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A "study" by CareerCast (a job portal site) and a resulting article in Forbes -- both asserting that college professor is the least stressful job in America -- have created considerable faculty stress (and anger) in the last few days.

Twitter has seen the arrival of new hashtags -- such as #RealForbesProfessors -- to express outrage. Gawker declared: "The Forbes-College Professor War Is So On." And while Gawker mocks academe with some regularity, it came down decidedly on the side of professors this time around.

The original source of the controversy was a CareerCast study in which professors won the top rank of "least stressful jobs of 2013." Among the findings by CareerCast: "University professors are at the pinnacle of the education field. Their students are largely those who choose the classes they attend, and thus want to be in class. Unlike elementary and secondary educators, the performance of college professors isn't evaluated based on standardized tests. University professors also have the opportunity to earn tenure, which guarantees lifetime employment." The study declared the median salary of faculty members to be $62,050, and gave the career a low stress score based on a methodology that factored in 11 criteria.

Some of those criteria are indeed things on which professors would not have high stress levels. Most professors do not have their lives at risk from their jobs, deal with the lives of others at risk or face physical labor tasks on the job. (Of course professors are hardly unique in not facing those particular sources of stress.)

But on many of the other criteria, professors may think they have plenty of stress. For instance, one measure is deadlines (of which faculty members have many, between grading, publishing, grant applications and so forth) and competitiveness. Other stress criteria might well also apply to professors: "meeting the public" and "working in the public eye" are considered stress-inducing, for example, and arguably faculty members do both of those things every day they teach.

Based on the CareerCast study, Forbes then weighed in. "University professors have a lot less stress than most of us," said the article. "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 spend too many hours in the classroom. For tenure-track professors, there is some pressure to publish books and articles, but deadlines are few. Working conditions tend to be cozy and civilized and there are minimal travel demands, except perhaps a non-mandatory conference or two."

That sort of analysis prompted a flood of comments to Forbes, with professors pointing out their deadlines, their summer teaching schedules, the reality that faculty members who teach at community colleges or off the tenure track face numerous challenges apparently unknown to Forbes, and professors' lack of the sort of Mr. Chips life that the magazine apparently believes still exists. Some of the choice comments on Twitter:

  • "If you account for my access to academic journal subscriptions, my salary is really like half a million dollars."
  • "My dream job has always been adjunct professor. Since childhood I abhorred stability, working wages and insurance."
  • "Least stressful job for 2013: journalist at . Data collected by others, no fact checking, lazy writing. :-)"

Susan Adams, the Forbes author, backtracked amid all the criticism. She amended her original article: "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," she wrote. "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."

Saranna Thornton, an economics professor at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and chair of the American Association of University Professors' Committee on the Economic Status of the Profession. said that she found CareerCast's analysis "sophomoric at best." She noted the wide variation of pay and teaching requirements for faculty members, depending on where they work, making it difficult to generalize about stress levels. Further, she noted that the criteria used by CareerCast appeared to place a premium on physical danger and stress, an emphasis that wouldn't reflect the real stresses faced by faculty members.

Recent surveys of faculty members have found that they report considerable stress. A national survey of four-year college and university faculty members, released in October by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, found that more than 80 percent of faculty members -- at public and private institutions alike -- feel stress over "self-imposed high expectations" and "lack of personal time." At public institutions, more than 80 percent of faculty members also reported stress over budget cuts.

A spokeswoman for CareerCast, asked about the criticism, said via e-mail that she has been viewing the comments, and that "there has been a lot of discussion on both sides, with some people saying that full-time university professors have a great job, and others reporting stress related to 'publish or perish.' " She added, however, that the CareerCast study "refers to full-time university professors, not adjuncts."

The CareerCast study and Forbes article have prompted much reflection from faculty members about their jobs. While both pieces are generally being trashed, some professors have noted that for those with tenure at four-year colleges and universities with enough money so that teaching loads are not 4-4, professors indeed have more autonomy than many other professionals. But that doesn't mean that they don't have stress, faculty members have noted. The latest rejoinder -- an article called "Top 10 Reasons Being a University Professor Is a Stressful Job" -- appears in Forbes.

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