The LCGC Blog: Reflecting on 12 Years as a Chemistry Professor

Aug 29, 2017

As the fall semester starts, I begin my 13th year as a chemistry professor. Let me get right to the point—if you do not love this job, you will hate it! For those of you who are considering what career path you want to take, and are even leaning toward the path of a career in academia, that statement is probably setting off some alarm bells. Let me elaborate a bit.

First, this is not a topic for which I can provide adequate coverage in 1000–1500 words (by the way, no one tells me how long my blog posts should be, but that seems like a reasonably readable and easily writable length to me). I have had the, “what do you want to do after you graduate?” conversation with many students over the past 12 years. I have some standard queries regarding the seemingly prevailing choice between industry and academia for PhD students. I realize that I am blatantly leaving out other possibilities, such as working for the government, but space is limited.

Queries might include

  • Do you want to get paid a lot, but have uncertain job security? (industry)
  • Do you mind getting paid less for the potential of strong job security? (academia)
  • Do you mind working long hours (some industry and academia) or do you want a nine-to-five job that you can forget when you go home? (some industry)
  • Do you mind working primarily on others’ ideas (starting out in industry) or do you think you could have good enough ideas of your own to follow (starting out in academia)?
  • Do you like teaching more, research more, or both?

The list could go on and on.

For those of you toiling with the question of what path to take, consider reading A Ph.D. Is Not Enough, by Peter J. Feibelman. It is a very insightful book. I actually read it after I had been a professor for five or six years, so it really wasn’t any help to me. And I don’t necessarily fully agree with all that is written or suggested therein, but it is a very good viewpoint to consider.

I was definitely naïve when I began my independent career, but I was also lucky. I landed a student in my research group even before I arrived on campus. I was poised to get some nice lab space in a brand new building. My first instrument, a slightly used (5-year old) liquid chromatograph–quadrupole ion trap mass spectrometer, was sitting on a loading dock even as I interviewed for the position. I accepted half of the start-up money compared to those that were hired to our department that same year, since that instrument represented the other half. Yet, I would have honestly signed on the dotted line for much less, since I did not know what resources it took to set up a lab and start a research program. I set about doing the three things I was told would underlie every evaluation of my performance from there forward—research, teaching, and service—in that order.

After a few years in, I remember writing a piece in which I stated that the amount of work involved with this job did not just increase each year, it seemed to increase exponentially. For the first several years, I think that is accurate. Your group is growing. Research is progressing. You are writing papers and proposals, as well as preparing and delivering presentations. You are hungry for opportunity and looking for any chance to step forward, to check off boxes associated with tenure and promotions, to advance your science, and to make new beneficial connections with others. You work more and more, but you also become more efficient. I probably now work about 15–20% less timewise than I did those first few years (50–60 hours per week vs. 60–70 hours per week). The difference is that now I am basically a Jedi Knight, while then I was just a Padawan learner. I am much more efficient and productive than I was then.

Has it really been an exponential increase from the beginning until now? Probably not quite, but it does feel like it. Another clear revelation that I have had about this job is that, no matter how much time and effort you give it, it will always come asking for more. Learning time management and how to say “no” are the only ways to stay sane. My students are convinced that I am incapable of saying “no” to opportunities for doing something new. In truth, I think I am pretty good at it, but I have always said that I have a weakness for shiny objects, especially if our group can be the first to play with them.

As I have progressed through the years, my family has grown along with me. My wife and I are raising three native Texans, currently 11, 9, and 6 years old. I help coach my oldest son’s football team. It turns out that three practices in a week and a game every weekend makes for a pretty good excuse to cut down on extracurricular work activities during the fall season. Obviously, it is important to me to be there for my kids. This fall, all three of them are playing football, and the youngest is also playing soccer. My wife and I have to chauffeur kids to a total of nine different practices Monday to Thursday. On the weekends, there will be no less than four different games to attend. You do the math.

Yet, that is life, and probably the biggest thing I cherish about this job is its flexibility. If I don’t set any in-person meetings for a given day (and if I don’t have to teach—I generally teach one class a semester in the fall and spring semester), then I don’t really have to go to campus. If you just plan ahead, then you can make nearly anything work out. Heck, in the spring of 2016, I spent four months in Sicily on sabbatical, and my family came along for three of those months.

Now, back to my first statement. It sounds like something that would come out of Ricky Bobby’s mouth (“if you ain’t first, you’re last!”). If you don’t love it, you’ll hate it. The truth is that if you have any inkling that there are aspects of a typical professor life you really like, then there probably is a place for you in academia. There are many different types of schools that place emphasis on different things. Some may want 100% teaching (community colleges). Some may want 75% teaching and 25% research (some primarily undergraduate institutions). I always say to people that my job is about 75% research and 25% teaching. You can find places that place their emphasis pretty much along the whole spectrum.

After that, you have quite a bit of opportunity to follow your interests and your passions. You have a lot of influence shaping what you spend your time on.

I love analytical instrumentation, and applying it to solve virtually any problem. Because of that passion for analytical chemistry, we have worked in food science, environmental, energy, pharmaceutical, clinical, biological, and other fields of research. Our work is very fundamental, and it is heavily application-oriented. My role is to train the next generation of scientists, and I have been fortunate to have now, and to have had in the past, excellent students with whom to work. They have been wonderful because of their high intelligence, but also because of their diverse personalities and backgrounds. Together, we have done a lot of cool things, and we have been recognized for our contributions. My students have moved on to successful jobs, and now I begin to see the immense value of having a web of my own academic children out in the work force, with whom we can interact, to gain future opportunities.

So, I really do love my job. Honestly, as this new semester was beginning to start, I was feeling a little bummed about another summer gone by too fast. I found that to be a common reply to anyone who has asked how things are going over the past couple of weeks. Actually, writing this blog has been therapeutic in that regard. Being a professor is a lot of work, and there is always more work waiting. There are some generally administrative headaches, but those occur in any profession. In all of life, there are good and bad parts. I can honestly say that for me the good has outweighed the bad. I am now getting excited about stepping back in the classroom for another semester. I am excited about what discoveries our group will make in the next days, weeks, and months. And I am looking forward to seeing both my academic and real families continue to grow and prosper. Thanks for reading!

 

Kevin A. Schug is a Full Professor and Shimadzu Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at The University of Texas (UT) at Arlington. He joined the faculty at UT Arlington in 2005 after completing a Ph.D. in Chemistry at Virginia Tech under the direction of Prof. Harold M. McNair and a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Vienna under Prof. Wolfgang Lindner. Research in the Schug group spans fundamental and applied areas of separation science and mass spectrometry. Schug was named the LCGC Emerging Leader in Chromatography in 2009, and most recently has been named the 2012 American Chemical Society Division of Analytical Chemistry Young Investigator in Separation Science awardee.   

 

Comments

Teaching vs Research

Interesting - you state you are looking forward to another year of teaching but you only teach one class per semester.

I am formally assigned to

I am formally assigned to teach one class per semester (plus lab oversight), and that is quite normal for a research institution. As I have indicated in other blogs, I am also quite active in other educational activities. This year, I have also begun a new general chemistry educational program. That said, the time spent training students to perform research is also teaching in my opinion.

Reflecting...

Great blog piece. I spent 5 yrs as postdoc at Baylor College of Medicine after getting PhD in biochemistry at Univ. of North Texas. Decided i wanted steady salary. Took some bouncing around for first 10 years; got laid off twice. Then was able to spend 25 years at major biotech company, Genzyme, doing analytical biochem in the Quality department, developing and validating methods and transferring them into the QC group. Liked the job because it used many skills. Was not a researcher at heart. Loved working with the colleagues i had. Management was (very) difficult at times but overall worked out, including the steady salary and retirement savings (401k). Worked ~50-60 hours per week but 5 day week. Work was intense essentially every day due to project deadlines. Had my ups/downs, some major, but overall worked out.

Thanks for sharing your

Thanks for sharing your perspective. There are certainly many paths to success and fulfillment in science. It sounds like you found yours, which is great!

Additional Perspective

I cannot disagree with anything Kevin has said. However, having spent about half of my time in industry and the other half in academia, allow me to add three additional points of perspective:

1) Just as there are differences between being a faculty member at a community college versus a research university, there are also differences between a small start-up company and multinational corporations. Seek as much advice and perspective as you can during your career planning.

2) The American Chemical Society has a wonderful tool, chemidp.acs.org. All students should be advised to complete this Individual Development Plan early, and review annually. AAAS has a similar tool (myidp.sciencecareers.org) that seems to be oriented a little more toward the biosciences.

3) Seek out Preparing Future Faculty programs and similar professional development opportunities from the ACS and other professional organizations.

Doug Raynie, South Dakota State University

Thanks Doug for adding your

Thanks Doug for adding your insight and suggestions! Very valuable. Indeed there are a lot of resources out there, and oftentimes getting them to the people that should be aware of them is half the battle. All the best,
Kevin

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