All of ChrisRumanov's Comments + Replies

I'd offer the counterpoints that:

a) Even at high levels, professors are rarely teaching the absolute cutting edge. With the exception of my AI/ML courses and some of the upper-level CS, I don't think I've learned very much that a professor 10-20 years ago wouldn't have known. And I would guess that CS is very much the outlier in this regard: I would be mildly surprised if more than 5-10% of undergrads encounter, say, chemistry, economics, or physics that wasn't already mainstream 50 years ago.

b) Ballpark estimate based on looking at a couple specific schoo... (read more)

This seems like an obvious solution, so I wonder whether some institutions are already doing it, or there is a catch that we didn't notice. (This is just a wild guess, but it perhaps a university that only does a half of that -- i.e. hires best teachers and mediocre researchers, or best researchers and mediocre teachers -- would be just as popular, for half the cost. You cannot get unlimited amounts of students anyway, so if you already get those who want the best teaching, you don't need to also attract the ones who want the best research, and vice versa.) I was thinking from the opposite direction, whether it would make sense for the professors to make pairs -- one who wants to teach, plus one who wants to do research -- and trade: "I will teach your lessons, if you write my thesis and add me as a co-author to your publications". Not sure if this is legal. (Also, it seems fragile: if one decides to quit or gets hit by a bus, the other's career is also over.)

Hm... I seem to have mistaken "flexibility" for low hours and underestimated how much professors work. Is "teaches math at Stanford" really viewed much lower than "researches math at Stanford" (or whatever college)? It seems like universities could drum up some prestige around being a good teacher if that's really the main incentive.

Update: someone IRL gave me an interesting answer. In high school, we had to take a bunch of standardized tests: AP tests, SAT and ACT, national standardized tests, etc. My school was a public school, so its funding and status was highly dependent on these exam results. This meant that my teachers had a true vested interest in the students actually understanding the content.

Colleges, on the other hand, have no such obligation. Since the same institution is the one administering classes and deciding who gets a degree, there's super low incentive for them to... (read more)

I always thought it would be great to have one set of professors do the teaching, and then a different set come in from other schools just for a couple weeks at the end of the year to give the students a set of intensive written and oral exams that determines a big chunk of their academic standing.
Great point. There is eg the GRE, but doesnt test anything from college

I'm not fully convinced by the salary argument, especially with quality-of-life adjustment. As an example, let's imagine I'm a skilled post-PhD ML engineer, deciding between:

Jane Street Senior ML Engineer: $700-750k, 50-55hrs/week, medium job security, low autonomy

[Harvard/Yale/MIT] Tenured ML Professor: $200-250k, 40-45hrs/week, ultra-high job security, high autonomy

A quick google search says that my university grants tenure to about 20 people per year. Especially as many professors have kids, side jobs, etc. it seems unlikely that a top university really... (read more)

From where do you get the 40-45hrs/week number?
4Anon User3mo
For a professor at a top university, this would be easily 60+ hrs/week. claims 61hrs/week is average, and something like 65 for a full Professor. The primary currency is prestige, not salary, and prestige is generated by research (high-profile grants, high-profile publications, etc), not teaching. For teaching, they would likely care a lot more about advanced classes for students getting closer to potentially joining their research team, and a lot less about the intro classes (where many students might not even be from the right major) - those would often be seen as a chore to get out of the way, not as a meaningful task to invest actual effort into.

I agree that this is the case (and indeed, a quick google search of even my worst professors yields considerably impressive CVs). I don't understand why that's the case. Is it, as ErickBall suggests, simply cheaper to hire good researchers than good teachers? I find that a little unlikely. I also find it unlikely that this is more profitable--surely student tuition + higher alumni donations be worth more than whatever cut of NIH/NSF/etc. funding they're taking.

My question is who this system leaves better off? Students get worse professors, good researchers... (read more)

A natural equilibrium of institutions doesn't have to leave anyone better off. Excellence at research is the most legible prestige-carrying property of professors, being good teachers is harder to observe. As Viliam points out, the purpose of raising researchers is best served by teachers who are good researchers, and also otherwise there is risk of content drifting away from relevance or sanity. So even for students, orgs with good researchers are more credible sources of learning, given the current state of legible education quality indicators.
I am quite curious about this, too. I suspect there might be some kind of fallacy involved, something like "if we make a job that is for both research and teaching, we will automatically get people who are good at both research and teaching... even if we actually evaluate and reward them only for the research". Maybe, if someone sucks at teaching, it is assumed that they would never apply for such job in the first place -- they could get a job at some purely research institution instead. (So why does this not happen? I suppose that even for a researcher without teaching skills, a work at university can be preferable for some selfish reasons. Or they can be overconfident about their teaching skills.) And the following step is that someone who is good at both research and teaching is obviously better than someone who is merely good at teaching, because such person will be able to teach the latest science. Which ignores the fact that a lot of what is taught at universities is not the latest science. But it is still better to have someone who has the ability to get the latest science right. To steelman this position, imagine the opposite extreme: imagine a university where all teachers are great at teaching, but suck at research. It would be a pleasant experience for the students, but I would worry that a few decades later what the professors teach could be obsolete, or even outright pseudoscience. Also, teachers who are not themselves good researchers might have a problem to bring up a new generation of researchers; and where else would we get them?