Freshman to Faculty

A journey down the road to the Ivory Tower investigates the allure of academia

Lisa J. Miracchi
Courtesy Photo

Studying abroad led Miracchi to discover her interest in teaching.

CORRECTION APPENDED

Sharply attired in a slim-fitting black suit and stylish thick-rimmed glasses, Matthew B. Kaiser folds his elbows neatly on his desk. For a professor who leads a class on crime and horror, his Barker Center office is strikingly cheery. The plush red rug matches the pillows arranged on the sumptuous couch and the lamp that sits atop one of the full bookshelves lining the walls.

But Kaiser’s deliberate enunciation, enthralling as it is haunting, is tinged with the darkness of his academic specialty—and his own past.

Kaiser did not think he would finish his last year of high school. At age 17 he left his home to live with three 22-year-old musicians in their attic. "I had a fairly chaotic and sometimes scary life," he says. He did ultimately graduate and even ended up applying to the University of Oregon—in no small part because the application was only one side of a sheet of paper. For the next two years Kaiser says he drifted through college as an undeclared major, more interested in Oregon’s gay rights battles than in going to class.

Eventually, exhausted from the chaos of the political involvement and worn out from the ugly language hurled at him, he turned to Victorian literature. "I wanted to seek refuge in beautiful language," Kaiser says. "There were so many shadowy silent spaces that needed to be filled with language." Kaiser’s passion for Victorian literature turned him from a wandering, undeclared college student into an expert in the field and an assistant professor at Harvard. He now teaches the popular course, English 156: "Crime and Horror in Victorian Literature and Culture" to more than 450 students.

Kaiser says he attended graduate school and pursued a career in academia because it allowed him to dedicate his life to his intellectual passion. For students like Kaiser, this route often naturally leads to a career as a professor because along the way they discover a need to share their passion with the rest of the world. For others, becoming a professor has always been the ultimate goal. Whether it’s happenstance or raw ambition, the ivory tower holds some kind of allure for many who step inside its doors.

"If you really love a field, you see it everywhere," Brian M. Weller ’09 explains. The bespectacled senior’s face lights up as he jokes about his obsession with economics. He constantly apologizes for what he sees as his overly "nerdy" interest in the subject.

As a freshman, he says he often annoyed his friends by taking an economic view of ordinary situations. "I’d have a marginal cost, marginal benefit type of analysis," he says. But Weller was an economics whiz kid even before he was accepted by Harvard. When his high school Advanced Placement economics teacher was out much of the year due to illness, Weller sometimes taught the class in place of the substitute. His mother, Leslie A. Weller, recalls the nightly phone calls from other students asking her son for help. "Teachers would refer kids to Brian," she says. "They said, ‘Call Brian, he’ll help you.’"

Weller finished his AP economics exams so early that he had enough time left over to pen some poetry. Along with responses about supply and demand and opportunity cost, his AP graders discovered a haiku and a sonnet in his response book. Weller recalls the experience fondly: "I think I wrote the longer one for macro because it was easier." Unlike Weller, Kaiser took the winding road to discover his hidden passion, which he did not find until he became an English major. After that, there was no turning back. "Once that love affair with Victorian literature began, my path into academia was pretty clear," he says. By the time he entered his English Ph.D. program, he was intent on becoming a professor. "It doesn’t make a lot of sense, in literary studies at least, to work for a Ph.D. unless you are going to be a professor," Kaiser says.

For Kaiser, it was authors like Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, people who he says existed outside society’s power structure, who drew him to academia. For Maria Tatar, professor of Germanic Languages and Literature, it was Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann who she says initially drew her in. She chose graduate school because she viewed it as the next logical step to nurture her love of reading. Tatar began to investigate the Grimm’s Fairy Tales and stumbled upon a virtually unmined trove of literary wealth in these two volumes of tales told to generations of children the world over. "For me it was almost a way of knitting together my role as a parent and as a professor," Tatar says.

By also looking at the effects of these violent stories on children, she helped lay the groundwork for the field that would become Childhood Studies, which examines literature written for children. She now leads the popular Literature and Arts A-17: "Childhood: Its History, Philosophy, and Literature." "Teaching really is a way to give back," she says. "You don’t have to be a lawyer or a doctor in order to do that." 

RESEARCH

For Lisa Randall ’83, Harvard’s first female tenured theoretical physicist, an intense interest in research led her down the academic path. As the author of "Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions," she was named one of Time Magazine’s "100 Most Influential People of 2007."

Although she is now a frontrunner in research on particle physics and cosmology, Randall initially viewed academia as one of many potential career options. She says she realized it would probably be harder to return to research after another career than to begin in research and then transition to another field. But when she was applying for professorial positions, she found she did actually want to teach along with conducting research. "I realized that I really did care," she says.

A similar devotion to research pulls Harvard senior Allen Cheng ’09 to academia. He currently works in a lab to screen for enzyme-inhibiting compounds. "You’re discovering something new," Cheng says of his desire to contribute to the scientific body of knowledge, "You’re not simply living in the status quo."

But Cheng’s interest in becoming a professor is not solely based on research. After working as an organic chemistry teaching fellow for the past two years, Cheng knows he would also enjoy instructing others. "It’s really a personal matter of finding something very interesting," he says.

Lisa J. Miracchi ’09 also has dreams of becoming a professor. Like Cheng's, this desire stems from a deep interest in her area of study—philosophy. Miracchi says she used to want to be an architect or perhaps a "starving artist." However, in order to fulfill her goal of studying abroad in Italy, Miracchi first had to double up on her philosophy concentration requirements. It was with this course load that she began to suspect she might want to become a philosophy professor. Even as she was studying gorgeous Florentine architecture, she found herself thinking about metaphysics and epistemology. It was then she knew she was ready to devote her life to the specialty Miracchi describes as "the study of what there is and how we know what there is."

TO THE PODIUM

Like Cheng and Miracchi, a specific passion for their area of expertise pushed Kaiser, Tatar, and Randall all into their professorial positions. However, some current students have much more direct visions of becoming professors. They have long dreamed of the days when they will prepare lectures rather than problem sets.

For example, even before Weller was wowing his AP graders, he was already fascinated with economics. At age 17, he attended the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for International Studies, a summer program for high school students. Until that point he had primarily studied math and science. However, instead of spending his summer at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Sciences, he decided to explore his burgeoning interest in economics. That summer’s survey course convinced him to continue exploring the field.

However, becoming a professor was not Weller’s only option for pursuing his interest in economics. He knew that there is often much more money to be made outside the hallowed halls of academia. But after a summer working in the private sector for Citadel Investment Group, Weller knew that inside those hallowed halls was exactly where he wanted to be.

Before working at this hedge fund, Weller had served as a research assistant to Aleh Tsyvinski, the current co-director of Yale’s Macroeconomics Program. During his time at Citadel, Weller saw the difference between researching for industry and researching in a university setting.

"At the end of the day your knowledge and your efforts are restricted to making money," he says about his summer experience. He resented being forced to limit himself to activities that were likely to produce profits. [SEE CORRECTION BELOW]

Since confirming his original sense that he was bound for a career in academia, Weller has worked hard to structure his time in college to make his graduate school application as competitive as possible.

"My focus has been extremely tight," he says. "It’s been, ‘I need to do this for grad school. I need to take these classes. I need to excel in one specific area of economics, write a great thesis, really drill down into something.’"

Years before Weller attended that fateful summer program, psychology professor Steven Pinker was trying to figure out where his interests would lead him.

Sitting in his office, framed by large windows offering an expansive view of Boston, Pinker recalls his path to William James Hall.

When he first discovered that think tanks are organizations that pay people for their ideas, Pinker was set on working for one. "I really want to think, and solve problems, and debate, and learn," the college student told his mother.

She had a different idea in mind.

"You belong in a university," she replied.

"At the time I wasn’t completely aware of the fact that university professors both taught and did research," Pinker says.

Armed with this new information, Pinker knew his mother was right. "As soon as I realized that that’s what university professors did, I knew that was what I wanted to do, that you could actually be paid for thinking," Pinker says.

He is now a highly respected professor, named by Time Magazine named one of the Most Influential People of 2004. He is also the author of best-selling popular psychology books including "How the Mind Works" and "The Stuff of Thought."  

THE FAMILY FACTOR

Family influence has also contributed to current Harvard students’ dreams of becoming professors. Daniel J. Thorn ’11 arrived on campus just over a year and a half ago, and he has every intention of sticking around. With several professors in his family, Thorn was exposed to academia from a young age. In speaking with members of the History of Science faculty, Thorn says he has found the life of inquiry he wants in a community of the intellectually engaged.

"You kind of get the impulse not to leave," Thorn says, pointing to the economy that might dissuade his peers from entering the traditional job market in two years. Thorn says he has already been mistaken for a graduate student but "it’s more of a factor of looking old for my age rather than being innately professorial." In fact, he says the biggest indicator of his scholarly goals is how he avoids studying: "When I procrastinate, I read the internet comic Ph.D. about doctoral candidates."

A desire for intellectual freedom explains how Economics Professor N. Gregory Mankiw wound up in academia. After chairing the Council of Economic Advisors for two years under the Bush administration, he now teaches Social Analysis 10: "Principles of Economics." His Principles of Economics textbooks are used in high schools and colleges around the world.

"They pay us to do what we want to do," Mankiw says. "You can think about the problems that interest you. You have a tremendous amount of freedom to come and go as you please," he adds.

Of his own graduating class at Princeton, Mankiw says the beckon of the ivory tower only reached a certain kind of student. "Those of us who became professors were slightly ‘nerdier’ on average than those who went for professional degrees." Mankiw actually started out in the latter camp, initially attending law school while earning his economics Ph.D. But he dropped the J.D. half of his joint-degree program after a year and a half. "I eventually decided my comparative advantage lay in economics," he says. 

A DIFFERENT ROAD ALTOGETHER

And of course, in between the tenured professors at the end of the road and the undergraduates about to travel down the path their academic destination, there are those midway through the journey to academia.

When sociology graduate student Van C. Tran was deciding what he might like to do with his life, he looked around for a role model and a career goal. He found both in his thesis adviser, a sociology professor named Philip Kasinitz. "I thought [being a professor] was the best job in the world I could possibly have," Tran says.

Tran has been at Harvard for several years, but ten years ago, when he arrived in the U.S. from Vietnam, earning a Ph.D. was nowhere on his radar. At the time, he spoke no English. He had lived seven of his 19 years in Thailand’s refugee camps. After his family landed in New York City, he found a job in a hardware store.

Tran says his life changed one fateful snowy day. Every day he passed the local community college, and on one afternoon he finally decided to check it out. He asked about his educational options and the receptionist handed him an application. After completing his associate’s degree, Tran went on to Hunter College to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in sociology. As he wrote his thesis on the experience of Tibetan refugees in New York, Tran worked one-on-one with Kasinitz.

Tran saw in his mentor’s lifestyle the only kind of life he wanted for himself. In the summer of his junior year, he brought up this goal in a weekly meeting with Kasinitz. He told his mentor that he wanted to apply to graduate schools–but only in New York so he could stay close to his family. "I said it very gingerly because I wasn’t sure how he would react," he says.

However, his mentor responded encouragingly. "I was practically by the door, when he looked at me and said, ‘But you should also apply to Harvard and Princeton,’" Tran remembers. Thinking the professor was addressing someone else, Tran looked over his shoulder. "Are you talking to me?"

Kasinitz laughed.

Now, as a resident tutor in Lowell House, it is Tran’s turn to advise his own students on graduate school.

Whether serendipity lands them in the lecturer’s seat, or that spot behind the podium was the goal all along, professors find different routes to the ivory tower. With his own wayward path to success as a frame of reference, Kaiser holds a respect for students at the center of his identity. "When I teach I address students as if they’re adults instead of my children," he says. "I don’t look at students as lacking, in desperate need of being corrected, bundles of chaos that need to be brought into the light."

While some students dream of getting to a tenured destination, others find immersion in academia is the only way to feed the fire of their intellectual passion. There are many roads to academic greatness. Who knows where the next Kaiser will come from? He may be living in an attic right now.

CORRECTION

The Feb. 26 magazine article “Freshman to Faculty” incorrectly stated that Brian M. Weller ’09 resented working at the Citadel Investment Group. In fact, Weller said he loved his experience there, though he decided to pursue academia instead.


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Unnamed photo

Unnamed photo

Van C. Tran

Van C. Tran

Matthew B. Kaiser

Matthew B. Kaiser