Being a Professor – There’s Stress and Then There’s Stress

Forbes Magazine’s recently published a list of the ten least stressful jobs, borrowing from a post by an online job site called Careercast. At the top of the list? University professors, of course. Faculty enjoy high status, relatively high income, good job protection, and suffer little by way of accountability.

Like a game of telephone, Forbes’ list was re-posted and referenced many times. Faculty, predictably, responded with outrage and umbrage. Susan Adams, the Forbes staffer responsible for the post, reported that she received more than 150 complaints. An addendum was posted.Sisyphus

Ignoring the question of whether or not Forbes should be more thoughtfully responsible for its content, it is an illustrative brouhaha in a teacup.

Careercast’s criteria bear little connection to many kinds of careers. They weighed 11 factors:

  • Travel, amount of 0-10
  • Growth Potential (income divided by 100)
  • Deadlines 0-9
  • Working in the public eye 0-5
  • Competitiveness 0-15
  • Physical demands (stoop, climb, etc.) 0-14
  • Environmental conditions 0-13
  • Hazards encountered 0-5
  • Own life at risk 0-8
  • Life of another at risk 0-10
  • Meeting the public 0-8

Most of these are irrelevant to academia. As well as to most other professional positions. Yet we all know that professionals, who often are responsible for serious decisions, face great stress.

But more to the point, why do so many equate stress with hard work, compensation and responsibility? The hundreds who wrote to Forbes emphasized the hard work that faculty positions demand. Hard work may be part of faculty life, but it is not necessarily stressful.

In fact, high stress jobs need not result in good salaries or cultural capital. Any time spent waiting tables with an incompetent kitchen staff drives that point home. Many folks seem to implicitly link stress and worth. It is a very foolish way to think about careers and the market.

The real takeaway from all this, however, is that college faculty lack any effective mechanisms or organizations for coherent messaging. Anyone who has gone to college can think of hard-working and effective faculty who really make a difference. And probably some indifferent faculty who fail in the classroom and are poor advisors as well. Which example comes to mind? And who is taking the time to explain to the public at large what faculty do, how it is evaluated, and why?

The price of faculty independence and autonomy need not be quite so high. All of higher education would be well-served with more consistent efforts to explain what we do. And in a world desperate for thoughtful comment, perhaps one of those pieces would be widely shared, too.

David Potash


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