Academia, Careers in

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A professor is a college or university teacher of the highest rank in a particular branch of learning. In Middle English, the word "professor" meant either one who had taken the vows of a religious order or a public lecturer. From the very beginning, a professor was an individual who had taken religious orders to defend and discover the truth. The distinctive task of a professor is the discovery and transmission of truth, just as the care and well-being of a patient is the task of the physician. Of course, the concept of truth is a very ambiguous one; its determination is a difficult matter. Truth is not static. It must be incessantly examined as truths are continuously challenged when new knowledge is discovered. The Middle English definition is also a reminder that professors are public lecturers or teachers. In other words, professors must share their knowledge and understanding of the truth with others. This sharing may be through teaching, writing, or community service. These underlying commitments of a professor have evolved into three interrelated and mutually reinforcing roles: (1) teaching and advising of students, (2) conducting research, and (3) providing public service.

Teaching and Advising

Within their particular areas of advanced training and knowledge, professors teach and advise students about academic and career issues. In the modern college and university, professors are expected to do a wide range of types of teaching, calling upon very diverse skills and abilities. The workload for a professor typically varies between conducting two and four group instruction sections a semester and leading a variety of individual instruction classes.

Group instruction sections are what students usually think of as classes. These are classes that meet at regularly scheduled times each week. There are small group instruction sections that usually range in size from twelve to forty students, where professors and students can discuss and debate the material in the course. In large institutions, a professor may teach a large group instruction course, which might involve teaching assistants, who are graduate students pursuing advanced degrees in the subject they teach. These large lecture classes often take the form of one or two weekly lectures followed by laboratory or small group recitation sessions. Professors are responsible for the complete design of the course, for the setting of the course standards and requirements, and for the training of the graduate student teaching assistants.

Many universities experiment with technology in these large group lectures. Students participate in web-based discussions and problem-solving exercises, try various experimental procedures, and sometimes watch lectures on video or on their laptop computers. In these technologically enhanced lectures, students may not need to attend a traditional class at a set time but may consult with the professor and other students over the Internet. Regardless of their field of expertise, professors are becoming versed in technology so they can design a number of learning experiences to supplement and even replace traditional classroom learning for their students.

Individual instruction sections are highly specialized courses where a student may pursue a thesis, a set of readings, or a special project under the guidance of the professor. The individual sections are the one-on-one courses where a professor works with a student on a specific research project or a given area that the student wants to study. These classes are worked out individually between the student and the professor and mutually satisfactory expectations are set for the amount of guidance and help that the student will receive as he or she moves through the material.

Professors also advise students about specific courses, majors, and interesting directions in which to take their work. Professors are often a good source of information about career opportunities within their own fields. Career information, in this sense, does not mean that professors necessarily help the student find a job, but they can be a valuable source of information about the kind of training and experience that students might need to succeed in a field. Professors can organize two types of courses to help students find and develop their interests. First, there are internships or field experiences. These are opportunities (either paying or volunteer) to experience what entry-level work is like in a given industry. The other type of course experience is service-based learning. Here, students use their talents to help a nonprofit group to accomplish its goals.

Conducting Research

Professors are expected to conduct research. Most students tend to think this means that professors read a few books or write a few papers. However, research involves much more than that. Research is the creation, accumulation, and transfer of new knowledge. The range of topics is very broad. Communication scholars might add new knowledge on topics as varied as children's enduring fright reactions to media, patterns of conflicts in different types of marriages, the early influences on the rhetoric of George Washington, audience reactions to women's television programming, government regulation of broadcasting in different countries, and so on. Research can involve activities as diverse as bringing children into a laboratory to watch television, videotaping a couple in their home as they discuss a difficult issue, analyzing the fan mail and script development of a successful television show, and reading archived letters and primary sources about a famous historical figure.

Some research is motivated by theoretical considerations where the current use of the findings may not be obvious. Research may also be motivated by solving a practical problem for society. Many communication researchers are called upon to conduct applied research on persuasion or the marketing of prosocial goals and ideas. For example, some communication researchers investigate how children can be persuaded not to start smoking.

In many research universities, students can become involved in faculty research from the very start of their academic careers. They can find out the type of research that a faculty member does and then become part of the research team. This work involves students closely in learning how knowledge about a topic is generated, so it can be a valuable part of a college or university education.

Providing Public Service

The final role for the professor is service. A professor must help to run his or her university and academic discipline. Running the university means serving on and chairing various committees that oversee the curriculum, the budget, and the tenure and promotion of individuals within the system. Some professors also become academic administrators, serving as deans of their colleges and even university presidents. Running one's discipline means editing journals and books and serving as an officer of national or regional academic or professional societies.

Because of the major public investments in the colleges and universities, the public expects the knowledge generated in the universities to be rapidly diffused through public service. Although their first and most important job is classroom teaching and serving the students in their classes, professors must do more than classroom teaching. Public service and community outreach are very important parts of the job of a professor. Professors have a responsibility to the public to use their talents for the betterment of their communities. Serving on commissions and public service forums, giving speeches, being active in community and political groups, consulting with business and nonprofit organizations, and serving as stewards of their community are important roles. The job of a professor is to form relationships with schools, government, businesses, and individuals across the nation, using their expertise to help solve the challenges that face society.

Career Stages

Professors are usually required to hold the highest degree in their chosen field of specialization. In most fields, this is the doctoral degree or the Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy), although the highest degree for artists can be the master's degree or the M.F. A. (Master of Fine Arts). These advanced degrees require many years of study beyond the four years that are spent in undergraduate school. The average doctoral degree usually takes at least five years of work beyond the baccalaureate degree, and it is not unusual for individuals to spend ten years in pursuit of that degree. The Master of Fine Arts degree requires an individual to develop a high degree of skill and proficiency in the chosen artistic field and demands that individuals produce acclaimed works (e.g., films, videos, paintings).

After completing the necessary education, individuals begin university employment as untenured assistant professors. As part of a probationary period that lasts six or seven years, assistant professors must work to develop a case for tenure. That is, the young faculty members must demonstrate that they can be effective and vital teachers and advisors, conduct excellent research, and serve their communities. Often, people outside of academia find the concept of tenure or "lifetime job security" hard to understand. Originally, however, tenure was not designed as a system for measuring performance; tenure arose out of a concern for political independence. In other words, tenure was designed to protect the academic freedom of the faculty. That is, with the sense that their basic position is protected, faculty members can feel much freer to teach and speak out about the important controversial issues of the day. Faculty members in communication departments, for example, often severely criticize the media and their content.

When tenure is granted, an assistant professor is promoted to the position of associate professor. Individuals usually remain at this rank for at least five years, and some remain their even longer. Promotion to the position of professor requires the individual to demonstrate significantly more accomplishments beyond those that were required to gain tenure. The typical time that elapses between entering graduate school and attaining the rank of professor in a university is seventeen to twenty years. Clearly, choosing a career in academia involves a serious commitment on the part of the individual.

See also:Computer Software, Educational; Educational Media Producers; Instructional Communication; Researchers for Educational Television Programs; Television, Educational.

Mary Anne Fitzpatrick