Life as a Professor

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Almost everyone has been exposed to what professors do in the classroom--they teach. However, teaching is only one aspect of a professor's career. One of the attractive parts of being a professor is that, in addition to teaching, you get to do a lot of other enjoyable activities. The purpose of this page is to discuss the many different things professors do.


Life as a Professor - an Overview

Nitty-Gritty Details

What do Accounting Professors get Paid?

Accounting professors are highly compensated. The AACSB conducts an annual faculty salary survey and reports the results. Numbers below are based on the 2016/2017 survey. The average starting salary of an accounting professor straight out of a doctoral program in 2016/2017 was $156,900. The average assistant professor earned $149,400, the average associate professor earned $144,600, and the average full professor earned $172,100. These salary numbers consider accounting professors at all types of universities and colleges. Salaries vary widely from these averages based on a number of different factors.

Salaries for accounting professors are usually higher if the employing school has a greater research reputation. Typical base salaries for accounting professors at a top 50 accounting research school start above $150,000 a year (and may start as high as $225,000). In addition to the base salary, many schools offer summer research support. The summer research support is quoted in ninths of the salary and the typical new professor at a research intensive university receives 2/9 of their salary as additional summer research support money. The combination of summer research support and base salary puts the total compensation arrangement above $225,000 a year for many of the new professors at these schools. In addition to salary, most schools offer excellent benefits including retirement plans, health insurance packages, and fringe benefits. Salary information for individual professors at public universities is often released due to governmental disclosure regulations.

Associate and Full professors can also be given "fellowships" or "chairs". These usually provide the professor with additional compensation and/or additional research funding. Fellowships or chairs are usually awarded based on merit, where merit is defined based on research productivity. The value of a fellowship or chair varies widely depending on the size of the donation that an individual or group gave to establish the fellowship/chair.

Work Load

Professors work a similar number of hours as those in industry. Some people believe that once you have tenure, you can just show up for class and only work 20 hours a week. While there are a few people who may do this, most professors have greater integrity than this and continue to work to serve others.

The big difference between the hours that accounting professors and those in industry work is that a professor has greater ability to decide when they want to work. A professor must be in the classroom to teach and at scheduled meetings, but with these exceptions there is great flexibility in when and where you work. Professors are evaluated on their output (i.e., articles published, teaching scores, service activities, etc.), therefore the importance rests on the fact that work gets done. That means a professor could leave at 1:00 in the afternoon to participate in an activity and either catch up by working earlier in the morning or later that evening. The flexibility that a professor has with time management is a very appealing part of the job.

A recent report indicates that full-time accounting faculty at four year institutions work on average 52 hours a week (as of 2004).

An attractive aspect of being a college professor is that they get to do many different activities on a regular basis. During the year, a professor will teach classes, conduct research, attend accounting conferences, review others' research, mentor students, serve on university/college/department committees, and interact with professionals/regulators/standard setters. The diversity of the activities makes the job exciting and stimulating. It is easy to avoid getting stuck in a rut because you get to do many diverse things.

The exact mix of what you do depends on the institution where you work, the stage of your career, and your personal interests. An additional benefit of being a professor is flexibility. This occupation affords you flexibility not only in the types of activities you engage, but also within how the activity is performed. Being a professor is unique, in that you get to learn and investigate issues and topics that you find interesting. There is relatively no structure put on the topics that you can research and learn about. For example, as a professor you get to decide what types of questions you will research, what you teach (to some degree), and what service activities you perform (again, to some degree). If you are a person that likes learning, then being a professor can be very rewarding.

In addition to having diversity and flexibility, professors are constantly challenged. Each research project and each class taught is a different experience that will continue to test the professor's abilities. One can always improve their teaching and find new things to research, especially as the economy changes and evolves. How a person absorbs this new information depends on the unique characteristics of each individual learner.

What do you do as a Professor? - In Detail

The activities of a professor fall into three main categories: research, teaching, and service. Each is discussed in turn, followed by a summary of other activities in which a professor may participate.


What in the world do accounting professors research? If you are wondering this, don't worry, you are not alone. It is a common question asked by many accounting professors. Oler, Oler, and Skousen (2009) provide an academic definition of accounting research as "research into the effect of economic events on the process of summarizing, analyzing, verifying, and reporting standardized financial information, and...the effects of reported information on economic events." A less technical and more encompassing definition is that accounting researchers examine how accounting impacts/informs (and is impacted/informed by) business, economics, psychology, sociology, history, politics, technology, and just about all other academic disciplines.

While there are various branches of accounting research, the more popular in North America can generally be divided into several topical areas that are examined by four basic methodologies. The most common topical areas of accounting research in North America are accounting information systems, audit, financial accounting, managerial accounting, and tax. The four most common methodologies for examining these topical areas are analytical, archival, experimental, and other (e.g., survey, interviews, case studies, etc.) Generally speaking, the greatest number of accounting researchers examine financial accounting issues, and the majority of researchers use archival methodologies.

After people understand what accounting academics research, the question most commonly asked is whether or not it is boring (usually said in a more polite manner). The answer: Of course not! While the technical definition may sound boring, the process of scientific discovery is interesting and exhilarating, especially applied to accounting. Most "lay" people erroneously believe accounting is cut, dry and mechanical like introductory mathematics (i.e., bookkeeping) when in fact accounting is dynamic, full of uncertainty, and very meaningful in the lives of individuals, businesses, and countries. With this perspective, accounting research becomes an awesome adventure into how accounting can impact the welfare of our lifestyles. Like medicine, where each individual research study may not prove to cure cancer, each individual accounting study does not "cure cancer". However, the collection of research from many scholars works to inform decision makers to "see the big picture" and hopefully make better decisions. Engaging in this process can be very rewarding to the individual scholar.

In addition to "making a difference" to others, learning to research changes the researcher. Conducting high-quality, scientifically-based research is a demanding practice that instills discipline in the thinking process of the scientist. So in addition to having an impact on the world, engaging in research transforms the researcher to become a more careful, wiser thinker. Once schooled in this way, the researcher becomes a powerful decision maker capable of wielding tremendous influence.


Many people investigate the career path of a professor because of their desire to be a teacher. Teaching provides a wonderful way to impact lives and "make a difference in the world". There is tremendous satisfaction in helping another person understand a difficult concept or problem.

As a teacher of accounting, professors cover several diverse subject areas. Similar to research, these topical areas are usually accounting information systems, audit, financial, managerial, and tax. They also range in difficulty from introductory to advanced level courses. The amount a professor teaches depends on the type of university at which they are employed. At most research intensive universities, a professor will likely teach a single class three times in a year. At a university or college focused on teaching, a professor can teach as many as 12 classes a year--with many different "preps" (a prep is a different class that a professor teaches). Obviously, at the schools where professors teach less they are expected to produce more research. Between rigorous research and extreme teaching workloads, there are a wide variety of schools that balance research and teaching in varying amounts.

Professional Service

In addition to teaching and research, professors are expected to give professional service. Service takes on many different forms including, but not limited to, reviewing peer's research papers for publication, attending conferences and discussing peer papers (or moderating sessions), editing journals, serving on department/college/university committees (this encompasses a broad range of activities from deciding promotion and tenure decisions to such things as managing how the university will invest their money), serving on national committees, and serving administrative roles (e.g., department chair, dean, etc.). Professional service can bring recognition to the individual and their institution. It can also be away of making important contributions to improving the state of the profession or academy.

Other Activities

Professors often participate in other activities that don't fit into the three previously mentioned categories. Other activities that professors participate in include consulting (i.e., professional training, CPE teaching, or project implementation), textbook writing (most institutions don't consider this research as it doesn't produce new knowledge), special projects while on sabbatical, and expert witnessing. Many of these activities can be lucrative for the professor and therefore may be governed by institutional rules as to the extent a professor may participate. Participating in these types of activities can be viewed very differently depending on the institution in which you are employed, so care should be taken when deciding whether to participate in these activities or not.

Phases of a Professor's Career Life

A professor's life can differ significantly depending on where they are in their career. Professors have three different phases that lead to different performance expectations. In this section the phases are categorized as such: Life as an assistant professor, associate professor, and full professor. What each phase encompasses depends on the the type of school you attend. For purposes of this section, we will discuss life from a mid to top-tier research university.

Assistant Professor, aka Pre-Tenure

Upon graduating and taking the first job, a professor is usually assigned the rank of "assistant professor". This position usually lasts for 5-7 years. After this time, the professor submits a packet of information about their research, teaching, and service to the university. If viewed favorably, the professor is granted tenure and made an associate professor. Being granted tenure means a professor cannot be dismissed without due cause--which is something usually very difficult for a university to demonstrate.

Assistant professors are expected to focus primarily on research and teaching as they begin their career. To publish accounting research, it can take anywhere from 1-2 years (very fast) to 5+ years to publish any single paper (from idea to print). Given the long delay it takes to publish research, new assistant professors have significant pressure to begin lots of high quality work early in their career. Often times, new assistant professors are given easier teaching loads, extra research support, or other benefits to help them start producing research. Knowing how important it is to produce research, some begin to fill their research pipeline while as a doctoral student. So when rookie professors are hired, they will hit the ground running. To earn tenure, the common expectation is that an assistant professor will gain national recognition as a research scholar (for an idea of how many articles one must produce to achieve tenure see here).

While trying to produce lots of high quality research, new assistant professors are also expected to demonstrate competency in teaching (or even excellence depending on the university). New assistant professors are usually assigned to teach a course that does not demand lots of preparation or remodeling. They will usually teach "less demanding" students such as undergrads rather than MBA's. Although research productivity is usually considered more important, poor teaching evaluations can result in an unsuccessful tenure decision. If a professor starts off with poor teaching evaluations, they may find it hard to overcome the reputation of being a poor teacher--thus adding importance on becoming an effective teacher from day one.

Assistant professors are usually expected to provide a nominal amount of service. Typical service activities of assistant professors include reviewing papers for journals, conferences and light department service requirements (e.g., scheduling other academics to present papers at the school). At research intensive schools, assistant professors are "protected" from heavier service burdens while they develop their research and teaching portfolios.

Associate Professor, aka Post-Tenure

Once promoted to associate professor, the work begins to expand. Associate professors are still expected to produce significant amounts of research (especially if they ever want to achieve full professor status) with the goal of becoming a recognized national/international expert in their research area. At this stage, the quality of research becomes more important (at least slightly) than the quantity of research produced. Associate professors will typically try and focus on developing more significant contributions in each research study.

With respect to teaching, associate professors are expected to contribute more than assistant professors. Associate professors may be asked to restructure courses, teach more demanding students, or teach new classes. Service requirements also increase for tenured associates, and this can present a dilemma. Solid service contributions can help with tenure at the associate's present school, but can reduce the professor's research productivity. This can have two related effects: (1) at the professor's current school, will the increase in service fully offset the decrease in publications? This depends on the current attitude of the school’s promotion and tenure committee, and it's a good idea to ask professors that have recently made full professor whether this is the case. (2) Professors who want to switch schools will likely find that their research output is valued far more than their service contributions, so devoting a lot of time to service can mean a decrease in potential mobility. At an extreme, a professor who is promoted to associate with tenure whose research output falls to near zero will likely have a difficult time finding a position at another school of the same caliber. If the political situation changes or some other critical event occurs at the school or with the professor such that s/he wants to leave, s/he may find himself trapped in her/his current school, with the options for moving a significant pay cut and/or a significant increase in teaching load.

Each professor must determine their desired mix of service/research/teaching, with the above considerations in mind. Another factor to consider: once stalled, a research program can be difficult to re-start. Thus, a wise associate will carefully consider before taking on all service opportunities available; they can be fulfilling (sometimes even fun), but should be taken in moderation if one wants to continue producing research.

Being a tenured associate changes the pressures the professor faces; the professor no longer has the “publish or perish” monkey on his shoulder day and night. However, the associate also likely has more contacts and opportunities to co-author. Having a good set of research projects can be useful, especially if they are at various stages of development. It can be refreshing to go from one project at the theoretical development stage to another project at the number crunching stage, and finally to another project at the submission or resubmission stage. Further, when an individual project is not critical to a professor’s career, it is easier to deal with a co-author that may not pull his weight: the professor can merely do his agreed work, send off what he has to the co-author, and move on to the next project. Similarly, a poor review and editorial decision becomes merely a bump the road (or even a humorous event to be shared with colleagues), rather than a catastrophe. Gradually, an associate could find himself switching from seeking publications for his own sake to seeking to help Ph.D. students get started and helping untenured assistants get their traction on their own research programs.

Full Professor

Usually after 4 or 5 years as an associate professor, a professor will again submit a packet of information about their performance in research, teaching, and service to the university for possible advancement to full professor. To be advanced to full professor, an associate professor must demonstrate that they are excellent researchers, teachers, and have provided service to the accounting community. If successful, an associate professor is promoted to be a full professor.

Full professors are the "guardians" of their universities reputation. They set the tone for the rest of the faculty as to the values of the institution. They play heavy roles in hiring new faculty, promotion decisions of faculty, and other internal decisions. In terms of research, full professors often engage in more "risky" research, that is, research that has high payoff in terms of moving the discipline forward but may fail and not result in a publication. Full professors seek to do meaningful projects that push thinking forward. In terms of teaching, full professors set the example for excellence and often develop new courses and teach the most challenging students/courses. In service, they are expected to be active and will regularly serve on committees at all levels of the university.

Drawbacks to being a Professor

While being a professor is a near perfect profession, there are a few drawbacks to the trade. Most all professors dislike the difficulty and tedium of grading. A far more challenging problem is that professors are evaluated almost entirely on production; meaning, if a professor does not get high teaching evaluations or does not produce research, the professor will lose their job. Academia is not a profession that rewards "just putting your time in" if that time does not produce results (at least for rookie professors). Thus, there is some risk in becoming a professor if one is not sure about their ability to produce (this risk is mitigated by the fact that there are many different institutions that each reward and look for something different, such that virtually all professors can find a place where they will be happy and successful).

Academia can also be filled with political pressures. For the most part, academics are very smart and, as often is the case for smart people, some have large egos and very strong opinions. Add to this potent mixture the near impossibility of firing a tenured professor, and the academy can be a prickly place of politics. While one does not have to participate in the politicking, it is wise to be aware of political pressures and realize that they exist and often must be dealt with.

Finally, while professors are compensated quite nicely (see sidebar), there is a ceiling on compensation. Multimillionaire professors, if they exist, are few and far between. Also, professors can get locked into salaries and have a hard time receiving pay raises unless they are willing to switch schools (see Salary Inversion article). Moving may also be the only solution to resolving tricky political problems. Thus, professors should recognize that they may not be at the same institution their entire careers.

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