Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Professorship feels more as a small business than as a job

I have experience of working both in a really small family business, and in a huge corporation. And recently I realized that being a young professor is really close to running your own tiny company. Which is kind of funny, as I never thought about it that way before, when I was a postdoc.

In corporate business, as long as you work OK, nobody dies and nobody gets bankrupt. The gears turn a bit slower, maybe you don't get a promotion this year, but really the leeway between getting fired and becoming a star is rather wide, and staying within this range is relatively easy. Also you are always working in a large team, so as long are you are putting your due effort most of the time, everything goes forward pretty steadily. You are on a giant ship, and while your work contributes to its movement, it's pretty hard to wreck it by one or two bad decisions.

In small business the feeling is very different: you are always cognizant of the fact that if you don't do this something today, nobody will do it, and then in a month you won't have money to pay your contractors, and then in two months you will have nothing to eat. The work is not necessarily harder, and it is not even more stressful necessarily, as you are more free to do what you want, and nobody is harassing you from above, but you always feel the movement of your little boat, and every time it scrapes the gravel or hits a log, you feel it with your own bones.

Professorship is really close to this second type of feeling, at least pre-tenure. I am aware of about 4-5 things that I need to do this fall in order to survive this year. They are all totally doable, so it is not a problem, but it is kind of funny to realize that I am heading towards the spring semester, and I still don't have equipment for one of the courses. I can build this equipment in about a week, and I seem even have the funds for it, but somehow it makes you feel exposed, you know what I mean? Makes your life a little bit more dramatic; gives a bit of a combat feel to it (at least according to my limited experience with first-person shooters). You are describing the course for the coursebook, having only an idea in your head: a clear and good idea, but nothing more. It feels very immaterial.

I guess faculty in research universities have it much harder, as they need grants to support their grad students, and the same kind of uncertainty puts other people lives in stake, not only their own. And I guess it was worse in my postdochood, as postdocs have very little tactile feedback from their performance. Using the same marine allegory, being a postdoc is like being a technician somewhere in the depth of a mid-sized ship, without any access to the top deck, and no idea bout the direction of the ship, or the concentration of icebergs in this area. So it's much better now, really, than it used to be. Yet I'm really looking forward to the moment when I have all the equipment, a good set of lab protocols, all skeletons of courses written, and the minimal number of publications as required for tenure. Once this is done, I can start taking riskier projects, messing with my teaching, and generally having scientific fun. Until that, it's some jiu-jitsu in slow-mo. With elements of fire juggling.

1 comment:

  1. Except that most of us are 'winging it' as we go along... So no real business strategy.