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The Least Stressful Profession of Them All?

January 5th, 2013 · 2 Comments · science, Teaching

In the spirit of critics misunderstanding the life of university researchers that I started in my last post, I felt the need to chime in a bit on a story that has really made the social-media rounds in the last couple days. This kerfuffle stems from a Forbes piece by Susan Adams enumerating the 10 least stressful jobs for 2013. Reporting on a study from the job-site careercast.com, and to the surprise of nearly every academic I know, she listed university professor as the least stressful of all jobs. Adams writes: “For tenure-track professors, there is some pressure to publish books and articles, but deadlines are few.” This is quite possibly the most nonsensical statement I think I have ever read about the academy and it reveals a profound ignorance about its inner workings. This careercast.com list was also picked up by CNBC and Huffington Post, both of which were completely credulous of the rankings.

Before going on though, I have to give Ms. Adams some props for amending her piece following an avalanche of irate comments from actual professors. She writes:

Since writing the above piece I have received more than 150 comments, many of them outraged, from professors who say their jobs are terribly stressful. While I characterize their lives as full of unrestricted time, few deadlines and frequent, extended breaks, the commenters insist that most professors work upwards of 60 hours a week preparing lectures, correcting papers and doing research for required publications in journals and books. Most everyone says they never take the summer off, barely get a single day’s break for Christmas or New Year’s and work almost every night into the wee hours.

All true.

In the CNBC piece, the careercast.com publisher, Tony Lee, lays down some of the most uninformed nonsense that I’ve ever read:

“If you look at the criteria for stressful jobs, things like working under deadlines, physical demands of the job, environmental conditions hazards, is your life at risk, are you responsible for the life of someone else, they rank like ‘zero’ on pretty much all of them!” Lee said.

Plus, they’re in total control. They teach as many classes as they want and what they want to teach. They tell the students what to do and reign over the classroom. They are the managers of their own stress level.

Careercast.com measured job-related stress using an 11-dimensional scale. These dimensions and the point ranges assigned to each include:

  • Travel, amount of (0-10)<
  • Growth Potential (income divided by 100)
  • Deadlines (0-9)
  • Working in the public eye (0-5)
  • Competitiveness (0-15)
  • Physical demands (stoop, climb, etc.) (0-14)
  • Environmental conditions (0-13)
  • Hazards encountered (0-5)
  • Own life at risk (0-8)
  • Life of another at risk (0-10)
  • Meeting the public (0-8)

These seem reasonable enough, but the extent to which they were accurately assessed for at least this first item in the list is another point altogether.

It is important to note that there is enormous heterogeneity contained in the job title “professor.” There are professors of art history and professors of business and professors of law and professors of vascular surgery, and professors of chemistry, and professors of seismic engineering professors of volcanology and … you get the point. No doubt some of these are more or less stressful than others. Many of these involve substantial work in the public eye and meeting the public. Some involve hazardous environmental conditions and physical demands.

However, I will focus mainly on what I see as the most ludicrous statements made by both Lee and Adams: that professors have no deadlines. My life is all about deadlines: article/book submission deadlines, institutional review board deadlines, peer review deadlines, editorial deadlines, and the all-important grant deadlines. There are the deadlines imposed by my students when they apply for grants or fellowships or jobs and need highly detailed letters of recommendation, often on very short notice. Oh, and guess what: grades are due on a particular date at the end of the term. You know, a deadline? And those classes we teach: better have a lecture ready before the class meets. Again, kinda like a deadline. I think that it is worth noting that one is expected to meet these teaching deadlines even when most professional incentives (at least at a research university) are focused around everything in your job description but teaching. There is a trite phrase describing the life of a professor — particularly a junior professor — that seems to have found its way into the general consciousness, “publish or perish.” Notice that it is not “give coherent, interesting lectures and grade fairly and expediently or perish”!

So, yes, there are deadlines and there are very difficult trade-offs relating to the finiteness of time. Honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine how even a casual observer of the university could not see the ubiquity of deadlines for the professor’s life.

In an excellent rebuttal of this list, blogger Audra Diers writes about both the time demands and the economic realities of obtaining a tenure-track job. I will finish up with a few thoughts on competitiveness and “growth potential.” My experience on a variety of job search committees since coming to Stanford is that there are typically hundreds of highly qualified candidates for any given job search. These are all people who have Ph.D.’s and, frequently, already have jobs at other universities. In the anthropology department at Stanford, the majority of faculty joined Stanford from faculty positions at other universities. It is very difficult to get a job at a university like Stanford directly out of graduate school. Inevitably, you are competing against people who have already been assistant professors (or at least post-docs) at other universities and already have a substantial publication and grant-writing record. The differences in salary, teaching loads, and institutional prestige can be substantial. Browsing the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Almanac of Higher Education can provide some numbers. Many people bust it in lower-prestige universities with the hope of eventually getting an opportunity for a job at a place like Stanford or Berkeley or Harvard. This means publishing important work, often while teaching outrageously high teaching loads at universities with primarily teaching missions and that means long hours, juggling many conflicting demands, and enormous individual drive.

If you are a scientist, you are often competing with other scientists for results. Getting yourself in a position to secure such results means successful grant-writing and attracting top students and post-docs to your lab. Now, this competition is often enjoyable and almost certainly drives innovation, but it can be stressful (and deadline filled!). There is nothing quite like the feeling of looking at some journal’s table of contents that’s shown up in your inbox and realizing you’ve been scooped on a problem you’ve spent years working on. There is always that little bit of fear in the back of your head pushing you to publish your results before someone else does.

Where Lee gets the idea that professors “teach as many classes as they want and what they want to teach” is a mystery to me. Universities (and colleges within universities) have rules for the number of courses their faculty are expected to teach. Sometimes, a professor can buy out of some teaching by securing more research funding that specifically budgets for such buy-outs. Within departments, there is the dreaded curriculum committee. My department’s CC decided this year that I should teach all my courses in the Spring quarter. While it’s been nice to have large chunks of research time this Fall, Spring is going to be horrible. This is hardly teaching as much or what I want to teach. Departments have instructional needs (i.e., “service courses”) and someone needs to teach these. Junior faculty are often dumped upon to teach the service courses (e.g., history of the field, methodological courses) that very few students want to attend.

Writes Adams at Forbes, “The other thing most of the least stressful jobs have in common: At the end of the day, people in these professions can leave their work behind, and their hours tend to be the traditional nine to five.” This is just crazy talk. I work every night, some nights are more effective than others, for sure, but, like many professions, I take this as a given for my job.

So being a university professor is hardly a stress-free life. This doesn’t in any way mean that we don’t like our jobs. Being a tenured professor at a major research university is good work if you can get it. The job carries with it a great deal of autonomy, flexibility, and the ability to pursue one’s passion. As a professor, one interacts with interesting, curious people on a daily basis and helps shape future leaders. The job-related stress felt by a university professor is almost certainly not on par with, say, an infantry soldier or police officer, but the job is not stress-free. It never ceases to surprise me of how ignorant about the workings of universities critics often are. This is an instance where there is no obvious political agenda — the study just got some facts badly wrong — but studies like this contribute to disturbing anti-intellectualism (and concomitant disdain for empirical evidence) that has become a part of American public consciousness.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Audra

    That's a really nice response highlighting both the challenges of the ways they applied the measures they used as well as other aspects of being a faculty member. It's nice to dispel the myths for those who believe that getting a job at a university like Stanford is just like getting a job at some small cute college in BFE Arkansas. :)

  • jhj1

    Happy to see a post on Gawker.com this morning on this topic (http://gawker.com/5973391/the-forbes+college-professor-war-is-so-on). One great thing about it is that it contains a number of pretty hilarious tweets by professors using the hashtag #RealForbesProfessors. Sweet.

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