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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2018

Eye on Psi Chi

Summer 2018 | Volume 22 | Issue 4

The Secret Life of Professors Revealed Part II: The Mystery Job

Laura Vernon, PhD, Florida Atlantic University

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

View Part I at

One key to understanding the elusive creature that is your professor is to get an undercover look at the job of a professor. In the last column, I revealed secrets about professors’ passions and ways to interact with these quirky beings. In this column, you can take those ideas further by understanding the job demands of the professoriate. Most people assume that we lecture for a few hours, give exams, and spend the rest of our time in an ivory tower placidly reading dusty texts from dead guys like Aristotle and Freud. The reality of the job is more fun, complex, and challenging.

Secret #4: Professors “Wear Many Hats”

Ever wonder why professors have the reputation for being absent-minded? This is why: Most professors perform duties in the areas of teaching, service, and research; within these areas are subcategories of duties that involve many tasks, which they juggle more or less simultaneously.

Even the category of teaching is not as simple as it sounds. You probably see your professor for a few hours a week in one class. But did you know: your professor might also be

  • teaching other classes,
  • holding office hours,
  • writing exams,
  • grading exams and papers and other student work,
  • supervising teaching assistants and helping them develop their knowledge and teaching skill,
  • teaching and supervising graduate students in classes, research, and clinical work (seeing clients),
  • overseeing student internships, independent studies, laboratory work, and research projects,
  • chairing student honors theses, masters theses, and dissertations,
  • supervising student conference presentations and publication attempts,
  • writing a textbook or a column like this one,
  • meeting with students for academic and registration advising,
  • helping students sort through future career paths and requirements for different concentrations (majors), graduate school, medical school, law school, and job applications,
  • writing letters of recommendation, and
  • helping students in distress find the best options and resources for their problems.

These activities all fall under our “teaching” duties.

Professors also serve on department, college, and university committees in what is called “service.” If you think of tennis when you hear the word service, you are not far off because there is a lot of back and forth and running around the court (ahem, campus). For example, last year when I was chair of the admissions committee, I attended and helped plan and coordinate recruiting events, met with marketing and communications teams, and sometimes weighed in on applications. It was a blast to meet prospective students and tell them about my beloved college and field of psychology, but it kept me busy!

I also chaired a search for a new professor. Our committee debated job requirements and drafted an ad, pored through dozens of applications, conducted interviews, planned detailed multiday campus visits for candidates, consulted with other college faculty and administrators to select the best candidate, and then helped recruit that person. Whew! Just reading that list makes me tired all over again. I also served on a few other less demanding committees at the same time. As you can imagine, students who sent me an e-mail during one of the job candidate visits did not get a response from me for a day or two because I was with the candidate or the search committee.

If I sound like I am about to break into a rendition of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” let me promise that I will spare you my singing voice. I am not looking for sympathy. I adore this crazy, busy, scattered job, and I think most professors feel similarly. I simply hope that a partial glimpse of my secret professor to-do list will provide some insight and understanding that every professor is juggling many important tasks. If you don’t get an instant response to an e-mail, phone call, or request for a meeting, avoid taking it personally and know we are doing our best to manage many responsibilities.

Secret #5: Professors Respond to an “Artful Nuisance”

When I started graduate school, one professor suggested that students learn to be an artful nuisance; meaning politely and respectfully continuing to check in with a professor until you get what you need. With so much on our plates, it is easy to miss something or someone. The squeaky wheel gets the oil, but try to make your squeaks pleasing to the ear. If you have an important question or need, send an e-mail (see the last column for pro tips on wording); if you don’t get a response, maybe resend it a few days later.

If it is last minute and an emergency, you can e-mail more frequently while apologizing and owning your part in the last-minute issue. You can also stop by during office hours, try calling, and approach the professor before or after class within reason; if it feels like stalking to you, it might feel uncomfortable to your professor. If you do this in a pleasant and appropriate way, smile, perhaps apologize and say you “don’t want to be a pest, but…”; then explain what you need and thank us for our time, and most professors will be happy to help you.

You may also ask how a professor prefers to be contacted and check with more senior students about which strategies work best for different professors. Some of us are always in our offices. Others forget to check voicemail. Some only answer e-mails early in the morning. Others prefer meetings for complex issues. Get the scoop on your professor’s patterns, and you are more likely to get the response you need.

Keep in mind that we have many students to help and your issue may not be the most pressing or important of the day. I may be writing a recommendation for med school or talking to a student who lost a close family member; I know that your request can keep until tomorrow. You will need to wait your turn, but keep following up as well. If you send a single e-mail and don’t get a response, be aware that the e-mail might have gone to a spam folder, been unintentionally overlooked, or been unclear (did you state who you are, provide background information, and specify exactly what you need from me?). It is up to you to follow-up multiple times in different ways.

If you are sick of reading about how much is going on for your professor, buckle up because there is one more bump coming. We have not yet discussed professor’s research activities and most colleges and universities consider that RESEARCH should be announced with a drum roll, a megaphone, and Rocky or Darth Vader’s theme music (I’ll rely on your imagination to supply these here).

Secret #6: Professors Have to Show Productivity

A professor’s productivity may look different than you expect. We must perform well in teaching, service, and research—but the most important factor is often research. Our research productivity is measured by the number of journal articles, book chapters, and books we publish and the grant dollars we get to fund our research. We may be excellent in the classroom, producing knowledgeable well-trained students, and be beloved by our students, but this is rarely enough by itself. Talented teachers still need to demonstrate research productivity.

If I am unavailable to my students during my research time, this does not reflect a lack of investment in my students. Instead, it is a nod to the job requirements. In the same way that you might reluctantly turn down a friend’s invitation right before your 30-page paper is due, a professor might be unreachable as a grant or book deadline approaches. When asking for a meeting, it is best to list many free times, state that you understand how busy your professor is, and be flexible, patient, and pleasant.

Fortunately, this emphasis on research also has benefits for students. Many professors can include reliable and conscientious students in our labs and research programs. Because research tasks are crucial for our professional success, there are plenty available. When I was in college, I volunteered as a test subject for a professor developing vocabulary-boosting software and in a neuroscience lab attaching electrodes to people’s skulls (insert manic crazed-scientist laughter here).

I have students working on several different research projects, presenting posters at professional conferences, and serving as coauthors on published journal articles. Even if more extensive research opportunities are unavailable, some professors may be willing to let you proofread drafts (we call them “manuscripts”). Two of my excellent students gave me feedback on the last column and this one.

I hope that understanding your professors’ job will improve your interactions with us. Most professors adore our students and enjoy teaching, research, and service; likewise, we are happily productive in all three areas. You might consider being a professor yourself someday. I think it is the best job in the world!

Laura Vernon, PhD is an associate professor of psychology at the Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University. As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, Dr. Vernon completed two undergraduate honors theses in psychology and sociology and took many small advanced seminar courses. The benefits of that individual attention remain with her and she is delighted to offer the same types of experiences at the Honors College. Dr. Vernon enjoys introducing students to her beloved field in her General Psychology course, as well as exploring the fascinating nuances of Psychopathology, Psychotherapy, Positive Psychology, and Social Psychology with her students. It is her goal to give students enriching and challenging learning experiences and help them apply what they learn to themselves and their lives, all while having fun. As a clinical psychologist, Dr. Vernon’s research is on psychological disorders and their treatment. Her lab broadly examines anxiety disorders, emotion, cognition, and mindfulness. Some of her recent research has examined the effectiveness of a mindfulness-based equine assisted therapy for clinical patients, the usefulness of brief mindfulness interventions for college students, the contributions of fear and disgust to spider phobia, and the cognitive processes of emotion and phobias. She is also interested in the potential for games and online gaming to revolutionize teaching and learning. Dr. Vernon has been faculty sponsor of student clubs such as the Psychology Club, the Newman Catholic Club, and the Quidditch Club.

Copyright 2018 (Vol. 22, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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