Fun-Filled Summer Plans, Professorial Edition

What people seem to think professors do all summer

A few weeks ago, I picked up Middle Boy (MB) from a play date with one of his buddies. While I was waiting for the boys to wrap up, I exchanged a few sentences with the little host’s dad, whom I rarely see (he has an advanced degree, a professional one, and seems to work a lot). He asked if we had fun-filled plans for the summer, and I said that we would take a week off to go to a nearby vacationing spot and will also have the kids at home around July 4th, but that, other than that, husband and I work and the kids go to camp or daycare. The dad was surprised and said “But I thought you worked at the university?” And there it was again, the assumption that I am on vacation all summer because I don’t teach.

I said that the local university was a big research university, where teaching was only a component of what faculty do, and that research was extremely important. I said that during the academic year professors were quite busy with teaching, especially when large undergraduate courses were involved,  so summer was prime time to catch up on writing papers and proposals and focus on advising graduate students. Then we talked a little about whether I worked in a lab (not) and what I did, and it was cool to see his eyes light up at the mention of the word “quantum.” But I should probably work a little more on my response, as I seem to come across this issue fairly often.

Around the same time, DH and I finalized the refinancing of our house, and I got to talking to the mortgage lender (we are staying with the same bank as before, so we know her fairly well). While we were waiting for something, we chatted, and she had a lot of questions about what I do, and what research entails, and how much I teach. I hope I managed to convey that running your own research group is a lot like running a small business, in the sense that you are responsible for the funding and overseeing the people who work with you. She wanted to know how high a percentage of my time goes into teaching ;  that’s a hard question to answer. I tried to convey that we have a nominal teaching load set by the college, and then research-active faculty get course load reductions proportional to how much research activity they are engaged in. Also, it’s very different to teach a 200-person freshman course  versus a 20-student advanced elective or a graduate seminar.

You know, I don’t mind that people who’ve never been to college don’t know what an academic job entails; to them, professors are just teachers. But when people who have been through college and even post-graduate education don’t know what professors do or could potentially do, that’s our own fault.

I do tell my undergrads what professors do and how research is funded. But I presume most people don’t. Also, there are many students who go to schools that are not major research universities. And it is true that many professors do take summers “off” in the sense that they cannot be found on campus. Some take the summer completely off because they say “no pay, no work” and perhaps travel for pleasure; some travel for work; some work most of the time from home. I can certainly be found on campus all summer, as can most of my colleagues. Summer is an extremely busy time, because students don’t have classes and professors don’t teach. Also, NSF proposal deadlines are in the fall, as are for several other agencies; consequently, mad paper writing during the early summer gets replaced by mad proposal writing in the late summer and early fall. (I sometimes wish I were the person who takes a month off with kids and just relaxes. The truth is, there is always a lot of work to do, but even without it, relaxing is simply not me.)

I need to have better or perhaps more varied canned responses, which help convey to nonacademic people, in a few short sentences, that us academics are not useless overpaid layabouts. Canned responses are great as they help me detach and not get worked up about questions that cause me to, well, get worked up (a  canned response I instituted in response to the annoying  “Where are you from?” is doing wonders for my sanity). For instance, I could start by saying something like “There are different universities, with some more focused on teaching and some more on research. My uni is one of the research-heavy ones, and the faculty are responsible for teaching undergraduate and graduate students, but a very large portion of our time is devoted to doing research and supervising graduate students. Research is paid for by federal monies, for which we compete by writing grant proposals. Faculty are not generally paid by the university in the summer; summer salary comes from grants…”  But then there are people who are 100% on soft money, which is insanity… How do I explain that to nonacademic folks? And there are all sorts of nuances in terms of institution type, field, seniority, group size… And before you know it, people’s eyes glaze over and you have lost them.

What say you, blogosphere? What do you say (as a prof, student, postdoc) when the general populace confronts you with the assumption that you just laze about all summer?



  1. Suggested answers:

    1) “What are you doing with summer when you aren’t teaching?” “Well, half my time I’ll spend on gambling, alcohol, and wild women/men (as you prefer). The other half I’ll just waste.”

    2) “Where are you from?” “In what coordinate system would you like me to answer that?”

    3) “How old are you?” “Well, in the reference frame of a high energy cosmic ray, I’m only a few seconds old.”

    4) “How much do you weigh?” “Depends on what non-inertial frame I’m in.”

  2. I think a canned response need not even touch the no-summer-salary bit or the proposal writing. It should be enough to say: teaching is part of my job, during the students’ vacation I don’t do that. Another (equally? more?) important part of my job is research, I do some during the term while teaching and lots during the students’ vacation.

    (The proposal witing is part of the esearch component of the job. But it could be too-much-info for a non-academic person to digest!)

  3. I tend to say something like “there are three parts to my job, teaching, research and administration – when the students are here, teaching takes priority, so it’s great to pay some attention to the other parts of my job! My boss expects me to write papers and get lots of results this summer!” (and yeah, the ‘my boss’ bit is there to emphasise that my job is more like theirs than they imagine – I don’t need (unless asked) to explain about heads of department versus deans versus the REF and other externals, the consequences of not producing research/getting money etc.). Usually people then ask what I teach, and I get to talk about that a bit and lead back into my research… or tell me what THEY’RE doing for the summer, which is of far more interest to them anyway.

  4. The above all sound good to me, and I’m a non-academic. Perhaps you’ve heard of an ‘elevator speech’? It’s a business networking tool to explain your work in a sentence or two – the idea being, if you were fortuitously caught in an elevator with someone you’ve always wanted to meet, this is how you would introduce yourself briefly so they would remember you. Basically you say what you do, how you do it differently from others who do similar work, and how your work could specifically help or affect them. The last part is key for us non-academics – if you can relate your research to something I know about in everyday life (agriculture, space exploration, disease control) I will surely appreciate its significance more.

    And I hope you realize that when we ask further questions of you it is because your work is intriguing, which should be taken as a compliment!

  5. NSF deadlines are in the summer! AIEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!! Why is complicated power analysis so hard?

    Here’s our general response:

    I also say a little more than a third research, a little less than a third service, about a third teaching, give or take.

    I’m fortunate (?) that my research is easy to explain to a lay audience and obviously important to a lay audience. They know they’re getting good value for their money with me!

  6. I’ve been toying with the standard reply of “my primary responsibility is research that is funded by the government, teaching just pays part of my salary.” This is basically true.

    Also, I’m learning to take more time off during the summer. I don’t have enough grant support to cover all of it anyway (who does these days?) and taking a week to relax here and there, I think, is much more important for my long term sanity than one more paper submission.

  7. I strongly agree with patachilles comment that it is important to tell them how your research affects the rest of the world, or better yet them specifically. Even if your work isn’t applied there probably is something widely related about what you do that has benefited humanity.

    I too get this constantly. I first quickly explain that I do research, that I write grants to get that money (so many people think someone else writes my grants!!??), and **how/why what I do makes the world a better place**. This always causes them to be more interested in me and I use that interest to then explain better how much I really do work (more than them!!), what a great deal I am to taxpayers (e.g. them), and other details that they have no understanding about.

    Professors do need to do a better job of teaching our students what we really do, because they grow up and go out in the world and obviously become idiots when it comes to understanding what our job really entails.

  8. I do have a few good sentences about what I do for research that I think are at the level of everyone’s appreciation (who doesn’t love their smart phone?)
    My problem is more about conveying that what people think we (professors) do and what we really do (how we apportion our time, who pays for research) are quite different. For instance, many people think professors teach and scientists do science (in white coats, in a lab) full time, but they often don’t realize that professors are academic scientists, and that they oversee research of trainees.

    Also, I think money talk is important. For instance, I always ask undergrads what they think I do when I am not in the classroom with them. Some say things like “Think really hard’ or “Do research”, but when I ask them who pays for it, they always think it’s their tuition dollars. Money is a big source of friction with the public; of course kids and their parents don’t think their tuition dollars should pay for some esoteric $hit I do, they want it to go towards education! I make a point of telling them that no, their tuition dollars don’t fund research, they go to basic operations like keeping the lights on, building residence halls and gyms (I might be wrong. I wish I knew where their tuition dollars went. But I know they don’t go towards research, that’s for sure.) I explain that research is funded by federal agencies, and there is a very competitive process through which money is awarded. I explain what graduate students do and how they are paid. It is important for the undergrads to realize that they are not subsidizing our non-educational endeavors with their parents’ hard-earned tuition dollars and that we have to compete for money to do research; i.e. it’s important they know it’s not about professors bleeding their families dry to fund our silly hobby-horse projects that no one cares about.

  9. In public finance, they learn about why it’s important for the government to fund basic research (positive spillovers). 🙂

    I got in a little bit of trouble my second year here when I made clear to the students that they were not to bother assistant professors (not me, not the other professor teaching the other hard required course who was up for tenure that year) outside of office hours because we needed time and ability to focus on research. But the decline in “just one quick question”s was worth it. And the next year everybody was fore-warned so the whole culture changed.

  10. Is it just me or do others get this routinely from some friends and family as in every summer regardless of what I say.

    I’m going to try this line “my primary responsibility is research that is funded by the government, teaching just pays part of my salary.” by engineering prof. Also “NSF deadlines are in the summer aieeee”

    But for those repeat offenders maybe Alex’s response is the best.

  11. I’m not certain that the general public understands what we mean when we say ‘research’ – they might just think of it as course prep. I [still just a post-doc] explain what professors & grad students [& post-docs] do by saying ‘you know all of those news stories saying that scientists have discovered such-and-such, and all those scientific breakthroughs in the last century? All of that science is what grad students and professors do with most of their time – except that professors are expected to find some spare time to do teaching on top of what’s pretty much a full-time scientific research job.

  12. I guess this is where I’m ‘lucky’. Since I’m in a research engineer spot and on soft-money, everyone views my work as a regular job. (Also, I never fit the ‘professor’ image in their head, so I think that eliminates any potential problems off the bat.) I’ll have to bookmark this, though, in case I get a TT spot and need to field questions of this nature in the future.

  13. The general public *definitely* don’t know what you mean when you say “research”. You’ve got to explain to them. But I also have trouble envisioning their lives either: 40 hr work weeks? what’s that?

  14. Very useful to point out that a major part of our job is to obtain support for students. After a while, you can quote a number (my research has provided over 2M$ for student tuition and stipends).

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