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Stress-free?

I am a professor. Specifically, I am a tenured associate professor at a small, Canadian, research-intensive university. And right off the bat I’d like to say that I love my job, and I love the place where I work. Since I was included as a co-author on my first paper about 17-years ago, this is the only job that I’ve wanted. I have spent countless hours in the lab and the field, with my nose in books, working as a teaching assistant, and wandering library stacks to get where I am today. Hard work was part of the equation, but there’s no denying that there was also an element of being in the right field and the right place at just the right time (maybe I’ll write about that sometime). But, in any case, I am where I am, and I love being where I am. At this point in my life, I wouldn’t trade this job for any other.

As a university professor I am granted a fair amount of research and teaching freedom, particularly now that I have attained tenure. I am able to interact with great people from across the continent and around the world in a field that I thoroughly enjoy. Working with some excellent students, postdoctoral fellows, and technicians, we have been able to build a productive and exciting research program in our lab here at UNBC. I enjoy my undergraduate teaching assignments because I find students to be inquisitive and full of great ideas. My department is very collegial and collaborative research and teaching arrangements spring up all the time.

I could go on and on. Suffice it to say, this is a great job. It’s the job that I’ve always wanted. And I consider myself extremely privileged to be in this position.

That said, it is a challenging job and one that requires continual commitment. The stress level does not reach that of, say, an air traffic controller. But it is not at all stress-free. You would be hard pressed to find a colleague of mine at any institution who wouldn’t give you an earful if you were to suggest that being a professor went hand-in-hand with having no job-related stress.

However, it seems that the folks at Forbes Magazine, reporting on a Careercast.com survey, disagree. Careercast.com and Forbes report that being a university professor is the least stressful job out there, followed by seamstresses and tailors. I was made aware of this article via a series of tweets:

 

 

 

 

…and I went over to take a look for myself.

What I found there was the same string of misconceptions about this job that I hear over and over again. Having a father who is also a professor, I have heard these “facts” from the time that I was just a young fellow. So I’m not under any illusion that the following missive will finally set the record straight, but “facts” like those found in the two articles need to be addressed somewhere. So here goes.

From the Forbes article:

“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.”

If I had a dime for every time that I heard this (plus a nickel for every time that I heard the “if I had a dime” cliche) I’d be able to independently fund my own research program. The fact of the matter is that university professors have pretty much the same amount of holiday time that anyone else has. I am currently allotted four weeks. Because class is in session for most of the rest of the year, I tend to take some of those vacation weeks with my family in the summer, although I haven’t taken my full four weeks in more years than I can remember. Just because class is not in session in the summer or at other times does not mean that professors are not working. The summer and reading break (Canada’s version of “spring break”) are the times that we use to get caught up on research, to write papers, to revise courses, and to read and assimilate some of the emerging literature from the past year. My research program is busier in the summer than at anytime during the rest of the year. The graduate students in our lab are not taking courses at that time, so they are free to get their thesis research done. We typically have several undergraduate summer research assistants in the lab as well. The lab hums during the summer and it’s often hard to keep up with everything.

By the end of the summer, professors need to have their course material for September ready to roll. Most professors take great pride in keeping their courses relevant and up-to-date, so summer work includes course updates and planning.

The notion that we have “a month over Christmas” is also hogwash. Yes, things do quiet down considerably between Christmas day and New Year’s. Yes, the university mainly shuts down and most faculty, administration, and staff are spending time with family for the holidays, just like most of the population of North America. But even then we need to be reachable. And most of us work up until near Christmas Eve and need to be on call during the break as well. For example, this past Christmas break I put the final editing touches on a student’s paper, I dealt with a few papers in one journal that I edit and another for which I’m an academic editor, and at one point I was doing crisis management over a fume hood in our lab that had decided to die just after Boxing Day.

I won’t bother to detail spring/reading “break” because the story is the same. Students might have the time off, but professors do not unless they use up vacation time.

“Even when school is in session they don’t spend too many hours in the classroom.”

If you are simply tracking the time spent in the classroom, then this is correct. This semester I spend seven hours of my week “in the classroom.” But anyone who takes a few moments to think about it knows that time in the classroom is not all that there is to teaching. Every lecture requires preliminary preparation. There are assignments and exams to make up and then to mark. It takes time to design meaningful assignments and to provide high-quality feedback. Students arrive in my office with great questions or to inquire about the rationale behind a mark. Office hours now extend to all hours of the day because students, rightfully in my opinion, use venues like email or Twitter to ask questions. Beyond that, any course worth teaching also takes preparation time prior to the first class session. I have never personally tallied up the amount of time that I work behind the scenes per hour of class time (frankly, I have no time to conduct such a survey), but I would bet that it comes to two or three hours of prep time per lecture hour. In a lab or tutorial courses the prep time is even more substantial.

“For tenure-track professors, there is some pressure to publish books and articles…”

This one is pure hogwash. There is not “some” pressure. Without publishing, a professor might as well be looking for a new job. My job performance (teaching, research, and service) is evaluated on a regular basis by my Department Chair, my Dean, and the upper administration. If I were to go a year without at least publishing a peer reviewed paper or two, I would receive a warning on my official report. If I were to go two years without publishing, job-related consequences would begin to kick in. And I’m speaking as a tenured professor. For a professor who has still to attain tenure, the consequences would begin to arrive much sooner.

“…but deadlines are few.”

I can’t use the word “hogwash” too much or you’d get tired of it. So I’ll stop and switch to “malarkey” instead. In most of my university committee work (service is part of our job performance evaluation) I am faced with continual deadlines. The university calendar marches on with or without me. Classes run whether or not I’m prepared. Exams are set, and final course marks need to be in within 72 hours of the final exam.

Beyond that, in my research, I am faced with deadlines in the same way that a small business owner is faced with deadlines. I do have some level of autonomy in my research program, but if I were to stop self-imposing deadlines, our lab productivity would drop, my collaborators would head off to find other colleagues to work with, and I would quickly find my research dollars drying up. Which brings up another set of deadlines – every grant that I apply for has a hard deadline. Miss the deadline, and I miss the chance at being funded.

“Working conditions tend to be cozy and civilized…”

Well, I can’t argue with this one to any great extent. I am not out in the snow and cold. I am not in a sweatshop having my human rights exploited. I am behind a desk or out in the woods measuring trees and collecting specimens. So, the article got one right. But, that said, this is no different from a plethora of other jobs out there either.

“…and there are minimal travel demands, except perhaps a non-mandatory conference or two.”

True enough, conferences are “non-mandatory.” No one is telling me that I have to attend this or that conference. But if I were to stop going to conferences I would not be keeping current with my field and I would lose some degree of contact with my colleagues. In addition, my regular annual reports to my Chair and Dean (yes, I have “bosses”) require me to report on the number of invited and regular conference presentations that the folks in our research program or I have given. Particular weight is given to invited presentations, and I find it very difficult to turn those down. Science is all about communication, and despite the boom in social media, conferences will always remain the best way to hear about, and to tell about, the most cutting-edge results.

Besides conferences, I make several collaborative trips each year as well. Due to the growing complexity of biology, for which it is becoming harder to work in isolation, more and more research funding requires the cooperation of a network of collaborators working at various scales in the system in question. One of the major parts of our current research program includes dozens of researchers from a number of institutions. Writing up research grant proposals to do this kind of work, and then ensuring that the network is functioning properly while research is ongoing, requires regular face-to-face meetings in different venues across the country. Those visits can last several days and are highly work-intensive. From the time that we sit down at the table in the morning, through our working lunches, and until we head to our hotel rooms for the night, we are constantly planning. I do not get back home after one of those meetings feeling rested. I usually feel excited by the prospects of upcoming research, but it has certainly not been a weekend at the spa.

“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.”

Let’s score another point for Forbes here. Well, perhaps half a point. A median salary of $62,000 (this is a US median, the Canadian figures differ) is not high by any means, nor is it low compared to many other jobs. It is livable in many situations, but not all. Forbes loses half a point for adding the clause “…especially in a university town.” Not all universities are in “university towns.” Talk to professors in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, San Francisco, New York City, or San Diego (to name a few) and ask them how far their dollar goes. Even in university towns, dollars don’t necessarily stretch too far. During a postdoctoral stint in which I was working at the USDA-Forest Service and the University of California Davis, our rent for an apartment in Davis – the epitome of an American university town – was $1300 per month. That was in 2003, and it got us what would be described as a small, modest apartment on a very busy street. An acquaintance of mine was working at Stanford University in the Bay Area at the time and was paying $1500 per month for a single room bachelor suite. This was before my wife and I had kids, so we could fit into a small apartment. Even then, it was sometimes a bit of a struggle to make ends meet on even an at-the-time decent postdoctoral salary, which was considerably less than $62,000 per year.
I realize that I’ve gone on for quite awhile here, so I’ll stop now as I’m certain that others will have more to say on this issue as well.

In summary, I love this job. There are few jobs out there that are like it. I have a great deal of autonomy to pursue interesting research and to teach courses that I enjoy. I interact with fantastic colleagues and students. I am able to spend my life learning new and interesting things about the world around us. I am continually challenged with new opportunities and exciting possibilities.

But, for the record, I do not sit in an oak-panelled office smoking my pipe after an exhausting seven-hour week of teaching. I wouldn’t even do that if my office were oak lined and if I had a pipe, because I wouldn’t have the time.