While I like being a professor, I am obligated to give a warning to those considering this career path. To be specific, I would warn you to reconsider. This is not because I fear the competition (I am a tenured full professor, so I won’t be competing with anyone for a job). It is not because I have turned against my profession to embrace anti-intellectualism or some delusional ideology about the awfulness of professors. It is not even due to disillusionment. I still believe in education and the value of educators. My real reason is altruism and honesty: I want potential professors to know the truth because it will benefit them. I now turn to the reasons.
First, there is the cost. In order to be a professor, you will need a terminal degree in the field—typically a Ph.D. This means that you will need to first get a B.A. or B.S. first and college is rather expensive these days. Student debt, as the media has been pointing out, it is at a record high. While a bachelor’s degree is, in general, a great investment, you will need to go beyond that and complete graduate school.
While graduate school is expensive, many students work as teaching or research assistants. These positions typically pay the cost of tuition and provide a very modest paycheck. Since the pay is low and the workload is high, you will be more or less in a holding pattern for the duration of grad school in terms of pay and probably life. After 3-7+ years, you will (if you are persistent and lucky) have the terminal degree.
If you are paying for graduate school, it will be rather expensive and will no doubt add to your debt. You might be able to work a decent job at the same time, but that will tend to slow down the process, thus dragging out graduate school.
Regardless of whether you had to pay or not, you will be attempting to start a career after about a decade (or more) in school—so be sure to consider that fact.
Second, the chances of getting a job are usually not great. While conditions do vary, the general trend has been that education budgets have been getting smaller and universities are spending more on facilities and administrators. As such, if you are looking for a job in academics, your better bet is to try to become an administrator rather than a professor. The salary for administrators is generally better than that of professors, although the elite coaches of the prestige sports have the very best salaries.
When I went on the job market in 1993, it was terrible. When I applied, I would get a form letter saying how many hundreds of people applied and how sorry the search committee was about my not getting an interview. I got my job by pure chance—I admit this freely. While the job market does vary, the odds are not great. So, consider this when deciding on the professor path.
Third, even if you do get a job, it is more likely to be a low-paying, benefit free adjunct position. Currently, 51.2% of faculty in non-profit colleges and universities are adjunct faculty. The typical pay for an adjunct is $20-25,000 per year and most positions have neither benefits nor security. The average salary for professors is $84,000. This is good, but not as good as what a person with an advanced degree makes outside of academics. Also, it is worth noting that the average salary for someone with just a B.A. is $45,000. By the numbers, if you go for a professorship, the odds are that you will be worse off financially than if you just stuck with a B.A. and went to work.
Fourth, the workload of professors is rather higher than people think. While administrative, teaching and research loads vary, professors work about 61 hours per week and work on weekends (typically grading, class prep and research). Thanks to budget cuts and increased enrollment, class sizes have tended to increase or remain high. For example, I typically have 150+ students per semester, with three of those classes being considered “writing intensive” (= lots of papers to grade).
People do like to point out that professors get summers off, it is important to point out that a summer off is a summer without pay. Also, even when a professor is not under contract for the summer, she is typically still doing research and class preparation. So, if you are dreaming about working two or three days a week and having an easy life, then being a professor is not the career for you.
Fifth, the trend in academics has been that professors do more and more uncompensated administrative work on top of their academic duties (research, teaching, advising, etc.). As one extreme example, one semester I was teaching four classes, advising, writing a book, directing the year long seven year program review, completing all the assessment tasks, and serving on nine committees. So, be sure to consider the joys of paperwork and meetings when considering being a professor.
Sixth, while there was at time that professors were well-respected, that respect has faded. Some of this is due to politicization of education. Those seeking to cut budgets to lower taxes, to transform education into a for-profit industry, and to break education unions have done an able job demonizing the profession and academics. Some is, to be fair, due to professors. As a whole, we have not done as good a job as we should in making the case for our profession in the public arena.
Seventh, while every generation claims that the newer generations are worse, the majority of students today see education as a means to the end of getting a well-paying job (or just a job). Given the economy that our political and financial elites have crafted, this is certainly a sensible and pragmatic approach. However, it has also translated into less student interest. So, if you are expecting students who value education, you must prepare for disappointment. The new model of education, as crafted by state legislators, administrators and the business folks is to train the job fillers for the job creators. The students have largely accepted this model as well, with some exceptions.
Finally, the general trend in politics has been one of increased hostility to education and in favor of seeing education as yet another place to make money. So, things will continue to worsen—perhaps to the point that professors will all be low-paid workers in the for-profit education factories that are manufacturing job fillers for the job creators.
In light of all this, you should probably not be a professor.