College Professors Have the Least Stressful Job? Ask a Sociologist Who Studies Work

A recent article on Forbes purported to rank the least stressful jobs, and perhaps predictably, sparked outrage among academics when it ranked being a university professor as the number one least stressful job. The article contains some dubious claims that might make you do a double-take if you work as a professor–among them that professors are “off” from May-September, enjoy long breaks during the school year, that there is “some” pressure to publish (!) and that “deadlines are few”. The ranking is based on markers of stress including but not limited to travel, competitiveness, growth potential, and risk to one’s own life or others.

Many people unfamiliar with the particulars of academic life assume that professors only teach, and therefore erroneously conclude that when faculty members are in the classroom for only a few hours a week, they use the rest of their time as leisure. In fact, in addition to classroom time, faculty are responsible for preparing lectures, grading, advising students, departmental and university committee service, attending and presenting research at conferences, and publishing research (preferably in top-ranked journals in their field, many of which have acceptance rates of less than ten percent). At Research I universities, responsibilities also include mentoring and advising graduate students, directing masters’ theses and dissertations, devising and grading comprehensive exams, and securing grant funding, despite the fact that pools of available money are rapidly declining. This all occurs in an environment where tenure-track professors at public universities in many states (including Georgia and Washington) have not received raises in several years, and adjunct faculty often live near or at the poverty level. These basic job descriptions challenge the perception that academic jobs are not competitive, require little travel, and allow for extensive free time.


Other than these misunderstandings of the basic job, there are some claims in the piece that are simply factually inaccurate. Others have taken great pains to highlight some of the most important points that are excluded; among these, the increasingly onerous financial burdens academics shoulder on the way to becoming PhDs and the marketization of the academy so that adjunct professors bear a disproportionate burden of teaching with few benefits and low compensation. However—once I stopped laughing at the statement that academic jobs tend to be “the traditional 9 to 5”—I realized that despite the mistakes in this article, it reveals some of the important reasons sociology professors specialize in studying the sociology of work. Research in this vein has documented many aspects of the ways occupations, professions, and labor markets function that may not be immediately evident to the untrained eye (or, with apologies to C. Wright Mills, the non-sociological imagination).


The article assumes that autonomy, finite hours, and social support help to make certain jobs less stressful. However, sociologists have determined that other aspects of labor can take a particular, if unseen, toll on workers. Arlie Hochschild’s seminal analysis of emotional labor argues that in a service economy, organizations require workers to manufacture and express emotions along with sales of food and beverages, clothes, and pretty much any other product. (Service with a smile!) As universities become more subject to market-based dynamics, it’s worth asking what form and what price emotional labor exacts from faculty who can face organizational pressure to treat students like customers.


Additionally, data suggests that women in nontraditional occupations as well as racial minorities in predominantly white professions face extensive challenges, such as discrimination, lack of mentorship, and social isolation.


Thus, women of any race working as professors in male-dominated fields like law, mathematics, or engineering, or black, Latino/a, or Asian American professors in virtually any academic field likely experience significant stress trying to establish necessary mentoring relationships with senior colleagues, avoiding pressure to do additional race-related university service, and navigating the all-important (but oftentimes purposely vaguely defined) tenure process. In fact, DePaul University is currently facing tenure-related lawsuits from two women of color, as plaintiffs allege that the university has a pattern of denying tenure to women and racial minorities. The Forbes piece seems to assume a professoriate devoid of racial and gendered hierarchies, and thus ignores the ways that these inequalities are present in the academy and can create highly stressful environments for those in the minority.


In a climate where teachers are often vilified and university professors in particular are frequently cast as overpaid, out of touch liberal elites who contribute little to society, this Forbes piece seems to reiterate stereotypes about this particular profession rather than offering a fully informed, well-researched analysis. Ironically, the profession it mischaracterizes seems better suited to do so.


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