The Least Stressful Job of 2013: University Professor

by on 2013-01-04 in Duck- 24 Comments

Daffy_duckThat’s what Forbes claims in an article that’s generating much mirth in academic social-media circles.

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’s list of the least stressful jobs of 2013.

Unlike many of my friends, I think this is basically right.

Well, okay, the last part about how adding adjunct jobs is a boon for the profession is ridiculous. And for many of us, summer is the peak work season. The pre-tenure period is also pretty rough. [Clarification: really, pretty much everything involved in the substantive description of professorial life is wrong.]

Putting that aside, my time as an opinion-research consultant in New York and a grunt in the Department of Defense convince me that the underlying rationale at work here is correct:

According to Tony Lee, CareerCast’s publisher, the least stressful jobs have one thing in common: autonomy. “These jobs tend not to have someone standing over their shoulder putting pressure on them to get things done,” he says. University professors answer to themselves, he points out.

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, including:

  • Getting rejected over and over again, whether for fellowships, grants, or articles;
  • The lack of clear work-life boundaries in conjunction with the “there’s always more work you can do” problem; and
  • Comparatively low pay for level of education.

So why do many academics experience what they take to be high levels of stress? The first two factors explain a lot. Moreover, because academic life is a vocation, failures and setbacks have existential implications–much as they do, of course, for anyone who defines their “value” through their work. But I think another factor might be in play: because academia requires self-motivation and self-regulation, it attracts and retains people who generate a lot of eustress and distress. My guess is that those traits positively correlate with scholarly success.


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  • PTJ

    Yes, the life of an elite professor at an elite private institution can be pretty sweet. But most of us don’t teach there. Instead, we strive to exercise our vocations under sometimes bewildering conditions in which it’s often difficult to tell whether we’re getting anywhere or are just stuck spinning our wheels. That’s a whole different kind of stress, and the article fails to take that into account — which is just what one would expect from a more or less purely economic or economistic analysis of work.

  • Dan Nexon

    The situation you describe is pretty much the norm in many other lines of work, but without the other factors that reduce stress.

  • Sherrill Stroschein

    This is unfortunately a view of what academia has been, and what it is in a select few places, such as top-level R1s and liberal arts colleges in the US. At state-controlled institutions such as the one where I used to teach in Ohio, and in the UK where I now teach, this is no longer the case.

    There is a lot of micro-management at state-overseen institutions that has increased dramatically over the past few years. This stems from a few causes.

    1. Distrust of “lazy” academics funded by the state, a view that is fed by articles such as the Forbes article. Look for this to be cited often in increased micromanagement techniques coming your way. In Ohio, state legislators resented universities and repeatedly cut resources for teaching and research while increasing resources for administrative oversight of “lazy” academic staff.

    2. Promotion procedures for administrative staff in top positions, including department heads. In the UK, managers and other staff are promoted by claiming they put through X change, and the next year they must claim putting through Y change to get ahead again. By the time they are claiming Z change as well, their staff are overburdened with extra forms and procedures for change X, Y, and Z. This work is only added; nothing is ever subtracted.

    3. We don’t fight back. Exhausted and demoralized by it all, we give in and keep our heads down. Battles must be chosen by importance, since there are so many. So fighting to keep tenure? Yeah, that was one we did last year and we managed to keep it at my university last year, barely. The move to remove tenure was an upper administration attack on “lazy” professors. And they hadn’t even read Forbes. Other battles, such as whether students should be allowed to continue to choose their own paper topics, are a grey area. (Yes, some enterprising upward climber decided that his/her reform of choice was to standardize all student assignments.) We have lost the battle about reasonable procedures to submit and grade papers, as evidenced by a single-spaced 13-page document outlining the rules we are to use for grading. Oh, and it changes every year (somebody’s reform of course), and deviation from the rules brings punishment.

    4. Something has to explain the explosion of administrative positions at all levels. The best thing I can come up with coming from a comparative politics perspective is a form of patronage. But there are also increasing joint deals with corporations and “friendly” states (Google LSE and Libya, but there are plenty of other examples). People are hired to make money for the university via these channels, and teaching and research are diminished as a result.

    I now work for a profit-oriented entity that is expected to bring in increasing student tuition revenues in spite of ever-increasing red tape. My workload is about double what it was when I started in 2005. Dear friends in the US, I envy you some days, but you should know that something similar is going on at state institutions within your borders. Coming your way soon, with articles like this one from Forbes paving the way.

  • Dan Nexon

    I’m glad you raised the situation in the UK here. I wonder at what threshold these factors begin to make academia one of the more stressful white-collar jobs.

  • Sherrill Stroschein

    Polls of academic staff in the UK show it to be a highly stressful profession.

  • Daniel Levine

    So, two comments here. One is a straight labor-work-action distinction, courtesy of Hannah A. The Forbes article makes a kind of basic ‘category mistake’ between academic work and most forms of private sector labor. So there’s a way in which my labors seem Herculean to me and absurd to non-academics in my age cohort because these forms of production are very different (even if Sherill is also right that this may be changing). Symptom of this: the odd imbalance between our cultural capital and our actual capital — to be a pathbreaking intellectual adventurer with patched pants, so to speak…like ‘bloom county’s’ caricature of Carl Sagan.

    In that vein, there’s a way in which the stress of my job — because it’s largely self imposed — is quite constantly present but also quite different from the stress of jobs that work on ‘industrial time’. So it’s not suprising that these sorts of articles emerge. People simply don’t get what we do. We need to tell them.

    Some bad news, there, though. There’s a second aspect to this ‘arendtian’ reading, which is gonna be harder to explain. That is — the explanation will be hard to follow through upon. Even assuming the profession works as it should — and it frequently doesn’t — ours is not a profession that’s egalitarian. I do have a fair amount of freedom in terms of deadlines. I earned it through ten years of indentured servitude as a grad student, then two years as a post, and then another seven years as an assistant (assuming I get renewed next month and eventually get tenure…).

    That is: I — just like most of us — sustained a project over many years, learning languages, research methods, scholarly standards. We ‘earned’ it, while our friends chose to earn other things, experience other joys, make other sacrifices. How to say that without being like the snarkey vegan at the dinner party, who says that ‘yes _sure_, I used to eat meat too, but my sense of inner calling wouldn’t let me carry on…”

    Viz., a semi-fictional conversation with a relative: “I had a ‘real’ job and I felt like a public-policy version of dilbert. I left because I wanted to follow my own star, and I earned the privilege with hard work…” But of course relative X works hard too…

  • Daniel Levine

    Oh, and just to be extra-extra clear. All that assumes a living wage, tenure…things which are becoming rarer.

  • prof’s spouse

    As the spouse of a professor with a stressful job of my own, I would just say it is different stress. Professors underestimate how stressful it is to have other people control your work load and schedule, and how much personal success in an office jobs is *directly* affected by the work of colleagues. Non-professors underestimate how stressful it is to be existentially connected to the meaning and acceptance of one’s work or the intensity of departmental politics. Anyone in one career track who asserts that the other track is summarily ‘less stressful’ is just lame.

  • Jarrod Hayes

    “Instead, we strive to exercise our vocations under sometimes bewildering conditions in which it’s often difficult to tell whether we’re getting anywhere or are just stuck spinning our wheels”.

    Love this point

  • Jon Western

    I have worked in government (quite a while ago) and for the past thirteen years at elite liberal arts colleges. My sense is that it’s hard to measure stress across professions because they are a different. When I worked at the State Department producing daily current intelligence reports on conflict zones, I routinely had a boss standing over my shoulder, grabbing my documents from the printer, and racing down the hall to brief the principals. That was a bit stressful. And, don’t get me started on the whole bureaucracy thing…

    In academia, there are deeper structural stresses and anxieties associated with reappointment, tenure, and promotion — they may not be as acute on a daily basis but they do linger. Compensation does tend to be lower in academia than other professional positions (government/private sector with post-graduate education) and as Sherrill notes working in resource constrained environments that are always under assault from external political and societal forces clearly affects morale and raises stress. We don’t have always have daily or weekly deadlines on publishing, but we certainly do on teaching and advising. And, as one moves more into the administrative side of things (whether in the administration or in faculty governance), the profession does take a decidedly more stressful and time-consuming turn.

    Overall though, I do find life in academia more professionally and personally satisfying than working in government and elsewhere — I generally like what I do and what I produce. Even with the associated stresses, I’ll stick to it.

  • Jarrod Hayes

    I think the rejection aspect of academia imposes personality distorting levels of stress. Which leads me to an aspect the Forbes article does not account for, which is that so much of our success lies in the hands of people we do not know through a process that is anything but standardized and predictable. Maybe once one has tenure the foibles of the publishing process become less stressful?

  • Stephen Saideman

    One source of stress entirely ignored in all of this: not really being able to control where you live. The academic job market requires one to be flexible, quite flexible, and having to spend much time (six years in my case) in a place where one does not want to live is a serious cause of stress. Also, many jobs are not in “cheap college” towns but cities with expensive housing and such. On the other hand, compared to those going into mines or those who have to worry about their crops or those who have managers directly over their shoulders, we got it easy. But getting there requires a heap of work and stress and sacrifices. We just don’t party in grad school and then land in utopia. Unless utopia has more mud-storms than advertised.

  • Stephen Saideman

    Then again, depends on which survey/listicle you consult:

  • Dan Nexon

    Another note: lots of people are talking about grant deadlines. That’s true, but outside of grant-mill disciplines (e.g., some of the natural sciences) this is still kind of “meh.” Try having multiple short-term deadlines pretty much all the time. That’s what life in the non-academic world is like.

  • Dan Nexon


  • Robert Kelly

    “Not really being able to control where you live.” Excellent point, especially if you’ve put down roots in your grad school town and then suddenly have to move away. I think that is one reason why there are so many lecturers, adjuncts, ABDs who didn’t finish, etc. floating around departments. There are lots of people who can’t just pick up after the PhD and move, and don’t want too either

  • Robert Kelly

    I’m glad the OP references my posts on how you’re always under-read in social science, because, IMO, that all but up-ends the argument that professors have lots of free time and low stress. I don’t buy that all, because I feel like I need to read constantly, and I do.
    Other people may pick up the Economist or TNR to read something interesting, but academics don’t read that way. All that background reading we do on our phones and other devices is a part of our job as information professionals, and I guarantee you that if any properly-trained academic finds something useful for her research while causually reading the Atlantic or whatever, she stop what she’s doing to note it down even if though it’s a hassle. On her phone or laptop, there’s files with article ideas and other bits-and-pieces that record all sorts of little off-hand catches like this.
    Reading is not relaxing or enjoyable in this profession. It’s work, and it’s active.

  • PTJ

    The “advantage” of a line of work in which one is more closely supervised/monitored is the existence of criteria, perhaps stupid criteria, but at any rate external-to-oneself criteria that can provide some measure of feedback. In academic work, the metrics are quite vague and largely nonsensical, which is why tenure hearings can get so contentious: there’s no agreed-upon yardstick to evaluate performance, so we have to re-discuss the rules of the game every time we try to play it. That’s stress of a different kind.

  • Dan Nexon

    How many non-academic bureaucracies have you experienced? Because it seems to me that you vastly overestimate the differences on this count as well.

  • Jeppe Mulich

    This doesn’t seem too different from a lot of non-academic careers, though, especially those in large “faceless” bureaucracies, whether they be public or private.

  • Steven L. Taylor

    And the stress related to where one has to live can be exacerbated greatly if one’s spouse/partner is not a fan of the locale in question.

  • Siddharth Mathur

    academic jobs,Not really being able to control where you live.” Excellent point, especially if you’ve put down roots in your grad school town .

  • Eric Drummond Smith, PhD

    Being a professor can be very easy – if you do a poor job of it. Doing a good job is taxing – teaching a full course load, advising 50 kids, participating in school governance, developing curriculum and properly assessing it and student performance, mentoring relevant academic organizations, holding adequate office hours which are genuine extensions of the teaching process, assigning and grading (with the intent to make the grade a learning experience) in-depth research projects, engaging in community outreach and service using your particular skills and knowledge, and, of course engaging in the original research process, which is to say all the things that non-professors think we don’t do, well, that makes it a bit more stressful.

  • CBD

    There’s a saying among airline pilots which goes something like this: ‘I get to fly for free; it’s dealing with all the stuff going on around that I’m paid for’. Well, I get to teach and read my subject for free…