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6.1.13

TT Professor is a relatively cushy job

CNBC recently did a fluff piece on the least stressful jobs of the coming year, naming "university professor" as number one. The story's description of professorial life is based on some tired stereotypes (no deadlines? really?), and so there was some backlash -- notably this piece by Audra of Facts and other Fairy Tales. But the fact is, being a tenure-track professor is a relatively low-stress job.

Note that I emphasized two things in my thesis. First, we're talking about tenure-track jobs. That's the kind of job the CNBC writer clearly had in mind, it's the kind of job Audra discusses, and it's the kind of job I have right now. However, my comments emphatically do not apply to the growing numbers of adjunct faculty (including my friend who linked me to these stories on Facebook). Second, what we're discussing is relative stress compared to other jobs. Being a professor is not easy and fun and relaxing when compared to, say, reading a pulp novel on the beach, or playing World of Warcraft, or going out for drinks with your friends. After all, if it was all fun they wouldn't need to pay anyone to do it! But compared to other jobs, tenure-track professors have it pretty easy.

First, the physical demands are almost nil. Professors have to lift a few books, and sometimes stand in front of a lecture hall for an hour at a stretch. Certain disabilities may make this still a challenge -- but those issues would arise in just about any job. The lack of physical demands in teaching tend to make professors forget just how stressful and exhausting a job with lots of physical activity can be (not to mention the health problems that can follow from, say, bending over to change spark plugs all day). Relatedly, there is almost no physical risk to professors. The outsized attention given to incidents like the Virginia Tech shooting belies the fact that overall, professors are exceedingly safe both from direct violence or from workplace accidents. At worst, having to interact with hundreds of students everyday means we're at heightened risk of catching whatever cold is going around. (This issue applies pretty much equally to adjuncts.)

Not only are professors not risking their own lives or health, but also nobody else's life is in our hands. A bad professor can be a pain, and can mess up people's plans for graduating. But ultimately, there's no way for a professor to make a little goof that costs someone dearly. We won't accidentally sever a nerve, or give someone the wrong drug, or jackknife into someone's car with a trailerload of hazardous chemicals, or invest someone's life savings in pets.com.

Being a professor also gives you a huge amount of control over your own work space and work flow. Lacking such control is one of the single most important sources of workplace stress. Other workers, from attorneys to supermarket cashiers, have computer systems monitoring their every move to ensure that they meet productivity benchmarks, and are subject to capricious oversight that often serves more to remind them that they are just cogs in the machine than to actually improve their output. Professors get to decide what they teach, how they teach it, and how they evaluate students, as well as on what and how they do research. Even compared to K-12 teachers, we have it made -- no school board or state board of education is going to require me to teach creationism or soft-pedal slavery. And I get my own office, which I can arrange and adorn as I please. (Adjuncts have it much worse here -- they typically have very little control over course content and structure, and often have no office at all.)

Being a professor also gives you comparatively flexible hours. While I don't have quite the same ability to jet off at any time as, say, a freelance writer (a job with other mountains of stress to contend with), it's a lot better even than the administrative assistants and janitors at my school. I'm tied down to specific-place-at-specific-time for about 20 hours a week during the school year (4 classes at 3 hours each, 6 hours of office hours, 2 hours of committee meetings). I have lots of other work to do at some point during the week, but if I need to take some time during the 9-5 slot to take my car to the mechanic or go to a doctor appointment or something, nobody will even notice. (Adjuncts, again, don't get the full benefit here, especially if they're teaching at multiple institutions.)

The pay for a tenure-track professor is also pretty good. Audra quotes a starting salary of $45,000-$55,000. That's just shy of the median income for a 2-person household in the US -- and remember, that's starting salary. She notes that given the number of hours a professor has to work, that comes out to an effective wage of $15-$20 an hour. That's not a wage that will make you rich, but it's hardly poverty level either, so professors' stress about the bills is not going to be up there with half of the country. The fact that it's a salary is important too -- it means you can count on that money, without worrying about having your hours unexpectedly cut. (Here adjuncts fall well short of tenure-track. The last proposal I heard from PASSHE in our current negotiations, for example, would cut adjunct pay to food-stamp-eligible levels if they have a family.)

Finally, there's tenure. Audra makes much of the fact that tenure-track professors can be let go anytime if the department no longer needs them or the administration takes away the tenure line. But that kind of insecurity faces every worker. Your boss can always fire you at any time for any reason, with no recourse unless they were stupid enough to send you a notarized letter saying "you're fired because you're black." And professors are actually more secure -- a dentist's office can hire a new receptionist any day of the week, but it would be a huge pain for a university to replace a professor in the middle of the semester when students are already involved in their classes. And the axe of capricious firing hangs over our hypothetical dentist's receptionist until the day they retire, whereas a tenure-track professor knows that in 5-7 years, their worries about being fired may be over. Whatever stress the process of getting tenure may bring, it is always balanced by the possibility of getting the sweetest job security deal in the country. Literally no other career (aside from K-12 teacher) has this arrangement. (The relevance to adjuncts should be obvious here.)

So yes, being a professor is a lot of work. But compared to just about every other job out there, those of us on the tenure track have it made. And it's important for us professors to keep this in mind and have some perspective on how much worse the average person's job may be.

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