One of the less appealing aspects of web-based “news” these days is the proliferation of sites which rank “the ten most” or “the ten least” in whatever category they choose to discuss. Such surveys are typically churned out with little or no research, quickly thrown together with more concern about the photo images than the content of the text. We all know that these surveys and rankings are just meant to grab attention. They are usually not conducted rigorously enough to provide any validly researched information worth taking seriously. Sadly, though, lots of people cite these surveys and rankings as if they had real rigor behind them, and think they’ve proven something of value.
The latest example is a ranking of the most and least stressful jobs on the site Careercast.com. Stories like this are usually teasers to get people to sign up for their career-matching services, and are more advertising than they are rigorous research. According to the site, “stress” was measured by a variety of factors: travel, growth potential (never fully defined), deadlines, working in the public eye, competitiveness, physical demands, environmental conditions, hazards encountered, own life at risk, life of another at risk, and meeting the public. Using these criteria, the most stressful jobs are easy to justify: military jobs (enlisted soldier, then officer), emergency workers (firemen, police, paramedics, doctors), journalists and photojournalists, corporate executives, etc.
If the list stopped there, it would not be controversial. But leading the list of “least stressful careers” with the #1 rank was “university professor.” The original ranking post was then picked up in a major story on Forbes.com by writer Susan Adams, where it generated a firestorm of outrage from faculty members who felt that the survey was an insult and a slander to the university faculties everywhere. Soon there was a long list of direct comments from professors about the story posted on the site (forcing Adams to print a retraction), and say:
“Since writing the above piece I have received more than 150 comments, many of them outraged, from professors who say their jobs are terribly stressful,” she wrote. “While I characterize their lives as full of unrestricted time, few deadlines and frequent, extended breaks, the commenters insist that most professors work upwards of 60 hours a week preparing lectures, correcting papers and doing research for required publications in journals and books. Most everyone says they never take the summer off, barely get a single day’s break for Christmas or New Year’s and work almost every night into the wee hours.”
Another Forbes.com columnist weighed in with his own reply to her column, enumerating the many places where it was wrong and misguided, and you can find many more posts online attacking the original story. Adams compounded the problem by reporting the “least stressful job” story uncritically, and did no real research on her own. She comments that she talked to one professor she knew to confirm the story, then published it. She then parroted a whole series of misconceptions about what a university professor does, all the while showing that she did no real research into the stresses that were not well measured in this survey. According to her story:
Unless they teach summer school, they are off between May and September and they enjoy long breaks during the school year, including a month over Christmas and New Year’s and another chunk of time in the spring. Even when school is in session they don’t spend too many hours in the classroom. For tenure-track professors, there is some pressure to publish books and articles, but deadlines are few. Working conditions tend to be cozy and civilized and there are minimal travel demands, except perhaps a non-mandatory conference or two…According to Tony Lee, CareerCast’s publisher, the least stressful jobs have one thing in common: autonomy. “These jobs tend not to have someone standing over their shoulder putting pressure on them to get things done,” he says. University professors answer to themselves, he points out. “They are basically kings of their own fiefdoms.”..The other thing most of the least stressful jobs have in common: At the end of the day, people in these professions can leave their work behind, and their hours tend to be the traditional nine to five.
Having taught at the college level for 34 years at big research institutions (Caltech, Columbia) and small teaching colleges (Occidental, Vassar, Knox), and even junior colleges (Pierce), I’ve seen all aspects of the life of a faculty member close up. The inaccuracies and the falsehoods in just that paragraph alone are breathtaking, and show that the write has no real insight into what a professor does. The first myth is that the faculty member’s working hours are just those spent actually teaching in class. As most of the comments on the story pointed out, for every one hour in lecture, most faculty members spend many more hours in grading, class preparation and organization, and many other tasks that are never directly measured (and seldom witnessed). When I taught in small liberal arts colleges, I also had to teach many hours of lab a week, which university professor consign to grad student Teaching Assistants—but still, these TAs need to meet with the faculty member teaching lecture and make sure the entire course is run in a coordinated fashion. Most faculty I know who are doing active research spend many hours each week in their labs, or writing grant proposals, or dealing with the enormously frustrating and time-consuming process of writing up their research and submitting papers to publication, dealing with reviewers and editors, and fighting hard to get their work some attention. Personally, I have no idea what it would be like to have a “9-5 job”. If I’m not in my campus office working hard on teaching matters, I’m in my home office writing and editing and doing research 7 days a week. And “vacation”? What’s that? I work even harder when it’s “vacation time” and I don’t have the interruptions of teaching to disrupt my writing schedule. I can’t even remember if I’ve ever taken a complete vacation from my research and writing. When I traveled in the past, it was grant-funded field work (fun, but still work), or running field trips for the Skeptic Society (very hard work). Even when I’m supposed to be relaxing, my schedule of deadlines is unending and I can’t goof off for long.
“Working conditions tend to be cozy and civilized”?? Not in the hypercompetitive backstabbing world of faculty politics, it ain’t! We used to joke that everyone in the faculty was a superstar overachiever who wanted to be king of the hill, which made them fight over the most trivial of issues—and meanwhile, in the world of business or politics where there is REAL money or power at stake, they are more civilized than your average faculty committee! “Minimal travel demands”? Dream on! If you’re active in your profession, you have at least one or two professional meetings to attend each year, and many fields involve a lot of travel for work as well. “Kings of their own fiefdoms”? Well, I have seen how the superstar prima donnas at Caltech can operate that way, but most faculty are part of a pecking order with numerous department chairs and deans and provosts and other superfluous administrators watching your every move. They can really make life miserable for you, and waste enormous amounts of time. They are not like the boss in a typical 9-5 job who can fire you with minimal notice, but the pressure is there nonetheless: keep those grants coming! Keep those research papers coming! Find funds to pay for your staff and grad students! For most science faculty who operate on grant funds and maintain a research lab with numerous dependents (staff, students, post-docs), the grant funding process is brutal, and everyone in the lab is subject to the next wave of layoffs if your grant doesn’t come through.
As this article put it:
Recent surveys of faculty members have found that they report considerable stress. A national survey of four-year college and university faculty members, released in October by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, found that more than 80 percent of faculty members—at public and private institutions alike—feel stress over “self-imposed high expectations” and “lack of personal time.” At public institutions, more than 80 percent of faculty members also reported stress over budget cuts.
This is not to say that there aren’t some deadwood faculty at every university who went to seed and stopped doing research as soon as they got tenure. These are the people who usually come to mind when you think of a tweedy professor in a cushy Ivy League job getting paid to gather cobwebs and play ivy tower games. Even those cases of featherbedding are getting fewer and farther between, as administrators pile on more teaching of non-major classes or other chores on to faculty who are not publishing or producing research or grant funds. But the problem with this survey is that it fails to measure all aspects of pressure (including subtle long-term pressure to achieve with little direct supervision), and surveys just one person to confirm the details of the story.
More to the point, the story completely ignores the important distinction between tenured and non-tenured faculty, which has no comparable status in any other line of work. If you are tenured, it is possible to do as little as possible and make your days relatively stress-free, but everyone will regard you as a slacker if you’re not bringing in grant funds or publishing or getting lazy in your teaching. The situation is very different for non-tenured faculty. First, you spend 6-8 years of your life on a starvation grad student stipend earning your Ph.D (and maybe 2-3 more years as a low-paid postdoc). In most institutions, you get hired after a brutal year-long search process where you compete with 300-500 other candidates for a single job. Then you spend five to seven years in abject fear of not publishing enough, not getting your grant funded, not getting good teaching evaluations from a bunch of lazy students who don’t even show up, or other things that could have your tenure decision go bad. Unlike any other career in the work force, tenure is unique to academia. These days, it’s getting very hard to achieve it, especially in elite institutions, and if you don’t make tenure, your academic career is virtually over. You might as well use your Ph.D. for toilet paper, because no other college will hire you and you need to look for a new line of work. This kind of night-and-day difference invalidates any survey that makes a comparison between the less stressful tenured faculty life and other jobs, and the sheer terror of the untenured faculty versus other careers.
The article also claims that job prospects for faculty are good right now, but fails to mention that most of those jobs are low-paying hourly part-time positions with no benefits and no job security. More and more, academic institutions are saving labor costs by eliminating tenure-track positions and staffing whole departments with a revolving door of part-timers with little or no real commitment to the institution or to their students. And now they’re predicting another “baby bust” after the current “demographic bulge,” so those job prospects will be slimmer when someone making the decision right now to earn a Ph.D. exits the process at the other end 6-10 years later. Even worse, many universities are going to “distance-learning” and “on-line only” teaching, where the faculty are not only part-time but not even showing up to teach classes. Lots of people are justifiably worried that the model where a professor actually sees your face and works to make sure you understand things (as I do with my students) is vanishing completely.
And salaries? PUULLEASE! The article makes the ridiculous claim that faculty salaries are generous, but not in comparison to the amount of time and work we put in to post-graduate education. A lawyer spends only 3 years in law school, then can make big bucks if they’re sharp, and pull down six figures while your average Ph.D. is still living on starvation stipends and piling up debt—all with only a small chance of landing a tenure-track faculty job when you’re done at the end. There are a handful of elite institutions which may pay in the six-figure range when you reach full professor after 15-20 years, but most don’t pay that well— I’ve never made six figures after 34 years of teaching. And this is nothing compared to what those with almost any other post-grad degree: doctors, lawyers, MBAs, etc., make. If you live in a tiny rural town, a faculty salary might be enough to survive on since the cost of living is low. But here in expensive southern California, faculty salaries are laughably poor at most educational institutions, and you can’t even get by with TWO faculty salaries (as my wife and I try to do).
I will concede that university faculty do rank lower on things like life-and-death decisions for themselves and others, or the physical labor of a soldier or a firefighter. But the survey has no metric whatsoever for the more subtle constant nagging pressures of trying to finish research and publish it, trying to get grant funds in a harsher and harsher funding climate, or dealing with the mountains of grading and other outside work that makes teaching go. Just like any other “most” or “least” or “best” or “worst” list you read online, it’s a slapdash effort with no real research behind it, and no fact-checking. Shame on Forbes.com for taking it as seriously as they did! As one commenter on her story tweeted:
“Least stressful job for 2013: journalist at @Forbes. Data collected by others, no fact checking, lazy writing. :-)”