Dr. Axel Becke is a professor and leading researcher in theoretical chemistry. He obtained his BSc from Queen's University and his MSc and PhD from McMaster University. He is currently a chemistry professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.
Grace: On a typical day what does a science professor do?
Dr. Becke: There is no typical work day. My time is spent on various activities like teaching, research, writing, and travelling to conferences. Working evenings and weekends is common for me; a professor’s time is very unstructured.
Grace: What part of the job do you find most satisfying?
Dr. Becke: Coming up with great research ideas, interacting with students and seeing them succeed. You are also, to a large extent, independent. Your research and professional development are self-directed.
Grace: What is your least favourite part of the job? Is this a stressful job?
Dr. Becke: Lecturing to large classes of several hundred students, and marking assignments and exams is stressful.
It can also be stressful worrying about the success of your research and research funding. Sometimes you work very long hours because you are driven by your desire to succeed in research. Overworking is definitely a possibility.
Grace: What kind of training or education do you need for this profession? How did you get into this field?
Dr. Becke: To become a university professor, you need a PhD in your field of interest, which takes approximately 10 years of post-secondary study. In addition, it is usually necessary to have a few years of post-doctoral research experience.
Ever since I was young, I was always interested in science. My undergraduate and graduate studies were in the fields of engineering and theoretical physics, respectively. After getting my PhD, I did post-doctoral research for three years before I applied for an academic appointment.
Grace: What personal qualities or abilities are important to be successful in this field?
Dr. Becke: First and foremost, true love for your subject and a passion for learning. Being a professor is the ultimate job for someone who loves their field, whether it is in the sciences, arts or humanities.
Creativity – coming up with interesting and original ideas to research and publish papers on – is also integral to a professor’s long-term success.
Another important quality is the ability to communicate – the ability to teach, and the ability to communicate your research findings to the science community.
An in-depth knowledge of computers is also helpful since new computer and Internet technologies are changing the way we teach and communicate.
Grace: Is there a demand for people in this occupation? How much job security and advancement potential is there for people in your field?
Dr. Becke: The demand for science professors is likely to remain fairly constant in the future. I don’t see a hiring boom coming up for science professors. Normally, only the best PhD students can obtain academic positions. Others may find opportunities in industry, or they may teach in colleges.
There is a high level of job security. If application for tenure is successful, typically six years after the initial appointment, a person basically has a permanent job. Tenure allows professors to take intellectual risks that they might not otherwise take: to tackle extremely challenging problems that do not have obvious solutions. By doing so, a professor is able to enhance his/her own professional growth and contribute to general knowledge.
As for advancement potential, the sky’s the limit. There are plenty of awards for research and teaching excellence. A science professor can also grow and manage a very large research group if he or she has the ability to attract funding. There is plenty of job satisfaction, recognition, and room for advancement.
Grace: What is the salary like for science professors?
Dr. Becke: I would say the salary for science professors ranges from about $60,000 for junior professors to $150,000 for well-established, senior professors who are at the top of their field.
Grace: How do you think your job will change in the future?
Dr. Becke: The change has already begun. Right now research and teaching are being revolutionized by new technologies. The use of computer and Internet technologies have made it much easier to conduct scientific research and communicate research information. Universities are also taking advantage of computer and Internet technologies to expand their distance learning programs. Professors are increasingly having to make use of these new technologies, not only in their classrooms, but also to extend the traditional boundaries of classroom learning.
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