Forbes, Professors, and power of half-knowledge

Jan 09 2013 Published by under Academia

I'm sure that most of the academic readers of this blog (and heck, maybe the non-academics, too!) have seen the recent outrage that results from a Forbes post: The least stressful jobs of 2013. The winner of this title went to the university professor, due to:

they are off between May and September and they enjoy long breaks during the school year, including a month over Christmas and New Year’s and another chunk of time in the spring. Even when school is in session they don’t spend too many hours in the classroom. For tenure-track professors, there is some pressure to publish books and articles, but deadlines are few. Working conditions tend to be cozy and civilized and there are minimal travel demands, except perhaps a non-mandatory conference or two.

I am not a professor, I am merely a postdoc, but I did have to laugh at this portrayal of what I hope to be my future profession. Most professors I know work plenty, and live in constant fear of having to shut down their research due to lack of funding. And while the salaries she describes may be relatively generous, they are certainly not typical of the poor adjuncts, teaching for pennies with no benefits, and often for far more than one school at a time.

And of course, while I laughed, I was also outraged. I mean, the post basically called my entire profession lazy. While you're welcome to think whatever you want about whether I'm lazy, this kind of perception can be very scary. After all, we are constantly competing for a smaller and smaller piece of national grant funding, and if legislators start thinking we're spending out time hanging out on the beach with that? That's no good.

But even as I saw academics reacting with outrage, and listing some excellent reasons why there is enough stress to go around in academia (not THE most stressful job, of course, definitely not, but it's not the carefree summers off described in the original post, either), I also saw something else. I saw non-academics rolling their eyes (metaphorically) on my Facebook wall. Saying we had it so easy, and acting like they knew all about it. The author of the article certainly thought she knew enough. But the reality is, many non-academics (probably most) don't know all about what we do...they just know SOME. And this half-knowledge is enough to allow them to make assumptions, and roll their eyes at our defensiveness.

It reminded me strongly of similar arguments about teachers salaries and hours. Everyone just kind of...assumes they know what teachers do. They assume that what they do is easy. This is because they don't know all of what teachers do, they just know SOME. They have half-knowledge.

Consider. I don't know what stock brokers do. I don't have a single foggy idea of what they do with their days. Because of this, I would never presume to question if they say their job is hard. I'm willing to take it at face value: I don't know what they do, I trust their judgement.

But when it comes to teachers, and to university professors...well we all know what they DO. I mean, the vast majority of us aren't teachers or professors, but we've all been students, right? We've sat at the desks and watched them as they tried to teach us in our class of 200 sleepy Bio 101 students, or as a harassed-looking AP english teacher tried to teach us to appreciate Invisible Man. We thought that, because of what we saw of them in our classes, we knew what they did. We had (and have) a half-knowledge of what teachers and professors do.

So I wonder if many non-academics base their assumptions only on this half-knowledge. They know they only went to school 9 months of the year, they assume their teachers and professors did, too. They went to Cancun over break, of course the prof must have gotten time off! We have half-knowledge of what a teacher's life looks like, what a professors life looks like, and we mentally fill in the rest. It's like when you were in elementary school and thought your teacher must live there because you couldn't imagine her having a life outside it (I remember when I was 5 I thought my teacher slept under her desk, I was FLOORED when I saw her at the grocery store).

And this is obviously a problem. Because of this half-knowledge, people make assumptions about our jobs, assumptions that can really affect how we are perceived as people, as professors and teachers, and which could potentially affect funding for the academic projects we need to survive. So now I wonder, how do we make them see the rest?

I don't want to argue that we have the most stressful jobs ever, and I don't want "showing the world" to become a whinge-fest of how we're so stressed out. Yes, there are many downsides to academia, but we have the advantage of being able to follow our passions, our obsessions. And that's huge. But I do worry about people making assumptions about our jobs, based only on seeing us lecture them on phylogeny. I worry about half-knowledge. How do we make it better? I think many of the science blogs on Scientopia already go there, letting people peek into what scientists do on a daily basis. But of course, these are read mostly by people in academia. What else needs to happen to get this knowledge to the public? How do we turn half-knowledge into full knowledge?

22 responses so far

  • Stewart Carrington says:

    Just a quick note:
    "I remember when I was 5 I though" ... (needs a t, I think?)

    Thank you for the time, effort, and spirit you put into your blog. It is appreciated!

  • Odyssey says:

    Great post Sci! Even now, as a mid-career academic, friends and family sometimes ask what I do with myself over the summer given the students are off and I clearly must be too. I do explain to them that summer is just as busy for me as semester, but for some of them that just doesn't seem to stick. This half-knowledge thing can be very stubborn.

    • scicurious says:

      Heck, I had a first year grad student look at me slack-jawed when she found out I'd be working through the holidays. It never occurred to her that scientists don't get three weeks off for winter break.

      • Yael says:

        My relatives insisted that I was insane when I told them that summer and Dec holidays are the time I get the most work done too. And I am a crazy sadist because I make my student read and write during the holidays. Because a med school postdoc is the exact same thing as being a private kindergarten aide (or something).

  • I think another part of the problem is that there are a lot of types of professors, and they all do not do the same thing or have the same schedule. I have four friends who are TT professors: one in economics, one in English literature, one in political science, and one in biomedical engineering. The first three DO have much more flexibility, because much of their research can be done from anywhere. They spend a lot of time reading and writing, but when they are not physically teaching a class, they do not have to be on campus. Of course there are office hours and faculty meetings and the like, but most of them do take off the entirety of "winter break" and work from home, because none of their graduate students are on campus either. It's similar to differences between disciplines for Ph.D. students as well; I lived with a poly sci grad student, who was shocked to learn I actually had to go into lab everyday, year-round. She couldn't believe my grad program was more like a job than school, because she did all her research from home or the library, and only saw her department when she was TAing or for committee meetings.

    • scicurious says:

      Yes! This is a good point, a lot of professors can work from home, so the work is much more invisible than it might be otherwise.

  • bam294 says:

    Oh Sci My Love,

    Yes, I too believed my school teacher slept in my classroom (thought she slept ON desk, not under in my warped world). But then again I was 9 at the time. And, you know, in juvi hall, but I digress. Now that I'm 20 years older (-ish), I know better.

    Moreover, if I were ever to write a column for a national magazine*, I think I might be inclined to do a little, what's it called? Research? Yes, that stuff.
    I think Susan Adams should have done more than spew out the blather of Career Cast, especially given that she is 'reporting' for Forbes.

    But what about Kyle Kensing at Career Cast? Talk about folks who half assed it - he takes half the cake. His article, which started this whole uproar, cites statistics that those who have degrees are more likely to get jobs than those without then launches into average professor salaries. One might want to next investigate if those with PhDs are more likely to get jobs in their field. Me thinks there might be a sharp cliff he'd fall off if he were to have 'researched' that topic.

    The jackalope interviews ONE faculty member, some dude from Burkina Faso who use to own a gift store and is now at New York City College of Technology. I guess if I owned a gift store, this whole professor thing might be a sweeter gig. Unless the gift store had a lot of those cute little glass animal figurines, because those are THE best, and I would never quit that job.

    I agree the world is filled with folks who slide by in life with half knowledge. Hell, I don't know crap about Burkino Faso (had to cut and paste there because I can't even spell it), but you don't see me writing articles about how fabulous and cushy it is to live there. Its journalism folks. It involves research too. And if Forbes is going to go back again and again to Career Caster (they do), then they should realize it's just a job board, not a legitimate source of information.

    *Letters to Penthouse should not be counted in this diatribe.

    • scicurious says:

      *squee* Bam commented on my blog! *bouncebouncebounce*

      Yeah, she definitely did no research, and admitted as much, it was a massive journalism fail on her part and a massive fail on the part of CareerCast (though I suppose if you firmly decide stress = potential for grievous bodily harm they have something of a point). I just felt like other bloggers had pointed that out first, and I mostly wanted to think about WHY people feel they can judge us this way, you know?

      • bam294 says: bad. I was too sober get that straight. The answer is that people are douche bags. #MyBad
        Squeeee?! Is that a noise one makes when going into the woodchipper? It would be a new one!

  • DJMH says:

    "Bankers? What's that, clicking the mouse a couple of times a day to make sure you're levying a $25 insufficient funds fee on the people who can least afford it? I bet you swan in at 10, get coffee, take a 3-martini lunch and put in another hour of work before driving home in your Maserati, eh?"

    Maybe we should start our own list.

  • This is the latest -- but by no means the only -- article of this type. I think that you are right that part of it is the curse of half-knowledge. Sort of. It's a bit more than that. Adams -- and the folks she's citing -- should have thought, "Wait a second -- how plausible is it that professors are paid only to work a few hours per week, a few weeks of the year?" (given the pressures of rising tuition costs, for instance). I mean, this is extremely unlikely.

    And it would have been very easy to disprove. A few minutes of Googling would have solved the problem. Or a few emails to randomly-selected faculty. Or consulting her own memory (I'm sure she's read many books written by professors, including every college textbook she used, and certainly she's read articles about science or medicine and noticed that they usually cite faculty research).

    So why didn't she use some basic common sense? My guess is that she wanted this claim to be true.

    Expanded comments here.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    another black eye for the alleged profession of journalism!!!!!! woot!

    ...mutter....mutter....Fourth Estate.....this shit actually matters....mutter, mutter

  • DJMH says:

    Love the comment on the Forbes site that if this is the sort of half-assed work the author is allowed to get away with and still keep her job, maybe "web staff writer" is actually the lowest-stress job of all.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    A professor on an academic year contract has no vacation days, as best I recall. I was on assignment whenever the university was open. It was closed maybe nine days during the academic year. Lots of people work at jobs with a certain amount of paid vacation days. It is reasonable for a person like that to think that summertime is a paid vacation for someone on an academic year contract. However, if you want summer pay you take on teaching a course, or get a grant or contract with summer salary, or work at the local supermarket, whatever. I had this conversation with my neighbor one time.

  • bret says:

    I've seen teaching only "professors" who basically went the way of teh sea squirt... had a rbain until they found a good place to anchor, then - since they didn't need it anymore - consumed their own brain - a bit like a comfy tenure 🙂

    On teh flip side - I'm doing work with a major not for profit medical research institute - and yes, some of them are truly living hand-to-mouth scrabbling for grant money...

    • Kyle says:

      I've seen, and know "teaching only 'professors'" or professors of the practice who bust their asses constantly and are as stressed as normal professors. Sounds like another generalization here.

  • sjfone says:

    College football coaches don't complain.

  • Jeff Baird says:

    I don't know if anyone has noticed, but Americans (majority it appears) rush to judgement and have opinions about everything they don't have complete knowledge of. Don't take it personally that this week college professors have their turn in the barrel.

  • gradstdentsteve (now postdoc) says:

    here's the rule as I learned it: university professorships are two full time jobs: 1. teaching, 2. researching, and you only almost get paid appropriately for one of them.


    my current project has a big focus on publicity for the science it's doing. of course, it's fertile ground (no pun intended...), being an environmental project in a state/city where those are really popular, and it's focused on the environmental issue that everyone around here is concerned about. this might be what's needed. of course, they brought in media consultants who wanted everyone tweeting and facebooking about their work, which no one was willing to do. blog, yes. twitter/facebook, not on your life. science is to complex to communicate in 140 characters.

    so, for this, tomorrow, I'm interviewing one of the faculty on the project on a recent publication for broadcast on local public access/PBS. in the meeting we had to set this up, the media consultant referenced what chris mooney is doing to broadcast science as an example we should all consider following...

  • Ron Brown says:

    Great post!

    Professorship is nowhere near low-stress. And the road to get to tenured professorship is, in a word, insane.

  • […] 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 […]

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