College Professor Job Description:
First of all, you're teaching, each semester (most colleges and universities have two semesters, roughly from September to the end of December, and then mid-Janauary to April or May), two to four classes of students in your subject. Your class sizes may be tiny seminars (8 - 10 people); they may be vast lectures (over 100 students). It depends on whether you're at a small college or at a large university, how popular your subject is, etc.
I'm a tenured English professor at a mid-size school, and I never teach more than 30 or so students. Many of my classes are a good deal smaller than that. I teach two classes each semester. Typically, you meet your classes twice at week for and hour and fifteen minutes; so in terms of sheer face-to-face class time, the job is not very demanding. If you're at a research university, you're also expected to publish articles and/or books, alone or in collaboration with others in the field.
To keep salary rises pretty steady (and to get tenure), you need to keep publishing at a pretty healthy pace. You're expected to give scholarly papers at conferences in your field. You are also expected to contribute administratively, by sitting on committees in the department in a larger college or university.
Many people wonder how to become a college professor - what were your career steps?
I always loved to read challenging novels, poems, plays, and essays of literary criticism. I also loved to write essays about them. But I worried about the terrible job market for English majors, and decided instead to get a degree in journalism. I went to Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism for year, but really disliked being a journalist - the superficial forms of writing, the running after a story... it just wasn't me. I transferred to NU's very good English department, and was happy.
After I graduated, I worked for a year in Chicago as a copywriter for a big ad agency, and while I liked the money and the buzz of this sort of job, I knew it wasn't for me in the long run. I went to grad school in English at the University of Chicago, which gave me a large fellowship (I'm not sure people should get very uncertain degrees like English degrees unless someone else is paying. I haven't had to deal with paying back student loans, which is a real blessing.).
I was incredibly lucky, given the bad job market. I got ten interviews at the Modern Language Association annual meeting (this is where interviews are conducted for almost all jobs in the humanities at American universities) and was in the nice position of getting to choose among the University of Southern California, Tulane, and George Washington University, all of which offered me tenure track jobs (when I was up for tenure at GW, I also got tenured-track job offers from the University of Michigan and from William and Mary).
Since I was already settled in DC, having been teaching part-time at GW, and having married a professor at the University of Maryland, I took the GW job. I got tenure awhile back; I've been at GW for most of my career (I spent one semester teaching at the University of Toulouse, in France, and another semester at the University of Warsaw, in Poland).
During your career as a college professor, has the internet created problems of student plagiarism?
The internet makes everything worse, but there's always been a lot of plagiarism. There are burdensome official ways of dealing with plagiarism, or with your suspicion of it, but I tend not to want to drag my university into it. To the extent possible, I've simply told students that I think they may be plagiarizing. We talk about it. They get lower grades. They have to rewrite, etc. I give a lot of in-class writing assignments so as to get a sense of how everyone writes.
What advice can you share on how to become a college professor?
If they're very good in a certain field, and if they are fired up at the idea of teaching on the college level and having a research career, I'd encourage them to give it a try. Jobs are scarce, especially in the humanities and social sciences, but they're not impossible to get. I'd say that if money and flashy possessions are going to matter a lot to you, look elsewhere. But if autonomy, long stretches of time to yourself, and an opportunity to get paid reading books you love and doing research you love sounds attractive, go for it.
What are ways to supplement a college professor salary?
Remember that you're only working nine months out of the year; there are quite a few ways, with summer school, consulting, and other options, for many to supplement their college professor salaries.
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