Is it stressful to be an Academic?

I have been prompted to write this post following an article in Forbes entitled ‘The Least Stressful Jobs of 2013’, which identified university professors as having the least stressful job of those considered. I feel that this only serves to underline the amount of misunderstanding that exists about what university academics actually do, and what their job entails. The article refers to ‘university professors’, but that translates in UK English to those of us who are employed to teach and carry out research in universities, ‘professor’ being used in this context to describe the  job, rather than being a title or ‘rank’ as it is here.

First, there is a lot of  misunderstanding about our working hours, and about how our year is organised and, most importantly how much holiday we are entitled to. On average, I take about a month of leave each year, which is made up of about a week at Christmas, a few days at Easter, and the rest during the summer. Others might take a bit longer, but I doubt there is much difference across the sector. What seems not to be understood by many is that the student vacation (non-teaching) periods are practically the only time we have for research, and that this activity is still regarded by our employers as the most important part of our job. Promotions (particularly professorial ones) are largely decided on research excellence over and above teaching activity, but the increasing demands of teaching that I’ve discussed in previous posts take more and more time, making the remaining and dwindling research time during the student vacations absolutely essential. No wonder, therefore, that we don’t take more time off! And I should add that many of us work a 60-70 hour week (some more) against a 37.5 hour contract.

If we consider for a moment the demands on a university academic in the 21st century, it’s probably enough to put all but the keenest PhDs and postdocs from considering an academic career. We don’t just have to deliver our lectures; the slides and notes of are expected to be available in advance online, and we are encouraged to add value to our teaching by producing screencasts and recordings. When we mark work we have to produce detailed feedback and model answers online, and marking has to be turned round in a relatively short period (usually 2 weeks or less), which is challenging for large classes. We have to set exam questions that pass the standards set by ever more demanding external examiners, and to mark exams in ever shorter periods to fit in with deadlines imposed by university administrators. We have to be seen to be applying for research grants, even when the chances of them being funded reduce all the time. And if we are successful in receiving funding, we are expected to supervise the PhD students and/or postdocs on top of our existing workload, with little recognition of the time taken to do this. Of course, most of us, myself included, regard it as a privilege to supervise students and postdocs, but we often feel frustrated that we cannot spend as much time on this as we should! And if we don’t get funding, it can sometimes put our jobs on the line, as we this can be interpreted as failure in one of the requirements of our job. Finally, we are expected to review papers and grant applications, sit on funding panels, and be external examiners for undergraduate and postgraduate courses, largely as a kind of ‘good citizenship’ activity.

As far as promotion is concerned, I’ve already said that this largely depends on research performance. In my case I’ve practically given up on getting any further promotion because I will never have enough time to increase my research profile significantly enough. And this will get worse for us all, especially if more universities do as mine has, and revamp their academic years, reducing vacation times to make them more ‘student friendly’. Added to this are the results of changes in university funding, which pressure us into teaching more to larger classes, and to somehow do it ‘better’.

Given all these demands on university academics, the claims made by the Forbes articles are clearly misguided to say the least. Either the author didn’t do her research properly, or (worse) she listened to the kind of ‘well informed’ public opinion of those that frequently complain about the ‘long holidays’ that school teachers have. Either way the article is quite simply ill-informed. I’m not complaining that ours is ‘the most’ stressful job, but this article serves no useful purpose at all.

Happy New Year to all!

7 thoughts on “Is it stressful to be an Academic?”

  1. Yes, this exactly. I would also suggest that stress is a very subjective thing and an environment that is stressful to one may be an environment in which another thrives. The key problem in UK academia are unreasonable expectations and (very) high workloads. It isn’t a supportive enough enviroment for people to thrive in and the so-called ‘work-life’ balance is a vicious myth, particularly if one is to achieve all that seems necessary for promotion.
    I do think it is important to write this kind of post because it does give an insight into what the job is like. PhD and postdoc years are straightforward by comparison and perhaps not the best for gaining appreciation of the role.
    And to brixhamboy2000 relatively is the key word there – relative to what? If your job causes you stress, it doesn’t really help to say ‘hey things could be worse’. I suspect good job is also highly subjective.
    But regarding the orginal Forbes article, it’s based on a list by another bunch (linked to in the article) and I think the other careers listed under ‘least stressful’ are likely equally misrepresented. Perhpas the blog-o-sphere’s for those professions is ranting just as much 🙂

  2. Do you not think that the nature of academia will have to change? Research money is getting harder and harder to get – if it’s not actually decreasing, it is at least being (a) targeted more and (b) going in bigger lumps to larger groupings. Teaching money is becoming more important – now that students are paying proper upfront for their education, the money they put in is visible in the departmental cashflow, and makes up a large chunk of it.

    Teaching has always been the poor relation – many academics consider it a nuisance, something which gets in the way of their research. As you say above, it doesn’t get you promoted. But, given the increasingly difficult nature of research and the increasing importance of teaching, this will have to change. I can foresee a time in the not too distant future where academics will be either teaching only or research only – there simply isn’t time to pursue both activities well. Let’s be honest, there are a lot of world leading (in resaerch terms) academics who do next to no teaching anyway – the idea that you go to University to be taught be people who are at the cutting edge of their field is largely not true. It’s just that sooner or later the distinction will be formalised. A lot of ‘average’ academics are going to struggle to keep their research going – departments will start to make assessments at a relatively early stage in a researcher’s career whether they will ever be ‘world-leading’, and if not, they’ll be steered towards teaching. Whether they’re any good at that is another matter.

    1. I suspect that something like this might happen, but I hope not. I came into academia because of research, although I have always taken my teaching seriously, and didn’t mind doing it when the ratio between research and teaching time was better, and the classes were smaller and students actually wanted to learn! As far as I am concerned, if you’re going to be a ‘teaching only’ academic you might as well work in an FE college and have a better work:life balance as a result (and less stress (: )

  3. That’s a different question. I did have a good job when I started in academia some 25 years ago, but the job has changed a lot in that time. Now I would say it’s a good job for about 7 months of the year. If you read my earlier posts, you’ll see the areas I have issues with now.

    1. Unfortunately that’s often not an option, as there aren’t many alternatives. I’ve considered it many times, but couldn’t identify any realistic options. So I carry on, and make the most of the good parts of the job, and put up with the rest (including the stress (: ).

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