Friday, January 04, 2013

No Stress

Greg Morrisett points me to this bit of silliness to start my morning:
University professors have a lot less stress than most of us. 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. As for compensation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for professors is $62,000, not a huge amount of money but enough to live on, especially in a university town.
Generally, I love my job, and the great flexibility that comes with it.  And I do think it's less stressful than many other careers (at least, post-tenure, and in my mind even pre-tenure as well).  So the topic sentence is one that is hard for me to argue with.  But really, the description in the rest of the paragraph is so far from reality, it makes me giggle.  And I imagine the stress levels are significantly higher for professors outside of CS and the Ivy League -- for example, I make significantly more than $62,000, but I think that the way the author blithely ignores that making "enough to live on" may indeed be stressful is just absurd. 

Right now, of course, is actually a stressful time of the year, especially as I have to plan for next semester's class.  Pre-enrollment numbers are at about 129, suggesting something like a 5-10% rise from last year.  I don't have all my TAs in place, I have to revise the schedule/first few lectures to take into account changes in the courses before mine, and I have other administrative duties sucking up time before classes begin. 

But yes, I'm well aware I'm under much less stress than my college roommate the cardiac surgeon.


AC said...

What I find absurd/amusing is the idea that the stressful part of the job is the hours spent in the classroom. From my POV, almost the opposite is true!

Amit C

Geoff Knauth said...

When I used to teach, the most fun part was in the classroom, so long as students asked questions. Regarding stress, I think of my wife, who is a professor (religion and archeology, anout 100 students). She is definitely stressed now, preparing for the next semester. But that pales compared to grading crunch and the end of the semester, when she may have 100 papers and exams to grade in a 7-10 day period that usually involves little sleep. And the pay is less than the median quoted. She loves her job otherwise--gets to go on a dig most summers, usually in Israel. That's the part that's most regenerative.

Harry Lewis said...

The notion of stress is not unitary and really requires some nuanced interpretation.

Stock traders probably think professorships are low stress jobs because faculty are autonomous and independent -- in fact, there are academic administrators who think that. Of course, even to the extent that is true, that sort of independence can cut both ways; self-imposed standards of success, which are really to be hoped for in professors, can induce worse stress than external metrics, depending on your personality.

Also, a lot of professors I know would find it stressful to do lots of repetitive and ultimately pointless work, year after year, even for a reliable paycheck, and in fact that is the sort of thing a lot of us grumble about when we have to do it. Whereas a lot of people don't care about the existential importance of their labor as long as they are reliably compensated for it.

Finally, I am not sure it makes any sense to put our jobs on the same scale with those of infantrymen, police officers, firefighters, and so on, some of whom lead lives of alternating boredom and terror. Given all that, I am not sure that "stress" is actually a useful variable.

In part, I am reminded that I am equally skeptical about the fashionable drumbeat these days that to reduce suicidality, colleges should reduce the stress they are putting on their students. A productive and significant life has to have some stress in it; otherwise you'll never stop and ask yourself if what you re doing is worthwhile. Hey Geoff, should I have put you under less stress 30+ years ago?

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Harry -- I enjoy your comments and take on the post. I find that the self-imposed stress level for success is rather high, though I've come to better terms with it since turning 40. But it's hard to equate with the "stress" of other work, precisely because it is self-imposed. Also, I do agree that some stress in life is actually a good thing. And it's clear that I'm still putting students under stress regularly.