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?


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

    • Hi there,

      Thanks for the shout out from the Houston area — sorry to have been slow in responding, but I’ve been a bit hectic. I’m glad that you liked the blog.



  1. Professors really only work 25% of an average person at a 40 hour a week job. Remember, assignments and tests can be graded at home while comfortable watching television etc. I know professors, and they have not idea what reality is like. This individual is full time and works 10 hours a week plus 2-3 hours grading a week.

    I teach as well, one class per semester, and my prep is minimal after teaching the same course once (even with some modifications). So, it is the least stressful job on the planet other then not working and being independently wealthy. The issue is, you are writing this article from that perspective, and therefore are not attached to real world positions.

    Professors are evaluated once per semester (and sometimes not at all once have tenure). In most real jobs employees are evaluated every second they work, and even when they are off (weekend, vacation, sick). Also, most in academia don’t even know what real work is as many have never worked outside of academia (BA/MA/Ph.D./right into a college position or adjunct followed by full time someplace).

    If you want to see what real work is like, come on take mine. I have it easy as a government worker, but it’s far harder then academia by any fetch of the imagination. Note, you should not try it, most academics don’t do well in the real world, as even their writing does not work in the business environment (example learning how to do a resume in business English class that was totally not what the real world looks for).

    One final point, most jobs technically don’t require a college degree. Most things can be learned on the spot. In fact, when I finished my B.A. and worked for a Congressman, nothing learned in political science was rrelevant in the actual office. Writing a business memo was completely different then what our English department taught. After my M.A., again, had to learn how to apply it. Almost everything I do could be done with a high school diploma (except teaching a few college courses per year). It’s why the higher education system is about to go bankrupt, because they basically force students into college by thinking you require it – which has devalued a college degree as supply exceeds demand. Even a Masters is devalued now in the real world.

    You can shred me apart now, but most business leaders would disagree with your assessment, especially if they shadowed you for a few weeks.


    • Hi John,

      Thanks for the post, but I would definitely invite you to be careful in not conflating your experience in teaching a single class as an adjunct for some spare cash to the responsibilities and needs of being a full-time faculty member. I would also invite you not to make assumptions about any other person’s understanding of “the real world” :).

      Let’s step aside from what I would argue are characterizations of teaching as a side hobby/interest versus as a profession where folks catching one class here and there may or may not take it terribly seriously. Even with that, a big part of your argument comes in the physical location of where we do our work — certainly, there are advantages to not being in an office (personally, I do like grading with music and in my PJ’s … and sometimes a beer depending on how bad the papers are 😉 ), but it’s still working. Having had office jobs where you HAVE to be there for the 8 hours are different, but no harder. In fact, the amount of time that people waste while at work is pretty astounding, so the physical location of work might make us happier or more annoyed it doesn’t mean that there’s less work going on.

      The 10 hours of class time assumes a 3 class load, which is fine — so that’s our required contact time. And some weeks we don’t have any grading and some weeks we have boat loads. But when you average out the number of assignments that “typical” social science/ liberal arts faculty assign and a rough time estimate for grading across the semester, it tends to average out quite a bit higher to more like 15-20 hours a week (again, acknowledging that some weeks we have none in a 16 week semester).

      As far as the prep time required goes — LOL — if that’s negligible, that probably comes across in the presentation of information. And absolutely it goes down with each time we teach the class, but remember, my argument was for new non-tenured faculty who are going to spend their first 2-3 years teaching mostly new classes. And to design and develop the materials takes some time. Now, many adjuncts already have this part of the process taken care of for them as they’re often handed a syllabus, the course materials, and only have to come up with the day-to-day lectures and activities. That’s a very different experience from developing the course materials from the ground up.

      It’s interesting that you equate day-to-day work at non-academic jobs as ‘daily evaluations’. The reality of that is that most organizations have quarterly, semi-annually, or annual reviews that are very much like the academic reviews that you’re talking about. That is quite different from the daily ‘evaluation’ — we also have that. Remember, if something goes wrong in the classroom, students and even other faculty can complain just co-workers or bosses can in a normal organizational environment. In fact, in today’s student culture more students seek out administrators if they don’t like the work loads or their grades in any particular course so there is increasing daily scrutiny in the classroom. Moreover, for full-time faculty members, we also have other obligations outside of the classroom and we’re evaluated on a daily basis by administrators (faculty can be fired for their ‘work’ on committees that’s caused problems or in any number of other work interactions outside of the classroom). So, your understanding of the evaluation process certainly reflects a one-off adjunct faculty member who’s there for a bit of extra cash but quite clearly suggests you don’t actually know what full-time faculty responsibilities are outside of the classroom. And, unfortunately, too many education arm chair quarterbacks have the same understanding that you have of the sum total of the process.

      And I do love the condescending attitude about avoiding the real world because we’re not good at it. Again, assumptions about me or anyone else who lives and works in academia are just as meaningless as saying that all government workers are lazy sponges. In my field, many of us have not only consulted (because we’re subject matter experts) in the real world for organizations ranging from small nonprofits to multinational corporations but it’s increasingly common that we’ve also worked regular jobs at some point in our careers. I have some colleagues who thought they would come to academia for the ‘easy’ retirement positions and those folks tend not to last too long in regular faculty positions because they find they are working harder than they ever did. In fact, I know of two folks from an old institution who have left for industry jobs in the last couple of years because the work load was too high and they wanted to go back to the same type of office job they had.

      Yeah, there’s a world of difference between writing white papers, press releases, executive summaries, reports, and the like compared to academic research publishing. That’s called adapting your writing to the audience. Some people can adapt and some cannot in both directions.

      And on a final note — I agree that too many college curricula are out-of-date and that’s actually something that I know that many universities are working to update and modernize. In my field, for example, in the last 5 years many universities have completely overhauled their curriculum to focus on professional skill development and placing theory in the context of application. But then again, that’s also because we tend to partner with our colleagues in industry, many of us have been in industry, and our particular work is incredibly tied to industry. That’s also why in an increasingly tight world of academic budgets, those programs that offer students coursework that translates into professional skills are getting more majors and certainly a lion’s share of the program development dollars. That’s also what contributes to the challenge of teaching, research, committee work, and student service for full-time faculty members. There isn’t some invisible layer of management that creates these programs, we do it ourselves.

      I do hope you take your teaching responsibilities more seriously than you’ve communicated here because to me, it sounds like you’re phoning it in and not developing a good (and real world) learning experience for your students. If that’s the case — perhaps there would be some better ways and places for you to make extra cash than in education.


  2. Congratulations Career Cast for exposing the UNSTRESSED life of lazy tenured professors. They exist!! One in our neighborhood is too busy staying home and working out in the garden — illustrious, arrogant, lazy PROFESSOR BOZO from the Holy University in Moraga, Ca. The public and neighbors watch daily this arrogant jerk do gardening, landscaping, hardscaping, woodworking, reading , hanging twinkle lights for parties—-anything but educating college students. Probably with 20+ years tenure under his wing he collects a paycheck while parents and students dig deeper into their pockets for hefty tuition at this private University in the rolling land of Contra Costa County. This is complete disgrace to the University who allows this to go on unmonitored! Good job Career Cast. Shame on you—HOLY U in Moraga. His colleagues should be embarrassed and revolt against him. Nice day sleeping in a dark house while others are long off on BART or to real jobs. This is robbery to anyone who pays tuition at SMC. Place a hidden camera on this bozo who’s car and wheels rarely leave the driveway.
    This is the biggest dishonest fraud to the educational system and a huge part of the problem. The public continues to watch this thief get paid for a job he does not do. I guess at a Private Holy University they can do whatever they want?


    • LOL… I appreciate the sarcasm and certainly can appreciate that in academia — like in all professions — there are slackers. And while this particular individual may be all you assume him to be — he may also work at times that you don’t see and he may work partly online (as online teaching is growing — this means we can sit in our pajamas and work 15 hour days if we want… we just don’t have to jump on the BART or any other mass transit system). The unstructured time certainly means that he can go garden for a few hours and then work and then shift to something else. There’s no law that suggests that the proverbial “8 hour day” has to occur all in one chunk. And that is not to suggest that this person doesn’t provide value to his students. The question is — have you actually spoken with him about his life and about his job? If so and it is exactly how you describe, then that’s a fair enough complaint about that particular person. If not, try talking with him instead of just getting frustrated.

      Getting beyond the “n of 1” who may or may not be a good indicator of the life of a tenured professor, your delicious rant still doesn’t address the realities for non-tenured faculty, adjunct faculty, and the majority of folks who live in academia. As the comments from other folks on here suggest, there is no single experience that can summarize what it means to work in an academic setting; however, as the majority of the comments suggest it is hardly the fraud that you suggest.


  3. Unquestionably believe that which you stated. Your favorite reason seemed to
    be on the net the simplest thing to be aware of. I say to you,
    I definitely get irked while people consider worries that they just don’t
    know about. You managed to hit the nail upon
    the top and defined out the whole thing without having side-effects , people
    could take a signal. Will probably be back to get more.



Have an interesting thought? Leave a reply.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s