Saturday, June 16, 2012

Stress This!

Apparently, academics are in one of the most stressful professions
There's evidence that support for academic staff is needed. A 2008 report from the University and College Union (UCU) revealed that most universities were failing to meet the standards for psychosocial working conditions set out by the Health and Safety Executive.
An academic study three years earlier drew similar conclusions. The authors of 'Occupational stress in UK higher education institutions: a comparative study of all staff categories' highlight the main cause of stress to be job insecurity, followed by stress relating to work relationships, control, resources and communication.
And the phenomenon is not restricted to UK HE. The Guardian, the newsletter of CUPE Local 3902, the representative of 7,000 education workers at the University of Toronto and Victoria University, published an article last year about occupational stress in Canada, with women and academics between the ages of 30 and 39 revealed to be the most stressed.
Perhaps we academics are more likely to report being stressed?  I think we talk about it more, whine about it more, but is our job more stressful?  Yes, there is a heap of uncertainty on the academic job market.  The reality is that if you do land a tenure track job (not as many jobs are TT as there used to be), then the stress is modest.  Why?  Because most places give tenure to those who are on the TT track.  While I have complained and complained about my situation at times, I am too well aware that I have had job security and great working conditions.  My chair could say stupid stuff, and I could ignore him.  Often.  Try that in a law firm.  Try that in a corporation.

That we have not much in the way of real hierarchy means that there is only so much that folks can do to us.  The secret is this: most of our stress is, dare I say it, self-imposed.  We worry about our status, about where we publish, about whether we get invited to reindeer games, about how others are doing.  The reality is most of our deadlines are self-imposed, except, of course, the tenure clock.

The hardest part and most stressful part of this business of academia is that it does involve fairly constant rejection: from journals, presses, foundations, other funding sources and so on.  One can opt out of much of this, especially after tenure and many do.

While I have been writing this post, my favorite twitter combatant and I have been arguing about status and how the competition for status causes stress, that it is a zero-sum game.  That there are finite spots in the most prestigious journals and so on.  But this competition is not so straightforward--that there are many ways to play it so that one can get the status one can be satisfied with.  One can publish in quantity even if that means rarely hitting top journals.  One can aim for top journals and have fewer pubs.  One can try to write the most citation-baiting piece they can.  One can focus on policy-oriented outlets.  One can focus more on teaching and service, which might inhibit promotion but provide job satisfaction.  One might decide to teach and do nothing else (good luck to any chair to force that person to do more than that after tenure).  One can do more media stuff to raise one's profile.  One could blog and tweet to gain attention and status.  There are many, many ways to play the game, as the goals are largely self-determined.

I know that I will never be the top guy in my field, that I will never be hired by Stanford or Harvard.  There is always a bigger fish--but I don't need to be the biggest fish to be happy.  I just need to be recognized by my colleagues in my dept and outside of it as someone who does good and interesting work. I need to do work that interests me, and I need students who engage me. 

Even status competition, which does affect getting outside offers, salary and ego, pales in comparison to real competition where one can get fired, where a promotion of someone else can radically change how you do your work from day to day--yes, there are a-holes in our business but there is limited damage they can do.  There is only so much that anyone can tell an academic how to do a job--what to teach, how to teach, what to research, how to research.

I am much happier as an academic, even in my darkest days, than I could possibly be if I were in the financial sector, in a law firm, or in a doctor's office.  If one screws up as a doctor, people die.  If I screw up, well, I can edit or revise tomorrow.  That the stakes are actually quite low is a key reason why the stress is minor and largely self-imposed. 

The irony here is that academics are trained and employed to think comparatively yet we forget to do so when we consider our profession.  It can have its stresses, but compared to other professions with higher stakes, with less job security, with less pay, risk of concussions, it really is not that bad.  It really is what we make of it. 

Of course, if one does not have a tenure track job in this profession, your situation will be most stressful (even if no lives [other than one's own]) are at stake.


Brandon Valeriano said...

You vastly underestimate the stress of getting a permanent job, finding out that job is not what its cracked up to be, the struggle that comes with teaching poorly trained students, the futility of the job market for your own students, seeing colleagues destroy others lives, and the petty backstabbing within social networks. Is our job easier than being a Doctor, sure Mr Staw Man, but sometimes a normal 9-5 does sound much better.

Steve Saideman said...

First, I qualify the post by saying it is for those who have TT jobs.
Second,if you know me at all, you know that I know exactly all of that stuff, having experienced much of it myself.
Third, the surveys cited compared academia to other professions. So, I was thinking comparatively.

It is not a perfect gig, but it is not a bad one either for most folks. Bad things do happen, there is stress, but it could be worse, much worse.

Phil said...

Your contrast with law and corporations is also a bit problematic, and it reflects your personal experience too much.

I suspect it is relatively easier for lawyers and company employees to move to a different firm or company if their boss treats them like dirt or they live in a horrible city or want to join their spouse in another city.

Not so easy in academia, your experience notwithstanding. If you've locked down a tenure track job and you're not a star, you may be stuck where you are. That can create its own frustrations.

brianS said...

Academia is the worst career in the world. Except for all of the others.

The game in life is to find a vocation that simultaneously counts as an avocation -- to do meaningful work. If you can't find meaningful work in a career that (a) hands you resources and discretion to set your own agenda and (b) allows you the opportunity to shape young minds, well, you should consider a different career.

Phil said...

The value of an academic career is a different issue, though. If you hate academia, you leave academia.

The question is why academics report high levels of stress.

It's quite possible to want to succeed in your career, to enjoy the benefits of your profession, while still feeling stressed about how it.

Phil said...

Also, the story is pretty clear about a few things:

1) It's the emotional part of the job that's considered stressful (ie rejection, self-worth, work-life balance)

2) It's academics in the 30-39 age range who are reporting higher stress, ie those coming out of a PhD programme, those on tenure track, those with young children, those who are more susceptible to the judgement of older peers, etc.