I have the least stressful job in America (duh)

by Andrew Gelman on January 6, 2013 · 18 comments

in Education,Media

I agree with Susan Adams that being a professor, at least the tenured variety, is one of the least stressful jobs in America. Really, how many jobs are there where you make a good salary, you can never be fired, you only really have to work a few hours a week, you get summers off, and you can take off almost whenever you want to be with your kids? And, did I mention the part about “you can never be fired”? If you work for the government it’s unlikely you’ll get fired, but you still are expected to show up to work every day (unless you’re a congressmember, of course).

In theory, the job-for-life thing doesn’t have to mean much: in lieu of firing the tenured faculty, the university could just make our lives miserable by lowering salaries, increasing the workload of teaching, grading, and advising, cramming us ten to an office, etc. But so far I haven’t seen this happening.

For untenured faculty, it’s another story, and Adams doesn’t seem to get the distinction at all. (She added an addendum to her article but still didn’t seem to get the point that life is a lot more stressful for professors that aren’t tenured (or who work at institutions that might go out of business).) And, yes, I realize that my job at Columbia is particularly easy, but even the more run-of-the-mill tenured prof gigs seem less stressful than the equivalent straight jobs.

Apparently some people got on Adams’s case for her professor-bashing but I think she’s basically right (and I don’t see it as anti-prof to point out that we have low-stress jobs, any more than it’s anti-exec to point out that business executives get paid a lot to do what they do).

The thing that Adams’s critics are missing, I think, is that she’s a journalist—-and journalism is the ultimate unstable job. Sure, she talks tough:

Since Forbes hired me [Adams] in 1995 to write a legal column, I’ve taken advantage of the great freedom the magazine grants its staff, to pursue stories about everything from books to billionaires. I’ve chased South Africa’s first black billionaire through a Cape Town shopping mall while admirers flocked around him, climbed inside the hidden chamber in the home of an antiquarian arms and armor dealer atop San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, and sipped Chateau Latour with one of Picasso’s grandsons in the Venice art museum of French tycoon François Pinault.

But you know and I know that she knows that print is dead and online doesn’t pay the bills and, as a journalist, she’ll basically be playing musical chairs for the rest of her career. So, to her, yeah, the job of a tenured professor is enviable.

I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to get this job. Still, I want to do more on Stan. Having a cushy job is great, but it’s just a means to an end (as, sadly, this guy didn’t realize until after his retirement.


Nicholas Warino January 6, 2013 at 2:44 pm

I think the critics are falsely equating “low stress” (relative to all jobs) with “no stress.” All jobs are stressful and require moments when you have to do stuff that you don’t want…that’s why you require money to do it.

As a grad student who hopes to land a cushy job as a professor, academia seems to be low stress most of the time with a few periods of extreme stress.

Mary Dixson January 6, 2013 at 5:22 pm

You’re tenured at Columbia, a private Ivy League institution with an annual student cost of $50,000 a year. That’s hardly representative. Now try your statement: “lowering salaries, increasing the workload of teaching, grading, and advising, cramming us ten to an office, etc.” just about anywhere else. This is precisely what they are doing at public, state-funded institutions at which we are challenged to provide cheap degrees to underprepared students (I believe you have a 7.4% acceptance rate?) while maintaining academic rigor and student learning outcome data. Oh, and you forgot committee/service work (because they are reducing staff and full-time faculty lines) and publishing to top it off. Add to that the way that tenure as you know it is vanishing with frightening speed. You are probably the one professor Ms. Adams interviewed. She added one outside source. That’s not journalism. You wouldn’t even accept her work on a freshman term paper.

Andrew Gelman January 6, 2013 at 7:21 pm


No, Adams did not interview me, but I do see your point. I recognize that most profs have more stress in their jobs than I do.

Tracy Lightcap January 6, 2013 at 6:22 pm

I don’t have much to add here, but I do think that Andrew is – well, not so much wrong as thinking incorrectly about the issue of stress.

It is a commonplace in public health studies that as you go up the hierarchical ladder in any organization you find less and less evidence of stress related illness. Less smoking, less excessive drinking, less heart disease; you name it, there’s less of it. Yet the jobs involved all appear to have more demands attached to them and, to those who don’t hold them, seem exceedingly stressful. (I’ve often heard from people in other jobs that they don’t understand how I can teach effectively; “It’s soooooo hard to do!”) The secret seems to be that as you go up the hierarchy, the ability to control how your job actually works and what you actually do in it increases. That in turn means that the impact of the stress of the work is less since you generate and regulate the stress yourself.

Obviously, the work done in post-secondary teaching by tenured professors is the sine qua non of this. I get to teach what I want, research what I want, and regulate how I do the whole magilla myself, with some input – usually ignored – from others. I don’t feel much stress as a consequence. Yet I teach 8 courses a year, I’m editing my second in book in so many years, and I chair my program at our college. This doesn’t mean that the overwork Professor Dixon mentions isn’t an issue, of course; I feel considerable pressure at work regularly and I expect that it will get worse as the publication deadline approaches. However, I seldom feel any significant stress. It’s my work. I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.

evnow January 6, 2013 at 6:31 pm

Isn’t every rich man potentially stress free ? They can just retire and live on the wealth they have – and yet a lot of them taken on a lot of work and stress. Same goes for many tenured professors, I guess.

Andrew Gelman January 6, 2013 at 6:52 pm


Tenured professors are not typically rich but we have low-stress jobs with lots of vacation and flexibility. Salary and flexibility are two different dimensions of a job.

evnow January 6, 2013 at 11:14 pm

May be I worded my comment wrong. What I meant was – wealthy people can have stress-free “work”. They can retire – so zero work pressure.

JC January 6, 2013 at 10:55 pm

Your little side-comment about congresspersons not working every day is ridiculous. Please learn something about the workload of members of Congress before you comments on it (even in jest). When intelligent, educated, and informed people such as yourself make an asinine comments like that it only further serves to undermine the legitimacy of Congress.

LFC January 6, 2013 at 11:11 pm

But you know and I know that she knows that print is dead

Print is struggling — print newspapers in particular — but it’s not dead. While some print newspapers have folded, others have managed to hang on by having both a print version and a good online version. There’s no question that the economics of print publishing have become much more difficult. But the other day I went into an independent bookstore in the city where I live (actually I don’t live in the city, but never mind) and there was an entire wall of, yes, print magazines and journals — everything from the New York Rev of Bks to N+1 to Democracy to … well, you get the idea. (And you can find a similar wall, albeit more tucked away probably, in a chain bkstore like Barnes & Noble. In fact the other week I bought a print copy of New Left Review in B&N — bit ironic, eh?)

Had I had the time the other day and not been just stopping in for a couple of minutes, I could have spent a substantial period just browsing there in the print journalism — and it is basically journalism, however ‘niche’ — section. So no, print is not dead. And radio is not dead. ‘Old’ media don’t tend to die that easily.

David Karger January 7, 2013 at 12:13 am

The big problem with the Forbes article is that it fails to draw a distinction between the stress a job imposes on its holders and the stress the holders impose on themselves. As my department heads explained it, we tenure you when we’ve got sufficient evidence that you are a workaholic. It’s true that tenure offers a rare opportunity for lotus-eating, but I’m acquainted with no colleague who has taken that opportunity. Independent of our internal motivation, there’s plenty of peer pressure.

It’s interesting that one of the 10 *most* stressful jobs listed is senior corporate executive, because they are “beholden to investors, board members, employees and the public”. We’re in academia because we want to produce world-changing innovations, and to do so we need to juggle demands of our funders, our department, our graduate students, and the public. Self-generated stress is as real as the other kind.

zbicyclist January 7, 2013 at 3:38 pm

I would say corporate executives have “self-generated stress” because if they really wanted to they could get off the treadmill, take the kids out of Harvard, sell the boat, and still have plenty of money. You have an “out” if the stress is too much. Real stress is lower down on the income scale, where you don’t have an “out”.

Forbes, of course, has that corporate-executive-as-hero editorial tone.

MikeM January 7, 2013 at 12:32 am

Andrew, you (and I, and many others) worked our butts off under demanding advisors to earn the PhD. Then we spent seven years on the treadmill showing that we were deserving of tenure, and a similar amount of time showing that we were deserving of promotion to the exalted rank of full professor. By that time, as David Karger notes, we were so used to working hard that we forgot how not to do it. Even now, after having “retired” some ten plus years ago, I’m still in harness (never mind the mixed mammalian metaphors), churning out book and encyclopedia chapters, working on grants, etc. So, yes, it is (was) less stressful in one sense, but not in others. In fact, it’s hard to learn to take it easy!

Jacob January 7, 2013 at 3:26 pm

There’s a confusion here: Andrew Gelman isn’t just paid (in monetary and nonmonetary compensation) to teach and write and research, the benefits of most of which doesn’t directly benefit Columbia. He’s paid to Advance the Columbia Brand, which he does almost uniquely well. He can do that better if he’s happy!

Wayne2 January 7, 2013 at 5:09 pm

One thing that helps make your job less stressful is that you love what you do and you have a lot of influence over what you do. Some things are imposed on you, but to a large degree, you’re self-directed.

Most other jobs are not like that. A fair number of people do what makes them money, but they don’t actually enjoy it. (Hence the huge hobby industry.) Another chunk of people like what they do, but have little say in the direction of their work. Full professors can turn their gaze here and there and pursue different areas of their field, which is more like the hobbies that most of us have.

Nathanael January 7, 2013 at 8:23 pm

The reason tenured professors get a relatively low-stress job is for a *purpose*.

That purpose is to go out and offend the great and powerful by telling truths that the great and powerful don’t want to hear. That is why tenure is granted; that is why academic freedom exists.

This is a stressful occupation. People will be calling for your tenure to be revoked and campaigning the President of your university to have you fired for your true, but unpopular-among-the-elite, views.

If as a tenured professor you aren’t offending important people and goring sacred oxen, you’re not living up to your half of the “tenure bargain”.

Paul G. January 8, 2013 at 4:51 pm

I read the Forbes article and all the reader comments.

Most reader comments conflate working hours with stress. They aren’t the same thing. Just because an individual voluntarily works long hours does not mean you are stressed, particularly if these long hours are self-imposed (points made in other blogs by Drezner and Masket).

Many criticized the Forbes article by generalizing from their own situation. “I am stressed therefore all academics are stressed therefore your article is bunk.” Many readers criticized the source used by Forbes but don’t say why it’s wrong. The data source identified stress by things like: likelihood of losing job, need to supervise others, deadlines, life or death consequences of choices.

These are not, it seems to me, a completely meaningless list, and it is also the case that academics are subject to very few of these. There may be additional stress-creators, but it’s not enough to just criticize a data source as useless without saying why, or suggesting some improvement.

I think the most common and trenchant critique is that new jobs added to the academy are overwhelmingly going to be non-permanent and these jobs are more stressful because of their impermanency.

I think the academy as a whole could benefit enormously by knowing about the variation in our work environments. Mary Dixon berates Andrew because he is at Columbia. Ok, point taken, but are you sure his position, where he is constantly scrutinized for merit increases against the top of his profession, vs. a position at a midlevel state school where the teaching load is higher, the quality of students lower, but publication requirements are also far lower and tenure rate far higher. (I challenge the assumption that committee / service obligations are necessarily much lower at Columbia than a public, state-funded institution.)

The fact is we don’t know the facts, and few of us have much experience in non-profit or private sector work. That makes me wary of making any sort of broad generalizations.

Sandi P January 8, 2013 at 10:00 pm

Paul G is right: “I think the academy as a whole could benefit enormously by knowing about the variation in our work environments.”

Those of us in soft-money environments, even if tenured, aren’t nearly as inclined to describe our jobs as the “least stressful jobs in America.” Tenured professors still have to pull in X% (20-97%) of their own funding at many schools of public health or medicine. In today’s funding climate, that can hardly be described as not stressful.

Jack January 9, 2013 at 12:40 pm

With all due respect to Prof. Gelman, I think it must be said that his position, as full professor at Columbia, is not all representative of the median (or modal, this being statistics-related!) professor.

A university can turn upside down your College, close your Department and lay off tenured professors. Soft money constraints mean the treadmill never ends. And as others have said, to get to that point you need to work a huge amount for lower pay than your non-academic peers first to get the PhD, then maybe postdocs, then to get tenure, etc.

That said, yes, there is *less* stress in academia than comparable jobs. But income (Net present value adjusted for years of study living on Ramen noodles) is also lower. As a blogger professor wrote elsewhere, professors are partly paid ”in cool”.

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