Is it good stress or bad stress?

It’s not often one of the myths of academia becomes suddenly visible, but it happened this week with the publication of a Forbes article describing the least stressful jobs of 2013. Professor was #1 — the least stressful job.

And then Twitter exploded

All of the usual stories were trotted out: Professors are off between May and September and a month over the winter holidays. They don’t spend much time in the classroom. Sure, tenure-track people have some pressure to publish, but there aren’t really any deadlines and the environment is so cozy and civilized.

I’m not even kidding about that last part.

I’d have more sympathy for the writer, who was reporting on a list rather than creating one herself, if she had done any actual research, but she admitted after her comments section exploded that she hadn’t.

You can imagine the responses she got. Professors detailing the insane hours they work, especially during those times “off.” Adjuncts upset that all university teaching jobs get lumped together as if they’re the same. Tenure-track people pointing out that there’s one big hefty deadline and it’s a do-or-die sort of thing.

Low stress, my ass.

Good stress and bad stress

Pretty much every job is going to have stress. Stress is, in fact, just a function of human life. But there’s productive stress and destructive stress, and the difference is important.

Productive stress is motivating. It gets us going and dealing with it feels like an accomplishment.

Destructive stress is, well, destructive. It demotivates us, it exhausts us, it wears us down, it takes away the will to do much of anything. Burnout is the natural endpoint of unchecked stress. Destructive stress lived through doesn’t feel like an accomplishment. If anything, destructive stress can make you feel like you’ve wasted your time.

Whether a given person experiences something as productive stress or destructive stress depends on a lot of things: the situation itself, other responsibilities, interest in and desire for the situation, general personality type.

Some people are going to find the schedule, tasks, and environment of academia motivating. By and large, assuming other parts of their lives don’t explode and there’s a reasonable amount of work-life balance, these people will enjoy being in academia.

Other people are going to find that the schedule, tasks, and environment gradually wear them down and make them miserable.

What does it feel like to you?

At any given moment, we can be overwhelmed by even the best situation, because shit happens, and if a family divorce, a mental health crisis, and overscheduling all hit at the same time, well, it will be an uncomfortable few months.

If in general, the situation feeds you, in general, it motivates you, then rock on. You’ve got a good thing going.

But if it doesn’t, if it’s always a slog, then it’s not the situation for you, no matter how many “least stressful” lists it tops, and no matter how good it looks on (completely inaccurate) paper.

1 comment to Is it good stress or bad stress?

  • J in NY

    I drew the line when I couldn’t afford an apartment on my own with my post-doc salary. I thought that wasn’t asking much. I remember crying to myself one morning on the way to my post-doc job–which was previously my dream job at my dream university–because at the end of the work day, I still wouldn’t be able to pay my living expenses. When it came time to write more grant proposals, the motivation was not there because I knew I’d still have to have a second job just to make ends meet. Finally, I realized that I was literally subsidizing science by accepting such a low-paying academic job. Compare that to an industry job that would pay me 2-3 times more and allow me to research whatever I want on evenings and weekends (is that really much different from a professorship?). Where was the reward? Years later, I still don’t see the reward.

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