On having “The Least Stressful” Job of 2013

Making its rounds on the intertubes yesterday was this article/blog post/something by Susan Adams at Forbes, “The Least Stressful Jobs of 2013.” The winner? University professor, of course!

The article is so factually inaccurate in so many different ways that there’s really no point in explaining why. But there are two interesting aspects of the way it has been reported. First, after many flabbergasted comments from various professors, Adams published an addendum/apology where she acknowledged that being a professor is actually a lot of work and even potentially stressful. Second, as a part of that addendum, Adams says “but don’t blame me; blame CareerCast,the marketing/PR firm that came up with these lists in the first place.”

In other words, all Adams did was reproduce the quasi-made-up lists of least stressful jobs and posted it, all under the rhetorically persuasive guise of “reporting” for an established magazine. Classy. And it would appear that the rest of the lemmings in mainstream media have chased after this story too: a google search turned up similar links/stories on ABC News, some business web sites, some TV station web sites, etc.

I think the most stressful jobs list is also pretty telling.  There are jobs there that I would assume are stressful (military, firefighter, police officer, etc.), but then there’s Public Relations Executive, Senior Corporate Executive, Photojournalist, and Newspaper Reporter, jobs that are pretty close to the kinds of work people at CareerCast do. Nothing self-serving about that at all, right?

Not surprisingly, professors have complained about this low stress characterization. Two blog posts I’ll mention is “The Least Stressful Job for 2013? A Real Look at Being a Professor in the US,” by Audra Diers at the blog Facts & Other Fairy Tales. She goes to exhaustive lengths– and I mean exhaustive– to describe just how very stressful and time-consuming it is to be a professor.  Second, Aaron Barlow writes about all this in “‘The Job I Love’ and ‘Why I Fight.'” I think Barlow is exactly right when he explains why it’s difficult to compare/explain the profession to people who look at work and jobs as something unpleasant that is done in order to pursue real passions when the reality is that the job/work of being a professor is the passion. Interestingly enough, Barlow was interviewed and clearly misquoted by these CareerCast people.

But it is also easy in these sorts of rebuttals (and in the comments on that Forbes article or on mailing lists I’m on) to slip into workload exaggeration in an effort to tell the best “oh, you think you had it bad” story ala Four Yorkshiremen:

But just what is “stressful,” anyway? What do these people mean? It turns out that CareerCast does have a methodology of sorts, though it is a strange point system/scale/something, and there’s no explanation as to how things are scored. Being a university professor scores on this scale (according to these folks) a 6.45. By contrast, the most stressful job, Enlisted Military, scores 84.75; a PR Executive scores 48.52; and a photojournalist scores 47.12.

The application of these points is clearly pretty loosey-goosey; in fact, if I were to guess, I’d say it looks like what the CareerCast people did was sit around in a conference room or a bar one day and bullshit with each other to come up with the numbers. This probably explains why so many careers related to the careers of these CareerCast wonks rated so high. I am almost certain that they didn’t actually ask anyone in these fields to rate their own stress levels.

So as a public service and as a way to procrastinate, I thought I’d go ahead and score my own stressfulness on the job based on their scale.  Here it goes:

  • Travel, amount of 0-10: 2 I’m going to give myself a 2 for this because while I generally still need to go to one or two conferences a year as part of my work (and I have to pay a lot of those expenses myself), I don’t really have to do this much anymore since I’m tenured and all that. But when I was in graduate school and seeking tenure, going to conferences was critical, time-consuming, expensive, and thus stressful, so I’m sticking with that 2. It’s not as bad as a job where you are flying someplace every week (I have a brother-in-law who does that), but it’s not non-existent either.
  • Growth Potential, income divided by 100: ? Honestly I’m not sure what this means, but I will say this: one of the clear problems of being a professor– especially at a place like EMU, where it is comparatively easy to get tenure and promotion– is that you “max out” in terms of pay and rank.  This is one of the reasons why professors become administrators. Besides, if the number for stress is high, wouldn’t this be a good thing? I’m confused by this one. I’ll say zero even though I know that’s wrong.
  • Deadlines, 0-9: 5 I suspect that the CareerCast people sat around and said “yeah, my professors always took a couple weeks to pass back grades on papers– they didn’t give a shit about any deadlines.”  That’s because when you are a professor, you have lots and lots of other deadlines that have nothing to do with teaching that are more important than passing back those papers. There are deadlines for publishing, for posting grades, for advising, for committee meetings, for doing assessment and other university busy-work, etc., etc. Lives are not at stake and deadlines are often not met, but yes, there are lots of stressful deadlines.
  • Working in the public eye, 0-5: 1 Given the criticism of education in the MSM and the fact that I am a public employee who has to maintain a public persona as a teacher and a scholar in my field, I do feel a certain amount of “public eye” stress. I mean, it’s not like anchoring the local news, but it is also not an anonymous profession.
  • Competitiveness, 0-15: 15 People outside of academica have no fucking clue on this. Anyone– and I mean anyone– who is in a tenured position at a university, particularly in fields like English or Rhetoric and Writing, competed mightily for that position. They competed against applicants to graduate school for admission and an assistantship, they competed against their classmates in graduate seminars for recognition, they competed against their peers around the country to get accepted to conferences and to publish essays, they competed against their peers again to get hired in the first place, and they continue to compete with their faculty colleagues for damn near everything. EVERYONE who has a tenure track job has dealt with the stresses and pressures of the never-ending competition, and show me someone who is in a particularly prestigious tenure-track job and I’ll show you the most competitive S.O.B. you’ll ever face.
  • Physical demands (stoop, climb, etc.), 0-14: 0 As I am fond of saying of this work, it beats shoveling coal. Assuming we’re not talking metaphorically- that’s covered by competitiveness.
  • Environmental conditions, 0-13: 0 Though I have had some sketchy office spaces.
  • Hazards encountered, 0-5: 0 Though I can imagine folks in chemistry might feel differently.
  • Own life at risk, 0-8: .5 Obviously, being a professor is not dangerous like being a firefighter or police officer or soldier. But given the rare but unfortunate incidents of violence on college campuses, I would say there is some anxiety there that is stressful.
  • Life of another at risk, 0-10: .5 See above.
  • Meeting the public, 0-8: 6 This is another one of those categories where I suspect the CareerCast people, the ones who were once students in classes like mine, thought “yeah, those professors are so lucky, they never have to deal with the public, just students and stuff.” Well, I’ve got news: students are “the public.” Now, most of my work with students– especially the good ones– is very pleasant and rewarding, no doubt about that. And working with college students is generally a lot easier than working with “the public” one encounters in secondary schools, social work settings, shopping malls, restaurants, etc.

That said, every professor/lecturer/adjunct/graduate assistant I know can tell you several hair-curling stories about dealing with students/the public who were insulting, mean, weepy, drunk, scary, crazy, potential violent, lazy, rude, and/or all of the above. Honestly, working with the public/students is often the best and the worst part of the job, and it is definitely one of the sources of stress in my life.

So for me, I’d give being a professor a 30, not counting that “growth potential” question. I’m not saying it is in the “top ten” of stressful positions (though being a PR Executive isn’t in the top ten either in my book), but it ain’t quite as easy as it is to come up with these top ten lists in the first place.

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