Why I choose to be a professor at Carnegie Mellon

“If money was no object, what job would you be happiest doing?”

I like to ask this question of candidates in interviews.

It often gets an involuntary reaction, “Oh, I like that question!” accompanied by a smile as it dredges up some happy memory for the person across the table from me.

The answers are revealing and downright fascinating. Some people start with, “Well, I would be doing exactly the job I am interviewing for.” (Riiiight.)

And, then, comes the cool stuff. Pet-store owner. Teacher. Music teacher. Kindergarten teacher. Writer. Volunteer. Chef. Baker. Bakery owner. Restauranteur. Travel writer. Soccer coach. Volleyball player. Rugby player. Owner of an NFL team. (True story.)

This question gives me joy because I see that it gives the interview candidate joy. I see the person across the table from me light up when they talk about their if-money-was-no-object job. The answer also feels like a release for the candidate, as the words bubble out of them, and they are speaking with feeling and without thinking. You see, they are finally talking about what they really love, deep inside, and what they would do if they could do what they really love.

I turned this question on myself. So, Priya, if money was no object, what job would you be happiest doing?

Photo of The Fence at Carnegie Mellon, painted in Tartan colors.

If money was no object, I would be a professor. I would be around students all day. I would be around their exhilarating minds, their outrageously cool ideas, their opinionated selves, their sense of invincibility, their infinite curiosity, their propensity to debate everything and anything, their humorous take on life, and their joy in finding free food on campus.

The energy of being around students is exhilarating. The energy of being around untamed minds that do not believe in the word impossible. The energy of minds that throw themselves, with such whole-hearted abandon, enthusiasm, and intensity, into solving problems they care about. The privilege of being around minds that are so much more intelligent and discerning than mine. Students do everything to the max. Students will spend hours exhausting themselves simply to try to get a robot to follow a straight line for a mere 15 seconds. They won’t count the hours, the exhaustion, or the gazillion failed attempts. Those 15 seconds of glory are all that count, and they will talk about those 15 perfect seconds all day and all week, if you let them.

The energy of being in a classroom is just as exhilarating. The outbursts of spontaneous laughter at some smart remark. The give-and-take of debates around ideas. The intellectual curiosity in the room. The persistent questioning until we all understand what is being said. The joy of communal learning, because I am learning from the discussions as much as, if not more than, they are.

I don’t have the words to capture what it’s like to be a professor. It’s exhausting, it’s tiring, it’s intense, it’s emotional, it’s draining, it takes everything out of you. It’s a job where you give all day, where you listen all day, where you talk all day, where you share all day, where you worry about others all day, where you serve all day, and where you cheerfully spend 5 days perfecting a 50-minute lecture.

It’s also a job where you pour everything you have into a group of people, knowing you will lose them every 4 years, and not knowing if you will ever see them again. Commencement is one of the most emotionally-demanding times of the school year because you are so happy for these amazing students and you have come to love them so very much, but you know you may never see them again. In their entire lives or yours.

As a professor, you feel alive, every minute you’re around a student. You feel intellectually alive, intellectually challenged, intellectually growing, and intellectually inspired.

19 years after I first set foot on the Carnegie Mellon campus to start my journey as a professor, I choose to do this job because of one thing — the students.

You see, I would be a professor even if they didn’t pay me.

I’m already doing the job I would be doing if money was no object.

And 19 years later, my heart is still in the work.