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Andrew Alden

Stress and the Professor

By January 4, 2013

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A staff writer for Forbes magazine really stepped in it on Thursday when she passed along a claim, made by CareerCast, that professors have the least stressful job of the 200 occupations they surveyed. Yes, Susan Adams blithely wrote, "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.1 Even when school is in session they don't spend too many hours in the classroom.2 For tenure-track professors, there is some pressure to publish books and articles, but deadlines are few.3 Working conditions tend to be cozy and civilized and there are minimal travel demands, except perhaps a non-mandatory conference or two.4" The response was a flood of articulate, dare I say professorial comments pointing out that (1) there is no time off whatsoever, (2) teaching requires extensive preparation and grading that multiplies classroom time fourfold, (3) pressure to publish papers and win grant funding is relentless and growing, and (4) are you kidding?

Adams admitted that she could have dug deeper, and she posted an addendum. The least the rest of us can do, especially those who share her notions that being a professor of any rank is a cakewalk, is to study those comments. (I think the winner was, "I graded exams in the hospital the day after giving birth to my son.") If you're on Twitter, the hashtag #RealForbesProfessors will get you your fill of sardonic for the day. ("Forbes said what? Oh who cares. Just woke up from bon-bon induced nap, off for massage. Like always.")

If you're a student, the best things you can do are to be an A student, meet your deadlines, practice good email etiquette, and make the best use of your professors' time.

Related: How geologists mesh work and home life


January 4, 2013 at 10:10 pm
(1) R.H. says:

Forbes also mentioned that research techs also had a relatively cushy life too. That’s why some of us work 7 days/week, 12 hour days. As I once explained to my husband, the cells don’t feed themselves even if its a 3 day weekend. Don’t get me started on the “unexpected results”.

January 7, 2013 at 8:43 am
(2) John R. Wright, Ph.D. says:

Susan Adams was born in the clouds of Neptune! During my years as a professor of chemistry I never got quite enough rest. No wonder: I managed to keep research funding going and teach effectively, too, during the whole 31 years. It’s a testimony to my strong constitution, because I’ve actually made it to age 74. It definitely was not an easy career, and since I started life as a framing carpenter I can compare the academic life with hard physical labor. Even in retirement I stay busy (pursuing amateur astronomy and building working seismometers, ELF receivers, specialized gear for astrophotography, etc.). During the ’60s, when I was at Washington University in St. Louis, a very dedicated Professor of Biology named Barbara Pickard was nervously glancing at her watch as she worked. She was pregnant and obviously at full term. She said “I think I’ll go to Barnes Hospital and have myself induced. I should be able to get back to this work by Monday.” I was in the room near her when she said it. This tall, sweet lady that we all loved then headed out for the hospital, and sure enough, she was back at work as planned. I visited the lab a couple of years ago, and she was still there, working. The academic life is easy only in the sense that we love what we do, but otherwise, it is demanding nearly all of the time.

January 7, 2013 at 9:15 am
(3) christie says:

Thanks for covering this Andrew. We have a PR problem! It’s an unusual job in that our time is very unstructured – others take that as leisure time but it’s very busy, and it’s part of the challenge to create the structure ourselves.

January 7, 2013 at 12:08 pm
(4) Donald Wolberg says:

There is silliness that is harmless and silliness that misrepresents; this is certainly an example of the latter. In today’s climate of reduced budgets and competitive funding, I know precious few faculty at any rank with much if any idle time, no matter what speciality. Te views shown speak more for the decline in journalism rather than accurately portray the academic climate.

January 7, 2013 at 2:16 pm
(5) Kathy G says:

Thanks, Andrew for this article. I was never a professor, but as a good grad teaching assistant, and later a research assistant, I realized it was not the profession for me. Scientists are ALWAYS reading in their non-teaching and non-research hours. Granted, they have grad assistants to help with lectures, labs, and other preparatory work. In time I preferred a standard 7-4 job as a government scientist. (The “professors’ i worked with were very low-key and hated being called “Doctor”). We were equals within our world and learned much from one another. I worked with Biologists and Geologists primarily.

January 7, 2013 at 9:15 pm
(6) Katie says:

I have a tough time dealing with friends and a significant other who don’t realize that this job never ends. I work weekends and holiday periods either grading or prepping or both. Setting up the websites is a trial all its own. I’m an adjunct and this is definitely a “part-time” full-time job. Thanks, Forbes, for making my life just that much more unappreciated.

January 9, 2013 at 10:17 am
(7) D. H. Langenfeld says:

Prof’s work their posteriors off all the time, however if they are lucky, single, and have tenure, then they can date people ten years younger than they are! That’s about it Forbes fans, all of it, sorry.

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