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....
The other thing most of the least stressful jobs have in common: 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.
Let's take a brief pause here so the academics in the crowd can recover from either A) throwing things at their computer screen; or B) melting to the floor in puddles of uncontrollable semi-hysterical laughter.
Now let's immediately concede that Adams -- as she later admitted as much in an update to the post -- knows next to nothing about the life of an academic. Almost every specific claim in the quoted paragraphs above about the life of a professor is either wildly inaccurate or radically incomplete. For some pointed rejoinders, see here and here and here. Also check out the #RealForbesProfessors hashtag on Twitter. Indeed, this whole kerfuffle mirrors this old Marketplace exchange that I had with my Fancy-Pants Brother Who Used to be an Investment Banker/Hedge Fund Manager. What's annoying about the Forbes column is the clear lack of understanding that
outworlders civilians people who are not academics possess about our profession.
Now, that said, and despite Adams having very little clue about the nature of my job, could it be that Careercast is onto something? Even if it's wrong about every little thing, is it wrong about the big thing? Dan Nexon points out the following:
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.
These are not small positives, and I, for one, revel in them every day of my professional career. Furthermore, whenever this kind of debate comes up, I always recall my brother's look of bemusement at a Thanksgiving dinner when a colleague was bitching and moaning about staying up late to finish a paper. This was something he had to do on a semi-regular basis when he was working on Wall Street.
So, let's do some realkeeping here and conclude with the following true statements:
1) Adjunct professors who earn their primary means of income through teaching win the stress game easily, and are excluded from the points I make below.
2) Compared to most professions that pay a comparable or greater salary, tenured and tenure-track academics possess far greater levels of autonomy and flexibility of hours. Not less overall work, mind you, but more ability to determine when in the day that work has to be done;
3) There's a lot of useful sorting that takes place among jobs. Activities that academics often find stressful -- like, you know, talking to other people -- are often viewed as less stressful by those people who do it more often. On the other hand, things we like to do -- like, you know, writing down stuff that we think about -- others can find to be incredibly stressful.
4) The shifting nature of the academic job market means that there are HUGE amount of stress at key moments in an academic career. If those moments go badly, well, there can be a fair amount of stress.
5) There's something vaguely comic about everyone trying to brag about how stressful their job is. Personally, I blame television. Shows like ER, The West Wing, and Scandal have glamorized the notion that killer jobs are friggin' awesome and super-sexy. You know what's really awesome? Doing your job so well that you can relax on a regular basis.
Am I missing anything? Seriously, I probably am missing something, so feel free to mention it in the comments.
To commemorate the fifth-year anniversary of being denied tenure, the Official Blog Wife and I have joint essays in the Chronicle of Higher Education today on the aftereffects of that decision. For most people who are denied tenure, the costs are financial, familial and emotional. In my own idiosyncratic case, I was fortunate enough to be spared the first two of the three, which allowed this to be a "controlled case" focusing solely on the emotional legacy.
My big takeaway:
To be blunt, my wife's essay is much better than mine, and is chock-full of embarrassing anecdotes like this one:
Erika Drezner is a social worker and coordinator of teen services at the Asperger’s Association of New England. She has learned over time that when arguing with Dan she is right all of the time."
Among the most popular New York Times articles of the past 24 hours (not to mention my Twitter feed) is this Christopher Shea essay about tenure. Shea reviews two recent books by university professors who are so bold as to suggest abolishing the institution.
After reading the essay, however, I must conclude that the reason it's so popular is that the only people who read the New York Times on Labor Day weekend are academics and their relatives.
Here's the part where Shea lost me -- the opening paragraphs:
In tough economic times, it’s easy to gin up anger against elites. The bashing of bankers is already so robust that the economist William Easterly has compared it, with perhaps a touch of hyperbole, to genocidal racism. But in recent months, a more unlikely privileged group has found itself in the cross hairs: tenured professors.
At a time when nearly one in 10 American workers is unemployed, here’s a crew (the complaint goes) who are guaranteed jobs for life, teach only a few hours a week, routinely get entire years off, dump grading duties onto graduate students and produce “research” on subjects like “Rednecks, Queers and Country Music” or “The Whatness of Books.” Or maybe they stop doing research altogether (who’s going to stop them?), dropping their workweek to a manageable dozen hours or so, all while making $100,000 or more a year. Ready to grab that pitchfork yet?
That sketch — relayed on numerous blogs and op-ed pages — is exaggerated, but no one who has observed the academic world could call it entirely false. And it’s a vision that has caught on with an American public worried about how to foot the bill for it all (emphasis added)
OK, here's my question: where is the evidence for this public ire? Compared to bankers, politicians, or American Muslims, where exactly is the outpouring of outrage against tenured radicals?
I'll tell you where the evidence ain't -- Shea's essay. His review of the two books is perfectly adequate, but there is zero evidence beyond that stray reference to "numerous blogs and op-ed pages." One of those op-eds, of course, was by one of the book authors he reviews, however, so I don't think it could count.
As a tenured professor who's recent scholarly output could be accused of trending towards the whimsical, I should be a Big Target for this kind of attack. I ain't seeing it, however. Maybe this is because I'm ridiculously out of touch, but compared with the other groups listed above, academics have not faced much public scorn.
Indeed, if anything, the past few years should have been an "easy test" for hostility towards tenure, as hard times should have triggered a massive outpouring of support for this kind of higher education reform. Again, however, I see no evidence for such a groundswell.
I'm going to file this under Jack Shafer's "Bogus Trends" watch and enjoy the rest of my Labor Day. I suggest you do the same.
Wisconsin is part of the state’s university’s system, for example, but it receives only 18 percent of its total budget from the Legislature. The rest comes from donations, foundations, federal research grants and corporations. Mr. Wright and Mr. Olneck worry how constantly having a hand out — particularly to corporations — may affect attitudes and policies. Mr. Olneck mentioned the long list of labs and classrooms named after companies like Halliburton, Pillsbury and Ford Motor Company.I understand the concern, but Mr. Wright and Mr. Olneck know that foundations like MacArthur or Koch have their own ideological agendas, right?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.