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!