Daniel W. Drezner

Some realkeeping on academia and stress

Some realkeeping on academia and stress

So yesterday there was a fun little Internet rebellion against this Susan Adams write-up in Forbes about the least stressful occupation for 2013

University professors have a lot less stress than most of us. Unless they teach summer school, they are off between May and September and they enjoy long breaks during the school year, including a month over Christmas and New Year’s and another chunk of time in the spring. Even when school is in session they don’t spend too many hours in the classroom. For tenure-track professors, there is some pressure to publish books and articles, but deadlines are few. Working conditions tend to be cozy and civilized and there are minimal travel demands, except perhaps a non-mandatory conference or two. As for compensation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for professors is $62,000, not a huge amount of money but enough to live on, especially in a university town.

Another boon for professors: Universities are expected to add 305,700 adjunct and tenure-track professors by 2020, according to the BLS. All of those attributes land university professor in the number one slot on Careercast.com’s list of the least stressful jobs of 2013….

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.

Let’s take a brief pause here so the academics in the crowd can recover from either A) throwing things at their computer screen; or B) melting to the floor in puddles of uncontrollable semi-hysterical laughter. 

Now let’s immediately concede that Adams — as she later admitted as much in an update to the post — knows next to nothing about the life of an academic.  Almost every specific claim in the quoted paragraphs above about the life of a professor is either wildly inaccurate or radically incomplete.  For some pointed rejoinders, see here and here and here.  Also check out the #RealForbesProfessors hashtag on Twitter.  Indeed, this whole kerfuffle mirrors this old Marketplace exchange that I had with my Fancy-Pants Brother Who Used to be an Investment Banker/Hedge Fund Manager.  What’s annoying about the Forbes column is the clear lack of understanding that outworlders civilians people who are not academics possess about our profession. 

Now, that said, and despite Adams having very little clue about the nature of my job, could it be that Careercast is onto something?  Even if it’s wrong about every little thing, is it wrong about the big thing?  Dan Nexon points out the following

Most tenured and tenure-track professors enjoy:

  • Some modicum of administrative self-governance;
  • Their own office, complete with a door that shuts and locks;
  • Generally flexible deadlines;
  • Tremendous flexibility in how they allocate their time;
  • Spending most of their time engaged in ideas and activities that they enjoy; and
  • The ability to spend significant time in situations in which power asymmetries favor them.
  •  These factors more than counterbalance the negatives.

    These are not small positives, and I, for one, revel in them every day of my professional career.  Furthermore, whenever this kind of debate comes up, I always recall my brother’s look of bemusement at a Thanksgiving dinner when a colleague was bitching and moaning about staying up late to finish a paper.  This was something he had to do on a semi-regular basis when he was working on Wall Street. 

    So, let’s do some realkeeping here and conclude with the following true statements: 

    1)  Adjunct professors who earn their primary means of income through teaching win the stress game easily, and are excluded from the points I make below. 

    2)  Compared to most professions that pay a comparable or greater salary, tenured and tenure-track academics possess far greater levels of autonomy and flexibility of hours.  Not less overall work, mind you, but more ability to determine when in the day that work has to be done;

    3)  There’s a lot of useful sorting that takes place among jobs.  Activities that academics often find stressful — like, you know, talking to other people — are often viewed as less stressful by those people who do it more often.  On the other hand, things we like to do — like, you know, writing down stuff that we think about — others can find to be incredibly stressful.

    4)  The shifting nature of the academic job market means that there are HUGE amount of stress at key moments in an academic career. If those moments go badly, well, there can be a fair amount of stress

    5)  There’s something vaguely comic about everyone trying to brag about how stressful their job is.  Personally, I blame television.  Shows like ER, The West Wing, and Scandal have glamorized the notion that killer jobs are friggin’ awesome and super-sexy.  You know what’s really awesome?  Doing your job so well that you can relax on a regular basis. 

    Am I missing anything?  Seriously, I probably am missing something, so feel free to mention it in the comments.