January 5, 2013

SO THIS PIECE IN FORBES DECLARING “UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR” AS THE LEAST STRESSFUL JOB OF 2013 got a lot of pushback, including a response from my hyper-productive historian brother.

To some degree, I think it depends on what you mean by stress. When I left law practice for law teaching, I was shocked to discover that the number of hours I worked actually went up the first year. That’s probably not true now, because I can write a law review article or prep for a class much more efficiently, but I still spend a lot of time working.

Nonetheless, what professors do have — over lawyers, at least — is control. Even that first year, I noticed that difference. I read about an experiment once that I think explains it: If you give rats random electric shocks, they get all kinds of stress symptoms like ulcers, high blood pressure, etc. Give them a button that will keep them from being shocked for a few minutes, or lessen the intensity of the shocks, and those symptoms fade, even if they wind up getting just as many shocks per day, because they have some degree of control over what happens.

When you’re a lawyer, or in many other jobs, you don’t have much control over the stresses in your life. As a professor, you have a lot more. That’s perhaps a distinction between “work” and “stress” that is worth bearing in mind in considering all sorts of jobs.

UPDATE: Related thoughts from Daniel Drezner. “There’s something vaguely comic about everyone trying to brag about how stressful their job is. Personally, I blame television. Shows like ER, The West Wing, and Scandal have glamorized the notion that killer jobs are friggin’ awesome and super-sexy. You know what’s really awesome? Doing your job so well that you can relax on a regular basis.”