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?