Tuesday, December 09, 2014


I've seen lots of news and posts recently on the general theme of stress in academia. Daniel Lemire blogs about Stefan Grimm, a professor who recently committed suicide, and talks about academia as an anxiety machine.  More close to home, we recall that Seth Teller committed suicide earlier this year.  Previous Harvard faculty member and loud blogger Matt Welsh frequently portrays academia as a stressful place (most recently discussing the Fame Trap), and recently Harvard's Radhika Nagpal offered her advice about the scary myths of academic life and how to find happiness.

So here is my question, and I don't think it's a simple one:  is the academic world a stressful place?  The above are an interesting set of anecdotes, but there are certainly contradictory anecdotes. 

For example, as a starting point we might look to the CareerCast list of least stressful jobs, where university professor was judged the least stressful job in 2013 (and nearly the least in 2014), and the reaction to it.  (A nice Forbes article here, and last year's related article here with hundreds of comments.  Inside Higher Ed articles here (2014) and here (2013).)  The big quote this year from Inside Higher Ed:  
Tony Lee, publisher, CareerCast, added via email: "We received a lot of feedback about our ranking of university professor as a low-stress job. But we found that while adjunct and part-time teachers are right that their jobs can be stressful, the stress levels for tenured university professors – which is what we rank – are lower than the majority of other jobs we measure in our report."
My own take on this amusement (before we get to the serious) is that they probably underestimate the stress levels of professors -- even tenured, university profs.  On the other hand, since CareerCast's "most stressful" jobs include military, police, firefighters, and event coordinators, I'm not going to argue against the point that university professors may have it comparatively easy.

Now, more seriously, is life working in academia stressful?  I think it's an important question;  to the extent that academia is more stressful than it should be, it may be damaging both to individuals, and to the overall success of scientific productivity on a larger scale.  On the other hand, perhaps the level of stress in academia is natural for various reasons, including the type of work involved, or the type of people involved, and is not really so bad either in relative or absolute terms.   

I don't know the answer to this question.  I could speak for myself (this is my blog, after all), but that's just more anecdote.  I poked around a little bit but didn't see anything especially informative in the research literature I saw;  I'd be happy to have pointers suggested.  Also, it's a problematic question, for several reasons, as there are all sorts of underlying questions to answer first.

1)  Stressful compared to what?  What are the right comparisons?  I tend to think the comparisons should be with other professional jobs (doctor, lawyer, businessperson -- and, for CS, I guess the appropriate "software engineer" type title), which seem to me to pretty stressful employment options in their own right. 

2)  Stressful at what time in one's career?  I think there are different stressors, and different amounts of stress, at different career points.  Grad student stress is not the same as assistant faculty stress is not the same as tenured faculty stress.

3)  How would one measure "stress", anyway?  CareerCast gives some information on its criteria which leads to university professor being (one of) the least stressful jobs.  Daniel Lemire offers the week-end-freedom test for how free you are (which may be one way of checking stress), but I don't agree with his assumptions. 

4)  And how might one account for various selection effects?  Maybe academics are more generally "Type A personalities".  Perhaps the right questions are not why academics are stressed, but why does academia attract so many Type A personalities, and/or does academia reward Type A personality-types in ways that are detrimental.

5)  Are Computer Science/Engineering in academia different in terms of stress than other academic fields, since these are the areas I care most about?  (Ostensibly, for instance, we get paid higher salaries, and have ample opportunities for outside-university work.  Both of these could affect stress levels.)

I'm sure you can come up with more issues that complicate the basic question.

I may do some more posts on this basic theme;  I do think the topic is important, but there's little hard information.  Seeing as how there's lots of psychologists hanging around universities, I'm surprised that I didn't quickly find one or more recent comparative studies on stress levels, personality types, etc. for academics, but perhaps I just need to look harder.  (If only I had the time!) 

To be clear, my bias is that when I read blog posts from my respected colleagues that portray academic life as some sort of competitive pressure-cooker where everyone is out to increase their ranking and are working 80+ hour weeks without any sort of social life, that's just not the reality I am aware of.  (Including, I think, for the people who actually write these posts, who generally seem to be talking about "other people".) 

To cut off some potential responses, I'm not blind, nor stupid;  there are plenty of stresses in academia, in particular having to do with the employment situation, where the number of jobs is not sufficient for the number of potential job-seekers generated.  And I would be interested in finding useful ways to understanding stress in the field and how to reduce it productively, especially for graduate students.  But to do this, we would need to move beyond individual anecdotes, gain some more data-driven understanding of what's going on, and start determining best practices.  The mythologies about academic life and stress do not seem helpful in understanding where there are problems and how to address them.  


Anonymous said...

I think that the stress of univ prof should be compared to the stress of jobs they would have otherwise, outside academia. In particular, it depends on the area: CS, Math, literature, chemistry, etc

Farbod said...

This reminds me of nice article I read recently: "Tension, Stress, and the Tapestry of Faculty Lives" by Ann E. Austin and Mary Pilat. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40249663

vzn said...

hi, interested in this topic also, blogged about it along with the zhang twin prime breakthru where there is some case study. (zhang temporarily left academia to work at different jobs including subway sandwiches, the reason is not clear.)
my own take is that all fields have more or less stress very much depending on very localized conditions. another factor is employment insecurity (in academia this manifests as increasing adjunct/ assistant positions with higher difficulty of advancement) and wage inequality which are both very verifiably stress-producing for everyone in our culture. (and consider also rising productivity with flat wages. rising productivity surely carries more worker/ laborer stress.) our capitalist economic system seems to be increasingly stress producing. so its a systemic/ crosscutting issue across many fields.

Anonymous said...

My impression is that most jobs are stressful and most people work more hours than is probably healthy.

That being said, one of the things I think contributes to the stress of both graduate students and junior faculty is the uncertainty and randomness of research. You might be working on a big paper and the results just don't pan out. Or you might have a string of bad luck with program committees or grants. Even tenure decisions can sometimes have a degree of randomness involved. I don't think people cope with uncertainty and randomness well, and it can cause a lot of stress. It might be interesting to compare the highs and lows of junior faculty with the highs and lows of high-stakes poker players.

Paul Beame said...

Pre-tenure stresses are obviously very high - there aren't many places where the probationary period can last as long - but your post and the examples focus on tenured faculty.

There isn't one picture of this and lumping all tenured faculty together simply doesn't make sense.

Like many current faculty, I grew up around an academic. The stress level for a career Associate Professor who enjoys and is good at teaching and service, can be very low. If CareerCast is taking an average over academia, I bet there are plenty who fit this profile across all fields.

Tenured faculty have an extraordinary level of control over the direction of what they do - lack of control being one of the key factors for stress. Unlike many other jobs, stress for tenured faculty is generally a secondary consequence of internal drive and the peer pressure of what being successful means. It is the stress of an entrepreneur.

Hiring and tenure processes are Darwinian mechanisms designed to select for those individuals who have that drive and are likely to maintain it. (Type A people as you put it.) So, the more successful this selection is, the more things are opened up to the possibilities of stress.

However, there are some ways in which we can try to reduce stress in academia.

- Being an individual entrepreneur can be isolating and stressful. Having an ethos that recognizes collaborative work as much as individual work yields a more supportive and less stressful environment.

- In hiring (tenure time may be too late) take into account the likely impact of those we are considering on the levels of stress of those around them. Not all "Type A" personalities are the same. Internal drive is a critical piece for success but if that internal drive does not also play out in positive behavior towards others then you will be adding to stress rather than relieving it.

- Work on keeping on open and friendly environment where there is lots of communication and mentoring. If all we do is teach our classes, do our research, and advise our students separately, only coming together occasionally for faculty meetings, then the stress of isolation becomes problematic.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Thanks to all for the comment so far. Farbod, thanks for the article pointer (I'll read it tonight). Anon #4, you've pointed out a key stress aspect, one I wanted to bring up and I'll (hopefully) blog more about sometime soon. Paul, great comment -- definitely the multiple aspects of being part of a community can be key to avoiding stress and a happier life, something again I'll hopefully blog more about soon.

Daniel Lemire said...

I would like to reiterate that I do not claim that professors are more stressed. Many industries are clearly very damaging to their workers, but academia does not qualify.

This being said, I think that there is a difference between stress and the patterns of thoughts that lead to depression.

Believing that you are only as good as how well you are ranked by others... a deeply ingrained belief in academia... is unhealthy.

Unnecessary competition is also very damaging... unnecessarily so.

Anonymous said...

Following up on Daniel's comment above, the tenure process is unnecessarily harsh at many top universities. Not only do you need to be very good in your field (a reasonable requirement) but you need to win the swimsuit competition as well: do the academic rounds, sell yourself to the authorities in the field, join program committees simply for name recognition, etc.

Radhika talks about this in her SciAm blog.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Daniel -- glad that we agree on some points. I'll probably have more to say later, but while I agree that "Believing that you are only as good as how well you are ranked by others... is unhealthy.", I don't think that academia especially has that belief ingrained. (Again, what's your comparison point or aim here. Most companies have annual reviews where employees are ranked and that determines their salary. Ranking happens. In academia, whatever ranking there is is generally over fairly long time scales, and seems very "friendly" -- there can be many "bests" because there are many subareas and ways to succeed.)

Anonymous #9: I have to admit, at least in my field, I'd disagree with your (and Radhika's) analysis. Here Radhika is an example of a person who is saying, "I'm told you have to do this to get tenure; but I didn't do this and got tenure!" (Read my "To be clear" paragraph...) You don't have to win any swimsuit competition.

(I would say, though, that part of the job is working to try to ensure your work is known. There are a variety of ways to do that, and sometimes your work will be so good it will get known without you having to do much of anything. That, again, is just life, I think, nothing particular to academics.)

Anonymous said...

One of the things I find most interesting about academia is that one is constantly aware of their "ranking" with respect to others in the field, worldwide. (I don't mean this in the literal sense of a public, numerical ranking; I mean this in the broad sense of being aware of what others are doing, and generally aware of one's standing in the community.) Compare this to lawyers, doctors, or software engineers, who in general have no idea what other doctors/lawyers/software engineers are doing, or perhaps might be compared annually to others in their firm/practice/company but not worldwide.

The only comparable profession, in this sense, is sports where there are often ranking (e.g., tennis) or at least relative standings due to quantitative measures (e.g., statistics).

I think this explains a lot of the pressure.