Should I admit that I want to become a professor?

Many PhD students and most postdocs want to pursue a career in academia. But is it a good idea to admit that you want to become a professor? Would you appear overambitious or pretentious? Or does it ruin your career to hide your ambitions from potential mentors and decision-makers?

When organizing career events for young scientists we realized on a regular basis that most young researchers envision an academic career which means in most cases “to become a professor”. However, most of them would never admit this in public.  Probably this is the best strategy to avoid unpleasant reactions from others. Nevertheless, to obtain sufficient information to develop a reasonable career plan it is necessary to discuss your ambitions with trustworthy mentors, find orientation and get answers for your questions.


Before we discuss the appropriate and inappropriate contexts to show your ambition you should invest into a little self-reflection and ask yourself: 

Why do I want to show my ambition to become a professor?” If you want to impress your friends and family you should ask yourself why you need validation from others and why you bring yourself in a position where you must deliver or fail. hasing status to improve your feeling of self-worth. If you want to impress people you do not know well or not at all (colleagues, foreigners on the train etc.) you are probably chasing status to improve your 

feeling of self-worth. This is a bad motivation to become a professor because you put your self-value in the hands of other people and have no control over the results. If your motivation is to get support and to find more information about a career in academia, go on. On the other hand, if you have a tendency towards the shy end of the spectrum it is important to make your ambitions visible to potential mentors and decision-makers because they cannot read your mind. They may be willing to support you but they are not aware of your goals. You should ask yourself “What could happen if I show my ambition and get rejected?” In most cases, nobody cares. If a potential mentor is not interested just find another one. If your personal supervisor/boss is not interested or even blocks your career development you may consider finding new challenges elsewhere.


The rules are very simple: In most contexts it is *not* helpful to admit that you want to become a professor. Most people will interpret this as bragging or being arrogant. If you are directly asked whether you want to pursue such a career it is still a good idea to show some humility. Even professors who have been tenured many years ago and have delivered an impressive academic oeuvre may not always reveal their academic status.


In academia and in the media the professor title opens many doors. However, a non-representative little survey of my colleagues revealed that all of them have clear ideas when to reveal that they are professors and when they should better hide it. In many social contexts it may be inappropriate to reveal that you are a professor because people often react as if you are an arrogant bragger who wants to impress or intimidate others with status. A typical context where it is better *not* to reveal your title which has been mentioned by several colleagues are the day care and the schools of your children. In contrast, especially in bureaucratic contexts the title can be useful to stop someone to treat you like an idiot.  A similar strategic behaviour is advised when revealing your academic career goals as a PhD student or postdoc.


Other PhD students and postdocs may find it pretentious that you have such a goal. They may have the idea that you do not deserve it because of your character, your behaviour or your relatively “poor” performance (“Why should YOU become a professor?”). The range of motives is broad – jealousy, competition, personal problems with ambition and ambitious persons in general and all other types of disapproval a person can get. No surprise, people who dislike you will not appreciate your ambition. People who do not care about you (the majority of all people) will probably not be interested and may prefer not to be bothered. People wo like you may support you – or they may find it disturbing that you show such an ambition because they have an ambiguous attitude towards ambition (“Ambitious people are dishonest/have no ethical standards/sacrifice their families for their careers” etc.). Thus, be aware that there are many reasons why people do not want to hear about your ambitions.


In a highly political environment competitors may even use it against you for example by ridiculing your ambition or by making your shortcomings visible to relevant decision makers. However, if you are in such an environment you should consider to leave and find a healthier environment which promotes your personal and career development.


The most important reason to discuss your ambitions with other people is to get feedback, advice and guidance. There is a lot of misleading information published on the internet about becoming a professor. In addition, a lot of information is not applicable in your specific domain and may distract you from the most relevant actions to take. There are a number of parameters a selection committee will look for when selecting a new professor. Read more here: How to become a professor? This post gives you a general idea how to pursue your academic career but you need to discuss your ambitions with people who know the specific domain you want to work in.

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The rules are very different between the humanities and the STEM domains but also between all the different subdomains. Therefore, it is essential to talk to at least 3 to 5 different persons who have already pursued your envisioned career successfully. You will be surprised: Many professors love to give career advice and most of them honestly want to help you. Unfortunately, the information you get may be unintentionally or intentionally biased.Therefore it is not enough to talk to only one or two persons. Your supervisor or the head of your department may give you misleading information because he or she is happy to have such a productive staff member and may find it more convenient not to speed up your move towards a new position. Senior scientists may have developed a sarcastic or pessimistic view on academia and may give you biased advice as well. Future employers may paint a golden future to convince you to work for them. Please do not get me wrong – many persons

you ask will be happy to help you, to promote your career and give you honest advice but you should get a broad picture by talking to several persons who have made their way in your envisioned domain. In order to limit unpleasant reactions you can put yourself in a humble position and say that you want to get a realistic picture whether you are or will be qualified to pursue an academic career and whether you may get some advice and guidance.


In a job interview for a PhD or postdoc position you may get the questions “How do you see yourself in 5 years” or more directly “Do you want to become a professor?”.

In my very personal experience in hundreds of job interviews with PhD students and postdocs there is one very clear pattern. Most committee members appreciate humility. If a candidate is highly qualified and has a very strong CV, self-confidence and ambition is highly appreciated, however, being humble (instead of being arrogant and over-ambitious) puts the cherry on the cake. Weaker candidates normally make a bad impression when they combine rather average previous performance with lofty ideas about their future career. Unfortunately, you never know precisely whether you are considered to be a strong or a weak candidate. Thus,  the default reaction to the questions mentioned above should be a humble one such as “If my performance is good enough I would appreciate such a career”. However, there may be members in the commission who are attracted to braggers and dazzlers, but in my experience they are a minority.


In conclusion, if you are vaguely considering to pursue an academic career or if you have a strong ambition to become a professor you should be rather selective who gets this information. People who like you may support you and professors normally are willing to give you advice and guidance. If you have a natural tendency to appear arrogant you should add a lot of humility. If you have a natural tendency to appear shy you should reveal your ambition proactively to make potential mentors and decision-makers aware of your goals and give them the chance to help you.

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