Inside A Professor’s Mind

February 5, 2016

Before I accepted a position at Fast Horse last year, I was a college professor.

Whenever people learn this fact about me, the first question they almost always ask me is, “What did you teach?”

That’s a completely normal and fine question, of course. College professors teach. I taught many different courses through the years, and for the most part, I loved it. I took my teaching very seriously and came up with new material every semester for those courses so that I could keep both the students and myself excited about whatever it was we were discussing. But teaching – and this is coming from my perspective as a professor who was at a teaching-oriented liberal arts school for three years and at a huge research-oriented university for almost eight years – is just a small part of the job. Research was an enormous part of my job in both settings, and it took up as much time, if not more, time than teaching.

You see, in order to be a professor, you are generally required to have a Ph.D.

The main thing you get with a person with a Ph.D. is a person with extensive training (some might even say hazing) as a researcher. (In fact, most have little formal training as a teacher, but that’s another story.)

As a graduate student, you learn to ask good research questions (or, if you’re mostly a quantitative researcher, form strong hypotheses). You take many courses in various research methods and learn how to use and defend methodologies that you probably did not even know existed even as a senior in college. You learn how methodology informs theoretical positioning (and vise versa) and you learn how to choose the appropriate, best methods to answer your research questions.

Then, when you write many, many papers and ultimately, write and defend a dissertation that tackles a huge research problem, you get a doctorate – and if you become a professor, you do it again and again.

Have you ever heard the phrase “publish or perish”? If you are fortunate enough to get a tenure-track assistant professor position at a university (and particularly at a big research-oriented university, but increasingly even at smaller liberal arts colleges), you are then evaluated every year (by senior faculty members of your department, who anonymously vote on whether to extend your contract the following year). Those evaluations usually mention teaching, advising and committee work. However, they are mostly about your research and ability to conduct and publish it in a timely manner as articles in the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals or as a book in a respected scholarly press. After six years, the entire college gets to determine whether you get to stay and get a promotion, or get fired. (A lot of people don’t realize that tenure and promotion is an “up or out” situation. Having achieved it is one of my proudest accomplishments.)

Truthfully, most professors thrive on conducting research. They’re great at asking and answering tough questions and solving — or at least better understanding – complex problems. I think the skills I gained in academia actually benefit me every day as a marketer and strategist.

Often, they will be able to draw from their research topics and teach them. Just as often, they don’t, but being a strong researcher can help you to better explain phenomena of all sorts. It also makes you an expert problem-solver in situations that have little to do with your research. A good methodological and theoretical grounding can go far.

Indiana Jones

Ask Dr. Henry Walton Jones about his archeological research.

So, next time you meet a professor, go ahead and ask them: “What problems did you try to solve?” Be prepared for a smile and a well-considered answer.