Friday, April 29, 2011

The Only Good Professor Is A Dead Professor: Or, Is The Decline Of Academic Labor A Health Risk?

When was the last time you stopped grading, writing, reading or writing up committee reports and went to the gym?  In "Performance Pressure," published this week in the Canadian academic journal Academic Matters, Megan A. Kirk and Ryan E. Rhodes are betting you didn't do it lately.  In "Performance Pressure" they argue that assistant professors are particularly at risk. "Being a professor is a profession that has been shown to have the longest work hours, heaviest work demands, highest psychological stress, and lowest occupational energy expenditure compared to other professional occupations," they write. Hence, among all professional workers, new faculty are most likely to become mentally run-down and unhealthy for lack of exercise:

For many, the allure of becoming a professor is the promise of a career that involves freedom of choice, national funding, opportunities for promotion, secured tenure-track advancement, and a flexible work schedule. It is no secret, however, that the path to becoming an established professor requires years of grueling, all-consuming service to prove oneself as worthy.

Assistant professors, those who have recently entered the academic profession, aim to reach tenure by spending countless hours teaching, marking, grant writing, publishing, reading, analyzing, recruiting, and presenting. Most of these “rookies” are also juggling relationships, families, and other personal goals. The reward is that once tenure status is granted, life as a professor can be absolutely wonderful. Or so we think. What if the pressure, expectations, and stress endured while trying to obtain a tenure-track position had devastating consequences on your long-term physical and emotional health?

In a sample of 267 assistant professors who had been hired in the last five years, Kirk and Rhodes found that only 30.7% were meeting a minimum level of physical activity necessary to maintain good adult health.  This compares to 50% of young Canadian professionals who are meeting this basic standard.  "The declining trend in physical activity was not independent of certain socio-demographic profiles," they note.  "Those who indicated they were married, and worked 70-plus hours of work per week reported sharper decreases in physical activity across the transition compared to those who were single and working fewer than 70 hours." Having children was also a co-factor, which will not surprise those of you out there who are parents.

One recent preoccupation of this blog and a great many other publications has been the great difficulties of life as an adjunct or contract faculty member.  But here's a question:  although there are tremendous differences in salary, security and work conditions between ladder track faculty and others, are labor conditions that have marginalized some also putting increasing pressure on those who seem to be succeeding in this narrowing labor market?  One of the things we all know implicitly is that the tremendous pressure to achieve tenure occurs in part because to not get tenure has a great likelihood of being a career-ending moment.  That is a psychological stressor, including an inducement to work harder -- even at things that will never be noticed in a review.  One thing I have suspected for a while is that there is simply more work to do than there was twenty years ago, even putting aside raised expectations for scholarly production in the social sciences and the humanities.  Colleges and universities are accepting more students; many of the students we accept are more difficult to teach for a variety of reasons; the increased demand for measurable outcomes; and the drop in full-time teaching staff who can be expected to undertake and be responsible for these tasks makes them more time-consuming.


Anonymous said...

Most of the full-time, non-tenure track people at my school make more than I do. I found this out through a high-profile firing of a certain Roe v Wade lawyer. She was making 53% more than me. I get that, but then I started poking around the web site, and my salary is actually under the average for senior lecturers, who in turn make up the bulk of lecturers at my institution. Is this the new normal? Pay the so-called contingent work force more so that they are easier to fire?

I am at the point where I think, every day, about how I would like to just give my TT, 2/2 job to someone who wants it, because I don't. I have paralyzing anxiety attacks at least once a week, I'm overweight, my relationships are suffering, my child is suffering, and I've had a tension head ache for the whole semester. I want to be alive, not half dead, up at 530 am to prepare a lecture for something I used to love and no longer care about.

PhysioProf said...

Maybe this some kind of fucken Canadian dealio, but as far as the US goes, the comparison of TT assistant professors to entry-level positions in other professions is a joke. The hours and externally imposed stress on medical residents, law firm associates, investment bankers, professional athletes, journalists (real ones, not "pundit" fuckebagges Chuck Todd or whatever), orchestral musicians, nurses, etc are at least as great as for academics, and frequently much greater. The sniveling of highly privileged tenured and tenure-track faculty is distasteful, and makes us look like assholes.

Short-Timer said...

Fair enough, PhysioProf, but that doesn't make it okay. How many people in all these positions have traded exercise for sleep? I know I have. How many people have traded exercise and sleep for self-medication, therapy, or anti-anxiety meds?

The reality is that many people on the academic job market with credentials that would have secured them tenure at many schools a couple decades ago are now not getting jobs. It seems to me that the job market itself has become a kind of tenure track without the promise of tenure or a job at the end of it. And if one is "lucky" enough to land an actual TT position they are expected to produce scholarship and teach courses at the same rate with a host a new responsibilities.

I try not to engage in debate about what occupation creates the most stress. Labor productivity and expectations continue to grow (along with stress, not surprisingly) while real wages decline. That sucks for most people.

Eileen said...

I'm still in grad school, so I don't know about the job part of it, but part of the problem from where I am is that in addition to being socialized as scholars, graduate students are also socialized to standards of personal care. Don't look tired enough? Talk too much about going to they gym? You're probably not serious enough about the program. It's not overt, but at least at my uni there's a culture of "you have time for that later" but it may just be creating new faculty who believe they can't take care of themselves to get ahead.

Karen said...

This post reminds me that when I was in grad school, I went to the student health services for anxiety, and shockingly, I knew every single person in the waiting room. They were all there for counseling. Hm!

I coped with my qualifying exams by working out and discovered that my headaches and stress-related symptoms ceased. Now I am, among other things, a certified aerobics instructor.

One thing I am not is on the TT; teaching was so unpleasant for me (oh, Anonymous, I know the pain you feel) that I left the academy before I ever went on the market. I now teach a required fitness class to first-year college students, and strangely, I find this more satisfying than teaching English: I can actually see transformation, and It. Is. Awesome.

Exercise is always the first thing to go, but it's not a frilly extra; it will only help you meet all those impossible goals. But I also know from watching my friends on the TT that people have to decide to prioritize it.

Historiann said...

In my career so far, I've known more than one recently tenured woman who has said, "OK, it's time to get my body back." Sadly, a little self-care before tenure would have gone a long way, as Karen suggests.

Janice said...

Don't you know that, excepting for a few acceptable outdoorsy activities, academics are supposed to stay inside at all times to cultivate that pallid undertone and let our muscles atrophy lest we be thought to 'have a life'?

In our profession, self-care is often stigmatized in "if you have time for that, you have time to publish more." Now, this isn't to say that academics have it hardest of all (not by a long shot), but that there are often disincentives as well as structural barriers to taking care of yourself outside of your professional identity.

Unlike many of the other professionals touched on in the mentioned study, the academic job track combines few chances for any kind of full-time work AND an unforgiving peer system of evaluation to stay in the job. Life as a junior lawyer or newly credentialed doctor is hardly fun and cakes but there are a range of possibilities from small practice on up that give these professionals more of a sense of control. As Anonymous at 6:33 noted, to feel poorly paid on top of having all of these demands that sap your personal and professional joy? That's not tenable.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

I am currently an assistant prof with a 4/4 load, big classes, plenty of service, and lots of tenure pressure, but I would never, ever think I have it worse now than when I was a VAP. Better pay, job security, and being respected as a human being rather than treated like a pack animal are all reasons why my current, stressful situation beats what I had before.

That being said, work-life balance is a serious issue for tt folks, as is personal health. I exercised more once I started using it as a stress release, as have some of my friends. This might sound silly, but more assistant proffies should find gym pals. If not for my more health-conscious friends making exercise fun in grad school, I might never have started the gym habit.

Contingent Cassandra said...

@Anon 6:33: I think your institution in anomalous in this regard, or, at the very least, quite different from mine. I remember hearing, when I was in grad school, conversations in which economists theorized that, if universities wanted to end tenure, they'd need to pay professors more, since one reason professors' salaries were relatively low compared to those of other professionals was that they had an unusual degree of job security. It sounds like your institution may actually have gone in that direction, at least for a few high-profile people (it doesn't sound like your institution is routinely using full-time non-TT folk to teach service courses; maybe that is done by grad students and/or part-time contingent faculty?)

At my institution, we have exactly the opposite: starting salaries for those who have a chance at tenure and support for activities marketable to other institutions (i.e. research) are c. 1/3 higher than for those in teaching-only, full-time non-TT positions.

I'd say that contingents face the same issues TR describes, except that we never have the chance to take a year to try to rebalance priorities, since contract renewals are always coming up.

But I do believe that the increased use of non-TT faculty, especially non-TT faculty who don't do service, puts a burden on TT faculty. That's one among many reasons I support the AAUP's plan for converting current contingents to TT faculty who focus on teaching (a job which, I think, would logically include compensated service on curricular and assessment committees, as well as hiring/faculty review committees for more junior faculty in similar positions).

Music for Deckchairs said...

Anon 6:33, I hear you. The problem with the Canadian study is that if the chaos affected higher education is systemic, then it can't be fixed by individuals parking further away from their offices or finding time for charity runs, when the short-term opportunity cost of both of these is blind panic at the other things we'll still have to get done in the day while still being more or less present to friends, family and ourselves.

Workplace health initiatives typically target physical exercise. I'm now curious to hear of studies that look at either precarious or tenured academic workers finding time for health checks. There's more than one way to neglect health.

Anonymous said...


Enough with the name calling. People have a right to question the toll their job is taking on their health. And law firm associates, investment bankers, professional athletes, "real" journalists (all quite highly paid and dare I say privileged)do this all the time. I mean really. Who does not complain about their job?

I am an assistant professor in psychology and I work around the clock. I make 59,000 a year. Not enough. And for the toll it has taken on my health (less time to exercise, high stress), you bet your ass I am going to challenge this. To remain silent is to say "Sure! 12 hour days, 3-4 pubs a year, heavy grading, huge classes, committee work and community service? All for the low price of 59,000 a year? More work please!"

And I don't accept the "Don't like it? Get out!" nonsense. That just justifies and maintains the problem. Would being paid more erase the stress? No, but it would give me far more resources to be able to manage it. Just ask those professional athletes.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I've been making more time for physical activity over the past couple years, and especially in the past six months. It makes a difference:

1) I'm physically healthier;
2) I'm less prone to sudden and misdirected outbursts of anger/irritation;
3) It's a good baby step in my post-tenure project to say to my job, "These six hours a week are MINE. You can't have them." I'm hoping to work up from here.

Mary Anne Mohanraj said...

Speaking for doctors alone, with two sisters who followed that route, it's perhaps more physically brutal for a few years, but the total time is shorter.

Three years of med school (typically done age 21-24), three years of residency (age 24-27). Almost everyone does it at that age, so that by age 27, you're settling into a solid career with reasonable hours and excellent pay (starting salary for a pediatrician, lowest paid of the doctors, is currently about $100,000, with average @ $140,000 / yr). That level of pay buys a lot of house-cleaning and/or paid childcare and/or supports a stay-at-home parenting partner, which gives you a lot more time to start exercising again.

Compare that with the typical situation of most newly-tenured; I'm guessing they make half as much, are already 5-10 years older, and may well have waited to start a family for fear that they wouldn't be seen as taking the job seriously.

Anonymous said...

Oh, not true. Life got MUCH busier for me after tenure. When I was an assistant professor, the assumption was that we'd carry more of the burden that the full professors. Now it's the opposite. Bad timing on my part.

Anonymous said...

Anon. 2:21 thank you. Assoc Prof Comp Lit making less than that and this is why I don't have savings ... and cannot tell whether real glasses from Sears, as opposed to fake glasses from the Dollar Store, is a want or a need ... !!!!!

Patsy_Q said...

I've always been involved in some form of exercise. When I was in grad school, I actually did look healthier than my colleagues, and yes, I believe it did elicit some suspicion. How can she possibly look so healthy? She clearly isn't working hard enough.

I'd be interested to know how many profs were into exercise before grad school. My guess is very few; intellectuals aren't typically jocks.

I'm not on the TT or adjunct. I left academia because it was such a bad deal. I loved teaching but hated doing it in the academy. I love research, so I do it in my own private company. And I work out at least three times a week, if not more.

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