Burning Out, and Fading Away

June 10, 2010

WASHINGTON -- College faculty aren’t any more burned out than the rest of the U.S. workforce on average, but the struggles of the untenured on the tenure track are the most pronounced, according to a survey presented at an American Association of University Professors conference here Wednesday.

In an analysis of professional burnout among professors, a Texas Woman’s University Ph.D. candidate found tenure track professors had more significant symptoms of workplace frustration than their tenured and non-tenure track faculty counterparts.

Janie Crosmer, who conducted the survey of more than 400 full-time faculty across the U.S. in December 2008, said she was unsurprised that the high stresses of pursuing academe’s most coveted status led to burnout. As she discussed those stresses during a presentation Wednesday, audience members nodded in agreement, and one faculty member among them described the pursuit of tenure as “a living hell.”

The Maslach Burnout Inventory Educators Survey measures burnout in three categories. A faculty survey found professors, on average, fell within the average burnout range.

Emotional Exhaustion (Range 0-54)
• < 13: Low Degree of Burnout
• 14-23: Average Degree of Burnout
• > 24: High Degree of Burnout
• Full Faculty Survey Sample: 20.1

Depersonalization (Range 0-30)
• < 2: Low Degree of Burnout
• 3-8: Average degree of burnout
• > 9: High Degree of Burnout
• Full Faculty Survey Sample: 6.3

Personal Accomplishment (Range 0-48)
• > 43: Low Degree of Burnout
• 36-42: Average Degree of Burnout
• < 35: High Degree of Burnout
• Full Faculty Survey: 35.99

Crosmer, who completed her doctorate and now works as a strategic account executive at OptumHealth, relied upon an often-used measure of burnout levels in her study. Developed by Christina Maslach, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, the Maslach Burnout Inventory Educators Survey assesses three aspects of burnout on a multi-point scale. The categories include:

• Emotional Exhaustion: Feelings of being emotionally overextended or just worn out with work. (Average Scores: 14-23).

• Depersonalization: An unfeeling and impersonal response toward recipients of one’s service, care, treatment or instruction. (Average Scores 3-8).

• Personal Accomplishment : Feelings of competence and successful achievement in one’s work. (Average Scores 36-42).

While professors across the tenure spectrum scored within the average range of “emotional exhaustion,” tenure track faculty had the highest score at 22.3, edging toward the “high degree of burnout” designation. In contrast, those not on the tenure track had the lowest scores at 16.4, and tenured faculty were in the middle at 20.9.

Surveyed faculty also fell within the scale's average range of burnout when assessed for “depersonalization,” a category marked by heightened cynicism and a tendency to abandon tasks. Notably, however, tenure track faculty had the most heightened levels of depersonalization as well, coming in on the high end of the scale's overall average at 6.8. As with the "emotional exhaustion" category, non-tenure track faculty scored the lowest -- 5.2 -- and tenured professors were in the middle at 6.6.

As for the “personal accomplishment” category, Crosmer’s survey found no statistically significant difference between faculty across the tenure spectrum. Her survey did find, however, that older faculty had the highest personal accomplishment scores, suggesting professors become more satisfied with their achievements as they age.

Those surveyed cited a variety of factors they saw as contributing to burnout. Many mentioned budget cuts and a lack of support from administrators, for instance. They also had choice words for students, whom one typical respondent described as “entitled and lazy.”

“They speak to their instructors in ways that previous generations of learners would never dare,” one professor wrote.

While the 411 respondents made for a significant and geographically diverse sample, Crosmer concedes the as-yet-unpublished study relies upon self-reporting and doesn’t represent the full tapestry of higher education. About 65 percent of those surveyed were males, and 90 percent were white. Respondents were 49 percent tenured, 25 percent non-tenured and 24 percent tenure track. They also tended to be at doctoral universities – 42 percent – and mostly worked in the health sciences – 27 percent.

To pull together her sample, Crosmer used listservs and blogs, finding that respondents often passed the survey along to colleagues.

Women surveyed tended to score higher on the emotional exhaustion scale. While both genders scored within the average range, women averaged 20.9 on the scale, compared with men at 18.5. Anything above 24 on the scale would represent a "high" degree of burnout, but both genders surveyed fell within the average.

Crosmer said she was struck by the candor and, at times, negativity manifested in faculty comments. Professors complained about massive red tape, inflexible mandates for holding office hours, low morale, health concerns and insufficient travel funds. And while Crosmer would still like to land a faculty position in the future, she was disheartened by what she heard.

“By reading that, you were [thinking] do I really want to teach ever? Some of the comments were, oh my goodness.”

As with just about any industry, professors also said they felt they should earn more money. One respondent opined, “We are the most highly educated people in the country and among the worst paid.”

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