Context and Variation

Context and Variation

Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.

Back to Work! Autonomy and the Stress of Being a Professor


kiddo standing next to a list of things she wanted to do that day

A list that can and should take precedence over my work list at times. Even if we got stymied at the nap.

I used to have a colleague who thought it was funny to yell “back to work!” whenever he saw me. He would regale me, a young, breastfeeding assistant professor with an infant in tow and a 750 student course, with tales of when he was an assistant professor and would work all day, come home to the kids, and then go back into the office to work after tucking them in. He reminded me that weekends were for research, and holidays were when to really kick into high gear. This advice and teasing came from a very good place, as he wanted to see me hit the ground running and succeed in my job.

I made myself very unhappy those first few years of my job trying to be like this professor: setting aside my life, working during breaks, pumping breastmilk and not getting a lot of sleep. I would go to the East Coast during breaks to see my family and try to get them to watch my child while I sat in front of my computer, miserable. Or if I didn't get that childcare, I'd spend the day alternately stewing or freaking out about the work I was not doing.

I’m in my fifth year working as an assistant professor. Over three thousand students taught, close to twenty grant proposals rejected (and a few funded). Mistakes, failures, successes, and an increasing degree of frustration over the overwork narratives we construct about academic lives, and the underwork narratives perceived by those outside of higher education.

A few months ago, I was thinking on this colleague and it occurred to me that this person whose life I had modeled mine after was different from me in a few notable ways. He was male, of course. He had gotten tenure years ago, in a different funding climate and with different expectations for tenure. But most importantly, he had a stay at home wife who cared for their children, which freed him to set his schedule almost however he wanted and to work many more hours than is possible for me, as I am one member of a two-professor household.

From there, I realized two things: not only was it unreasonable for me to try and live my life this way, but if he was working that many hours when funding and tenure were easier to obtain, then today’s professors are well and truly screwed.

A raw deal

Many people have been disappointed in Susan Adams’s Forbes column that described being a professor as the least stressful job. David Kroll, Emily Willingham and Scicurious, themselves major players in academia (Kroll has gotten tenure twice as a science professor and is currently a writing professor, Willingham is also a former science professor, Sci is a brilliant and hardworking neuroscience postdoc), have written important responses to her piece on structural and personal levels. Go read them first, you won’t be disappointed. Adams herself has written an addendum and responded to many comments to her post. (Edited to add: Missed one and probably many others! Here is a response by Dr. Isis).

To be honest, I have had a hard time writing this post because I am feeling rather ambivalent about academia these days. I have seen a lot of bad behavior lately, and most of that bad behavior comes from everybody freaking out about how few resources there are to go around.

There is a zero sum attitude that is wearing me out – if you have something, then it means I don’t have that thing, and now suddenly I want that thing so I will do whatever necessary to keep you from having it. Some examples:

  • Departments are so strapped for money that they are competing with each other for students, because most universities allocate department funds by how many students they teach. I’ve heard of some departments ending all cross-listed courses to force their majors to only take their classes, of faculty without expertise in an area of high student interest being forced to create classes in these topics, even when faculty with this expertise exist in other departments. Class sizes are growing, and relief from high teaching loads is harder to get than ever.
  • Service obligations are increasing. Some of this growth is not happening in a thoughtful way as part of a long-range plan, but as a result of a system that is struggling to breathe. If you are drowning, you will grab on to any possible financial or status-increasing opportunity in the hope that one of them will be the piece of driftwood that will help you get just a few more gulps of air.
  • States are behind in payments to public universities, and have been for years. Out of a sense of survival, tuition has increased quite a bit at my university, which has led to more than one student reminding me that they pay my salary and they deserve some particular grade (strangely, it’s always higher than the one they are getting). But don’t we all do this? The more we pay for a service, the more we expect in return.
  • Many public universities are also increasing international admissions. These students are admitted because they can pay a lot of money. The increase in these students is rarely met with an adequate increase in resources to help them thrive at college.
  • Finally, this funding climate affects our research. We are all trying to make do with less money – that means a reduced animal model, or fewer participants recruited. The statistical power of our research is worsened, and sometimes we can’t actually perform enough of our research to determine, for instance, if null results are true or false negatives. We can’t hire as many undergrads or pay for grad students to attend conferences, which worsens their academic preparation. And we are applying to more grants than ever in the hope that one of them hits, which overloads review panels and thus, again, increases service obligations.

We professors got a raw deal. Everyone and everything – students, taxpayers, politicians, science and technology, the advancement of knowledge, saving patients’ lives – that is affected by higher education is also getting a raw deal. It is insane to continue to operate under ever-worsening conditions, doing the same kind of policing and simply increasing our stress and workload.

Unless politicians and taxpayers understand that pushing more kids than ever into college without an equal rise in higher education funding leads to an education with less meaning, unless they understand that laboratories are closing and only certain kinds of scientists willing to put up with the harsh realities of this environment, unless they realize we are giving young people very little to aspire to and dream about when we don’t put money into science and education, whatever it is that higher education is going to morph into in the coming years is not going to be rich, engaging, meaningful or produce research or students that change the world.

So we need to change the minds of folks outside of academia (those like Susan Adams with the half-knowledge that Sci describes). And we need to stop drinking our own Kool Aid.


You all will have to forgive me. Over winter break, my daughter watched The Lorax. A lot. And while the film adaptation leaves a lot to be desired (and adds a hefty dose of sexism absent from the book), it does contain one of my favorite lines ever:

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,

Nothing is going to get better.

It’s not.

I care a whole awful lot. If you’re reading this, you likely do too. I care about my field site, I miss my friends and colleagues and research participants in Poland that I haven’t seen for years because I don’t have the money. I care about the research questions I want to ask in my new local project despite the considerable, maddening obstacles in my way. I care about my students actually having a different experience that is less disappointing than college turned out to be for them. I care about faculty having fuller lives than ones where giving up everything we love is romanticized or enforced.

Maybe, like me, you don’t have tenure or some major administrative position at your institution that can influence policy. Maybe you don’t have a faculty job, but want one someday. I don’t think any of us should wait for some magical moment when we have more power to try and affect change. If we can’t have these jobs and remain human and true to the things that are important to us, I’m not sure the point of these jobs.

I think that is the single, major luxury afforded us, the one way in which Susan Adams was right. We have autonomy, no matter how much the funding climate may make us feel otherwise. We can decide to be different. That doesn’t mean that doing so doesn’t have consequences, but when is doing the right thing a risk-free endeavor?

Figure out how you want this job to look, recognizing whatever constraints you feel you need to recognize (say, a certain number of publications before tenure), and negotiating the others (maybe a certain amount of funding achieved, or a particular class size). Most of the things important to you should be negotiable. If they’re not, you can put together a thoughtful plan, choose to live your life the way you think is right anyway, and see how it goes.

It might not work. Or it might not be sustainable. Or you might be encouraged to do things differently. But if we don’t model something different, not only will we not be the people we want to be as we age, we won’t provide models for all those younger, cooler, motivated, curious, bright, innovative people who are looking to us to figure out what to do with their lives. We can encourage them to be academics, but also writers, entrepreneurs, coaches, novelists, creators, artists, independent scientists.

Just by being exactly who we want to be.

So just who, exactly, are you?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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