Butterflies and rainbows

I recently followed my wife to a conference in Denver and I attended a hospitality event. In making casual conversation with someone at the event, the conversation followed the typically script:

Casual conversant (CC): “What do you do?” 

Me: “I’m a professor”

CC: “Oh what in?”

Me: “Chemical and Biomedical Engineering”

CC scrunches up their face and says something to the effect “Ewww, that’s hard”. The awkward silence is then followed by a casual walking off of the CC. In a way to save the conversation, I may follow up with that I do research in cancer immunology. This typically provides a topical area more relatable. 

In this case, the CC said that he initially thought that he wanted to major in pharmacy but failed organic chemistry so he decided to major in something else. The CC then asked so what is it like to be a professor, essentially is it all butterflies and rainbows? That was a new one but a bit hard to answer. The CC doesn’t really want to hear what it’s really like. My wife would have chimed in, “oh I’d hate to have his job.” A key positive aspect of the job is the freedom to “work” on whatever you want. What does it mean “work”? If work means sitting as my desk reading papers to get inspiration, and then pushing a pencil around on paper to do math or writing code to analyze existing data to support a scientific argument. Sure – I’ve done plenty of that – it’s cheap. 

Science, though, is expensive, especially in health sciences. A vial of a protein antibody labeled with another fluorescent protein is expensive – $300 for a tiny vial that you can use for about 50 tests. In doing one experiment, you may use 10 different antibodies. If you design an experiment with quantitative aspirations, half the vial is used in one experiment. Neglecting the costs associated with the cells that you are going to culture (you need to buy them somewhere and culture them in expensive media), just measuring something in cells in response to a stimulus can be a $2000 experiment. Of course, science must be reproducible, so you need to do it again. The set up, execution, and analysis of said experiment might take a month. So for a single line of investigation, you might need $5000 a month just for reagents and supplies – that’s $60,000 a year. Of course, who is going to perform that experiment? 

The point of being a professor is that we educate the next generation. So while, I could do those experiments, they are typically done by a graduate student. Simply stated, a graduate student is a raw talent.  They have maybe learned about a related topic in a class, but putting this theoretical knowledge to practice is difficult. They may have taken lab classes, but a lab class is artificial – it’s an activity that is carefully designed to illustrate a single point with minimal opportunities for failure. It is kind of like learning to drive a racecar at the Tomorrowland Speedway at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. In short, graduate school is challenging and challenges the mental health of students as they work through failures and the negativity associated with the scientific process. These challenges are, deservedly, receiving more attention. That said, depending on the academic institution, the cost of hiring a graduate student can cost between $40,000 to $100,000 a year. The student sees only about $30,000 of that as the rest can go to tuition and benefits costs. In hiring a graduate student, you are also committing to supporting them as they get their degree, which for a PhD takes on average 5 years. So on the low end, hiring a single graduate student costs about $500,000. 

Don’t faculty get this money from the university? ROFL. Uhhh no. When you are hired you get a “start-up” pot of money. In 2006, I had only one tenure-track offer and was hired as a “computationalist” – someone that is thought of as cheap because I’m not supposed to do expensive wet experiments. I got soft money – support for 3 graduate students for two years and money to pay myself during the summer for two years. I’m on a nine-month salary. So I’m responsible for getting funds to support myself during the summer. No grant, no summer salary, so I’m working for free. The hard money was $87,000. Of which, I had to pay $10,000 to equip my “lab” with electrical outlets and internet connections. Before that runs out, you write proposals to ask funding agencies for money, like the National Science Foundation or National Institutes of Health. I’ll talk later about this but writing proposals that get funded is difficult. It’s an art that I received no training in during my PhD. My first year, I wrote 11 proposals of which none were funded. I read books about it, attended workshops, and practiced by writing proposals. My second year, I wrote 10 proposal, of which one was funded by the PhRMA Foundation for $60,000. In those early years, I recall getting yelled at by a potential collaborator when I met with them to discuss a proposal for $50,000 to the Department of Defense (they fund some health science applications) as to my naivete in thinking that that was enough money to do science. Of note, I wasn’t requesting any summer salary on that proposal and the total amount was limited by the DoD to $50,000. So with a success rate of 1 of 21, you experience a lot of rejection. You never really get used to it, as in order to get the energy to write the proposal you need to think that it’s an idea worth pursuing.

Besides writing proposals, professors also teach and provide service. After an initial probation period, I taught three undergraduate courses in chemical/biomedical engineering an academic year, which corresponds to 135 contact hours. Teaching is a bit of a mixed bag. There are students that are a joy to have in class. They listen intently to what you say, ask questions, and, more importantly, do the work. But they are a minority. Chemical Engineering is hard. It combines a lot of topics – math, physics, chemistry, biology, and computation – in ways that are new for many of them. While I am most familiar with Chemical Engineering, other majors can be equally challenging. I think the challenge is related to the extent of intellectual growth required during the time to degree. There is only so much that one can simplify to ease the learning process or slow down the pace and still meet the course objectives. Student preparation can sometimes be lacking. Sometimes when students struggle, they look for someone else to blame, like the professor. Thinking about CC, I’m guessing that he doesn’t have happy thoughts about the organic chemistry professor that failed him. A transactional view of higher education is also a worrying trend among students – the idea that students are paying for a credential to do a job – and is linked with a passive view of education. They sit in class and listen to the lecture like it’s a YouTube video. They get upset at their inability to do well on exams and attribute this to a professors inability to teach them rather than taking ownership of their own learning. Moreover, what students think about the course, as filled out in anonymous student evaluation of instruction surveys, is largely how professors are evaluated in their teaching. So underneath students listening raptly in university lectures as depicted in movies, the simmering conflict between professor and a subset of students feeds into toxicity associated with the job.

So what is “service”? That’s all the other activities that you need to do to make academia run. Faculty can serve on committees that evaluate and recommend the hiring of new faculty, evaluate the productivity of fellow faculty, review proposals for funding agencies, monitor and update departmental curriculum, or provide guidance to university leadership on various topics, such as the library, computers, or academic affairs. In addition, journal editors ask professors to review manuscripts that have been submitted to peer-reviewed journals. The peer-review part is pro-bono, where the thinking is that other faculty provide a free service to the journal that I submit manuscript to and I should return the service to the journal when asked on behalf of other authors. In some circles, this is viewed as exploitation – a for-profit publishing company receives new content for free as authors submit a manuscript to them, which they then solicit reviews for this manuscript at no cost to the publisher. If the editors at the journal, which may also be academics that provide their services for free, decide to publish the manuscript, the publisher charges the authors a couple of thousand dollars to publish the manuscript and turn around and charge the university library to access the published papers. That’s quite a profitable racket.

Reviews received on submitted manuscripts is also another source of rejection/negativity in this job. Many times the paper is rejected by the journal of choice. The authors then submit to a different journal and start the peer-review process over again.  Overall, a peer-reviewed manuscript describing the results of a primary scientific study is a key metric used to evaluate the productivity of a faculty member in the area of research. While service duties are one aspect of evaluating faculty performance, it is difficult to assess the quality of the contribution and thus is underweighted in the overall evaluation.       

In summary, while seeing the professional growth of students is a key positive associated with being a professor, the butterflies and rainbows are replaced with lots of negativity and toxicity. In a nod to Charles Darwin, I think this environment shapes the kind of people that stay in academia.

Finally before you think disparaging thoughts about my current institution, these critiques are about academic culture that apply irrespective of whether you get a ticket to play at WVU, like me, or are privileged with a position at an Ivy League institution. How do you change academic culture? Apparently one funeral at a time [1].


  1. Azoulay P, Fons-Rosen C, Graff Zivin JS. “Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?” American Economic Review (2019) 109:2889-2920.  
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