Are Professors Really The Least Stressed?

It is no secret that some jobs are stressful, while others may be less stressful.  So, it makes sense that some who are seeking employment for the first time, or may be looking for a new job, would like to know which careers come with high levels of stress.  Just as the new year started, CareerCast.com, a job listing site, released a list of the top 10 most stressful and top 10 least stressful jobsHere is the list:

The least stressful jobs:

  1. University professor
  2. Seamstress/tailor
  3. Medical records technician
  4. Jeweler
  5. Medical laboratory technician
  6. Audiologist
  7. Dietitian
  8. Hair stylist
  9. Librarian
  10. Drill press operator

The most stressful jobs:

  1. Enlisted military personnel
  2. Military general
  3. Firefighter
  4. Commercial airline pilot
  5. Public relations executive
  6. Senior corporate executive
  7. Photojournalist
  8. Newspaper reporter
  9. Taxi driver
  10. Police officer

How Is Stress Measured?

CareerCast ranked 200 careers listed on its site on 11 indicators of “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

So, even considering travel, deadlines, competitiveness, and other indicators of stress, professors rank among the least stressed?

Professors Are The Least Stressed?

Wait… professors are the least stressed among the employed?  Yep, according to ABC news, “Looking for a low-stress job? Being a full-time university professor is the least stressful career for 2013 … It’s the first time that career has won the title of least stressful in the site’s 20-year history of assessing jobs.”  A writer at Forbes further explains the cushy job held by university professors:

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.

Forbes notes that the “least stressed” jobs stand out from all others because of their high level of autonomy, and, of course: “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.”

I cannot imagine a professor, regardless of rank, who would agree.  Dr. Audra Diers, a professor of Organizational Communication and Public Relations at Marist College, wrote extensively about the reality of the 60-hour-plus workweek for most professors.  And, the writer at Forbes received so many letters and comments outraged by the picture she painted of the relaxed professor taking long breaks from work that she amended her article:

***ADDENDUM***

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.

Many of the comments are detailed, with time breakdowns laying out exactly how many hours the writers spend doing their jobs. One commenter, Jonathan Reynolds, sent me an itemized list of tasks he’d performed since Dec. 19 which included writing a 12,600-word book chapter and a 1,000-word book review, peer reviewing a manuscript for an editor, reviewing manuscripts for a professional journal and one for Oxford University Press. He also worked on an annotated bibliography and helped a struggling student. I agree that doesn’t sound like a relaxing schedule.

A commenter named Gwen Schug sent along a link to a well-written piece responding to the study I cited, detailing the hours it takes to do every aspect of a professor’s job, including the three hours preparation required per lecture, the fact that most professors have up to 55 advisees, each of whom requires at least an hour per semester, and grading, which can take a half hour per assignment. The piece also says professors are expected to attend 2-4 conferences a year, and points out that universities rarely pay the full expense.

I appreciate all of the comments and encourage you to read them. My intention here was to relay an intriguing list put together by a career and job listing site, CareerCast, that surveyed data on 200 jobs and drew up a list of professions it deemed least stressful, according to metrics I describe above, which are weighted toward categories like physical demands, environmental conditions and risking one’s life. CareerCast didn’t measure things like hours worked and the stresses that come from trying to get papers published in a competitive environment or writing grants to fund research.

I think there is value in CareerCast’s list, but I also welcome the observation that my characterization of a professor’s duties failed to include the stress brought on by long hours and the pressure to publish scholarly work. Though I happen to know a tenured professor who enjoys several breaks during the year and takes a several-week vacation over the summer, I didn’t set out to report exhaustively on the hours professors work. Unquestionably, the number varies greatly and is often high.

All of that said, to me the most striking thing about the comments I received is the fact that so many professors write that while they find their jobs stressful, they are deeply satisfied and happy in their work. This comment from David Perry is typical: “I love my job. It’s definitely deeply rewarding. But the stresses are intense and the workload never ending.”

Yes, professors do have a high level of autonomy.  But, obviously, the notion of a professor with her feet propped up on her desk for half of the year, and on vacation for the other half, is inaccurate.  Further, it misses the vast diversity of faculty positions: those on the tenure-track and those with tenure; variation across disciplines; liberal arts, regional, research-intensive, and community colleges; and, private versus public institutions.  Even senior tenured professors in the natural sciences at top-tier research universities face high levels of stress to remain active in teaching, publishing, obtaining grants, and serving on committees for the department, college, and discipline.

I would add to the outrage that these 11 indicators of stress are poor measures of job-related stress — or, at a minimum, are limited.  One major limitation is the skewedness toward physical demands.  Still, in having to frequently move around campus, at least teaching in a different location than one’s office, professors face greater demands than many careers that keep employees in one location for the entire day.    These 11 indicators miss aspects of careers that are mentally, emotionally, and socially stressful.  Arguably, the most rewarding, yet most stressful aspect of being a professor is the lack of routine.  There is a constant expectation for improvement and, for research, creating something entirely new — not just for oneself, but that no other researcher has produced.  One’s livelihood, whether a promotion to full professor, or obtaining tenure so that one can keep one’s job, is literally on the line, easily becoming a stressor that keeps one up at night or even putting one at risk for mental health problems.

Who Cares?

So, CareerCast offered a pseudo-scientific (at best) survey of careers.  The results have been picked up by various news outlets, but will likely become yesterday’s news by next week.  But, I sympathize with the many current, former, and future professors who are outraged by the assertion that faculty positions are the least stressful job in the nation.  What is at stake is the reputation of institutions of higher learning, and their funding.  Over the years, colleges have been receiving less and less financial support from the government, thus forcing colleges to increase the price tag for a college education and make sweeping budget cuts.  With so many who have attended college carrying debt and student loans, even years after graduation and securing a job, many Americans are left wondering whether college is even a wise investment.

The fear, then, is portraying college professors as well-paid teachers who are rewarded with long breaks threatens the sense that colleges need to be funded by tax-payers’ dollars.  Further, it leaves particular professors, especially their research and the courses they teach, open for witch hunts thinly veiled as concerns about government spending.  This, of course, is one of the very reasons why tenure exists — to protect professors from being fired because of the content of their scholarship.  Today, what is necessary to obtain tenure has ballooned, largely or even exclusively in terms of research expectations, into what many call the pressure to “publish or perish.”  Now, that’s stressful.

UPDATE (1/5/12, 4PM): Beyond a critique of the survey of stressful jobs, the articles written about the survey, especially that at Forbes, also warrant critique for so uncritically regurgitating its findings.  They, too, further contribute to the mystery surrounding what professors actually do.