From an outsider/student's view, STEM professors are:

  1. not taking courses
  2. mostly not doing things outside of their research comfort zones
  3. not (?) studying up much except for their research, certainly not doing exercises from the back of a book and looking up solutions somewhere
  4. some graduated 40 years ago or even more.
  5. teaching the same course for past 20 years, which let's face it, is sort of like teaching history with numbers.
  6. not visibly getting taught by their research students or anyone else for that matters.

How is it that a lot of the professors are publishing cutting edge research (especially in STEM) involving the latest tech and gadgets? If I am not reading the news, I wouldn't know what Apple is doing right now let alone develop an algorithm that mimics what their Face Recognition AI is doing.

How is it possible that a professor with a PhD in analog circuit back in the 70s could do research in today's massive microchip fabrication process when a tremendous amount of information/material is needed to get up to speed both in terms of theory and practical knowledge? Do these professors have fabrication facilities in their garage or something? How would they know without being in industry or taking a course?

How is it possible that a professor with a PhD in numerical optimization from the 80s where the latest and the great was quasi-Newton method is doing research on the latest deep learning algorithm? How can this person even be proficient at this? Are they taking courses on Coursera or something?

How do you do it?

  • 3
    Profs have Research Fellows, PhD Students and MSc students. And good profs have an instinct for where things are going to be in 10, 20 years, not where they are now. Oct 22, 2020 at 1:53
  • 6
    Short answer: we don't stop learning. We learn from our students, research papers, and do pick up textbooks occasionally to re-learn concepts and indeed do exercises! A lot of professors are at the forefront of knowledge, and they are generating new knowledge; usually, they have the necessary skills and tools to push the boundary of knowledge. If not, they learn or get someone who has the skills/tools. Think of a Prof as a general purpose CPU that can be used to run a 'research' software on hot topics. :) Oct 22, 2020 at 2:12
  • 2
    How is it possible for a new student to ever catch up to somebody with a 40-year head start?
    – Jon Custer
    Oct 22, 2020 at 13:27
  • @FoundABetterName I approved your suggested edit. However, I have a note for you. Your comment says "Grammer mistake fixed". Shouldn't it be "Grammar"?
    – Nobody
    Apr 4, 2021 at 9:23

2 Answers 2


In short, your premises are wrong.

  • Professors read papers to learn.
  • Professors meet with their peers, both at conferences and informally, and learn from them.
  • Professors do learn from their research students.

These are slow methods of learning, but over many years they add up.

Further, in fast-moving fields of research, nobody "keeps up" in the sense of knowing everything that is going on. It isn't necessary to know everything that is already known to create new knowledge.


By having PhD students and post docs. Not saying professors don't do research but a big part is having the idea then handing it off to a student/post doc who does the research. PhD students gets to spend 3-4 years becoming the expert in their tiny subfield. At some point the PhD student will start teaching the professor new things. Post docs help to really push an idea forward and make progress. Master students are also helpful in "testing the waters" in new areas. It doesn't matter so much if their research goes no where but can be a helpful probe to see if an idea has some merit.

Professors are also usually usually the ones organising conferences and sitting on the committee's deciding who gets to speak and who gets money. So not only do they get a front row seat to learning what people are doing, and where the field is going they are also the ones helping to direct where their field goes.

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