About 10% of the proposals I’ve written have been accepted for funding. I’ve had one of about 80 papers accepted without further review. I’ve had papers rejected from third tier journals that regularly publish crap. I spend half my work hours either answering emails or in meetings. I’ve been negotiating access to a set of samples for the past 5 years. If I want to use an autoclave I have to take a 3 hour training module. I struggle to get a transparent report of the burn down rate on my research budgets. My value to the university appears to be linked to the amount of funding I bring to the university or the number of articles I publish in glam journals. My most impactful piece of work is a software package, literally used by thousands, that has not had direct funding for the past five years. I’ve been told that I need to cultivate an international reputation the same year that I was promoted to full professor, which, by definition, indicates I have an international reputation. I can’t pique the interest of our intellectual property or development offices. I could go on with the various pin pricks that add up to me literally seeing how much elasticity my skull has as I bounce it off my desk 1. Faculty love to complain about our jobs. Why don’t we look for jobs elsewhere if we’re so miserable in the Ivory Tower? Because the truth is that despite all the moaning, we have some pretty damn good jobs.

Let me list some of the reasons I love my job 2

  • License: I can study anything I want as long as I can fund it and my effort on the project. I get that depending on one’s circumstances that this can be a lot and that I’m in a trendy area (microbiome research). In my current position, I’m expected to cover 50% of my salary on grants - keep in mind that I’m expected to do about 24 contact hours per year of teaching. I have never had anyone tell me not to do something. I’ve had projects related to biofuels, colon cancer, infectious diseases, software development, and curriculum development. These all fit together, trust me.

  • Ownership: Related to this last point, I have ownership over my projects. As a the primary investigator on a project, I can move the project in whatever direction I want (most are grants, not contracts). No one is going to come to me 2 years into a 5 year project and say, “This project is floundering, it’s done.” I have considerable control over who works on a project, who I work with, and what our outputs are. I have spiked and pushed papers. I have shunned collaborators for being a pain to work with. I have sought out projects to engage collaborators I enjoy working with. No one has ever told me to share the sandbox with someone else.

  • Leadership: I can’t control everything in that opening paragraph of woe, but I can be a force for change. Without asking anyone’s permission, I recently took on the role of being the Chair of the ASM Journals Board. Why? Because I’m sick of sitting around complaining and listening to complaints about how screwed up peer review is and the poor quality of published research. I can’t solve all of the problems, but I can do something.

  • Trainees: I once interviewed for a position at a DOE lab and was struck by the lack of students and postdocs. The place seemed… dead. Trainees breathe life into my research. I only have so many ideas and far fewer good ideas. My trainees have succeeded by expanding my horizons, asking questions differently, and finding new collaborators. Training the next generation of scientists well is extremely difficult. I am not a PI that tells people what to do - I try to motivate people to do what I want or what I think is best. People in their 20’s have a lot of stuff going on. It is a very dynamic period of life. This makes the job of mentoring them fun, but also very difficult as they navigate what they’re going to do with their life.

  • People: I have been privileged to meet some of the most amazing people in my career. Like my trainees, they all see the world differently - the have different life stories, training, research interests, and personalities. Some of them are even at the University of Michigan. There are certainly some asshats out there. I do my best to cut them out of my life. But there are far more people that I enjoy engaging with to talk science, mentoring, and teaching.

  • Teaching: I am not expected to teach much. At all. I really do enjoy teaching people that are looking for help (this is quite a bit different than teaching any First Year undergraduate). Watching someone light up when they can run an analysis with their own data is pretty special. Having a colleague stop me in the hall for teaching their student something that is changing how their lab functions is amazing. Here too, I have flexibility in what I teach. Although many of us have things we are expected to teach (i.e. leading small group discussions of Med Students… why me?!?!), I also have the flexibility to teach anything else I want. I can also teach as much as I want, which is why I teach my own workshops and am involved with Software Carpentry.

  • 20% time: At the institutions I’ve worked, they’ve all had a policy that I can devote 20% of my effort (i.e. 1 day a week) to non-work work. There are some caveats to this policy, but it’s pretty cool to think that the university might actually encourage me to do something independent of the university. I’ve never truly used my full 20%, but in the past I’ve been able to teach workshops, serve as expert witness in a class action suit, and do consulting. These are not activities that will replace my main line of work, but they do bring variety to my life and have really opened my eyes to how other people work. FWIW, this is such a good idea that google has this policy for their employees - gmail was someone’s 20% project.

  • 80% time: There is a quip that to succeed in academia you have to work 80 hours a week, but you can work any 80 hours. I’m not a fan of working 80 hrs, but I am a fan of working any 35-45 hours I want. I can take my kids to the doctor, be there for special events, take sheep to the butcher, or anything else, knowing that I will make up the time by working a bit longer the next day, responding to emails at night or over the weekend and so forth. I’ve never punched a clock and have never filed a sick day. I have a very flexible work schedule.

There are definitely other reasons I love my job - college towns are awesome and college sports are superior to pro - but these are the big ones for me. I suspect some of our tales of woe are because we think the grass is greener somewhere. I’m not sure where. A year or so in to my first tenure track position I was recruited by a head-hunter to interview for a job at Monsanto. It was amazing. As I sat on the plane heading home, I went through all of these points and knew that I belonged in academia and declined the position before hearing their decision. This got a bit long, but it’s a bit of a penance for all the complaining we do about our awesome jobs. Being a professor at a R1 university isn’t for everyone, but it fits for me.

You can thank Joe Zackular for motivating this blog post

  1. As a white dude raised in a two PhD family, I am well aware that many others have it far worse. I have never been discounted for my race, attacked for my gender, or been unaware of the way the game works. 

  2. To be clear, I’m a newly minted full professor at the University of Michigan School of Medicine where I have minimal teaching responsibilities and significant expectations of my research output. If you aren’t in a similar environment, YMMV