PENNING: Considering the stress in my job adds stress

Just before beginning the new semester this week, I came across a “study” that lists the 10 most and least stressful jobs for 2013. University professor was atop the list of least stressful jobs.
Jan 10, 2013


Of course, this has added considerable stress to my life.

I put “study” in quotes because I have issues with the method, conclusions and assertions in the report. A link will be on this column at

When I started teaching full-time at the university level more than a decade ago, someone joked to me that being a professor meant I would be working 24/7 — 24 hours a week, seven months a year.          

That’s funny only because it perpetuates a stereotype held by the public that professors don’t do any real work. Apparently, they think professors just show up when it's time to teach, blather on for a bit, and then go do who knows what. Perhaps they make sure their elbow patches are secure and they have enough pipe tobacco.          

The reality is far from the stereotype, as with any profession.

I actually read a study once about stereotypes of various types of professions. It was done by a university professor, who may or may not have found the project stressful.          

I’m not saying being a professor is as stressful as some of the jobs on the “most stressful” list: enlisted military personnel, military general, firefighter and commercial airline pilot top that list. Those jobs all have lives at stake and understandable stress — although my brother-in-law is a commercial airline pilot and always seems enviably at ease when I see him.          

Meanwhile, two of the other jobs that round out the 10 most stressful I have held before: public relations executive and newspaper reporter. I would agree that there is stress associated with those jobs, but being a university professor in my experience just adds different kinds of stress.          

It’s also a little disconcerting to see the jobs that accompany university professor on the list of least stressful. No. 2 is seamstress. Since it’s after university professor on the list, it implies that a seamstress has more stress than me. Perhaps it’s from sewing elbow patches on the tweed jackets of all my carefree colleagues.

The remainder on the list are medical records and lab technicians, jewelers, audiologists, dieticians, librarians, and drill press operators.          

Understanding how it makes sense to lump these disparate groups of professions together as lacking stress requires a look at the criteria. Apparently, the authors of the study considered 11 stress factors: travel, growth potential, deadlines, working in the public eye, competitiveness, physical demands, environmental conditions, hazards encountered, own life at risk, life of another at risk and meeting the public.          

Again, the life risk and work environment factors are clearly not an issue for a professor. But several of the others are a stress factor. There are numerous deadlines, from prepping for class, grading, completing numerous required administrative reports, committee work, and meeting deadlines to submit articles to journals and conferences.

The latter is a very competitive enterprise, with most quality journals having an acceptance rate of less than 20 percent after articles are peer-reviewed in a long and thorough process. And college professors are under stress to publish and present their work just to keep their jobs.          

The study justified its ranking of college professors in part because college professors are "not evaluated by a standardized test." But this begs the question: How are they evaluated?

First, the minimum qualification for entry is a Ph.D. At almost every college, professors are expected to excel in teaching, research or professional practice, and service to the campus and community. After every single class, students evaluate profs, and these are pored over by review committees.

A professor under review will also have their classes visited by colleagues who observe and write reports on their teaching. For each review, a professor submits a "review file" that is usually several three-ring binders with evidence of their work in the above categories.

Not everyone gets tenure or promotion by merely showing up for a few years. I have watched painfully as several candidates in my academic unit did not get approved for tenure and had to seek work elsewhere.

Even after tenure, the job is varied and demanding. Over the holidays, I downloaded a time sheet app on my phone to get a better picture of where my time goes as I try to meet the multiple demands.         

But, I’m not going to worry about some list on an obscure website. I have enough to focus on with a new semester under way in a job that I mostly enjoy very much, in spite of the stress.          

I wish everyone a 2013 with as little stress as possible, no matter what you do for a living.

— By Tim Penning, Tribune community columnist. Penning’s columns and other thoughts can be read on his PierPoints blog at




Thank you for a very thoughtful and multi-layered piece, Tim. I have several friends in the education field - secondary and collegiate - and I can attest to your lament regarding stress levels, levels of commitment, and public perceptions. As a small business owner, folks nod sympathetically when I talk about stress levels, long nights, hard work, competition, etc. The educator often has to work a little harder to get that same empathy.

You bring up a good point. As a society, our opinions are often stereotype-driven, rather than based on facts. Good teachers at all levels provide society with energy, inspiration, a window to the world. This can't happen without stress, hard work, and strong commitment. I salute you for your dedication, even in the face of being at the top of the list.


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