"What's it like to be a professor, Happy academic?"

Surfing around the other day, I came across a couple of posts– this one from New Kid on the Hallway, and this one from jill/txt— about the transition from being a graduate student to being a tenure-track faculty member. Interesting and worthwhile reading, especially for those out there who are thinking about trying to make a life as a happy academic as well.

(BTW, I very much like the look of these blogs and other blogs powered by things other than Blogger. One of the things on my “to do” list for the spring/summer is to do some significant revision of my web sites and blogs, and one of the things I want to do is to create some kind of free-standing web site that collects my “Happy Academic” musings. A lot of what I wrote previously on this topic was on the MoveableType version of things, and folks did read those posts via a Google search of some sort. But I had to take that down because of all the spam. Anyway, whenever I surf around other blogs that are powered by things like MoveableType or WordPress or even Drupal, I think “ooohh, those blogs look so much cooler than mine,” and I contemplate a switch back. Then I remember the spam and the lack thereof with the less than cool Blogger. Anyway, changes are coming, but probably in the form of more static web sites and probably not away from Blogger).

I’m quite a bit more removed from the graduate student life than both the New Kid and Jill Walker– I finished my PhD and started my first tenure-track job in 1996– but I still remember being a graduate student, and I still remember the transition from graduate student life and professor life.

What was it like, you ask?

For starters, I much prefer being a professor to being a graduate student, and I have from the beginning. Years ago, I remember having lunch with my dissertation advisor one afternoon. Among other things, she used this lunch as an opportunity to give me the “you just wait– it just gets harder” speech. I recall that she gave me this speech while I was waist-deep in the confusion of the opening chapters of my dissertation, and I am sure that my wife and I, both living on grad student assistantships, were trying to decide if I could afford both food and heat that month.

My advisor was right about many things, but not about this. Being a PhD student was not completely without joy, and I was excited about the things I was learning of course. But in general, I thought being a PhD student sucked, certainly relative to being a professor.

Don’t get me wrong– the transition was tough. My first job was at Southern Oregon University, and faculty were responsible for teaching three four-credit courses for three quarters in a row. That’s a lot of teaching. I think the first three months or so at SOU was probably the most difficult time I’ve had on the tenure-track, and in my two years there, I had nine different preps. Besides the teaching load problems, SOU was (and still is, I think) perpetually broke, and there were always rumors that they might have to “let go” some of us non-tenured-types. These are some of the reasons why I’m not there anymore.

Still, by far the worst time of my academic life was the time I spent finishing my dissertation. By far. I had the job offer from SOU and I was determined to start that job with a degree in hand, so I pretty much spent night and day in the spring term of 1996 so I could graduate in August ’96. I was so stressed out and took such horrible care of myself that it literally hurt my body just to walk from my car to the English department building, pretty much the only exercise I got. Leaving graduate school meant getting an enormous monkey off my back.

And in a lot of ways, my move from “student” to “professor” was easy, perhaps unusually easy. I was (am still) married, and I came into SOU with two other “freshly minted” PhDs. I think coming into the job with both a social life and fellow new hires as colleagues made a big difference. We didn’t have graduate students in the English department at SOU, so there was no “I was just like you last year” sort of encounters with ABD folks. And besides all that, my wife and I literally doubled our income with my first job, and Ashland was (and is still, I think) a pretty groovy place to visit and live. So life then was not completely “problem free,” but on the whole, my move from grad student to professor wasn’t so bad.

And for the New Kid and Jill and anyone else who happens to come across this: I do think that the transition continues to get easier. Sure, there is the whole “getting tenure” thing, which is stressful (though it varies so much from school to school, and since neither of my jobs have been in “publish or perish” departments, my journey to tenure was a lot less stressful than many others). But distance from graduate school builds perspective and confidence (good things), and, to a certain extent, forgetfulness.

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