What’s it like being a science professor?

Today is a wonderful nerd holiday combination: Pi Day, and Albert Einstein’s birthday! While neither of those is strictly biology, math is important to biology, and honoring math feels like a very natural thing for this biologist to do.

Einstein 1921 by F Schmutzer
Albert Einstein, standing in front of a chalkboard. Photo by Ferdinand Schmutzer, obtained via Wikimedia Commons. This image is in the public domain in the United States but may not be elsewhere – click the image for more information.

Because of the holiday, the fact that I’m just catching up on blogging after being ill and getting through a very large side project at work, and the fact that it’s just interesting, I wanted to take a few minutes to talk about a recent fuss over what it’s like to be a (science) professor.

News source: The Least Stressful Jobs Of 2013, by Susan Adams at Forbes.

The original science: Ms. Adams got her information from CareerCast.com

I’ll also share some of the responses to this article with you:
Scott Jashick at Inside Higher Ed
proflikesubstance at Scientopia
David Kroll, at Forbes
Emily Willingham, at Forbes
James Joyner, at Outside the Beltway
Lauren Landry, at BostInno

I first saw this: all over my Facebook feed. And on various blogs and news sites. Sort of everywhere, actually.

Helpful vocab: None today!

Why this is news: Because Forbes wanted it to be…?

And because Ms. Adams got a lot of stuff wrong. (Full credit where it’s due: she posted an addendum saying that she didn’t exhaustively research the finding from the analysis she quoted, and seems to understand that the one professor she knows – which she states in her addendum – may be an outlier.) I mean: of all of the professors I know, in humanities *and* sciences, nobody has the summer “off.” Summertime is often the only time professors have to pursue research, attend professional conferences to share their findings and to keep up with progress in their fields, or work closely with students. (Or develop teaching materials for the next year, including rewriting exams, evaluating new editions of textbooks, ordering textbooks, improving pedagogical skills, writing new syllabi, or coming up with entirely new courses.) Most schools that I know of do not have a month-long Christmas break; many do have a week-long break sometime during the spring, but from experience, I can tell you that while classes may not be in session, campus is anything but empty. Conferences, depending on your field, may not be optional if you want to keep your job or get promoted, and working environments may be far from civil.

Apple pie Pi Day 2011
A Pi Day pie! Picture by Matman from Lublin, via Wikimedia commons

What I want to clear up: Here’s what I think the main problem of this article is: it contributes to a society-wide desire to rank our lives as better than those of the people around us. Being a professor is hard work. So are being an auto mechanic, landscaping, cutting hair, doing investigative journalism, stocking shelves, and teaching preschool. Not everyone has the particular blend of talents and passions to be a professor, or to be a good professor – but then, not everyone has the particular blend of talents and passions to be an accountant, or a good accountant. The amount of stress you feel – good or bad – will depend on a lot of things, no matter what you do.

As for the assertion that the least stressful jobs are low stress due to autonomy, well, yes and no. I love that I can pursue the science I love, and am applying for jobs as a professor to help me do that. There may not be a specific person telling me what I can and can’t do on a given day, but a good many of us professor types are the types who can’t walk away from work at the end of the stereotypical eight-hour day. (As a grad student, working for eight hours was a fairly short day!) (Oh, hey, another thing Ms. Adams got not-quite-right! But I dare you to ask any person who is passionate about their work whether they *really* leave it behind when they leave their place of work.) And if you’re stuck or confused and have no specific person guiding you, it can be scary and stressful.

I do think it was odd of Ms. Adams and the people who did the CareerCast ranking, to lump all professors together when “grading” jobs by criteria like how much physical danger you are in every day. I have a few friends who are professors of literature, and sure, they don’t normally have to worry about their students accidentally killing themselves while, say, analyzing the structure of a poem, the way that I literally have had to ensure that my students don’t kill themselves while using certain methods to extract DNA, or the way I’ve had to help safeguard students doing fieldwork with wild rodents. I can assure you, however, that my non-science professor friends are often stressed out by their responsibilities: they are training students in how to think deeply and carefully, often advising students with majors other than their own areas of expertise – the futures of their students are, in no small part, shaped by these individual professors. That may not be life or death, but it’s hardly free of risk “to oneself or to others.” Given that public relations executives rated as more stressful than being a professor… (Again: I don’t think it’s not stressful to be a PR executive! I just find it odd to generalize all professors as being identical, and all PR execs as identical, and all stress as identical. But doesn’t it strike you as odd that this job ranking doesn’t have emergency medical staff way at the top of this list? I would definitely think that an emergency room or intensive care unit nurse would have way more job stress than most senior corporate executives.)

And a comment about social justice: There is a lot of evidence that women work harder than men in many academic fields in order to earn the same level of respect, salary, hiring probability, etc. We know there are still imbalances in American academia with respect to having our professors not reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity of our students, let alone our society. The levels of bad stress experienced by many of those of us who are women, people of color, have/have had a lower socioeconomic status, sexual minorities, etc., still tend to be higher than those experienced by Caucasian men who come from middle-class to upper-class backgrounds.

Dr. Brainiac’s scientific two cents: I don’t think there was really good science reported here. I suspect that there are, however, ways to investigate job stress in more objective ways that are more consistent with good science. If you read the methodology posted by CareerCast, you’ll note that they say that seamstresses and tailors ranked 0 out of 9 for deadlines, while photojournalists ranked 9. My scientific training makes me question whether this is a “fair” measure – and by fair, I mean as objective as possible, equally applied across groups. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some photojournalists who have fewer deadlines in a given month than some tailors, and so I wonder about how useful this deadline measure is as a way to measure stress.

Scientific questions I would ask next:
– What do people report their stress levels to be in different jobs? Are these measurements consistent over time? Between individuals?
– Are there objective measures of job stress that we can apply to understand how stressful different jobs are?
– Why are people so interested in rankings? Can we assess that using tools from sociology or psychology?

Final thoughts: I find the articles that let you compare your life to the lives of other people just as fascinating as the next person, but I think most of us are probably better off if reporters discuss objective qualities if they’re going to indulge our curiosity about this stuff. My personal opinion is that we’re better off finding the value in every job, making sure we support people doing hard work in appropriate ways that let them contribute their best to society. Hopefully that’ll leave us all feeling less stressed!

Pi Day Cake
A Pi Day cake! By Endlessly777 via Wikimedia Commons

With that, once again: happy birthday, Albert Einstein, and happy Pi Day to all!


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