Earlier this year an article by Kyle Kensing at CareerCast created a bit of a storm in social media, especially among my colleagues in higher education. The title of the article was “The 10 Least Stressful Jobs of 2013,” and college professor occupied the number one (least stressful) spot on their list. According to their methodology, the field’s “high growth opportunities, low health risks and substantial pay provide a low-stress environment that’s the envy of many career professionals.” A follow-up article by Susan Adams on Forbes.com came to a similar conclusion, noting that “University professors have a lot less stress than most of us.” There have been several well-articulated rebuttals, including this one by Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed, and this one by David Kroll, posted on Forbes.com. In response to these kinds of comments, Susan Adams has written an addendum to her original Forbes article. Here’s a short quote.
Since writing the above piece I have received more than 150 comments, many of them outraged, from professors who say their jobs are terribly stressful. While I characterize their lives as full of unrestricted time, few deadlines and frequent, extended breaks, the commenters insist that most professors work upwards of 60 hours a week preparing lectures, correcting papers and doing research for required publications in journals and books. Most everyone says they never take the summer off, barely get a single day’s break for Christmas or New Year’s and work almost every night into the wee hours.
Well, which is it? Is college teaching stressful or not? It seems to me that the answer isn’t clear cut at all. There may not be as many external stress factors in college teaching as there are in other careers, but that doesn’t mean that college teachers aren’t under stress. Lots of stress can be self-imposed, based on one’s motivation, career aspirations, and levels of anxiety. These internal factors vary widely among people even in the same careers, and I would think that accurately measuring someone’s stress level is an imperfect science at best. For college teachers in the performing arts, the stress factor can take on an entirely new dimension. For me, every performance brings with it a certain level of stress. However, I have come to terms with it over the years, and am continually working on ways to reduce my stress levels.
Even if college teaching is a “low stress” career, does it matter? Does that take away from the fulfillment and satisfaction I might feel from doing my job well? I certainly hope not! While I may experience varying degrees of pressure at work, my ultimate goal is to do the best job I can every day with the minimum amount of stress. Another thing I take away from reading the above articles is that how others view our field – in this case, higher education – often doesn’t convey the reality of our day to day jobs. Likewise, I am all too aware that the preconceptions I have about other peoples’ jobs are probably way off base. One way to clear up some of these perhaps ill-founded notions is simply to talk to people in other careers and find out what creates stress for them. One of the things I like most about my job is that it brings me into contact with lots of different people and careers – public school educators, professional musicians, business leaders, and many more. Hopefully learning how people deal with stress in their own careers will help me manage my own.