Monday, January 13, 2014

University Professor is one of the least stressful jobs in America?

When I was a graduate student, there were several professors in adjacent labs who had a profound impact on me. One of them was brilliant at developing new techniques to answer fundamental questions. Unfortunately, the time and effort required to stay at the top of his field took a toll on his marriage and his wife left him ... with the children.

Another professor made important contributions to his field because he was able to look at things from a different perspective. He taught me to be skeptical of "prevailing dogma." Fifteen years later he committed suicide by jumping off the roof of his lab.

Time and have compiled a list of the ten least stressful jobs in America [The 10 Least Stressful Jobs in America]. The subtitle says, "If your job requires frequent travel and strict deadlines it won't make the cut."
Job site CareerCast published a list of the least stressful jobs yesterday based on measurements of 11 specific factors across 200 occupations. The factors it considered are whether the job requires travel (the more travel, the higher the stress), growth potential (dead-end jobs tend to create more stress), strict deadlines, working in the public eye, competitiveness within the organization, physical demands, environmental conditions, putting your life at risk, hazards encountered, meeting the public, and having someone else’s life in your hands.
University Professor is #4 on the list.

Most of my colleagues are working 60 hours a week and most of them are preparing grants for the next "strict deadline." Their careers could be over if they can't get funding for their lab. If you don't think they are stressed, then I invite you to visit your local university and see for yourself. It's too bad that the people at didn't bother to do the research. It doesn't inspire confidence in their business.

Professors have become adept at finding the cheapest flights to conferences and meetings. Many of them have to balance their time away from home with their responsibilities as parents. But travel is an essential part of a Professor's job.

Some of my colleagues are skipping dinner with their families in order to finish reading the thesis for this week's Ph.D. oral. That's a deadline that can't be avoided and they have a responsibility to the student. We are very used to having the future lives and careers of students depend on us. We're used to it but that doesn't make it any less stressful.

Speaking of stress, I wonder how many people at Time magazine have ever taught a large class of undergraduates? "Working in the public eye" seems to be part of a Professor's job and I can guarantee you that it's stressful—especially after the mid-term grades have been posted. (There are times when it seems like you are "putting your life at risk" but I don't want to compare this with firefighters and police officers who are really putting their lives at risk.) Speaking of strict deadlines ... I have a lecture tomorrow so I shouldn't be wasting time on this blog. It's going to get a lot worse next month when I have a pile of essays to grade and get back to the students in a timely manner.

Oh, I almost forgot. Two of my colleagues are up for tenure this semester. If you don't get tenure, you will be fired and the prospects of getting another job are slim. No stress there, right?

In fairness, specified "University Professor (tenured)" as the job that made the list. Here's what they say ...
The long road to becoming a tenured university professor is certainly challenging, too. For those who achieve tenured status, however, the rewards include job stability—a huge plus in a turbulent economy—and lucrative prospects. The College and University Professional Association for Human Resources reports that in the 2012-13 school year, tenured professors earned on average from $82,363 for Baccalaureate programs to $115,579 annually at research institutions and many professors receive top benefits such as tuition reimbursement for family members.

But the greater reward is sharing knowledge with their students.

Ultimately, a job’s reward trumps all other factors, including stress.
It's true that tenured University Professors have a great deal of job security as long as they continue to perform adequately. It's also true that professors earn higher than average salaries. It goes without saying that for most good paying jobs there are costs and benefits and the benefits must outweigh the costs or else nobody would do the job. (Duh!)

I love my job. So do most tenured professors. That does not mean that the job is one of the least stressful jobs in America. It means that the "job's reward trumps all other factors, including stress." I dare say that most people would not be able to handle the stress experienced by my younger, tenured, colleagues. You don't get to be a professor if you can't handle stress.

I don't want to exaggerate the stress and difficulty of being a University Professor but I do want to attack the common idea that it's a cushy high-paying job that almost anyone could handle if they were lucky enough to get hired.


  1. Being a college professor in Canada can be stressful, but I love it. It's the best job I ever had. However, when professors decisions are questioned by the administration, that's when the job gets really stressful.

    See Toronto Star article:

    1. A number of blogs over at Freethoughtblogs have commented on this. I must say that my reaction would have been to invite the student to take his business elsewhere. But then I have a low tolerance for fools.

  2. She left him with the children, or she left him with the children? Based on your emphasis I'm guessing it's the latter.

  3. I think when people think "being a professor" is non-stressful, they are thinking of a very specific type of professor -- tenured, in a small teaching only college/university with no need for writing grant proposals, and teaching a subject like poetry or Greek classics where the course doesn't really need to updated (or not at least for years/decades at a time).

    1. Of course, courses in poetry or Greek classics need to be updated. If the prof doesn't update his/her course with different readings then the prof's delivery gets stale and the students get bored. Even English grammar and introductory reading courses need to be updated every year.

    2. they are thinking of a very specific type of professor -- tenured, in a small teaching only college/university ...

      I agree. That's often the false impression the general public has of university professors. I even know a number of science professors who think that their humanities colleagues have it easy.

      What they don't realize is that those professors are teaching six or seven courses a year with hundreds of students. Not only that, they often have to find summer jobs because they only get nine months salary.

      As a general rule, they are as conscientious about upgrading and updating their courses as the average science professor (which means that some of them don't bother to change some of their lecture material very often, just like many science professors).

    3. There is also the problem with the tenured professor in the humanities going extinct, being replaced by adjuncts. Which practice may eventually transfer to math departments, and then, if funding for actual research is sufficiently decimated at that point, to the sciences too.

    4. What's an adjunct? Is that a full time job?

  4. They're also thinking of that professor living in the 1950-1960s when they weren't constantly having to worry about their department bring eliminated.