College Guide


January 07, 2013 1:24 PM The Real Stress of Being a College Professor

By Daniel Luzer

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


  • Colin Day on January 07, 2013 1:47 PM:

    You should say that 73% of college instructors (including professors?) teach part time.

  • RSA on January 07, 2013 2:45 PM:

    Actually, Daniel has the statistic wrong.

    The 73% is 15% (full-time, nontenure-track faculty) + 37% (part-time/adjunct faculty) + 21% (graduate employees).

    I'll assume that the graduate employees are grad student instructors, who shouldn't be counted as being part-time, so it's really 37% part-timers. This is still terrible, but not 73% terrible.

    And then there's context. The study the numbers are based on is of all post-secondary education, not just the archetypical four-year degree-granting non-profit private or public university. (Invert all those qualifiers and you get the rest; what I've called archetypical is only a third of the total.) It turns out, as you might expect, that things aren't uniform across all the categories of institutions.

  • Daniel on January 07, 2013 2:55 PM:

    @RSA It's not wrong; you're just providing more context. 73 percent of people who teach college courses (who students call professors, no matter what their legal status) do not enjoy anything like the protections afforded to tenture track professors. That's the point.

    Of course the study is based on all of post secondary education. The archetypical four-year degree-granting college is one part of college, yes. A true picture of what college looks like doesn't just include the archetypical four-year degree-granting college.

  • Anonymous on January 07, 2013 6:12 PM:

    That is not the only issue with the Forbes article. Even its characterizations of the workload of a tenured (forget tenure track) faculty member is laughably wrong. They really have no idea what the job entails.

  • bigtuna on January 07, 2013 6:28 PM:

    What Anon said. man I cannot figure out where Forbes gets thier ideas. Maybe some professors "have the summer off" but this misses several points: Most faculty get paid for 9 mos of work. Many in the sciences and engineering generate the other 25 %, + the salaries of the grad students + salaries of post docs, ugrads, lab techs, etc., via grants, with 10-30% success rates. Most work in the summer. Many now just forego their saummer salaries due to the pressures to get something funded, and to avoid jacking the costs of the grants too high; to get the work done, the students and postdocs get paid first. etc etc etc.

    I bet the job of an average Forbes writing is a hell of a lot less stressful than that of a professor.

  • grammarfox on January 07, 2013 9:23 PM:

    Thank you, bigtuna--professors AND public school teachers get time off, but they're not paid for that vacation time.

    I was amazed when I saw this article that the reporter hadn't figured out how long it takes to prepare to teach just one class and how stressful that can be. And no deadlines? I guess there are no papers to correct and no grades to file.

  • Area Man on January 08, 2013 2:56 AM:

    I can't speak of other fields, but in my field, all the professors would be extremely surprised to hear that they get summers and the whole month of December off, would laugh at the claim that there is "some" pressure to publish (the cliche "publish or perish" exists for a reason), and would very glad if grant applications and article revisions didn't have deadlines. They'd also be surprised to hear that they never have to travel.

  • Gene O'Grady on January 08, 2013 3:49 PM:

    I've been in academia and I've been in executive support in a Fortune 500 company. There's no doubt in my mind that the average CEO or top of the line corporate officer has a great deal less stress than the typical college instructor. Although the CEO does have a highly paid staff telling the world how rough he has it and how much he has at risk.