The Unprofessional Professors

I’ve been so preoccupied with other things over the past week or so that I haven’t had time until now to comment on an article I saw in last week’s  Times Higher about the role of a Professor in a modern university; there’s also an accompanying editorial in the same issue although, as is usual for editorials in the Times Higher, it doesn’t actually say anything that adds to the original piece.

People outside academia probably wonder what makes a Professor different from a Lecturer or Reader, apart from being older and getting paid a bit more. Undergraduate students probably wonder even more because they don’t see any obvious evidence that Prof. X is any better at teaching than plain Dr. Y. Quite possibly the reverse, in fact.

If you look at the contract of a Professor you won’t find that helps much either. Mine just says words to the effect that I should do whatever the Head of School asks me to do. In my case I have no complaints. I do teaching (lecturing, project supervision, tutorials, exercise classes), administration (various committees, and Director of Postgraduate Studies) and research (including supervising PhD students and a PDRA, publishing papers, etc) and I also do a few things outside the University such as STFC panels. I’m not complaining at all about this workload, for which  consider myself to be quite well paid. What I find difficult is swapping between so many different tasks even during the course of a single day, and I am all too aware that things  do sometimes fall through the cracks.

The criteria for promotion to the rank of Professor (i.e. to a “Chair”)  operated by most universities generally state that a professor must excel at teaching, administration and research. This provides for even greater mystification when you look around the average department because you’ll find many – probably even a majority – who couldn’t administer the skin on a rice pudding, and who make only derisory attempts to teach. These are the ones who have done it all on research, which in reality easily trumps the other two. To paraphrase Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: there are teaching, administration and research but the greatest of these is research. In fact the others don’t matter much at all.

The point is, at least in physics, that current levels of funding for undergraduate teaching mean that departments are financially unviable if they rely on undergraduate teaching as their primary source of income. It’s therefore inevitable that the primary criterion for appointing and retaining staff is their ability to win research grants and be a star performer in the REF. Indeed, many promotions to Chair happen when a member of staff threatens to leave, and take  their research grants and publication statistics with them. Furious negotiations then take place, a promotion to Chair ensues, and more likely than not a reduced teaching and administration load for the newly minted Prof.  Of course this means the load for someone  else has to go up. And if they are given management tasks to do, the Prof will manage the workload by simply not doing it, letting everything fall to bits until the job is allocated to someone else. Likewise with teaching: if you do it so badly that the students fail their exams or complain that you’re useless, you’ll just find your courses are given to someone else and you have more time to indulge your research interests. Studied incompetence is the ally of selfishness. It actually pays to be bad.

This is such a successful strategy that many departments now have as many professors as other teaching staff, if not more, a significant fraction of whom shirk their adminstrative duties and make little effort to teach well. Why should they? They know that as long as they hold onto their research grants they are indispensible, no matter how much strain they put on their colleagues. You might argue that this is unprofessional conduct, but there’s no question that it works.

Given this state of affairs, it’s hardly surprising that junior staff complain that their professors don’t show sufficient leadership and don’t take an active role in mentoring younger staff.  Selfishness pays. How many leaders can a department sustain anyway? If 2/3 of the staff are professors can they all be leaders? Who will follow?

I’ll get into trouble if I name individuals in my department – they know who they are – but I’m sure people in other universities recognize the same thing in their own departments. The situation won’t change until a funding regime is put in place that requires departments to prove commitment to excellence in teaching in the same way that they do for research. Then promotions panels might actually start to follow  their own published criteria instead of doing what they do now, which is nothing short of systematic hypocrisy.

39 Responses to “The Unprofessional Professors”

  1. Albert Zijlstra Says:

    Academic promotions are based on peer review. If teaching and admin ability is undervalued in the process, is that also because we ignore these aspects in our references?

    • telescoper Says:

      “Academic promotions are based on peer review..” Really? Not in my experience. References may be solicited, but the decision is mostly made by internal panels. What does someone outside your university know about your teaching anyway?

      • Albert Zijlstra Says:

        Internal panels cannot promote if the external references are not positive. You may not know how well someone teaches, but should know whether the person involves gives good presentations. You may also know whether the person can be trusted with organizing meetings, and how they perform at committees. And as external referee, you will have the full CV (including teaching experience and feedback) and the host university promotion guidelines. If you feel that a candidate falls short on these activities. there is nothing that stops you from mentioning this in the letter. Thus ending their chance of promotion, which is why we tend not to do it. Are we shifting the blame to the internal promotion panels a bit too easily?

  2. I was just interviewed (successfully) for a personal chair at my Uni. Most of the interview concerned research, and my plans for how I would take things further in the next five years. There was one question (from a Council member, not an academic) about my role as Chair of my Department’s Board of Studies (yes, I’m not one of the shirkers where admin and teaching are concerned). The panel chair asked me about leadership as it is perceived that the profs in my institution don’t show enough of this.

  3. “What I find difficult is swapping between so many different tasks…”

    so why do you find it so surprising that some of your (less gifted) colleagues drop the ball on one of the N different tasks we are all supposed to perform each waking hour (teaching, admin, research, leadership, outreach, grant-income, innovation, mentoring, etc)?

    i’d guess there are a fair number of staff who drift on research, while focusing on teaching. i agree that few of these are likely to make it to chair – but frankly the salary differential isn’t that huge – and you wouldn’t want to clutter the place up with yet more leaderless chairs – would you?

    with students paying £9k/yr (at least in some parts of the UK) – i would have thought that you’d embrace market forces as an efficient mechanism to drive things in the direction you want?

    …and failing that – i’m sure there are enough unpleasant tasks at cardiff which can be given to those professors whose specialism is studied incompetence?

    • Ian

      To answer your questions in turn:

      It’s not a question of being gifted, more of having a sense of responsibility. Sadly, that’s too old-fashioned a thing to make me surprised that people don’t have it.

      I think I’d prefer everyone to be a chair, if the name is so important, but to have salary bnased on performance across all categories not just research.

      If all universities charge the same how will the mythical market forces operate? Students don’t really know much about the quality of teaching before they sign up.

      Finally, there are unpleasant tasks but they wouldn’t get done if given to the persons you mention!


      • its an odd experience for me – being the one to try to a positive gloss on things…

        anyway – having just come back from a week on the ESO OPC (their TAC) – along with albert and others (albert – i assume its ok to “out” you as a panel member?)… i think there are a large number of us who still do have a sense of responsibility. although ESO are complaining they are finding it harder and harder to fill the panels – so perhaps you are right about the trend.

        at durham, my experience is that >95% of the academics act as a team – they cover for each other and everyone is expected to chip in (as required by our workload model) – unless on sabbatical. there may be a few difficult members of staff, but peer pressure can work wonders.

        we also have a parallel track for teaching-led academics, which tops out with something called (i think) a “professorial fellow”. but i’ve never met one. and i agree i found it odd coming back to the UK that salary (up to a point) is based on age, rather than performance. above that “point” salary becomes more performance based – in part because getting a job offer elsewhere can be used to judge the relative worth of someone on the open market.

        finally, i’d be surprised if students don’t become a little more demanding given the new fees. but we will see.

  4. […] “I’ve been so preoccupied with other things over the past week or so that I haven’t had time until now to comment on an article I saw in last week’s Times Higher about the role of a Professor in a modern university …” (more) […]

  5. Robert Massey wrote a piece in Astronomy and Geophysics that reviewed the employment statistics in astronomy.

    In 1993 there were 77 professors, 99 readers/senior lecturers and 115 lecturers. In 1998 these numbers rose to 98, 97 and 117.

    Fast forward to 2010, there are now 227 professors, 111 readers/senior lecturers and 111 lecturers.

    Here’s a A-level maths question based on this trend: “In what year will all astronomers be professors?”

  6. John Peacock Says:

    Now that all students get 3 A’s at A-level (OK, I exaggerate), there is a growing number of alternative schemes to give universities the means to pick out the top performers. So what should academics do to discriminate internally once all lecturers are professors? Surgeons drop the “Dr” altogether. Personally, I’m tempted by the idea of uniform: epaulettes, lots of gold braid and medal ribbons: the bling would increase in proportion to status.

    Or we could combine the REF with the convention of the US military, and speak of 3-star professors ertc. This reminds me of a certain university who hired a bunch of alleged superstars in time for the 2008 RAE: many of them turned out to be oversold, and the collective term given to these bad buys was “subprime professors”.

  7. Andrew Liddle Says:

    Dear Peter,

    At my university it is clear that there are some departments where (almost) everyone works together as a team, including my own, and others where (almost) everyone acts as self-interested individuals. And very few lie between these two extremes. The challenge is how to change the latter type of department into the former, given that it seems to essentially be learned behaviour by incoming staff.

    Your unprofessional professors are an example of what economists call `free riders’ or freeloaders (as it happens my iPod chose `Freddie Freeloader’ on my train ride earlier after reading your article), being persons `who consumes a resource without paying for it, or pays less than the full cost’ according to Wikipedia. Here we are inverted against the usual sense; the resource is the salary paid and the cost is the work returned.I believe there are studies that show that social groups of animals, such as apes, will typically tolerate 10% to 20% of freeloaders, who for instance gorge the food without bothering to join the hunt, and above that it becomes an issue because it undermines the whole tribe. I suppose the same goes for professors in a department …

    The `free rider problem’ in economics is the problem of preventing free riders destroying your business. You won’t be surprised that economists have thus far failed to solve it.



  8. Bryn Jones Says:

    Ian Smail has already given above one solution to the problem: uncooperative, selfish academics deserve to be allocated the least popular administrative and teaching duties by the head of department. However, Peter referred in his essay to the problem that self-serving academics will just do these tasks badly until they are given something else to do instead.

    Another useful sanction might be that no preference should be given to the favoured candidates of uncooperative academics when hiring new academic staff.

    Heads of department need to have a number of tools to use to encourage academics to cooperate with their colleagues, and sanctions that could be used against those people who behave selfishly. Can anyone think of other possible tools?

  9. Grumpy Old Woman Says:

    While not wishing to tar everyone commenting here with this particular brush, I would humbly point out that among those who bewail the lack of commitment to administrative duties on the part of academics one will also find those who bewail the activities of the administrators in universities and Research Councils whose job it is to do precisely some of these tasks, and without whom (like the folk who process all the documentation for research grant and facility time panels) the peer review bodies would not be able to operate. Given the lack of respect shown to professionals in those fields, is it any wonder that ‘academics’ avoid the taint of administration like the plague? I am put in mind of an academic (not an astronomer, by the way) who I once heard turn round and say to a fairly senior person in the grants administration “Look, I’m the scientist: you should just give me the money and go away.”

    • Well maybe if some if the administrative services I have had to deal with could do their jobs competently people would respect them (not saying they are all like that, but a significant fraction I come across I am afraid are, which tars everyone perhaps….) more.

      • perhaps peter could be encouraged to run a poll on how many (university) readers feel the administrative departments in their universities are being run for their benefit…

        and how many are driven to running shadow-organisations to ensure they can compete internationally.

  10. telescoper Says:

    I can only speak for myself, but I’ll say that I have unqualified admiration for the administrative staff at STFC that I have worked with directly, especially those dealing with the AGP who do an utterly fantastic job and without whom, as you say, the whole system wouldn’t function.

    People working at the sharp end all too often have to deal with resentment from disgruntled folk that would be better aimed at the higher management for making bad decisions that others have to implement.

    That said, there’s no point in denying that *some* university administrative services are a shambles which requires academics to try to do the job themselves that someone else is being paid to do but not doing. It’s no wonder that leads to a breakdown of respect.

  11. i’m sure albert won’t be tempted to comment…

    • Albert Zijlstra Says:


      Although, I would be tempted to say that Brian teaches a lot, just a different (and perhaps more difficult) audience, and fellowships which are non-teaching or buy out teaching are not rare at universities – lasting from months to years. Brian does publish research papers, in case you wondered.

      I have not yet come across professorial fellowships that buy out research (or is this called a postdoc?).

  12. Woken Postdoc Says:

    Fascinating topic. However I can imagine worse kinds of academics than the professors who shirk their teaching and administration roles. I would be more worried about the megalomaniac Professor Ogre who _enjoys_ administrative duties and power.

    Let me paint this ugly caricature. He gains tenure at an early age, through “insider trading”, into an unadvertised and customised post. Exhausting his less aggressive peers, he bulldozes his way onto any and every committee he can (at university level, nationally and internationally). His lecturing is indifferent. He misbehaves scandalously with some of his students and postdocs, ruining some of the brightest lives. It doesn’t matter whether or not he has ever experienced the slightest spark of original scientific insight, because he owns the cynical gift of picking the right bandwagons. He rides easily to the top ranks, as a reward for project management roles. He cunningly knows how to confect the illusion of research productivity, through strategic gangsterism: idly reaping vast numbers of safe (pre-scheduled) papers generated by minions in huge Ponzi consortia.

    Finally he consolidates his disdain for old-fashioned, free-thinking, self-motivated researchers by formulating a personal _dogma_ of Megascience Managerialism. He might even write a textbook about it. He propagates this self-invented discipline through like-minded acolytes planted in his own department and on key councils too. What would they do to the country?

    If you met and recognised him, what would you say about this type of “unprofessional professor”? Is he in any sense a real academic, or is he just a deviously camouflaged predator?

  13. Hi Peter .. This isn’t on topic, but what do you think of the departmental practice of giving PDRAs some hours of 3rd/4th year homework marking per week during the semester, with the justification that continuous assessment contributes (well, all of 20%) to the module, which in turn contributes to the degree placement – and/or that “someone’s got to do it”?

    Given the state of the research councils, PDRAs are hard-won positions which – I would think – should be milked for all the research that can be got from them, rather than deliberately assigning away time and effort on menial and time-consuming marking. However, one could argue that faculty positions are equally rare and hard-won… but I don’t see what’s wrong with paying the better PhD students a decent rate for whatever homework has to be marked at whatever level. Unless you think good doctoral students are even rarer than faculty or postdocs…

    • telescoper Says:

      Practice varies from one institution to another, I think. In mine, PDRAs can be asked to take on some teaching work but it isn’t marking; that’s usually done by PhD students and they are paid extra for it. Also marking that counts towards the final degree mark is *never* done by anyone other than teaching staff, so we do this only for Year 1 students. PDRAs sometimes do laboratory demonstrating and/or exercise classes, and sometimes lecturing where they do get valuable experience. Tutorials in my institution are always done by teaching staff too, although in other places this is also farmed out to PDRAs.

      Most permanent jobs do involve teaching so it is good to have some on your CV if you are a PDRA, but it shouldn’t detract from research.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        “Tutorials in my institution are always done by teaching staff too …”


      • telescoper Says:

        I should have said “in my department”, as the situation may be different elsewhere in the University.

        Even the Head of School does tutorials!

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        The Cardiff physics rule that people on temporary contracts did not take tutorials was there in my day too.

        My tutorial class had to be transferred to a lecturer when my PDRA contract expired half way through the academic year.

      • telescoper Says:

        So why did you agree to do tutorials in the first place?

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Two reasons. The first is that PDRA career prospects are so terrible that postdocs feel a strong need to go along with the system in the hope of getting patronage to support their careers, or minimally the very good references that are needed for career survival.

        The second reason is that I was promised that I would have my three weekly exercise classes taken away from me if I did take tutorials. Of course, this did not happen.

      • telescoper Says:

        I know it’s easy saying so in retrospect, but there is a point at which you have to stand up for yourself.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Yes, people have to stand up for themselves, but it is difficult in an environment across British academia where exploitation of postdocs is the norm, and impossible in those particular instances where conditions are so extreme that complaining about any single problem would not bring about acceptable conditions. In those extreme conditions, complaining effectively could mean severe repercussions, and the alternative of serving out the contract and trying to move to somewhere with better conditions is preferable.

        However, as a general point, I would advise postdocs to complain when there are genuine problems. This means polite, firm, moderate complaints to senior academics within a department, or lobbying for better treatment for postdocs when the problems are general ones.

      • telescoper Says:

        Evidence for the assertion that “exploitation of postdocs is the norm”?

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Of course postdocs are exploited: the whole research careers system is exploitative.

        The system of short-term contracts is convenient for research councils but severely disadvantages postdocs: they usually do not have continuity in research fields and have to move city every few years. The practice of research councils providing funding at a fixed, determined level makes it cheaper for grant holders to hire younger postdocs, making the research careers system ageist. That, with the enormous imbalance between the number of people being awarded PhDs and the number of permanent contracts means that young people are recruited to postdoc positions, and are later discarded by the system. That is exploitation (by research councils in this case).

        The extreme competition for careers means postdocs are very reluctant to upset the system or speak out. They feel they have to go along with conditions or risk getting poor references for the next round of job applications. Some grant holders direct the postdoc’s research objectives and methods, leaving the postdoc with little room for initiative (and in some cases, with a far inferior publication record than the postdocs would achieve if they could themselves determine objectives). Even bullying can occur in a small number of cases, with the postdoc too weak to take action.

        University departments treat postdocs with a status inferior to permanent staff, justifying this on the basis of the different job descriptions. Postdocs are excluded from any departmental decision making. Research councils insist that candidates for fellowships – postdocs – are formally nominated by university departments, often with quotas applied to the number of applications from departments, meaning that postdocs’ career development is an issue of patronage and favouritism within departments. Research councils usually pay travel funds to the grant holder, rather than to the postdocs, meaning that postdocs are unable to choose to use funds themselves: attending conferences and publicising their work is dependent on the whim of grant holders. Postdocs are forbidden from applying in their own right for grant funding, even for limited funds to purchase equipment essential to their work.

        This is all exploitative. Postdocs need to understand this and lobby for change. The system is wrong and postdocs must campaign for improvements.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Yes, but I also believe there should be a less extreme imbalance between the number of PhD students and the number of permanent positions, plus more fellowships in place of some PDRA positions. I feel fellowships would allow really good people with leadership abilities to prove themselves in ways that they find difficult as postdocs.

        I shan’t add any more as this discussion seems to have veered away from a discussion of professorial conduct to the severe problems with postdoctoral careers.

      • ‘…teaching work but it isn’t marking’?

        Wake up Peter – Cardiff PDRAs have been doing a subset of final degree marking for a couple of years now. This semester I’ve been marking 4th year GR, which means 28 students every fortnight each to be marked out of 35: 980 marks takes quite some hours. No extra pay, and it’s certainly not included in my job description – at least, the one I saw when I joined the School. Even if there was money involved, I don’t need it – the thing I do need more of is time. I would sacrifice some fraction of my salary to farm out marking to grad students, if it were allowed.

        The problem seems to be even our 4th year students are not sufficiently motivated to learn and revise the subject on their own; they have to be periodically prodded with continuous assessment tasks which contribute a tiny but not completely negligible amount to the final degree. So the school decides to burn PDRA time and effort in warming up its luke-warm undergrads.

      • @stringph – at a Russel uni in England I work in the department pays PhD students to do the marking (which counts towards final degree marks) of problem sheets, though PDRA’s can lead the problem classes (unpaid).

        Though in the past, like you, I have marked the problem class sheets myself also whilst employed a postdoc researcher.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Practice varies greatly from department to department. Postdocs are considered fully competent to take significant responsibilities in some departments, but are considered incapable (wholly wrongly) in others. It can be humiliating to work as a postdoc in that latter type of department.

        I did some 4th year lecturing as a PDRA in one department and coached 4th year students through student seminars, which included exam marking and assessment. That was in the Bristol physics department, which I found a very good place to work. There was no attitude that postdocs could not perform at the top level.

  14. Easier said than done, perhaps – I have heard postdocs say they don’t want to complain because it gives them a disadvantage to those who just go along with it all and are hence seen as team players. Those who complain may not be and lose patronage. This would be less of an issue of there would not a lack of jobs to progress into, but under such fierce competition you cannot afford to do anything that may have any negative impact on your career.

    Ideally postdocs would vote with their feet and pursue other careers that treat younger people a lot better (a lot of my fellow PhD’s never did a postdoc because they said they were not prepared to tolerate a career structure that might throw them on the scrap heap after 5-8 years), but I think a lot of people want to do science so desperately they will put up with anything (and if you ask around you can hear real horror stories about how certain university research groups treat their postdocs, stuff far worse than the issues mentioned here. Equally other groups treat them pretty well, not withstanding the issues you have highlighted Bryn).

    Science is Vital seems to have done some good work highlighting the issues, but it remains to be see how much impact this will have (if any).

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, postdocs in general are very nervous about complaining, as indeed I was. This is a consequence of the over-competitive career system: people fear asking for fairer treatment.

      A central problem is that the constraints that operate in normal workplaces do not apply in the postdoctoral context where jobs usually last 3 years or less. There is pressure on employers in normal work environments to treat the workforce reasonably well, because a failure to do so would see employees choosing to leave to find work under better conditions elsewhere, which would weaken the organisation. In contrast, retaining staff does not apply in academic research where staff are expected to leave on the expiry of their contracts.

      Science Is Vital is doing an excellent job. I would urge all postdocs to follow its activities and to contribute if they can. There is safety in numbers.

      Science Is Vital sent an excellent report on research careers to the Science Minister recently (although I would have preferred the recommendations part to be a bit stronger and more detailed).

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