What I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Professor

What I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Professor

There is power in wisdom, and sometimes wisdom rests in community. Over the years, as I’ve mentored grad students, I have shared with them the things I wished someone had told me before I became a (tenure-track) professor. My list, however, was only ever that: a list based on my personal experiences. Others had other stories to tell, and so this weekend, I reached out to twenty-odd professor friends to share what was on their lists. The crowd-sourced list below comes from anthropologists at a range of colleges and universities, including professors at career stages ranging from brand new assistant professors to retired faculty from across the subdisciplines, and representing multiple categories of identity and belonging. This is the knowledge we wish we had before becoming professors. There are repetition and patterns in our collective experiences, aspects of academic life that over the years have become expected and even excusable. There are things on this list that should not have happened, that should not continue to happen. May this knowledge better prepare you for a career in academia. May it enable you to work for change. This is not a happy list. Yet even with these experiences, many of us are committed to our jobs, to the communities with whom we do research, and to the students we teach. We are committed to education, to knowledge, and to transformation.

Here are our wishes:

I wish someone had clearly explained the difference to me between peer-reviewed and non-peer reviewed publications.

I wish I’d known that peer-reviewed articles count so much more than book chapters.

I wish I had realized that recognizing the accomplishments of my colleagues would be as rewarding as creating new knowledge.

I wish I knew how to balance ambition with care.

I wish someone had told me when to say “no,” how to say “no,” and why to say “no.”

I wish I knew earlier that saying NO no matter how scary is a muscle that gets stronger.

I wish I’d understood that I’d never have as much attention to devote to my own work as I did during my PhD.

I wish I’d realized that book number two will take almost twice as long as my PhD did.

I wish I’d known that having a hypothesis can actually clarify a research project.

I wish I had known that anthropologists are not very good with metaphor.

I wish I was better equipped to help care for my students and provide them a quality, personal education in a business of higher education that sees them primarily as sources of revenue.

I wish I had known that mentoring PhDs pays only in respect, not in money or promotions.

I wish I knew that it was about the structural exploitation of labor.

I wish I knew that professors got paid a nine-month salary for twelve months of work.

I wish I had realized that professors are compensated primarily with how they are able to control their time not with how much money they earn.

I wish I knew having the time and space to be an intellectual is aligned with race and gender categories.

I wish I knew how much more labor it would be to be a POC in the academy.

I wish I was allowed to be a POC in the academy and not disciplined into a POC-academic.

I wish I had known that college students are essentially kids. When I was first a professor I expected my 18-year-old first-year college students to demonstrate the responsibility and professionalism of graduate students, because that’s whom I was used to spending time with. Now that I have kids of my own who are new to college, I am much more empathetic toward my students. I think I’m now a better professor for that.

I wish someone had told me to find out who really controlled the department (i.e., to be a better anthropologist of my own workplace).

I wish I had known how much politics would be involved in the discipline (and how malicious some of my colleagues would be).

I wish I had known that at key stages in one’s career, such as peer-reviewed publishing and at tenure and promotion to full professor, that one’s work was reviewed anonymously. Often this is fine, and people review with integrity. Other times it means there is no public accountability for (negative) evaluations, including career-ending ones.

I wish I knew earlier that waiting for someone to retire was the way universities got rid of bullies and other serial troublemakers.

I wish I knew earlier that it really was an old boys club.

I wish I knew that in order to survive I would have to learn how to speak “white cis-male.”

I wish I had been prepared for how profoundly sexism would adversely affect my career in academia, and how few reliable allies I would have in confronting it.

I wish I had known that some of my graduate-school peers were suffering from lecherous, sexual predatory behavior by my own professors. I wish I had known that even super-famous professors known for insights into social behavior and cultural politics might be capable of being assholes in this manner.

I wish I knew how to put a sex/gender/race/class comment by a colleague into place without seeming like a problem, a troublemaker, or even better, becoming the illustration of why I should not have been asked to the meeting/panel/collaboration in the first place.

I wish I knew how to say no to well-intentioned white male students who want to be mentored by women of color faculty, proving they are ‘woke’ and how it would feel like replicating the systems of power we were trying to dismantle.

I wish I was taught how to gracefully accept that the generations of feminist/queer work done by women of color would be forgotten/unknown by white feminists/queers when they were designing new courses.

I wish I knew ‘academic self defense’ so that we could defend ourselves against white-hetero-patriarchy that likes to publicly academic-shame women of color/queers in academic contexts.


I wish I had known that some of my graduate school friends would die young, so I should make sure to see more of my graduate school cohort after graduate school.

Finally, from a respondent with academic parents: knowing what I knew about being a professor, I still went ahead and did this thing. Short of being a brilliant and famous x or y, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing, given the constraints of reality and the world such as it is.

Such as it is.

Such as it could be.


Thank you to all who contributed to this list. Here’s to others having different, better experiences than these; here’s to fixing what needs to be fixed.

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

4 Replies to “What I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Professor”

  1. Bold, heartfelt and breathtaking view of the work that goes into being a professor and the future it holds. A salute to all my professors in college and for all the hours of unpaid work they do to educate people like me.

  2. I wish that I’d known that publishing the exact same idea again and again and again with only slight changes was not only acceptable but expected. Not that I would’ve changed things because I get bored easily but it still blew me away that people could coast along on one solitary idea and only I appeared outraged by it.

  3. Thank you for sharing this wisdom. I’m in the middle of writing an essay entitled I Teach At a Small Place. It’s an homage to Kincaid’s book. It document the personal and intersectional racism I’ve survived for 12 years. This essay gives me strength and hope.

  4. Very interesting read for a non anthropologist non academic person. Really!!!!
    Can feel for you since my son is one of your kind.

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