The “stress-free” professor

07 Jan

Recently, an article published on Forbes claimed that professors have the least stressful job in the US*. This came from a study that was put together by where they used 11 indicators of “non-stressful” work environments and then supposedly crunched the numbers – yielding professor coming in as least stressful. This study was also posted on cnbc and yahoo.

Here are the indicators that were used to rank stress:

  • 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

Before going any further, I would like to state that I tend to find these kinds of “rankings” to be problematic on a lot of fronts. In this case a few immediate questions should be: “are these indices a legitimate way to measure stress?” and “how/who is then ranking each measure listed?” and “do they understand the actual duties and obligations associated with the occupations they are ranking?” These questions should raise some immediate red flags as to the arbitrariness of these rankings.

But people love to read “top ten” lists of things –  it’s a popular thing to do that will get lots of internet hits and publicity – whether it’s “top college values”, “top party schools”, “top cities to live in”, or “least stressful jobs”. So despite the questionable legitimacy or accuracy of many of these lists, I don’t expect them to go away.

top ten

Here is the top ten list as it shook out for the least stressful jobs:

  • 1. University Professor – Median Salary: $62,050**
  • 2. Seamstress/Tailor – Median Salary: $25,850
  • 3. Medical Records Technician – Median Salary: $32,350
  • 4. Jeweler – Median Salary: $35,170
  • 5. Medical Laboratory Technician – Median Salary: $46,680
  • 6. Audiologist – Median Salary: $66,660
  • 7. Dietitian – Median Salary: $53,250
  • 8. Hair Stylist – Median Salary: $22,500
  • 9. Librarian – Median Salary: $54,500***
  • 10. Drill Press Operator – Median Salary: $31,910

That’s quite an assortment of jobs. I’m sure that each of these occupations could rebut and make legitimate arguments that what they do does entail a good bit of stress.

Here is part of the description written about professors (interestingly enough, this is the first time that professor has made the list and it debuts at #1):

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.

If you care to look at the comments of the original articles on Forbes/CNBC/Yahoo, you will see that professors (and educators, university faculty, and many others) came out in full force to repudiate many of the claims put forth in the assessment of professor’s stress levels and – perhaps more importantly – what it is that professors (and educators) do. (I guess that’s the reaction you get when you criticize and mischaracterize an entire profession that tends to be quite articulate and very skilled in manners regarding research and analysis.)

I think that it’s important to address this issue, in part, because it has recently become popular to demonize a lot of public workers’ jobs – specifically educators – as easy, over-paid, and full of exceptional perks (i.e. summers “off”). This narrative description above highlights some of these common misconceptions.  Here I will stick to the (mythical) university professor as described in the study and attempt to address a few of the misconceptions that I believe many have (and are falsely perpetuated through hyperbolic caricatures like those posted on forbes, cnbc, or yahoo).

You only teach a few hours a week: This is true for many. The actual time spent in class in front of students doesn’t hit 40 hours (people often jump to this number because it’s considered a full-time work week). Anywhere from 8-12 hours a week in front of class is probably a decent estimate.  But you can generally count on at least 3-4 hours of prep time for every hour of class time for a new course; for a course you’ve done before, still at least an hour.  That doesn’t include grading assignments and exams, group projects or anything else.  For whatever reason, there is this recent myth that educators just show up to deliver lectures and lead activities that have somehow written themselves.  According to these individuals, the only time you are “working” is when you are in the classroom – this illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what professors do (and is only perpetuated by articles like the one from Forbes).

Related point: Professors do more than teach.  In fact, at a lot of universities teaching is considered a minor component of your job.  It’s weird for people outside of academia to hear about this, but it’s true.  A lot of big R1 universities (“research one”) base their evaluations of professors (leading to tenure, promotions, and just keeping your job in general) something like this: ~70% research, ~20% teaching, and ~10% service.  There are also things like mentoring/advising students (undergraduate and graduate), participating on multiple committees, writing letters of recommendation, writing grants, reviewing others’ research, and attending conferences.

Summers “off”: The reality is that most professors do not take summers off at all. In fact, this is one of the most crucial and fruitful times of work for many professors. Those who aren’t teaching summer courses thank their lucky stars that they finally have some time to really devote to their own research and writing – you know, that part of the job that they are most critically judged on. This is a time to design studies, collect data, analyze, and write. Oh yeah, and travel to conferences (often spending their own money) as well as design new courses and update previously taught courses.  University committee obligations and meetings don’t stop either.  It’s also a time to catch up on whatever has been published in your field that you couldn’t get to during the semester.

There are few deadlines: Not true.  Several presentations each week (lectures).  If you show up unprepared in front of a room full of 70-150 undergraduates, things can get ugly.  Committees have deadlines.  Turning in grades and progress reports have deadlines.  Writing letters of recommendation have deadlines.  Conference papers have deadlines.  Grants and funding have deadlines (it is increasingly important for professors to secure funding for their research through outside funded grants).  Article deadlines are more flexible, but if you’re not getting them out and getting things published in a timely fashion, you won’t last long.

Once you get tenure, it’s a cake-walk: It is true that tenure gives professors some security.  But that doesn’t mean that you cannot be terminated if you have tenure.  Moreover, it’s increasingly difficult and rare to get a tenure track job and gain tenure.  After spending 5-7 years in graduate school, many spend at least a few years in temporary or adjunct positions before they find a tenure track position.  Then it’s 7 years until you have the opportunity to make tenure (and many don’t).  That puts you around 40 before you have a realistic chance at tenure.  Tenure track positions have never been more difficult to find – more and more universities are hiring adjuncts to try and save money.  This means that more and more PhD’s are trying to put together a few adjunct positions at multiple universities to make ends meet until they *hopefully* find a tenure track position.  No stress in trying to fit together a class or two at three different campuses each semester – all while trying to advance your own research so that you can get one of those very few tenure track openings.

Professors are overpaid with tax-payer money:  The article lists the median salary at $62K, but wastes no time in citing professors at Harvard making nearly $200K (a private university).  The reality is that the majority of professors don’t make 6-figure salaries.  Those who do are often at the top of their fields and are bringing in money to the university as well through prestige and grant money.  For example, the highest paid professor in my department (which has a great reputation in my discipline) makes ~$160K.  Not quite Harvard, but it’s nothing to sniff at – and she is one of the most esteemed experts in her field, is asked to speak all over the country at conferences, and has achieved the highest title of distinguished professor.  Oh, and she has brought in over $15million in grant money to the university.  So I guess that salary is probably justified in a lot of ways.  The argument about tax-payer money being “wasted” on professors holds less water as states continue to cut or freeze funds going to public universities (in a lot of cases less than 25% of university money comes from state funds).  (PS. The idea that 62K is enough to live in the lap of luxury in those “cozy little college towns” is silly.  Sure there is nothing wrong with that salary, but are we pretending that colleges no longer exist in big cities or along the coasts where the cost of living is not that of a “cozy college town”?!)

In the end, I’m not trying to make a case that professors are the most stressed occupation.  I’m also not saying that every professor is exemplary (aren’t there probably at least a few bad apples in any field or profession…).  Indeed, many professors – despite the stresses that do come with the job – report high levels of satisfaction.  Many do find their teaching and research to be interesting, challenging, and rewarding.  And there is a certain degree of autonomy and flexibility that also give this occupation an edge over others.

But the blatant disregard and caricature of what it is that professors do is laughable.  Actually, it’s not funny at all – it seeks to trivialize demonize an entire occupation in ways that are unfair and categorically untrue.  If the argument was simply that they may have more autonomy than other professions, or that they report higher levels of job satisfaction – then I could understand that.  But to paint a picture of the stress-free, perpetually vacationing professor who only has to show up to class a couple of times a week only a few months of the year without a care in the world – all while raking in the big bucks – is wrong and dishonest.  And I doubt that this sort of surface-level research or reporting would receive much higher than a passing grade from many professors.


Here are a few other responses**** from others who had feelings on this:

*It is worth noting that Susan Adams – the columnist at Forbes who originally posted the article – posted an addendum to the original article shortly after it was published.  She stated that she was overwhelmed with comments that detailed many of the stresses and demands of professors of which she was unaware.  But she didn’t go quite so far as to apologize or retract the article, stating that she was merely reporting a study done by careercast. 

**It’s worth noting is that there is no “university professor”.  There is a huge range of university professors from those who work at large public universities, small liberal arts, private colleges, or even community college to name a few.  The duties and obligations (as well as salaries) vary greatly, but almost none align with the caricature narrative put forth in the article by Forbes.

***I also take great issue with the narrative description of what librarians do.  Again, extremely sloppy journalism where it appears that someone watched a movie from 15 years ago that had a librarian in it and then wrote down that description.  This person has obviously not been in a public library or talked to a librarian anytime recently. 

****There were many, many responses to this article (some in support of the article), but I just happened to list a few here.  The comments section on the actual Forbes article are also quite informative and perhaps more articulate than this post by me.


Posted by on January 7, 2013 in sociology


Tags: , , , , ,

8 responses to “The “stress-free” professor

  1. Buddy

    January 7, 2013 at 5:00 PM

    I have never seen Mike so passionate except when Techno music is playing. Anyways, I do think most rankings from websites are arbitrary, especially this one. I mean DePauw is ranked higher than IU in partying, which is like saying Utah drinks more than New Orleans.
    Anyways, I read a lot of the reader’s comments from the article and noticed that many reader’s aren’t particularly fond of professors.
    I believe this stems mostly from blaming profs for the increases in tuition and the fact that a lot of big time research professors can’t teach. The latter is my opinion from my time at IU, where the research profs have been the worst educators. People get pissed that they are paying so much and only think the prof is working for those 3-4 hours of lectures. They never see the grading or research work. In reality, the reason people are paying so much is because of increase in the admin budget. It is similiar to hating doctors in healthcare. Your insurance increases and you blame the doctor who is providing the service. Not acknowledging that insurance reimburses only 40% of the exam fee and all the admin fees on top of that. I am so stressed out from writing this hah.


  2. trokspot

    January 7, 2013 at 5:22 PM

    I think that you’re right and that was part of the point that I was hoping to get across. A lot of the anger or resentment towards profs is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what they do.

    People blame them for rising tuition – as you point out – but that is mostly due to more deans, vice deans, oversight committees, and admin than prof salaries. Many profs – especially recently – have seen salary freezes.

    I’ve also seen people blame profs for the high cost of textbooks. That is an entirely different industry (though a touch related, since lots of profs author books), but it’s largely the publishers who want to come out with new editions every other year (with only a few edits) so that people have to buy them and they can’t get them used from someone other than the publisher.

    Your example seems like a pretty decent analogy.


    • Jeff

      January 8, 2013 at 9:36 AM

      Let’s not forget that tuition increases because of cuts in funding from the state. That’s why Penn State and Pitt are #1 & #2 for public tuition in the nation. Neither here nor there, but I thought it should be said.
      Look, I’m trying to be a Professor for a lot of the reasons cited in this article. Most of which are a pipe dream. I’m going to plug away, trying to get published, writing a book so I can get tenure, and research most summers. In my spare time, I imagine I’ll be applying for grants so that I can do the aforementioned tasks. I’ll also put in requests for classes I’d like to teach only to have the registrar or dean make the final decision on what I teach. I’m not going to beat a dead horse, but I agree with the backlash against this article. I’m going to use it in my Social Research Methods course this semester.
      Elijah Anderson, one of the most famous sociologists and a distinguished chair at a little school called Yale, gave me some perspective on this. He told me that “making it” in academia is an incredibly difficult task. He faced racism (why he teaches at Yale and no longer at UPenn), plagiarism of his work, and a research schedule that never ended. But, he added, “becoming a tenured Professor is probably the best job in the world.”
      I don’t think he was saying “easiest” or “stress-free” but, at a breakfast with students trying to be urban ethnographers like himself, he was saying that it is all worth it.


      • trokspot

        January 8, 2013 at 4:13 PM

        Exactly. I think I mentioned state cuts, but it’s worth noting again. And again.

        I love the idea of using this in a methods course. It shows that just running some numbers and putting in variables from afar (i.e. with little knowledge of what is actually going on) will lead to poor results that are dead wrong in a lot of ways.

        PS. Cool that you got to meet Elijah Anderson!


  3. Al

    January 7, 2013 at 5:47 PM

    Being retired and collecting holiday/Annie checks while vacationing 100 days of the year is very stressful. Have you guys every been to an airport or Disney World when it is busy? Talk about stressful!


    • trokspot

      January 7, 2013 at 7:01 PM

      haha. Ol’ Vacay Al. I’m going to retire as well so that I can come join you in the lap of luxury down in Florida!



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