The Real Stress of Being a College Professor

Susan Adams writes at Forbes that being a college professor is a remarkably pressure-free job. So little stress!

She, seems, however, to have a rather poor understanding of the actual job market for academics. As she explains:

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.

This is based on a CareerCast look at things likely to produce stress in jobs, including “travel, growth potential, competitiveness, physical demands, hazards, environmental conditions.”

The trouble with this look at academia is that all the things that are supposed to make being a professor so awesome—autonomy, good benefits, relatively low work demand, stability—apply only to tenure-track professors. Tenured professors might form the stereotypical idea of American academia, but it’s not reality.

In fact, the vast majority–some 73 percent–of college professors are employed on a part-time basis. No health care. No benefits. No guarantee of a steady income from semester to semester. That’s what a typical career looks like.

Saying that a being a professor is a low-stress job is, in fact, kind of like saying that being an actor is astoundingly lucrative and glamorous because of the experiences of some top movie stars. Sure, but the vast majority of actors are struggling to pay the bills by temping and waiting tables. It’s pretty irresponsible to draw conclusions about the profession as a whole from the experience of a successful minority group within that profession.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer