What is it like to be a professor?
I think there are a number of related questions out there on you might reference. I’m surprised that I’ve never seen this particular (direct) version of the question before.
This is not an easy question, simply because there are so many parts to the answer. Whatever I write will be incomplete.
To be clear, I am answering from the perspective of a faculty at a relatively high ranked large public research university. Faculty Life at other institutions will likely vary, perhaps significantly.
1. It’s extremely freeing and exciting to work on research on a daily basis, and have control over what it is that you want to work on. I know a lot of people think that academic freedom is overblown, and that we’re all puppets of funding agencies. I would respectfully disagree.
If you do interesting work and learn how to frame questions to make them interesting to funding agencies, then you have quite a bit of latitude in choosing your own research areas and problems. That is liberating, especially for someone like me who likes to follow broad themes rather than stay in specific research sectors. As sort of jack of all trades, I’ve written papers at the top venues in quite a range of areas, including data mining, network measurements, security, systems, networking, distributed/parallel algorithms, wireless/mobile networks, databases, and human-computer interaction. I’m pretty sure that I would have no such freedom in any other job.
2. It’s amazing to work with some of the most intelligent people on the planet. Academia is a selective community, and people who make it tend not only to be smart, driven, creative, but also generally good people. As a faculty member, you get to collaborate with who you want, and surround yourself with people (students and collaborators) who you genuinely like. Oh and you don’t have a real boss (yes we all meet every 2-3 years to evaluate each other.
3. It’s exciting and thrilling to select and recruit some of the best students from top schools around the globe to work with you. It’s rewarding to watch them grow as researchers and as human beings.
It’s like having new adult children every 4-5 years, and it’s sad and proud to watch them depart for great positions and careers when they leave.
4. It’s incredibly challenging to multitask around 10-20 regular tasks on a daily basis. On any given day, I’m reviewing papers as PC for multiple conferences, writing letters of recommendation for (undergrad applications, PhD applications, faculty job applications, promotion to tenure), studying material and preparing/giving lectures, advising undergrad and grad students on academic issues, organizing and running meetings for the department (grad admissions, fellowships, graduate affairs, department curriculum, faculty hiring) and for the campus (hiring and promotion, resource allocation, educational abroad programs), preparing/writing research grants, reviewing research grants for NSF panels, doing research (experiments, brainstorming, managing student tasks, writing papers, preparing presentations/talks), outreach to industry (visiting companies, giving talks, hosting visitors), outreach to students (e.g. managing summer internships for high school students).
5. Traveling around the world for work is kinda cool.
6. Having lots of time flexibility is great for family. I can go to the dentist when I need to, and attend meetings for my kids without worrying about missing an hour of work.
7. I work a lot, in evenings, on weekends, on planes, in cars, waiting in doctor’s offices and during times when I should be doing other things.
I’m sure there’s more, and I’ll try to add to this as I remember them.