Alex and Tyler like to post advice to graduate students (click here), which is usually on the mark. Here are some reflections from someone who has just finished the first year as a professor. I hope non-academic readers will enjoy knowing what this job is about.
1. Being a professor is all about time management. It’s important to spend time preparing classes and completing research but you have to be efficient. Unlike graduate school, you can’t spend years on a single dissertation chapter. It has to go to review soon, so you had better learn to write well and quickly.
2. This is really a cool job, but it is not for everybody. Although I am at a research university, I am expected to teach a fair amount – large undergraduate classes and doctoral students – and I must do a fair amount of administrative work. Anybody who is allergic to either activity should seek other employment. But if you like teaching, and you can thrive when you are expected to produce a lot in an unstructured environment, then it can be very satisfying.
3. Success in the academy is about writing skill – even in technical areas. Tyler might be interested in knowing that I learned this from him. Having brilliant ideas and doing the research to prove you are right is only half the battle. You must work very, very hard to clearly express your ideas and persuade skeptical readers.
While I consider myself to be a happy person, I still advise people not to go into academia – it is very competitive, smart people can make much more money elsewhere, there is little security pre-tenure and you can enjoy great ideas without getting a Ph.D. by reading Marginal Revolution every day.