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Answer by Ben Y. Zhao, professor of computer science at University of California–Santa Barbara:
There are quite a number of answers to this question, and depending on your personality, they will likely produce varying levels of impact. Instead of trying to come up with an exhaustive list, I will do my best to mention a few of the top fulfilling moments I’ve experienced from my personal perspective.
Watching a (nearly) finished Ph.D. student receive that coveted job offer, whether it’s that faculty position she’s worked so hard for, a position at that top research lab, or a lucrative offer from that hot startup everyone wants to join. This is the culmination of years of hard work by the student, and to a lesser degree, by the adviser. These are moments when you see quantifiable ways that your efforts have literally altered and shaped the life of another human being. Unlike parents and teachers who often need to wait years to see their efforts come to fruition, a Ph.D. adviser sees that direct impact of his or her efforts for the past N years, materialized immediately in a single moment.
Watching one of your students deliver a fantastic talk at a premier conference in front of a packed room of attendees from all over the world. Another moment capturing months (sometimes years) of hard work designing, implementing, analyzing, and evaluating their ideas, followed by the tough process of publication and a lengthy preparation process for the final presentation.
Getting an unexpected thank you note in the mail or an email from a former student, thanking you for that class you taught her six years ago and detailing how it’s changed the trajectory of her life and career. Despite the the significant level of effort most professors put into teaching, we tend to forget just how many students are impacted by what and how we teach. These occasional notes are great reminders of how much our teaching matters.
Meeting up with a former student at an academic conference and being introduced to his or her current students getting ready to present their work. It’s yet another reminder of the level of impact of our work and how it reverberates through the continuing work of our former students.
All of these have the same recurring theme: impact on lives of students and former students. There are many other fulfilling components to the academic life, like getting papers published, getting grants funded, receiving awards and recognition, seeing our research directly impact industry and real users, etc. But I personally find the role of teacher most satisfying, and that’s why those moments are the most fulfilling and memorable to me.
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