your university or committing a felony, you are essentially guaranteed a job for life.
- Resources- Access to library resources (databases and journals), lab space, equipment and technology, and an institution to support external funding for research.
- Politics – The politics at a university can be intense. Imagine an environment where the majority of your colleagues have very strong opinions on everything, have nearly impenetrable job security, and are essentially self-governed. I could write an entire book on faculty politics in an academic environment, but in this post I will simply leave this as a very strong negative to working in some higher education institutions. My current institution is much better than my previous university, but many of the same elements are still present.
- Compensation – With the exception of some highly specialized fields, the pay can be underwhelming, especially considering the time (and for many, money) it takes to acquire a Ph.D. degree. When I took my first tenure-track faculty position I received a salary that was only 3% higher than what I made as a high school teacher. When combining all disciplines the average starting salary for an assistant professor is $64,414 a year. The other challenge with compensation is that once you are in a faculty position the only way to really raise your salary is to move to a different academic institution, or become an administrator. Moving of course comes with the risk of having to go through the tenure process again at a new institution, or losing your prior tenure if you do not get hired with tenure in place. In my situation I gave up tenure at my previous institution to essentially start at the bottom again.
- Work Hours – While there is some flexibility in my schedule, it should not be confused with the amount of time needed to successfully do my job. Between research, writing, teaching, meetings, grading, and planning I tracked myself as working an average of 70-80 hours a week. The expectations also include being available through email at any time which destroys productivity. For some professors once they receive tenure they could operate on cruise control and significantly reduce the amount of time they spend on many activities such as research, but my personality and personal ethics would make that challenging for me to do. I have seen many examples of this over the last several years.
- Inflexibility in schedule- While I mentioned flexibility as a pro there a certain things that are not flexible in most faculty positions. I do not get sick leave or vacation time which means during the academic year it is very hard or impossible to take time off. Sure, I can cancel my classes if I am extremely sick or have a genuine emergency, but barring that I do not have the ability to take time off.
- Geographical choice – Want to have a tenure-track faculty position and choose where you get to live? Good luck. The reality of the higher education job market is that you take a job wherever you can find it, especially in the first few years of your career. There are only so many jobs available in general and if you limit yourself geographically, you reduce your chances of actually getting a job. I am lucky to have found two in locations I like ( first Florida, and now North Carolina), and to be honest it is one of the main reasons I chose the first institution. The problem I would have if I wanted to continue working in this career for the next 25+ years is that I would have to either stay here forever or have to be willing to accept moving anywhere a job is available if I decided to leave.
- Schedule- I teach exclusively at the graduate level. This means that most of my student interaction happens in the late afternoons and evenings. Sometimes this goes well into the night with student meetings and courses. This is not conducive to maintaining a strong family life with a spouse and children at home. I will say that in my current institution this has improved quite a bit since in my previous institution I was teaching courses three times a week face-to-face until 10pm at night.
I have highlighted a few of the pros and cons of my current career as a faculty member in higher education. I am sure that some of the cons could be mitigated to an extent if I moved to a different institution, but in most cases it would involve trade offs (i.e. salary for location). Since I want to reach FI by the age of 45 I am determined to maximize my income. If that means staying in higher education for a few more years or finding something more lucrative to increase my income and savings, I am more than willing to make that change. The simple reality is that of all the things I truly wanted to accomplish when I first started pursuing a career in higher education I can do without actually needing to work for someone else to do them!