The Least Stressful Job of 2013: University Professor

4 January 2013, 0943 EST

Daffy_duckThat’s what Forbes claims in an article that’s generating much mirth in academic social-media circles.

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.

Another boon for professors: Universities are expected to add 305,700 adjunct and tenure-track professors by 2020, according to the BLS. All of those attributes land university professor in the number one slot on’s list of the least stressful jobs of 2013.

Unlike many of my friends, I think this is basically right.

Well, okay, the last part about how adding adjunct jobs is a boon for the profession is ridiculous. And for many of us, summer is the peak work season. The pre-tenure period is also pretty rough. [Clarification: really, pretty much everything involved in the substantive description of professorial life is wrong.]

Putting that aside, my time as an opinion-research consultant in New York and a grunt in the Department of Defense convince me that the underlying rationale at work here is correct:

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.

Most tenured and tenure-track professors enjoy:

  • Some modicum of administrative self-governance;
  • Their own office, complete with a door that shuts and locks;
  • Generally flexible deadlines;
  • Tremendous flexibility in how they allocate their time;
  • Spending most of their time engaged in ideas and activities that they enjoy; and
  • The ability to spend significant time in situations in which power asymmetries favor them.

These factors more than counterbalance the negatives, including:

  • Getting rejected over and over again, whether for fellowships, grants, or articles;
  • The lack of clear work-life boundaries in conjunction with the “there’s always more work you can do” problem; and
  • Comparatively low pay for level of education.

So why do many academics experience what they take to be high levels of stress? The first two factors explain a lot. Moreover, because academic life is a vocation, failures and setbacks have existential implications–much as they do, of course, for anyone who defines their “value” through their work. But I think another factor might be in play: because academia requires self-motivation and self-regulation, it attracts and retains people who generate a lot of eustress and distress. My guess is that those traits positively correlate with scholarly success.