Like butter over too much bread….

Beginning of the year Forbes published its Ten Least Stressful Jobs of 2013. Number 1? University professor with a helpful salary guide – median (US) salary $62,000/year – just in case someone decides they might want to change jobs immediately. Leaving out all of the climbing up the ladder (or pole) it takes to be a professor, I am not sure it is the *least* stressful job, but I maybe that depends on what other jobs you are comparing it to.


A number of quite annoyed academics responded to this – so many that Forbes published an addendum which kind of reads like, “Alright so professors may be stressed but they love their jobs so it’s OK.”

Which is what people often say about academics – they all love their job. I am here to tell you this is not true. I know many academics that don’t love their jobs (not me – my job is good) and anyway even if all academics DID love their jobs – is not really a reason/excuse for taking some kind of monster stress hit.

The thing about being an academic is that (often, but not always) you do get to do the research you want to do or there is a promise of being able to enact your research ideas or someone else’s cool ideas for that matter. This is in an ideal world. Obviously it doesn’t always happen like that. But here is the stressful bit. As an academic you have to find MONEY to do the research you want to do. Similar to politicians who have to re-apply for their jobs every few years, if you want to do research you have to keep applying for money to do that research. It rarely comes free. For the temporary contracted folk, you have to keep writing for funding to keep yourself AND your research group in a job. You have to do this even if you have a permanent academic job. You have to write for funds for supplies and often to employ others too. This is an immense responsibility and is not, no matter what Forbes says, stress-free. And it takes a lot of time, on top of other university commitments – like teaching students – which is one of the primary purposes of a higher education institution – it makes you feel ‘thin’, as Bilbo tells Gandalf you start to feel like ‘butter spread over too much bread’.

That being said, I am not sure that many of jobs Forbes mentioned are really low-stress jobs. I am sure that being the CEO of a big company is very stressful – so maybe after Wall Street a professorial job looks pretty nice and cushy – except you’d be making far less money, that can’t be fun. Take for example some others on that Forbes list. Number 5 – Medical Laboratory Technician. A good friend of mine is a Medical Laboratory Technician, she makes children’s radiotherapy cocktails for kids with Leukemia. Her job is stressful – though not particularly well paid. Number 9 – Librarian. Another good friend of mine was a research librarian. She was responsible for cutting journal subscriptions when there were funding cuts at her university. This is pretty stressful – think angry yelling academics who couldn’t lay their hands on their favourite journals.

Maybe it’s just me, but the Forbes list seems to really be a list of People-who-I-think-have-less-stressful-jobs-than-really-rich-Wall-Street guys and not much else. Or maybe it’s just bankers disease of always thinking
‘You think your job is stressful, well let me tell you what stressful is….’

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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5 Responses to Like butter over too much bread….

  1. The modern view of job-related stress, as I understand it from The Better Half, is that it is at least as much to do with how much control you perceive you have over your job, and what you are tasked to do, as how stressful it/your work/your job us.

    I would suggest that that means working in Universities as got much more stressful over the years I have been there, since academics routinely say they have far less control of their own ‘destiny’ than they used to. This is a combination of:

    i) the ever-increasing scarcity of grant money, combined with the absolute need for it if you want to do any research at all (which was not the case in the UK 20-odd years ago, when Departmental funds often existed and research was far cheaper to do)
    ii) ever-rising teaching hours that fill more and more of your time (+preparatn, marking etc);
    iii) ever-rising demands to do more ‘pastoral care’ and ‘academic guidance’ stuff for the less-independent-than-of-yore students; and
    iv) ever-rising nagging from admin to fill in forms, mostly online, documenting everything we do, including i)-iii) above, but esp true for ii) and iii)

    I hear people complain a lot that they have less and less time to think, and simply have to dash from place to place fire-fighting the latest “Urgent!” request.

    Anyway, I think it is the increasing sense that you are in no way your own master that is the stressor.

    And agreed 100% about ‘spread too thin’. ‘Scraped’, indeed.

    And I absolutely can’t say I love my job, I fear. If I were ten years younger, I would chuck it in and do something else. And from what I hear round the lunch table, I’m not the only one.

    • I think the better half has a point – of course I would also say that is easier said than done. In fact I originally wrote this post to be more positive and say something along the lines of stress is stress and it is how you manage it but changed it – I probably should have stuck with the first version. largely because I am more positive about my job than this post makes it sound…

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    What a load of BS! I think they look at us as being in “ivory towers” with tenure and paid salaries, and they consider only jobs that involve large amounts of money as being stressful. Academia has huge stress. If you look for low-stress jobs, perhaps gardeners, mail delivery, fitness trainer, park ranger are better examples. Not university professors!

    • Probably – but all jobse even park rangers have stress – those guys are underpaid and have way too much work to do – I used to work for the US park service … there are always justdifferent kinds of stress I think – I think some bankers think they have the hardest job in the world is all – but of couse peope think that everywhere!

  3. Pingback: Forbes: University Professor is the Least Stressful Job

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