Dear Future Professor: The Red Pill

Jason Fertig

Jason Fertig is an associate professor of management at the University of Southern Indiana.

Dear Future Professor,

Congratulations of your decision to embark on an academic career.  I’m glad that you’ve chosen to start down this rewarding path—but if I may, please allow me to make a few notes to guide you on your journey.

Let’s begin with a quote from The Matrix, when Morpheus presents Neo with a difficult decision:

You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

I urge you to take the red pill and continue reading, but with a disclaimer—my formulation may be different from others.

Now, some people may tell you not to bother with a Ph.D at all.  It’s not what it used to be.  You’ll never find a job unless you study a vocational discipline. You may also hear that you’ll have to deal with uber-PC or other highly politicized agendas.  The classics are dead.  Shakespeare is out and social construction of reality is in.  If any of your views lean conservative or libertarian, hide them until you get tenure, maybe later.  Perhaps others will talk about students only working on classwork a few hours a week and shunning reading for pleasure.  They will tell you that you’ll have to stick to your guns—hold students to high standards and don’t inflate grades.

If you want to fight those battles, all of what I just wrote has some truth to it.

You don’t have to fight those battles.  If you want to sleep well at night, here is your red pill: 

In this career, It’s not about you.

Repeat that 30 times each morning when you awaken – It’s not about you, it’s not about you, it’s not about you.  If you operate with that mantra, the wind will take your sails in a favorable direction.  While you may need to be selfish or play politics at times, you are training to be a teacher and a scholar, not a politician.  The faculty members whom I most respect are the ones whose greatest days are when their students achieve something, or when they complete work that greatly influences their field of study, not those who are happiest when they earn some kind of accolade or those who like fighting academic battles.

Don’t be the selfish faculty member. 

Don’t scrimp on your teaching because of the pressure to publish.  You can be a great teacher and a great scholar if you learn that effective and efficient are not mutually exclusive.

Don’t be the faculty member whose mind is preoccupied with how the administration is trying to usurp the power of the faculty, the one who thinks he’s fighting some academic version of Game of Thrones.  You don’t want to become a Lannister, even in a good cause.

Don’t look at this job just as a way to get good pay with summers off.  Remember the rule that students should spend three hours studying outside of class for every hour in the classroom? That doesn’t change because you are a professor.  You will have to learn to create boundaries, so that you don’t spend all your free time working, but you can’t place those boundaries narrowly around the classes you teach and the papers you write.

Please don’t mistake this advice for a complete refutation of all the negative things you hear about careers in academia.  Landing a good academic job does require foresight and even a bit of luck. There are plenty of professors out there who have checked out from the job.  Many schools have stopped expanding, and positions are getting scarce.  People get driven out of the academy.    

But you are not a victim.  You can make yourself a successful career if you enter this path with your eyes open.   As a matter of fact, if you want a good litmus test for a school, show the professors you’d be working with most closely this message.  If they roll their eyes, take that as a sign.  If they don’t delete this or throw it in the trash, you may have found a place you want to be for the next few years.

Good luck on your journey!

Best,

Jason Fertig, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Management

University of Southern Indiana

Image Credit: W.carter, cropped.

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