The Stresses of Academia?

Recently, CNBC put out a report on the ‘least stressful jobs’ (found here http://www.cnbc.com/id/100349332).  Number one on the list – University Professor.  Since then, my Facebook and Twitter accounts have exploded with comments about this absurdity.  Several referenced the following blog entry:  http://factsandotherfairytales.com/2013/01/04/the-least-stressful-job-for-2013-a-real-look-at-being-a-professor-in-the-us/

This follow-up piece hits on a lot of the key refutations of the CNBC study.  CNBC clearly misunderstands what university faculty do for a living – that research is a huge part of it, that the demands on our time can be overwhelming, and that the work doesn’t stop with the end of the semester.  These points, and many of those raised in the responses from my colleagues, resonate with me.  However, there are a number of points that deserve to be revisited.  Some of this has to do with the number of academics that haven’t spent much time outside of academia.  With that, I’d like to focus on two aspects of the debate that have gone undocumented – one in the CNBC study and one from the rebuttals.

Other aspects of academia that the CNBC study doesn’t grasp include the two biggest stresses in the profession – finding a job and securing tenure.  It’s well documented that there is an overabundance of academics.  Is it because it’s less stressful?   Perhaps, but I’ll get back to this in a moment.  With more doctoral candidates than traditional university professorships, we often end up competing for positions with (literally) hundreds of other candidates for a single spot.  Clearly, there is competition for jobs in many fields, but few have such barriers for relatively low paying entry-level positions.  Similarly, academics are forced to go to the openings.  Fat chance for those desiring to live in specific locations, and for those in a two academic household – good luck with those job searches.  Additionally, the year to year fluctuation on the number of openings in a given research area can vary enormously.  Because of this, we see huge numbers of qualified candidates stuck in adjunct positions, post-docs, or working as barristas.  This is the starving actor model of career development, with a dozen years of university work on top.  Universities continue to take advantage of this through an increasing reliance on low-paying part-timers with no benefits.  But that’s a subject for another column.  Once we find a position, the tenure clock starts ticking.  This is an up or out mentality, similar to that in consultancies, law partnerships, and investment banks.  It’s hard-core, cutthroat, and, yes, stressful.  The issues with tenure are ripe for their own column.

At the same time, the academic response to this perceived insult fails to understand a few things about stress and the job itself.  Once we obtain a tenure-track position, the CNBC study isn’t that far off.  Yes, the time requirements are excessive, and the expectations are high.  And there is a U-shaped curve for education and pay (more education can lead to declining salaries).  But let’s look at the job in more detail.  First, we have more flexibility than the vast majority of jobs.  Going in at 10 or leaving at 4.  Working at home or taking time off for holiday breaks or summers traveling.  Yes, I know that most are working a tremendous amount through these time periods, as well as late into the night and early in the morning.  But guess what…so are most other professions.  We have the ability to work around our personal schedules a lot more than most.  We can travel and work remotely, have the summers to pursue our own independent research, can secure grants to pay for it, are expected to travel for conferences, workshops, and meetings.

Next, let’s talk about “stress”.  Much academic stress is self-imposed.  Reading yet another paper or writing yet another article.  Likewise, the deadlines are often self-imposed.  Part of our challenge is that, as academics, our minds never shut off.  Face it, many in the profession have their own closet neuroses driving them to succeed.  Try to find an academic without a bit of OCD sometime.  But this is self-imposed and personal, aside from the job.

The work is what drives us into the field.  Most of us love what we research.  We read this stuff for fun.  If we work too long, toward crazy self-imposed deadlines, we’re doing it, in part, for the love of what we do.  Let’s contrast this with “stressful” jobs.  I’ve worked driving a lumber truck, on an assembly line in a foundry, as a mechanical engineer, and as a business consultant.  These all had their own stresses.  Businesspeople face the stress of million dollar deals, ticked off clients, and cutthroat competition.  Manual labor faces the day-to-day stress of working their tails off to squeak out a living.  Medical workers clearly have life or death situations by the minute.  And let’s not even discuss dangerous jobs – soldiers, fishers, foresters, and so on.  That’s stress.  Those revisions that I’d hoped to submit this week…not so much.

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