Field of Science

Professor -- The Easiest Job in the World

There has been a small kerfuffle over Susan Adams's article at Forbes, titled "The least stressful jobs of 2013":
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 sped too many hours in the classroom ... Working conditions tend to be cozy and civilized and there are minimal travel demands...
She also mentions the great job prospects ("Universities are expected to add 305,700 adjunct and tenure-track professors by 2020").

To her credit, Adams has added a sizable addendum to her article, correcting -- but not apologizing for -- her mistakes. Unfortunately, this is far from the first time this kind of article has appeared in a major publication. Some time back, a columnist for the New York Times wrote an article suggesting that the solution to rising costs of higher education was to make professors work more than a few hours a week. An article in the New Yorker casually noted that the new head of a particular company was concerned that his employees worked "the hours of college professors" (I initially assumed they meant "way too hard" and that the boss wanted them to take a break!). What gives?

Scicurious suggests it's the curse of half-knowledge:
The vast majority of us aren't teachers or professors, but we've all been students, right? ... We thought that, because of what we saw of them in our classes, we knew what they did ... Because of this half-knowledge, people make assumptions about our jobs, assumptions that can really affect how we are perceived as people...
 That is no doubt part of it, but it also requires that people not think very hard. If I heard that someone made a pretty good living working only a few hours a week, it would immediately set off my implausibility alarm. I mean, what are the chances? And you'd only have to think for a moment to realize this can't be true.

Adams got hundreds of comments and letters pointing out that professors, in addition to giving a few lectures a week, also grade papers, advise students, write papers and books, go to conferences, give invited talks, etc. Adams presents this as if this came as a surprise, but that seems equally implausible. I'm going to assume she's read one or two articles about medicine or science, in which case the people discussed are inevitably professors. In fact, articles about politics occasionally cite professors as well. If she went to college, she knows that professors have office hours and grade papers. Many of the books on science and politics in the bookstore are written by faculty, as are essentially all college textbooks.

Even if she had never attended college, never interacted with a professor, and didn't read articles about higher education, a few minutes of Googling prior to writing her article would have corrected that mistake. My guess is that she didn't really think about her article before writing it and didn't consult either her own memory or Google because she -- and the others who write similar articles -- wanted this crazy claim about the lazy professor to be true. The interesting question is why she wanted it to be true. Anti-intellectualism? A desire to believe that such cushy jobs really exist? Or is this just an example of one of those ideas that are crazy enough that they inspire belief (like one of those many apocryphal "weird facts")?

*I do realize that some professors do very little work. Some people in all professions do very little work.


Anonymous said...

Gee, I have a volunteer-board colleague who's a professor on sabbatical. I'll be sure to forward this to him about how hard he's supposed to be working.

In all seriousness, how many professors have you known who quit the field to have a less stressful job? How many professors turn to drink and lottery ticket buying?

Full college professors are an extremely privileged caste. Meeting with grad students and grading papers aren't that difficult compared to stocking shelves in retail, going over boring expense information as an accountant, dealing with low-functioning adults as a social worker, preparing high-stakes presentations in sales, working 10-12 hours a day in finance, or even being a K-12 teacher and trying to educate kids who don't care about the subject you're trying to teach them.

True, there are hard working profs. They're called adjuncts. The privileges of full professors come at their expense.

You have it easy. Stop whining.

GamesWithWords said...

@Anonymous: I don't think anyone is disputing that being a professor is a good gig. A traditional economist would say that, given that professors at elite universities could easier make 100x as much in business or finance, there must be some non-monitary benefits to being a professor.

What I'm disputing is that (a) the job is easy, and (b) the time commitments are minimal. Most professors are going to work far, far more hours than you shelf-stocker or K-12 teacher (I know less about the other jobs you mention).

There are consequences to being wrong. Gov. Brown of California is trying to "fix" the public university system by upping the number of classes professors teach. This would help keep tuition lower, but it comes at a cost: less research. Given how much California has benefited from the university research in the state (goodbye Silicon Valley!*), this isn't something to be entered into lightly.

*Yes, Stanford has contributed to Silicon Valley. And obviously Bell Labs (another quasi-public institution) did at the outset. But take away Berkeley and the other California schools, and you have a very different state.