Oh, The Academic Life!

Really, I do love my job.   It’s interesting, challenging and I feel I have a positive impact on others. And don’t forget the 10 hour work weeks accompanied by the 6 figure salary.

Right. And I have a bridge in Alaska I want to sell you.

This does seem to be the impression by much of the public regarding the life of an academic.   That impression seems to have come from articles written by some of our own, so clearly, this luxurious and entitled lifestyle seems to be true for some of us. Indeed, it’s possible that a tenured professor can pretty much “coast” if he or she wishes, doing only the absolute minimum. While that may not be as easy to do in the private or government sector, we also all know people who are actively disengaged: they are unmotivated and actually contemptuous of the organization and the efforts of the people within. Higher ed is no different, and this situation is only further aggravated when that disengaged person cannot be fired and happens to be able to write eloquent pieces about how we’re fleecing the public.

I have worked in higher ed for the last 22 years, and I have known actively disengaged, tenured professors but they’re all gone (though I’m sure they still exist as they do in every industry). Everyone I know is working hard to do the best possible job they can. Even someone who “only” teaches 9 hours per week has these hidden duties:

  1. Preparation – A good teacher refreshes their material each year, whether:

A) The course content

B) Teaching method

C) Teaching technology

D) More than one of the above

Some of my course content stays pretty constant, but others are changing constantly.

  1. Assessment – Someone has to grade the darn assignments, right? Even disengaged faculty have to do grading else an uprising from the students. Usually we have teaching assistants helping out with the larger courses. For example, our Pharmacy program has 140 students per class, so this is where our assistants are invaluable. If you have assistants, they have to also be supervised and managed, so that’s not necessarily a cake-walk either.
  2. Course and student management –   Those syllabi, assignments and grades don’t get calculated and posted on their own, and sometimes students actually want to talk to the professor. When your class is 140, this can get demanding.
  3. Curriculum/program development and management – These courses are part of a larger curriculum and program. The demands for course, curriculum and program assessment and approval have been steadily increasing to the point I feels sometimes we spend just as much time assessing ourselves as we do our students. Any change to curriculum has to be approved by the respective curriculum committee, then approved by a university committee staffed by – you guessed it – faculty. And if you want to create a new program? It’s a huge effort mired in bureaucracy/oversight.
  4. Student affairs – This is a huge area that involves admissions, promotion, recruiting, student academic and conduct issues, extracurricular activities, career advising, graduation, and student development including mentoring and academic/professional advising. Though staff do much of the thankless work, guess who also needs to be involved, oftentimes in leadership roles? Yes, you got it.
  5. Faculty affairs – There’s this whole contingent on campus that have their own needs, darn it! Those needs are met by faculty and administration as well since, inexplicably, the students won’t do it for us. For some reason, we need management, recruiting, training, development, promotion and retention, and we have this other little thing called….
  6. Research and scholarly activity – Learning and discovery go hand in hand. Teachers are only as good as the material they learn and discover, which is the essence of research and scholarship. I suppose there are some that have it pretty easy – they can pretty much just turn out a book or two by working a couple of hours per day. After all, anyone can pretty much get a publisher to invest thousands on printing a book these days, right? And oh, self-published books just don’t count in academia, no offense to those who have self-published. It’s just how it is here.
  7. Graduate education – Masters and doctoral programs may not have as much classroom time or visibility as an undergraduate program. However, these students are much like scientific apprentices. They learn at the side of the faculty how to be the next generation of scholars. This is a time-intensive process as you can imagine, as transitioning from an undergraduate to an independent-thinking scientist takes a lot of time and effort by the faculty (and the student).
  8. Miscellaneous campus activities – We have this secret responsibility on campus, which is called service. For our clinical faculty, that service means their medical, pharmacy or nursing practice. Again, these faculty have their own form of professional upkeep and innovation in order to stay competent and leaders in their field. We also are required to participate in student and faculty affairs-related service as many of those tasks must have faculty involvement and often leadership. Other priorities on campus such as diversity and inclusion, library, staff and administrator search committees, strategic planning, fundraising, technology, campus safety, and culture and climate issues also require faculty participation, oversight, attention, and often leadership. This only accounts for service within the university. Most of us are also members of professional organizations which we help lead and run.

Most faculty do all of this working far more than 40 hours per week. Some are only getting paid 9 months per year. Yeah, those faculty lounging by the pool in the summer are not getting paid. How would you like a job that refuses to pay you 3 months per year? Many of those faculty are still working during the summer, even without pay, on their research. What you do not see is them leaving the pool to go work on the computer all night, without compensation.

And with all this, most faculty make far less than their counterparts in the private sector.   My salary, if I were working in industry for these past 20 years, would probably be at least 50% higher by now. I don’t do this job because I can lounge by the pool (though I do have the option of working by the pool sometimes) but because I love the flexibility of the job, the challenge of doing research and scholarship, and the opportunity to really make an impact on the lives of young people or our profession.

If you compare us to for-profit colleges, we provide the education along with research/scholarship and a vibrant campus culture for the same or lower cost as the for-profit schools. So I think we’re doing pretty well.

I’m not asking that you view us as saints or martyrs. We’re not. We work hard doing the job we love and feel privileged to do. We make a contribution to society that is often ignored or misaligned until an amazing scientific discovery or technological advance emanates. At that point, no one says, “oh, I’m glad we’re investing in higher ed.” That discovery does not come out of a vacuum. It comes because of society’s investment in knowledge and discovery. Isn’t that what we’re here to do and enable?

Directing that Competitive Streak



by Jackson, college student

Competition in modern America is ubiquitous. It permeates our daily lives, our economy, our popular culture, and our education system. But to really understand competition’s effects, I must delineate between two sides of the competitive coin, one negative, and one positive.

Negative competition results when it is targeted externally at a person or group. I’ve noticed this throughout my life in volleyball, academics, and fraternity life. Much of my athletic career was focused on maybe getting more blocks than the other team or really just outperforming the other team. In high school we had class rankings based on GPA. Of course it was silly to try to jump say, #50 to #2 but the marginal advancement suddenly became important. I recall people targeting the students who were one or two ranks ahead of them and trying then to achieve a high enough GPA to advance to those spots. Now, in my fraternity, we tend to set goals to beat another fraternity in intramurals, campus notoriety or, once again, GPA.

While this type of targeted competition creates a push to achieve and beat the opponent, it is inherently limited. It is limited because it is an entirely relative measurement of achievement. For instance, if I desire to move up one spot in my class ranking, it doesn’t mean that I am trying to move from #2 to #1. For all intents and purposes, I could be trying to achieve a 1.1 GPA in order to move from #430 to #429. When my only goal is to beat the rival volleyball team, that team could play their absolute worst and I would only need to play marginally better (which would still be terrible) to win. Targeted competition ties your performance to that of the competition, who may be underperforming.

The other side of the coin is self- directed competition. This side is far more positive and productive because your own performance is no longer tied to the performance of another. Self- directed competition means setting your own goals that are independent of anything that anyone else is doing. The concept sounds simple but the actual implementation is tricky.

Imagine yourself in a vacuum, devoid of anyone else but you’re still engaged in a given activity. Nobody else is in your class, only one fraternity on the Greek scene, and so on. Then, there can be no comparisons. What then? You must compete against your own goals, unlimited by the performance of others. Strive to achieve a constantly improving GPA instead of just to beat another person. Push for zero errors and excellent play in sports. These are examples of self-directed competition.

When you set and compete to achieve your own goals, you can achieve far more than if you were attached to the another’s performance. It also is a much healthier and more positive mindset and likely less damaging  for your relationship with the person you’re trying to best.  Where are you setting your goals too low by comparing yourself to someone else?

Student Pitfalls and Opportunities in Higher Education

It’s heartbreaking to watch students and parents make bad decisions that have expensive and lasting impact on their student’s academic career.  I have spent the last 20 years as an educator in a professional (post graduate) school so I’m a little removed from the undergraduate student experience, but I imagine the problems and opportunities are about the same, perhaps just occurring with different frequency.

1.   Keep your “nose clean” – One of the most difficult issues I see is students not considering or heeding the consequences of cheating, stealing, or breaking laws or university rules.  When you’re 18, it may be difficult to imagine the consequences or even the possibility of getting caught, but your behavior will eventually be noticed.  Do not put your academic career at risk by taking foolish chances and jeopardizing your standing in the university.  The faculty are like your parents – we have a 6th sense for nonsense and it does not escape our attention.  Ask yourself: Am I prepared to suffer the consequences of getting caught? Answer that question with the assumption you cannot finesse your way out of the hole you dug yourself into.  If the answer is No, don’t do it.

2.  Your grades matter – Unfortunately, the job market and college admissions are very competitive.  Students who do not take their studies (either in high school or college) seriously and end up with poor grades may someday wish their grades were more competitive.  By then it’s too late.  You may have had an epiphany halfway through your program, but you’re competing against students who have worked hard the entire time.   So keep your academic doors open, even if you’re sure you’re never going back.

Also, unless you’re related to Mitt Romney and can afford to just cash in some stocks, it’s foolish to spend vast sums of money to obtain a GPA that will not open any doors for you.  Be honest with yourself.  If you’re not ready to take your classes seriously, maybe it would be better to take a year off before going back to school.  Students who are paying for at least part of their own education are much more likely to take it seriously.

3.  Your behavior matters – Students don’t realize that they have entered into a small, tight-knit community.  In addition to keeping your nose clean, your attitude in school is noticed by the faculty, who will be writing your letters of recommendation and working or socializing with your future employers.  If you have a bad attitude, you show you’re irresponsible or lack initiative, you ask for favors and exceptions constantly, you demonstrate you’re not interested in the class, it creates an impression that could impact which doors open for you, or which ones close.  It is not always possible to predict when or where that will happen.

Your behavior interacting with school officials before you’re admitted also leaves an impression.  If you cannot, for example, be bothered to read instructions, follow instructions, or look something up on the internet, you may be perceived as not ready for admission into the program (see also Item 6 below).

The opposite is also true.  You can stand out for having a positive attitude, show you’re a hard worker, responsible, team-oriented, willing to take initiative, and eager to learn. You also cannot tell when or how a positive impression will help you down the road.

4.  Make the most of it – “I’ll just figure that out when I graduate.” Again, unless you have unlimited time and resources to get degree after degree, before you graduate you should really invest in trying to figure out your path after you graduate.  This is not easy since students, by definition, are studying, not working.  However, you can improve your chances of knowing what to do academically if you open yourself to experimenting with potential interests early on, starting at least in high school.  Yes, extracurriculars and jobs are resume padders, but more importantly, they can help you ascertain where your passions, interests, and talents lie.  Note that not all of these passions, interests and talents are academic.  You might find that you love/hate working in teams, problem solving, public speaking, drawing, marketing or selling things or ideas.  That self-knowledge can help you inform your career path.  So, get involved, volunteer, get a job, take an interesting elective, get an internship, study abroad, talk to people who are in fields you might be interested in, join a club, lead a project, serve on a committee.It’s through these varied experiences you can expand the breadth of your self-knowledge.   It’s not just to pad your application.  It’s to learn who you are.


5.  Have a Plan B – Hopefully you’ve gotten to know yourself, your interests and talents, and you know how to pursue your dream job.  Keep in mind that it could take some time for you to achieve that goal.  Know what your interim and back-up plans are, as events do not always turn out as planned.  Also, don’t be afraid to ask for someone to mentor you if you’re not sure what to do.  Most people are happy to help a bright, industrious student with a good attitude and you will learn more from them than you anticipate.  Yes, have faith you can make it happen, but know that the path to your dream job may be bumpy, windy, and at times, circular and that you need to pay your bills during this time.  Pursue your dream but don’t close yourself to opportunities that may present themselves or to the reality of the economy.  You may have other talents or interests that you are not cultivating by being so myopic.

6.  Helicopter parents need to tone it down – Helicopter parenting is problematic for your child from at least two perspectives.  First, your student needs to become independent eventually, preferably by the time they leave home.  All the hovering and enabling is simply an obstacle to their development into an independent adult (see when Helping Becomes Hurtful).  In addition, once your child is 18 they are expected to manage their own affairs.  Your visible intervention with grades, admissions, hiring, job or admissions interviews, or other academic proceedings convey that your child is not independent.  Faculty or employers do not want to constantly deal with a third party for every bump in the road.   How would you like to hire a seemingly competent young person only to find you have to answer to the parent every time feedback is needed?

Do not take this as permission to teach your child independence by cutting off your participation in their lives. Your job is to be supportive, to listen, to make suggestions if asked, to provide training  and coaching as needed, but let your child take increasing responsibility for their own affairs.

7.  Don’t equate income with happiness or having a life – Despite the pressure and expense, college should be some of the best years of your life.  You will be growing intellectually, psychologically, socially, and emotionally, and you should enjoy and embrace that as much as possible.  Yes, having a good income is a nice and one of your goals.  But when you have a job, there is often just as much or more stress and much less flexibility and freedom.  So, don’t wait to enjoy yourself, relax or try something new (as long as you keep your studies your first priority), as life does not begin after your start a job/buy your house/start your family/retire.  Life occurs in this present moment, no matter the stage of life you are in.

Avoiding avoidance and inactivating inaction

Balancing positive and negative

Balancing positive and negative

By Jackson, college student (and my awesome son)

What is the greatest single cause of low engagement in causes or organizations, of a culture of inaction, and of eventual unhappiness and frustration? It is individuals focusing on avoiding engagement in negative activities (negative action) instead of pursuing engagement in positive activities (positive action). To put it more concretely, if I focus on a personal policy of abstinence, sobriety, and not hurting people close to me, then I am focusing on negative action. Conversely, if I focus on doing community service, high achievement in class, and building up my various organizations, then I am focusing on positive action.

The extremes of each are dangerous: a system of only positive action would compel every person to engage in every possible activity while a system of only negative action would leave every person frozen, unable to act because of the perpetual restriction. Every person must find the balance that suits him/her.

Problems arise on the personal level. Most people will naturally tend toward the negative action extreme. This tendency is harmless as long as the individual maintains sufficient amounts of positive action. It manifests by individuals not wanting to interfere with others or break the laws and rules around them. To avoid such drifting toward negative action, we must constantly analyze our actions, attitudes, and perspectives. If we are conscious and analytic of our behavior, we can determine easily which areas of our lives are based on negative action or positive action.

The issue of negative-action dominance is especially prevalent in my experience as a student. Far too often, the message is to avoid drinking, drugs, property damage, poor grades, cheating, etc. (all negative actions). The message excludes any positive requirements outside of class attendance (which is not even “required” in many colleges and universities). Unfortunately, this leads directly to a culture of inaction. Students can comply with every part of the negative-action message by sitting in their rooms and going to class when absolutely necessary. Such a culture is certainly stable and safe but hardly desirable.

In order to overcome the individual tendency toward the culture of inaction, it is incumbent on every person to alter his or her personal method of operation to 1) reflect more positive action and 2) ensure that negative actions are supportive of positive actions. We should do community service instead of refraining from damaging public property, propagate healthy and wholesome activities instead of abusing alcohol and drugs, and strive toward exceptional academics instead of avoiding receiving a bad grade. These can relate to each other easily- for example: I don’t drink to excess (negative action) because that will facilitate my pursuit of good grades (positive action).

Of late, I have been consciously utilizing more positive action approaches in my friendly and personal relationships. Instead of timidly trying to not hurt people’s feelings or to offend them, I have found it is more productive to instead focus on building the relationships through positive meaningful experiences such as a creating a squash league with my fraternity brothers or sharing adventures with my friends. This is not to say that a healthy relationship does not need discretion- of course problems should be directly addressed in a positive action manner instead of avoided for fear of hurting the other. It can be seen here how going to the extreme end of positive action can be damaging to a relationship. If I lose sight of what could offend my friends in favor of uninhibited action, I likely won’t keep people around for very long. A balance must ultimately be reached but, it is clear that more positive actions and fewer (or altered) negative actions will lead to greater engagement, higher productivity, and more happiness for all.