Dear Future Professor

Hal Arkes

I’m very glad to hear that you intend to join the professoriate. Education is a noble profession. I still get teary-eyed at graduations, even though I have sat through dozens of them.  Placing a hood on one of my graduating doctoral students is an emotional experience for me.

Of course, there are some discouraging moments. There are those times when you will see an undergraduate who is more interested in reading the newspaper or surfing the web than listening to the lecture you’ve spend countless hours polishing. If you get exasperated, I suggest you employ a strategy I’ve used over the years. Announce that would like to go to lunch or dinner with some of the students. Make a sign-up sheet available. You will find that only the best students want to avail themselves of this opportunity. Your faith in your students will be reinstated as you enjoy the company of motivated, intelligent scholars who have chosen to join you.  You will again be certain that educating such fine people is a worthwhile and lofty endeavor.

Another possible source of discouragement pertains to publications. In my day the maxim was “Publish or perish.” The younger faculty worry that the maxim is now “Publish and perish.” One of my recent manuscripts did a world tour of rejections before it was finally accepted. One can turn to the Bible and read the Book of Job or Ecclesiastes for solace, but instead I reflect on the substantial psychological research showing the low level of consistency between reviewers of the same manuscript. If your manuscript is rejected, give serious thought to the major criticisms, consider making revisions to accommodate them, and submit elsewhere.  One faculty member I knew had three or four stacks of large envelopes on a shelf near his desk. In this pre-computer era of the 1970s, each stack had large envelopes pre-addressed to one journal in his field. He would submit a manuscript by using a large envelope in stack #1, and if it were rejected, he would make some revisions and insert the new version into an envelope in stack #2. He would ignore minor criticisms, because he thought that if he made a change to please one of the reviewers of stack #1’s journal, he might thereby displease a reviewer of the journal in stack #2. Ditto for stacks #3 and #4. He was a highly successful academic. I think his attitude toward scholarship was that if he thought he had something important to contribute, it was incumbent on him to find the outlet whose reviewers agreed with him.  He would accept criticisms of his major points, but he never got discouraged by such criticisms.  Besides, he greatly enjoyed writing and thinking about topics within his field as he continually improved his manuscript. Remember: the second law of thermodynamics was rejected for publication as was Newton’s magnum opus on optics.

Do not get discouraged by or participate in department politics. I am sure that you will find that academics are mainly very considerate, intelligent, well-meaning folks, but every profession contains some problematic people. Do not join clique A or clique B. Be known as a good department citizen who has no time for petty concerns. You chose your field because you are devoted to it. You would love to talk about it with anyone, and you would be very interested in hearing about intellectually interesting topics in your colleagues’ fields.  You’ll become known as a serious scholar, which is your goal.

A final source of potential discouragement is the administration. Once I was going to submit a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) a few days before the deadline. An associate provost surprised me by saying that he wanted to read and approve of the proposal before I submitted it. His academic domain and mine were completely different, so I wondered what he could say about my proposal. He returned it to me the day before the deadline. His contribution? He had substantially enlarged the font. Unfortunately by doing so he had caused the text to go beyond the 15-page limit mandated by NSF. This would have rendered the proposal non-compliant and ineligible for funding. Fortunately I prevented this catastrophe by reinstating the original font just before I submitted the proposal. NSF funded the proposal despite its “deficient” font.  

My general attitude toward administrators is that they have a very difficult job being fair and genial to a huge number of faculty members, all of whom think they are extremely intelligent people whose well-considered opinions should be heeded. Most administrators, being former faculty members, are also intelligent well-meaning people, but occasionally you’ll find one who likes to exercise power or who makes decisions that are motivated by values inconsistent with your own. This happens in absolutely all hierarchical organizations. Academia is not immune. I accommodate to this fact of life by mild retaliatory measures such as referring to the associate provost as “Fontman” for the rest of his career. 

So as you embark on your academic career, think about how blessed you are to be able to spend your time thinking about the topics in which you are centrally interested. Most people don’t have that opportunity. You will have as colleagues other people who share your interests and enthusiasm for these same topics.  Your teaching will enable you to share this passion with others. Curiously, someone is going to pay you to do this. How fortunate you are!

Hal Arkes is professor emeritus of psychology at The Ohio State University.

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