The Least Stressful Job for 2013? A Real Look at Being a Professor in the US

The brain trust at CNBC just published this little fluff piece about the least stressful jobs for 2013 and of course the least stressful job was being a university professor. Their rationale? There are no physical demands, no deadlines, no environmental condition hazards, we don’t put our lives on the line, nor are we responsible for other peoples’ lives. I will grant that we’re not crab fishing on the Bering Sea nor making command and control decisions on the front lines of a military conflict; however, this feeds the myth that being a professor in the US is like living in a plush ivory tower disconnected from the world — holding class like we’ve all seen in the movies. It’s also easier to dismiss us in a whole lot of different ways when this myth is perpetuated.

Let’s cut through the BS — being a professor in the US for the first 7 years is like being an indentured servant … and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have a ‘good’ tenure track position. There are different experiences in being a professor, but let me give you a bit of a walk through our world. I sincerely hope that some of my friends will also add their experiences onto this.

Beginning the “Life of Luxury”

Many of us in academia don’t come from backgrounds of extreme privilege — what I mean by this is that loads of us finish our Ph.D.’s (which is what you have to have to be a ‘regular’ professor) with between $75,000 and $160,000 in debt — and the debt mountain is enormous for those coming from lower income families. The median salary in this little fluff piece puts what professors make at over $60,000 per year. Silly story.  The reality is that in most disciplines, a freshly minted Ph.D. is going to be making $45,000-$55,000 per year (depending on geographic location and field). So, we start from a place of financial trauma — if we don’t find a permanent job, we’re still going to owe Uncle Sam our pound of flesh.

Why did we do it? I think this is a question most of us ask ourselves… sometimes often. The two realities are #1  that most of us who are professors are there by choice — this isn’t the ‘fall back’ career and #2 we’re typically really smart people**(editing note at the end) (the PhD and doing original research is kind of a baseline test for that :) ). I know, that’s probably not PC to say but it’s true.

Yet, why would we hamstring our lives this way? Well … lots of reasons, but most of us just frankly like the notion of research, teaching, and being a part of the intellectual endeavor. And we’re saps for it. There is a point that we realize we’re idiots for committing ourselves to a life of functional poverty (because seriously, we’re never going to pay off our student loans), but we still tell ourselves it’s worth it and there are good arguments to be made for the financial sacrifice depending on what we want out of life. It’s just that I don’t know that we all really ‘get’ what it’s like before we start. Why? Look at the silly story — most people just don’t understand what being a professor entails on a daily basis.

But I get ahead of the story — we have to find a job. Well, one of the realities since the economic crash of 2008 is that “real” academic jobs are getting harder and harder to come by both because there are too many new Ph.D.’s and because many universities’ endowments, state funding, and/or giving campaigns have been damaged. Not only that, but many at state universities haven’t seen appropriate cost of living raises for the last 4 years. What does this mean in a practical sense? Lots more applicants than jobs. For example, last year when we were interviewing for a position very late in the year we had amazing candidates because they were new grads who couldn’t find jobs — they were losing out to professors just looking to change jobs who were willing to take “entry” level jobs just so they could make the move. That was great for us, but ridiculous in the job search process.

The “Least Stressful” Job

Now, there are disciplines whose student to professor (for advising) ratio is quite low … Departments of English, Philosophy, Math, and the like who ‘make their money’ because they’re essential parts of a liberal arts curriculum and so each year they fill a lot of classes with students who have to take ‘required’ courses. However, if you happen to be in large majors (e.g., my own in Communication is just one of many that are either growing or already very large at most colleges & universities), the student to professor ratio is actually quite high… so let me walk you through the life of the “Assistant” Professor (i.e., the lowest level of the tenure track faculty, not tenured, and could be released just because they don’t like your socks and you don’t have a lot of legal recourse absent documented discrimination… kind of like working in a ‘right to work’ state) by sharing what my life looked like for the last 3 years. I was at a small ‘teaching’ college, but one that is beginning to place more emphasis on building Master’s programs and research. This ‘suited me’ because while I like teaching, I liked the notion of a balance between teaching and research.

Year One. ‘Breaking You In’

In your first year, you might get a course release … so instead of teaching 3 or 4 classes in an academic semester you might teach 2 or 3. This is a matter of negotiation. Doesn’t sound too bad does it? So what does it mean to teach a class? Well, as a brand new professor in a department, you’re probably having to put together your classes for the first time. So, what does the first year look like?

    •  You have to write your syllabus and all of the course materials (e.g., assignment descriptions, etc.). This will typically take 30-60 hours per class before the semester even begins — for the brand new prof, that’s 90-240 work hours (3-6 weeks) of UNPAID work before you even start your job. 
    • Preparing lesson plans for 16-32 class sessions per class that you teach. If you’ve never taught the class, you have to write the lectures, which takes me about 3 hours (and I’m actually pretty fast, but expect a high level of quality out of the lecture and the visuals) per lecture. Multiply that by 3, so you’re talking about 15-20 hours per week spent on class prep (Yes, this post requires simple mathematics… keep in mind I’m a social scientist, so the math won’t be too complex).
    • You have to attend each of your classes — I know this seems obvious, but hell… it adds to the math. So, that’s 10-12 hours per week (ok… if you’re counting we’re already at 25-32 hours per week).
    • You have to have office hours each week, so that the eager young minds can visit you to ask you the questions they probably could find in the lectures, class announcements, or other class documentation anyhow. At my college, we had 8 hours per week of office hours (33-40 hours per week).
    • At most universities, faculty also have advisees — I had 40-55 advisees assigned to me at any given time (including by the end of my first year). While you don’t have regular contact with them, during ‘advising season’ (i.e., the 6 weeks before registration as well as the first week or two of classes) you end up spending 30mins to an hour ‘helping’ each one. So, that adds 25-50 hours over the course of the semester. The semester is about 16 weeks long, so let’s add 1.5-3 hours per week (oh dear, we’re up to 34.5-43 hours per week).
    • In your first year, committee work tends to be pretty light because they’re ‘helping you to land on your feet’ — so you may only be on 1 or 2 committees the whole year, but those will likely add about an hour of responsibility to your time (especially when combined with routine department meetings, etc.) each week (35.5-44 hours per week).
    • It seems like I’m forgetting something… oh wait … grading — the bane of all of our existence. Now, there are disciplines where the ‘challenge’ of grading consists of the time it takes to write multiple/choice tests and run them through a scantron machine (or post the test online). Unfortunately, the social sciences and liberal arts tend not to be those types of disciplines. None-the-less, if you’re teaching 25 students per class x 3 (or 4), if you’re efficient takes about a half hour to grade each person’s short assignment, add in feedback, and enter the grade into the ‘gradebook’. The norm in the US is to have 4-8 assignments per class plus one or two tests. I tended to assign less… so usually about 4 assignments per class and two tests. That adds on roughly an average of 15-19 hours per week more (realize, there are weeks with no grading and weeks with LOADS of grading). So… we’re now at 50.5-63 hours of work each week.
    • Then comes the research — the stuff we tend to do ‘in our spare time’ — you know, like anytime that school isn’t in session. If we ever hope to be tenured and promoted, we need to produce about 2-3 published journal pieces per year (there is variance there by university and publication type, but that gets too silly to try to explain). Right. So, in the 10-16 weeks that we’re not ‘teaching’ each year, we have to collect data, write, revise, send out, etc. — uh huh…. The reality is that we’re working on projects year round and while we may use our ‘unstructured’ times to do a lot of our writing, each journal article is tough to come by. We’re committing no less than a week’s worth of time just to write the damn thing, let alone collecting data, analyzing it, etc. It’s not unreasonable to assume that the total time commitment to a single piece is about a month’s worth of work (assuming a 40 hour work week). That fills all of that “spare time” y’all seem to think we have AND also addresses the misnomer that university professors have no deadlines.
    • Oh yeah — and for those of us who are trying to build a reputation of expertise within our fields, we travel to conferences (2-4 per year usually) to present papers, we review papers for those conferences as well as journals, etc. All of this is ‘unpaid’ but is really expected not only in terms of service to the profession but enables us to get tenured. That’s added on top of our 50-60 hour work week (before research).

Welcome to year one of your stress-free life as an academic. Oh yeah, and that “good” salary of (on average) about $52,000 per year comes out to $17-20 per hour that we’re getting paid BEFORE taxes. Awesome deal, right? I made more bartending in college than I make with my Ph.D.

Year 2. ‘Piling it On’

Right, so remember that in year one, we were already at 32 weeks a year of 50-60 hours per week of work for the awesome pay of about $20/hour gross. In year 2, your department chair or dean (i.e., your boss) talks to you about the importance of contributing to your college and the whole university through ‘service’ if you want to get tenured and promoted… that they would help you ‘manage’ your commitments (they are lying to you at this point), but that it would be ideal if you involved yourself with at least one student organization and got involved on some university-wide and more departmental committees.

You’ve just added about 3-10 hours worth of work each and every week to your regular work load. Now, hopefully by this time, some of the time you have to spend in course prep goes down a little bit, but you’re probably still being asked to teach different classes (often better classes because you’ve now ‘proven’ yourself) and you discovered that there were things about the ways you were teaching your classes that just didn’t work so you’re redesigning the damn things. Ok, the prep work doesn’t change that much in your second year.

It doesn’t sound like much, but if you happen to prove yourself to be ‘competent’ and affable enough on these committees, you start to get asked to work on side projects, you get encouraged to take on more. And before you know it, you’ve added 15-20 hours more work and honestly, you don’t know how it happened, but you can’t say no. Why? Because they can still fire you for any reason… they don’t even have to tell you why they’ve fired you. As a non-tenured faculty member, you live on a year-to-year contract with no repercussions if they choose not to renew your contract. Don’t make any waves!

Years 3-6. Have you lost your mind?

  By year 3, if things have gone well, you play well with others, and you have adjusted well, then things start to get exciting. You will be approached to take on leadership positions; you will be approached to start doing administrative tasks; you will have the opportunity to really make your case for tenure… oh yeah and you’ll probably be going through mid-tenure review. This is the first point that a group of folks in your department really pay attention to you and ask the question, “would we want to keep this person?”. To get ready, you have to prepare your case… this means putting together a portfolio and building a set of arguments for your contributions to your department, the college, and your profession. You’re now regularly working 80 hours per week, so your effective pay rate comes down to somewhere under $15/hour.

Assuming your mid-tenure review goes well (i.e., they don’t put you on a one-year terminal contract), you still have two more years of this before you begin your tenure review process.

Oh… and if you have to move for any reason… you get to basically start all over again. Usually, you can con them out of a little higher starting salary, and maybe a shortened tenure clock, but you’re still starting over again….

Adding Insult to Injury

So, we come back to the CNBC assertion that being a college professor is the ‘least stressful job’. To that, I say kiss my ass! Not nice? Yeah, being nice, playing by the rules, being erudite, and being smart has gotten us to being in a job we may still love (though by now we’ve gotten rid of our rose colored glasses and often have ‘happy hours’ spent drinking and bitching) but being paid insulting money.

And we have to listen to pundits talk about us like we’re idiot-savants who have no idea what the real world is like.

And for those of us whose research directly translates to the real world (e.g., in my case — persuasion, crisis communication, strategic communication), the so-called professionals look down their overpriced noses at us. That means that even if we did want to move back to the ‘real world’ — we have to basically apologize for our PhD, our time spent training them (Where do they think new professionals come from? Are they hatched?), and kiss their asses for handouts. So, basically until we write our book and ‘become’ a pundit or consultant later in our careers we’re stuck because Americans are scared of smart people.

So, while we may like our students, like our research, and like our colleagues (all of which depends on the day). While we may have unstructured time (because we can be productive without ‘clocking in’). And while most of us either chose this career path when we were young and stupidly idealistic and older and looking for a change — I think I can speak for most of us when I say fuck off with your patronizing understanding of what it means to be a professor in the US.

We know we’re not on the battle lines and most of the time we’re not risking death, but guess what if we do a bad job at our jobs… your workforce is screwed. We have to battle against bad parenting, stupid emerging social norms, a primary/ secondary education system that is broken, and try to reach people at the most annoyingly self-absorbed time in their psychological and social development. All while being paid $12-20/ hour in real wages

Oh yeah and CNBC — learn to do some damn research you wankers!

* Just a small addition at the end*

Thanks for the conversation — even if you are just bitching because you think I suck ;) … In particular, thanks to those folks who have shared their experiences (both positive and negative) in academia. Like a lot of conversations that happen in happy hour there are people calling bullshit, people adding their own experiences, people asking for reality checks, and I think it’s productive.

I’ve added some links to some research and information that folks might find useful about student debt, access to good jobs, job satisfaction, and intent to leave academia. I figured some of you might want quick access to additional information. Have more links to relevant points — feel free to let me know, I’ll add them.

Just a reminder — try to think about what/how you would say stuff to people face-to-face. Yes — this is how I talk and would talk to most of you in a social setting. I think everyone would appreciate the same courtesy.

**And since too many people have gotten so damn hung up on the fact that being exceptionally bright (especially in comparison to average folks) is offensive, I tweaked it because I was just annoyed with the whining about it… ffs…. who was planning on the rant going a bit viral?

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377 thoughts on “The Least Stressful Job for 2013? A Real Look at Being a Professor in the US

  1. Thanks for writing this article. I keep wondering why so many people want to become a professor, why these positions are so competitive? I wonder if many realize what they’re getting themselves into…

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