Gas station without pumps

2010 July 30

Should I be a teacher/professor/researcher?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:29
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Paul Bogush asked what to tell students who ask “Should I become a teacher?” I tried putting a long comment on his blog, but edublogs rejected my attempt to type the antispam word and threw away my draft, so I’ll try again here, where I can save drafts and not have to deal with the limitations of the comment field.

As a professor who teaches mainly graduate and senior-level courses to bioinformatics and bioengineering majors, I do not get many students asking me if they should be K–12 school teachers.  Students considering that career rarely take the intensive courses needed for an engineering degree, and college seniors in engineering rarely consider getting certified as teachers.  Perhaps having a higher percentage of engineering majors going into K–12 teaching would be valuable, both for the teaching profession and for the future supply of engineers, but it doesn’t often come up as question from students.

What I do get asked about is whether (and where) students should go to grad school, whether they should stop at an M.S. or go for a Ph.D., whether they should look for a job in industry, in a national lab, as faculty at a research university, or as faculty at a teaching college.  The question is often motivated by the same underlying question as the one Bogush asked about: “Knowing what you know now, would you choose this career?”

If asked directly about my choices, I can easily say that I do not regret my choices and that I am in about as good a position for me as I can imagine.  Being a professor at a university that values both research and teaching is a good fit for me.

When I’m asked about what a student should do, I’m much less definite.  I generally answer with questions:

  • Do you enjoy writing papers? How many have you written?
  • How many classes have you taught?
  • Do you enjoy standing in front of a group of people explaining difficult concepts?
  • How good are you at organizing thoughts clearly and presenting them?
  • What new ideas do you have?  Are they practical, money-making ideas or more fundamental research?
  • What sort of hours do you see yourself working?
  • Who is doing the sort of research that interests you?  Where are they?

I generally modify the questions a bit based on my knowledge of the strengths or weaknesses of the student (if I know them well enough), but I rarely give specific advice.  Occasionally I get questions from a student who has enormous talent but is uncertain of it, and I push them to be a bit more ambitious.  A little more often I get questions from students who are barely passing their classes, but think that they are brilliant—I gently dissuade them from going into Ph.D. programs, steering them a little towards productive work within their capabilities. Most often, I am dealing with students who could do any of the things they are considering, if they want to enough.  I try to provide them with some information about the consequences of some of their possibilities, but mostly I give them questions to ask themselves, so they can find the path that is most comfortable for them.

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