Read as professor and entomologist Chris Vitek gets JobShadowed about his career. You can find Chris on his website www.drmosquito.com and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.
What do you do for a living?
I am professor at a large state university. I teach biology classes, conduct research in ecology and medical entomology, and engage in scholarly service (ranging from judging science fairs to chairing symposia at national conferences).
How would you describe what you do?
My daily activities are balanced between the three foci of my job – teaching, research, and service. I teach a wide variety of courses, ranging from General Biology to Disease Epidemiology to Aquatic Entomology. Teaching is an important focus on my effort, so it is a good thing I enjoy it! I teach different classes each semester, and sometimes during the summer as well. Enjoying interaction with students is a must for someone employed at a teaching university.
My research activities include grant-writing (boring!) and supervising research students (more fun!) to pursuing my own research questions about ecology of disease vectors (most fun!). As with most professors, I got into this field because of a love of science, so the research aspect is the portion of the job that I enjoy the most. Along with research is publishing the results of your research, so I have to allow for some time to analyze data and write manuscripts. The research questions I pursue are generally related to medical entomology and ecology. Medical entomology is the study of medically important insects, such as mosquitoes, fleas, and similar arthropods. Much of my research focuses on ecological based questions, although I have collaborated with virologists, epidemiologist, environmental biologists, molecular biologists, and others.
The service portion is a necessary evil, although sometimes it isn’t too bad. All universities require levels of service – serving on committees, promoting the university, etc. Service can be participating in a local science fair, sitting on a university committee, serving on the editorial board of a scientific journal, or hosting a scientific conference.
What does your work entail?
My work entails a lot of different activities, interaction with a lot of different people, and trying to balance it all with the reason I got into the biological sciences. The teaching component of my work includes preparing lectures (or updating them with new information, when applicable). This can take a lot more time that you would expect! In addition, I have to prepare exams, grade exams and papers, and remain available to students. During a typical semester, the majority of my time is spent on teaching related activities.
The research aspect of my job is to engage in scholarly research. This would include developing research ideas and proposals (and hopefully getting them funded). Once I have an idea, I need to devise a research strategy or method, and then start the experiment (or experiments). Sometimes I do this, other times I have students involved. I do both field biology and laboratory biology – field biology includes going out in the field to collect data (most of the time it means collecting specimens). Laboratory biology is more of a controlled experimental process. Students in my lab engage in both of these as well, and it is my responsibility to supervise them and make sure their projects are on track! Once research is finished, then comes the data analysis, so a strong understanding of mathematics and statistics is essential. Writing is also important, as the ultimate goal is to prepare a manuscript with your research results and get published somewhere!
One question people often have is about the research that a professor can pursue. This is often specific to the university, the department, and the position for which a professor is hired. In general, you will have much more research freedom in academia than you will have in the private sector or in the government. In most schools, professors are free to pursue whatever research interests them (although eyebrows may be raised if an entomologist decides he wants to start studying bacteria).
Costs do play a role – at some universities, each professor may get a certain amount of money for research expenses every year. At other universities, research expenses must be paid for through grants (or out of pocket). If you engage in high cost research (molecular biology, cell biology, biotechnology, etc) then you will usually need to find outside funding (grants) to help pay for the research. One of the benefits of being an ecologist and a medical entomologist is that my research is cheap! External funding sources are usually obtained to research a specific topic or question. If you do obtain an external grand (from a local, state, or federal source) you will then need to make sure to engage in the research that has been proposed in the grant. Usually an individual professor may have two to five research projects going on at any given time, however, so even if you have funding you will still be able to research other topics and ideas.
What’s a typical work week like?
There really isn’t very much of a “typical week”, as I have different deadlines and activities depending on the semester and time of year. During an academic semester, my typical week includes between 6 and 12 hours of teaching, spending between 3 and 6 hours preparing for lectures, having at least 4 or 5 “open office hours” to meet with students, grading papers, preparing exams, and trying to supervise my students. It I am lucky, I can also get some research activities done. Oh yes, and throw in at least two or three meetings each week as well.
During the summer, when I usually don’t teach, I tend to focus on research related activities – engaging in research, writing grants, preparing manuscripts, and supervising students. The summer is when most of my field work gets done, so I generally try to allow some time to do that on a weekly basis as well. If I am busy writing up a manuscript, I may spend three or four days a week focusing on that. If I have a grant deadline approaching, I may work on the grant for three or four days a week. When possible, I try to mix up my activities as I find I am more productive that way.
How did you get started?
I started with an interest in science, specifically biology. I knew from high school on that I wanted to pursue a career in biological research, ideally ecology. I started off wanting to be a marine biologist, but through a strange series of events I ended up studying medical entomology (disease vectors such as mosquitoes). Becoming a professor was never the ultimate goal (although I always enjoyed teaching as a graduate student) but as a professor in academia, I have a lot of control over the research I do and the research questions I ask. So I get to control my own research, which is not always an option in corporate or government research. So becoming a professor was the best way to continue to do what I wanted to do – biological research.
What do you like about what you do?
I like almost everything I do. Unlike a lot of university professors, I enjoy interacting with students, so I really enjoy the teaching aspect of my career. I actually would not want to a job at a university where I wouldn’t be teaching any classes. I like the biological research, I feel intellectually challenged by the questions I ask, and enjoy trying to figure out how or why something occurs. I tell my students – make sure you enjoy what you want to do. Not every day will be fun, but if you like what you are doing, then the job itself will be fun, and that is the situation I find myself in.
What do you dislike?
I dislike activities that take me away from what I enjoy – dealing with administrative issues, meetings, participating in mundane (and seemingly pointless) university activities. But those kinds of things are everywhere – you just have to deal with them to get to what you enjoy.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
If you are looking for a big paycheck, don’t go into academia, and especially don’t go into the biological fields. While pay ranges, in general if you work at a university you are going to get paid less than someone working for a private company or even for the government. Generally, the science professors get paid less than professors in other department. And more often than not, biology professors get paid less than the other sciences. This is just a fact of life. Actual pay ranges can vary from state to state, they can vary if you are working at a public or private university, and they can vary if you are on a 9-month or 12-month appointment. Salaries for new professors can be as low as $50,000 per year, but long standing professors can range into the low six-digits. In many cases, raises are tied to productivity – the more papers you get published, the more grants you bring in, the more students you mentor, the high raise you will get. Also the economy plays a role, as does state finances (if you work for a state university). Once you get tenure and promoted.
There are ways to increase your salary. Usually if you are a department chair, that will come with a salary raise. You can often supplement your income with grants (if you get them), but salary should not be the driving factor for seeking this kind of job. In many schools, you can also get paid extra to teach during the summer. Having said that, you still will get paid comfortably enough. Policies regarding raises (cost of living, merit raises, etc) vary from institution to institution as well.
Another aspect of compensation for new faculty is a startup package. When you get hired at a university, the university will usually negotiate a startup package of funds to help your research get started. This package will be aimed at providing some initial money to help pay for equipment, supplies, travel – anything that you might need to become a productive biology researcher. Startup packages vary wildly, depending on the school, the quality and cost of the research, and the available funding in the university. I have heard of some schools with a startup package equal to one years’ salary (about $50,000), while at some prestigious, tier one schools the startup package may approach $500,000. Usually when you are offered a position, you are given a chance to negotiate both your startup funds and your starting salary.
I started in the low $50s when I started, but I haven’t gotten a raise for three years due to the poor economy and state cuts in the budget. I have been able to supplement my salary each summer with funding from grants and additional teaching in the summer. My startup package was $75,000, spread over 2 years.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
The range of most incomes for starting professors is probably from about $45,000 (on the low end) to $70,000 or the higher end (there will always be outliers, some schools that will offer less and some that will offer more).
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
To become a professor, a Ph.D. is generally required in the relevant field. You can often become a lecturer with a Master’s degree, but if you want to engage in research as well as teaching, plan on getting your Ph.D.
What is most challenging about what you do?
The most challenging aspect of my job is balancing the multiple activities I have to do on any given day. I can’t spend all my time teaching, all my time engaged in research, or all my time in meetings – I need to find a way to balance everything so that I can still get all the work done I need to do, with all the work done that I want to do. Dealing with barriers to accomplishment, whether they are research barriers (such as a lack of funding), student barriers (students not doing work), or administrative barriers (such as sending a memo to three different offices so I can get reimbursed for a field trip) can be a challenge as well.
What is most rewarding?
The rewards are focused in two areas – student achievement and success and professional achievement and success. It is incredibly rewarding personally when I see a student who has been in my lab graduate with a Master’s degree and plan to get her Ph.D. It is rewarding when I see a student who has worked hard in a class get an A or B, and be proud of that grade. For professional achievement, getting recognized by my peers at conferences is incredibly rewarding, as is the simple process of getting a manuscript approved or a grant funded.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Make sure you love your field (science and biology). If you do not, you will not be able to succeed at this level, and you will burn yourself out trying. Make sure to get involved with a professor at a university –talk to them, do research in their lab, really get a feel for what you enjoy. This is the best method to see if you will enjoy pursuing research as a career option.
How much time off do you get/take?
Technically speaking, I do not get any time off (other than paid holidays) during the academic year. In addition, technically speaking I am not employed during the summer (I am on a 9-month appointment). However, I do not clock in or out, so during the academic year I have a lot of freedom to make my own hours (when I come in, when I leave) so long as my commitments to teaching, research, and service are met. Likewise, during the summer, even though I am technically not employed, I still come in every day to work on my research.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
That you have to be a genius to be a professor. Being smart helps, but dedication, commitment, and perseverance are going to be better indicators of success. Also, in terms of my specific research, I don’t have enough space to write about the common misconceptions about insects and mosquitoes!
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
My goal is to have an impact on students and on my field. I hope to be able to reach my students, and teach them the wonder of biology, so that they are just as interested in biology as I am. For my professional field, I hope to provide some information that may help efforts to understand diseases like dengue, malaria, and West Nile virus, and possible develop control efforts for these and other diseases.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
If your goal in life is to make money, don’t pursue a career as a research/teaching professor. If you like biology, and you like science, then you should consider this as an option. It is very time consuming and frustrating at times, but it can also be incredibly rewarding and enjoyable. You have intellectual stimulation, you have interaction with lots of great people, and you get to control to a large degree what you are doing and when you are doing it.