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

  1. CNBC is a markets-oriented network. A large chunk of the people who watch CNBC five days/week are professional traders, quants, bankers, and equity research analysts working for investment banks, hedge funds, and proprietary trading firms.

    I’ve worked as a quant at one of those investment banks. I’ve also done academic research.

    1.) “Industry”, at least when it comes to finance, is filled with psychopaths and sociopaths. One Canadian study put the figure at 1 in 10 for the financial services industry. I suspect that figure is much higher- maybe 1 in 3. Working with psychopaths generally means your job is more stressful.

    2.) It’s “publish or perish” in academia, but it’s “generate PNL or die” in industry. The trader’s job is to generate net trading income. If he doesn’t make money (off of other traders who must therefore lose money), he gets fired. The quant’s job is to give the trader strategies that can actually generate PNL. The academic’s job is to find and publish interesting features in the market.

    3.) So now imagine that you are surrounded by psychopaths, and your job is to somehow make money off of all the dumb psychopaths every day in this eat what you kill world. You are usually only having a good day when the people who do business with you are having a bad day.

    You tell me- does the trader who watches CNBC have a lower stress job than the finance professor? Does the quant?


    • LOL — there’s so much in your comment that is… just awesome at so many levels ;).

      A couple of quick thoughts though. First, based on CNBC’s definition of what causes work stress the trader watching CNBC probably isn’t in a stressful job either since the only thing they have really are deadlines. Based on the evaluation that professors got, traders’ physical demands are negligible, they don’t have environmental condition hazards, they’re not putting their lives on the line, and they’re not actually responsible for peoples’ lives. So apparently, that would fail the CNBC litmus test for job stress as well. 🙂

      Second, as I said in my post — whether or not there is stress in academic life doesn’t contribute to nor take away from stress that folks in other professions may have. My problem with so-called ‘professional’ or ‘industry’ types is the arrogance with which they regard mere academic types.

      Finally — day traders as sociopaths. Cannot tell you how much I love that characterization (and apparent clinical diagnosis) :).

      In the end — my argument isn’t that professors have the most stressful job in the world, merely that we live in a world where not only is there a lot on our plate but also one where we have enormous amounts of education, knowledge, and ability and yet where we are systematically treated as if we’re irrelevant, useless, twits living the life of riley.


      • Your last paragraph states exactly how I feel as an educator and how I am sure all teachers feel in the current climate. Thank you.


  2. “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 ..”

    As a primary teacher I recognize that you wouldn’t have any students if not for primary/ secondary educators. Welcome to the world of teacher bashing. We are working in the same system as you. You have resorted to doing the same thing you protest against. Rather than joining in the bashing, let’s just recognize that unless you actually do the job, you don’t know the job. We have the same detractors, resistors, time in and out of classes, and social norms you deal with. Add parents and absolute poverty to the mix with no educational background for your students. Then try to get them to read and be tested even if they only come to school a few days a week. Here is the kicker, now we are going to be fired or have a pay cut if they can’t pass the test, even when there are so many factors out of our control. Along with recognizing the loss of potential for these young students, in a mess not of their making, we are also subjected to the opinions of the “I know better crowd” because they went to school too, or they listen to the spew from several sources that keep blaming the people that are actually trying to do something about it. I would never presume your job is a walk in the park. Please afford the same respect to fellow educators unless you walk in their shoes for a long while. They do lay the ground work, so you can have that job. You didn’t arrive at that PhD without some help from those primary/secondary teachers. Many of those primary/secondary teachers are as educated as you along with years of experience and research of their own. We need to join in the education of all not pit ourselves against each other. The horrifying alternative will result in these know it all detractors making even more detrimental decisions for learners of all ages.


      • Suggesting a system is broken isn’t the same as indicting the people who work in it. Clearly, I think much of college education in the US is also broken. Does that mean that I don’t think that faculty don’t work hard? No. Quite the opposite madam — I think most teachers (at all levels) do their damnedest to educate their students no matter how they’re hamstrung by circumstances, resources, and support.

        Unfortunately, I think the education system is fundamentally broken. No Child Left Behind left most of our country’s kids behind. Good teachers aren’t allowed to innovate in the classroom. Assessment models are based more in pop-psychology than in sound education research. We pull resources out of struggling districts. We reward mediocrity instead of excellence. That doesn’t even mention parts of this country where there are actual discussion about whether the ‘theory of evolution’ should be taught in classrooms.

        I think that district administrators (like college administrators) have bloated the system and sucked away resources. Taxpayers seem to begrudge dollars spent on education and yet wonder why we have roughly a 5% drop in functional literacy rates every 5 or so years. I also think that parents have become the biggest detriment to their own children’s education in today’s model of helicopter/lawnmower parenting. But I wasn’t talking about any of that, but we can certainly have that conversation … it’s among those that we need to be having more and more of.

        Unlike the CNBC article suggesting that the least stressful JOB was to be a college professor, I was indicting a system that has been breaking for about a decade. Big difference.


      • That is my point. The system top to bottom is going to be broken if the public keeps listening to people that don’t know what they are talking about, but have the power to make really big mistakes at the expense of students. The teachers are held accountable for mistakes or ignorance of others. I apologize if I am hyper sensitive to this issue. Primary/secondary teachers have been dealing with this systemic bashing for several years. Now the sights are set on higher ed. We have to work together to teach the realities of education. “Broken education system” keeps getting repeated. In our must blame someone society, who do you think people point to? The teachers. Any teacher can tell you the real problems. Those in power don’t want to hear it because a real fix will take time, money, actual listening and working together. Unfortunately someone else sees a personal or corporate buck to be made and teachers, the first to speak up for students, are a block to that. There is a four pronged approach. How many have been implemented in higher ed. so far? 1.Convince the public that there is a problem through the manipulation of statistics and out right lying. 2. Limit funding to send everyone scrambling and create crisis. 3. Limit the voice of the naysayers by adding restrictive laws or creating fear of job loss. 4. Make the appearance of success ( out of reach to most) an impossibility in an effort to support prong number one. Number four is coming for primary education in 2014 with common core testing.


      • No worries — I know where the angst comes from :).

        Oh — Vivian I so agree … All of them have been applied at all levels of education. Aside from generally being interested in pedagogy, I spent a year doing a massive amount of research in teacher and student assessment/ evaluation before NCLB was implemented. Every credible researcher, practitioner, and educator said that common core testing was the worst possible solution and quite accurately predicted the negative outcomes of it.

        We’ve hamstrung teachers and ruined our education system. I’ve seen politicians lauding administrators that introduce ‘corporate’ principles into education (at all levels) and I haven’t seen any of them that actually benefited students or better enabled teachers to do their jobs.

        My husband and I don’t have kids at this point, but had we stayed in the US we had already talked about the fact that our kids wouldn’t be a part of the education system (which is terrible because I’m 100% a product K-PhD of public education in the US) because of the way the system is failing everyone. It seems like most policy makers aren’t interested in what teachers have to say … they’re not even interested in what people who research education have to say (oh wait, cross apply my angst about the ways that smart folks get treated in the US 😉 ). They’re interested in their next press conference and some silly 5-point plan that makes for good fact sheets in a press kit.


  3. Pingback: Are Professors Really The Least Stressed? « eGrollman

  4. Unfortunately, the comment of CNBC is a common view of our job around the world, and sadly enough, your incisive and expeditive answer on the “real stress” felt by the university teachers in the USA could be totally subscribed by university teachers in Europe. Not to talk about the added stress of how to get the next and only government grant you are allowed to apply for going on with your research with all the poignant budget cutdowns… at least in Spain.
    Loving it but stressed to the max, I would say.


  5. HI:
    This is really a great article and needs to be read and distributed widely. I was wondering if I could have your permission to repost it on my community website: wsgroup dot org. Thanks.


  6. I’ve just retired as an English professor and was not replaced, though my university has adjuncts aplenty. When I first began teaching the university had a goal of getting rid of “part-timers” wieh master’s degrees so all students would be taught by Ph.D.s. That didn’t last; most, but not all, of our adjuncts are M.A.s. The Ph.D.s often teach part time, but are giving small administrative positions, also. In fact the administration has at least doubled in size while our student population has grown very little. The money goes there, not to faculty. Senior faculty have other stresses–administrators who make decisions while not knowing or caring about one’s field, committee meetings, assessments, being loaded with extra duties, such has helping recruit, teaching poorly designed courses that are developed elsewehre, and on and on. Also, there’s an unfairness in pay (gender, field, etc.). I loved my students and my colleagues and I did have flexible time which helped in single parenting. I don’t regret my choice of careers–I got to discuss good literature my entire working life–but academia is getting leaner and meaner and I’m glad I had my career when I did.


    • Thanks so much for sharing — it’s nice to have the perspective. I think that’s likely what keeps a lot of folks in it — they genuinely like their disciplines. I’m not sure how to reform academia in the US, but the emergence of more online programs (increasingly at credible institutions…and I like teaching online, but still…) only exacerbates the adjunct culture and all of the things that you identify as complicating regular faculty’s lives.


  7. It is also worth mentioning that some of us work in fields where physical labor is integral, some work in labs with dangerous chemicals and machinery, and some do their research in dangerous locations. As an archaeologist and a chemist, either I or my colleagues do all of these things.
    It would be nice to get a bit of appreciation for the work we do and contributions we make. Did the author of the original article not go to college? Were they not educated by *shock horror* professors? Would they not agree that their life and future was in someone’s hands for those four years? Because if nothing else, they relied on a college professor’s recommendation to get into their first few jobs.


    • Thanks for the reminder that there is research that is actually dangerous.

      Also — couldn’t agree more with the irony of the disrespect in society professors get given that we … well … are pretty good predictors of the success of our changing work force.


  8. One more thing to think about: when you finish your PhD and you’re looking for a teaching job, the rhetoric is to go WHEREVER a job opens up. It doesn’t matter where you grew up, how you feel about freezing and/or hot, arid climates, where your partner is, where your family is, or how much you want to be in an urban or rural community. “That job in Buttcrack, Texas whose starting salary is $50,000? Of course you should apply!” (Of course you’ll be competing with hundreds of other newly-minted PhDs.) Never mind the life and community that you’ve built for yourself in the place where you did your PhD, or the city you were living in while you were an adjunct.

    No one tells you that.


    • That’s quite true. I’ve been fortunate in that I was able to target parts of the country (i.e., regions, not necessarily states) where I wanted to live and work. However, that was rough on my husband’s career — there are a whole lot of good colleges and universities in “Buttcrack” America for sure (even if Buttcrack is only an hour from a major city).


    • Yea, finding a job as a professor–especially a tenure-track position–is the most stressful thing of all. I’m not starting a family in part because I’ll need the freedom to move wherever I can find a job after I graduate. Once you have tenure the stress is obviously lower, but that CNBC piece didn’t even factor in the financial and emotional burdens involved in getting there.


  9. “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 frankly smarter than most people in society (the PhD and doing original research is kind of a baseline test for that ). I know, that’s probably not ‘nice’ to say but it’s true.”

    You’re still in a huge pond of smart people (millions), and the smart people with more agency are doing or at least trying to do meaningful things as opposed to what the typical professor does (most research is never used or read, and even when it is it is often wrong or not particularly important or novel — i.e., someone else would have done it if they didn’t). What I’m saying is that, generally, professors are the janitors of smart people (noted that there are some professors that rise above this, but most don’t).

    The smartest people are shaping the world and its future.

    Bill Gates generated enough wealth to invest in important technologies like the traveling-wave reactor. Elon Musk is starting a space industry. Even the philanthropist that goes into finance is doing more for the world than most professors.

    That said, like the janitor, I do appreciate the work professors do. Collectively, professorship is a vital and necessary role in our society.


    • Though I agree that we’re among a pool of smart people, I think that the people shaping the future are the best connected and not necessarily the smartest. There are notable exceptions (Bill Gates is probably one of them). However, the larger point is not to compare us against other professions, but to talk about the annoying attitudes towards folks trying to do their jobs and without understanding the work.


      • IQ predicts success in western society — this is why it’s a meaningful measure. IQ + conscientiousness (big five trait) better predicts success in western society. There are likely janitors with higher IQs than either of us. And also there are people with middling IQs and off the charts conscientiousness that are exceptionally successful in western society.

        If we want to actually define smartness or intelligence (as opposed to linking it with success in western society — which professors are relatively poor at), then I think you’ll find the best definition is something along the lines of how Shane Legg and Marcus Hutter defined it: i.e., as optimization power or the ability to bring the actual world closer to a desired possible world.

        A philanthropist in finance sees the possible world of no world hunger and they bring the actual world closer to that possible world. The smarter philanthropist is able to multiply their resources by using more effective charities, for example. I.e., smarter in that they’re more able to bring the actual world closer to that possible world than a similar philanthropist that doesn’t use an effective charity.

        A professor sees the possible world where they do something ground-breaking in their area of expertise, but most aren’t able to do this, and even when they are able to do it, it usually wasn’t particularly meaningful because someone else would have done it soon after them.

        Whereas, for example, saving thousands of lives is something that won’t be taken up by someone else (unless no further lives can be saved). Also, funding a new energy technology at a critical juncture in our history is something could be taken up by someone else but that’s irrelevant because it’s time critical (i.e., a delay will worsen climate change, or make war concerning resources like oil and water more likely).

        The smarter academics already know all this. They focus their abilities in areas where they’re most leveraged (as the smarter philanthropist does). For example, John Baez moved from an esoteric area of math (where he saw that he was having little effect) to starting the Azimuth Project.


      • At the risk of being painfully reductionist about everything in life… sure — that is an effective and good definition of ‘smart’.

        I also think that the point that you make about “vision” is critical — most certainly for academics. One of the greatest frustrations in academic life for a lot of us is that our day-to-day work makes it very difficult to connect the intellectual work we do with the real world. Many of us connect our areas of study with service to our communities, service to our professions, and even service to industry because that helps us to not only stay relevant but the translation of knowledge between theory and practice is the only way that we’re ever really going to improve not only ourselves but also our society.

        However, the American academic institution today often makes all of that impractical. Those at research institutions often have the greatest opportunity to do much of this; however, there’s a whole lot of academics who wanted more flexibility in their lives than the ‘publish or perish’ model to produce research they thought was meaningful, to have a life, and to make contributions to other peoples’ lives in whatever way they could. I don’t think those folks nor the many more who are stuck in the world of part-time or temporary lecturer positions get those opportunities.

        That’s why I still think that our world is shaped by those who are the best connected and not the smartest. There will always be exceptions to that rule, but the rule exists. Pedigree matters. If you break your shoulder trying to open a door, it’s much harder to play the game once you get in the room. It’s easy to be the philanthropist financer when you start out with existing money behind you or the academic/social pedigree to open doors. Luck also matters — being in the right place at the right time makes or breaks careers and directions for industry.

        That’s also why talking about all of this matters — unless we can critique and improve our institutions (all of them… but in this case the academic one), then we’re going to continue to see innovation, invention, and ingenuity occurring in places outside of the US.


  10. Hey Audra,

    Thanks for writing this and putting it out there. I did want to point up these lines: “Now, there are disciplines whose student to professor 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.”

    They seem to imply that it’s more cost effective over here in the English department factory b/c we have those “required courses,” when that small student-to-faculty ratio is actually paid for with, wait for it, ADJUNCTS! And these adjunct faculty make 2000K-4500K per course (at my place 3400). Since upwards of 70% of faculty are currently contingent, MSNBC should get a clue (as should Joe Biden, who attributed rising education costs to what faculty make:

    I think it’s crucial to dispel the myth of the tenured and tenure track professor (and, guess what, the time suck doesn’t get any easier after tenure, hate to break it to you) as the norm, when we ain’t no more. No matter how stressful tenure track jobs are, it’s more stressful in the long term to teach course-by-course and semester-to-semester. I don’t want to encourage the young ones to enter this profession with the idea they can work there way up to a tenure track gig b/c that really isn’t happening. By the time anyone starting grad school makes it through, I expect that tenure track jobs will be 20% or less of faculty work and tenure will be gone by the time I retire. So when we talk about faculty gigs, I think we should lead with the part-timers.

    Peace out!


    • Hi,

      I definitely didn’t mean that they’re more cost effective, etc. and you’re quite right about the staffing on those being heavily reliant on adjuncts — a seriously abused labor group.

      What I meant was that, based on my experience, those majors are smaller and so they probably don’t have as many advisees.

      While I’ve been an adjunct, it’s not the core of my experience in academia, so I’d leave that to the folks who have really lived that rough experience. That’s definitely a conversation that we need to have!



  11. I’m a PhD candidate in the biomedical sciences. Until maybe a few years ago, heading down the academic path seemed like a good idea. Now, I don’t know anyone who is planning a career in academia. Funding rates (where your salary will really come from, the funds to do your research, as well as the funding for your graduate students) are pitiful, and the economic climate has contributed to a situation where professors who may have been able to retire in the past at age 55-65 are staying in their labs as long as they can. Not a lot of room for a new crop of assistant professors to fit in. As I look around my university at the tenure process (which can differ from university to university) and the realities of being an assistant/associate/full professor, I cannot imagine why _anyone_ would think it is the least stressful job.


    • Absolutely — thanks for sharing! In the last few days, among the articles on student debt I was reading, I found one (and can’t remember where it was or I’d include the link) talking about the reality that most Americans with large student debt also have that student debt well into their 50’s and 60’s.


  12. Pingback: On having “The Least Stressful” Job of 2013 |

  13. I worry that through the “corporatization” and recent changes in funding and instruction in higher ed, higher ed will no longer be one of the best things the USA has to offer.


    • There does seem to be a shift from “education” to “service provision”. It changes the nature of decision, value on those majors and classes meant to develop thinking (versus ‘tangible’ job skills).


  14. During my 16 years in the US, I was (i) a PhD student (ii) a Postdoc (in 3 different places) (iii) unemployed (iv) tenure-track Assist Prof. Out of these four occupations, the most stressful was to be unemployed, least stressful is to be Assist Prof. After landing my tenure track job we bought a house, family relationships improved, I became much more productive scientifically than before.

    In America, you must become the best in the world in your occupation, after that you can land a job, which is crazy, but this is their American “the winner takes all” system.


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