Say you’ve finished your undergraduate science career. There are quite a few places you could eventually (sometimes after a PhD, sometimes immediately) end up! For example, you could go work in:
But the one you hear about most often is:
The reason you hear most about academia is because all of your undergraduate professors happen to be in academia. This is not your only option, and in fact most people cannot go into academia. The problem is that the number of academic positions at universities is not changing much and the rate at which professors retire is low. The rate at which people finish their PhDs and wish to enter faculty positions is high. The math doesn’t work out.
That said, a lot of us are trying for academic positions, myself included. What’s an academic and why do you want to be one and why don’t you?
Academics are your undergraduate professors—their primary jobs are research, teaching, and administrative work. The ratio of these jobs varies with the school. If you’re at a large research institution (e.g. MIT, Stanford, University of Minnesota, etc.) you can be doing something like 80% research, 10% teaching, 10% administration. If you’re at a small liberal arts college you might be doing 40% research, 40% teaching, 10% administration. If you’ve been a faculty member for a while, you have more administrative duties than if you’re just starting out.
Jobs that Academics Do
Research: professors run research labs (laboratories, but no one calls them that). These labs employ students—post-docs, graduate students, research assistants / lab technicians (these names sometimes refer to different positions but are often used interchangeably) and undergraduates. Everyone conducts research, and professors advise students on their work.
Teaching: professors teach classes of undergraduate and sometimes graduate students. Professors have different teaching requirements, and often this part of their job is what gives them “hard money”—i.e. a fixed salary. (“Soft money” is money that comes from grants—professors apply for money from institutions like the government or independent science and research foundations.) Some professors enjoy teaching more than others. Whether you want to teach is important in determining whether you work at a liberal arts institution or a large research university, though it’s more about finding a job—any job—as far as I can tell. Moreover, researchers get hired on the strength of their research more than anything else—teaching is something that they add on later. This was my greatest misunderstanding of a professor's work as an undergrad.
Administration: professors have a lot of meetings and serve on a lot of committees. The more senior you are the more administrative work you have. This includes things like being the head of the department.
Why don’t you want to be a professor?
Professors work extremely hard. They’re not paid enormous amounts of money for what they do. (Industry research pays better and has better hours).
Professors are trained as researchers, so they’re good at and enjoy research, but they aren’t actually doing any research by this stage in the game. Instead, their primary role is managing the students in their lab who do the research.
Professors are responsible for bringing in the money in the lab. If they aren’t able to successfully apply for and get grants (money from large funding bodies), their labs shut down. More than just cutting off their own income, they also leave their graduate students without any funding. This can be very stressful, and professors are applying for grants almost all the time.
There aren’t very many professor positions—it’s a very competitive field. You work mostly independently—professors collaborate on projects, but labs can be pretty isolated. This can be a good or bad thing.
There’s constant pressure to publish good work. But this is true at all levels.
Why do you want to be a professor?
You get to choose what you study, and you’re advancing human knowledge in completely novel ways. Your schedule is flexible—you have to teach at certain times, and have meetings at certain times, but you can organize your schedule.
You get to teach students and mentor your lab members if you enjoy that. You communicate with the public and have an esteemed position. You read a lot and write a lot and think a lot, and you constantly do new things.
You get to interact with a lot of interesting, smart, driven people: both your students and collaborators. (I’ve heard this is one of the major draws.) You’re in a very stimulating environment. You get to travel for conferences.
Academia is one of the options available for people interested in science, and it is often the only option that people are aware of. It has its downfalls and benefits, but has enough benefits that becoming a professor is a very popular pursuit after acquiring a PhD.