Saturday, January 5, 2013

Are (some) academic stresses self-imposed?

Dan Drezner makes some nice points in response to the Forbes article that lists academia as one of the least stressful occupations. While he rightly notes that adjuncts face a great deal of career stress, he concedes that those of us in tenure or tenure-track positions enjoy a degree of autonomy and flexibility that those in careers at similar pay levels do not have.

He also makes a point about us self-selecting into this line of work, and I think this is an important one in the discussion of stress. Academics generally do their jobs because it's a career they actively sought out and they study a subject that deeply interests them. (No one ever wrote a folk song about being forced to become an academic because it was the only job in town.) Thus, we end up committing to a lot of things we don't actually have to do -- such as conference papers, journal reviews, academic blogs, etc. -- because we find them intrinsically interesting or we believe we have a decent contribution to make. Now, it's good for the discipline and for our own career reputations and professional advancement that we do these things, but they're not always mandatory, particularly for tenured faculty. So the professional commitments I took on during that blessed year between gaining tenure and becoming department chair certainly added to my stress levels, but a) I could have declined many/most of them and kept my job, b) the commitments brought some satisfaction that partially offset the stresses, and c) the stresses weren't remotely like those faced by firefighters, police officers, soldiers, miners, commercial fishermen, etc. That is, no MPSA paper is going to kill me, although some have tried.

Similarly, with teaching, many of us endeavor to improve our teaching or offer new courses because we believe it's important to do so. Taking on such a commitment invariably generates new stresses -- teaching a new course sometimes leads to initially lower course evaluations, generating a new course is harder than repeating an old one -- and we could usually just not do these things and still keep our jobs. Nonetheless, we take on the task of improving our course offerings, and the concomitant stress, because to quote Hyman Roth, "this is the work we have chosen," and we think this is the best way to do it.


Paul G. said...

Seth, I agree. The responses to the article in Forbes are generally disappointing. There are some good comments about the weaknesses in the data source, but most comments miss the point of the article. "Stress" in terms of deadlines, life or death decisions, lots of supervision: we just don't have that. Most of the comments are about workload, and for most of the commenters, its very clear that the workload is self-imposed. "I had to work all summer on a book manuscript." "I have to review articles."

Yes, but if you don't do these things, in most cases you will not be fired.

As for adjuncts, I am sensitive to their position but it is also the case that we'd not have so many adjuncts if we didn't have too many PhDs chasing too few jobs. It's hard to know what to say when you see someone saying they've been teaching as an adjunct for 10 years at $3000 a course. Maybe it's time to consider an alternative career path?

Seth Masket said...

Well, sure, but I'm not so inclined to blame the adjuncts. After 10 years teaching and almost as long in graduate school, jumping to another career is not terribly easy. Basically everyone who gets into this line of work thinks they'll get some sort of tenure-line job eventually, and they're no doubt encouraged in this thinking by their advisors in graduate school. I would hope that schools would be transparent about the number of students who will not even get their PhDs no less a tenure-line job, but my impression is that this is under-emphasized in graduate programs.

andrew said...

I recall a scholarly study published in 2011 or 2012 (I will try to find a reference), which recently looked at some of these issues and found empirically that scholarly production is almost completely indifferent to institutional incentives (including, most surprisingly, teaching loads and tenure status). A particularly academic's personal propensity to generate scholarly academic work appears to be the overwhelmingly dominant factor in determining how much work that person produces. At most, institutional pressures simply weed out people who are below that threshold.

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