The least stressful job

Quite a bit of a commotion was generated in academic circles by the publication a couple days ago of a somewhat absurd piece The Least Stressful Jobs of 2013 at, written by Susan Adams. Of course with such a title you already know some quality reporting is about to dawn on you. And indeed, here it is, number one least stressful job of 2013: University Professor, topping Hair Stylist (number 8) or even Drill Press Operator (number 10). Now that vindicates my own decision. (To be fair, it’s worth checking out the corresponding most stressful jobs of 2013 — which include Soldier, Senior Executive and Taxi Driver — to understand what the selection criteria were.)

Apparently the reaction from academics was so forceful that it prompted the author to adjoin a small “addendum” to her piece — check it out, it’s required reading! One of the passages of the original piece that resonates the most states

The other thing most of the least stressful jobs have in common: At the end of the day, people in these professions can leave their work behind, and their hours tend to be the traditional nine to five.

That this is absolutely not the case in academia is both a blessing and a curse. Of course we all bring our research problems along with us everywhere: in the public transports (who has never had a breakthrough on the subway? Such an experience is one of my nicest research memories, one that helped me withstand — somewhat — the dreadful RER B service in Paris for years), the concert hall, at the beach, in bed, on the streets (can’t say none of my bike crashes was due to research-related distractions), etc. And the reason we do so is, well, the research is engaging. We want to think about it. Solve that problem. It’s a beautiful problem, so many aspects to it, well worth turning around and around. And for some reason outside stimuli seem to help: while our senses are occupied at parsing signals from the environment, the deepest parts of the brain keep churning at our problem and sometimes manage to come up with the most unexpected pathways to a solution (and more often than not with the most bogus claims). This is a fantastic experience, and few professions make it a duty to incessantly probe the depths of one’s mind. But it can also be a curse: who never desperately tried to wish this dreaded problem away, burying its impossible intricacies, clearing one’s mind and enjoying the present? While this is something we all learn to control to some extent, it sometimes — sometimes — makes me wish for a wholly different occupation.

This particular issue has been on my mind ever since I set out for a Ph.D, and no subway ride has brought a resolution to it yet. I suppose we just have to learn to live with it, enjoying the unique exhilaration and gaiety that come with it, and learning to cope with the headaches 🙂

Switching to more mundane aspects of the “University Professor” job, many of the commentators on the Forbes piece point out the numerous stressful and time-consuming duties that come with a professor position: teaching, grant-writing, student-advising, committee-sitting, tiring travels, etc. As graduate students or postdocs we are almost entirely shielded from these aspects (except maybe the last — but then, we actually enjoy it). In fact, I can barely even conceive how one can handle all this and still manage to do productive research, as many academics impressively do. In recent times I have found myself wishing I had more time to carry out my projects, sometimes even feeling somewhat overwhelmed with overdue reviews, job applications, time-consuming talk preparations and other paper-writing duties (not to mention setting up blogs :-)).

Each time this happens I only need to think about how my seniors manage to handle ten times the workload to convince myself that I better find a way to deal with these comparatively minor worries. One of the main points seems to be to learn to prioritize (who said procrastinate?) and be efficient. For instance, if you start preparing a talk one week before the talk date, it will take you a week to prepare it; if you start the night before it will take at most one night (and there goes the nine-to-five workday…).

In the end though I have to be honest: it was a pretty easy choice.

About Thomas

I am a professor in the department of Computing and Mathematical Sciences (CMS) at the California Institute of Technology, where I am also a member of the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter (IQIM). My research is in quantum complexity theory and cryptography.
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5 Responses to The least stressful job

  1. Hamish says:

    Hmm, are you the same stressed-out physicist who wrote this about a theory retreat in November…

    “Our two-day menu included some hiking, various more or less exotic forms of chess and other board-game-playing, an epic game of mafia (won, for the first time in retreat history, by the villagers), some beach-frisbee (man that water was cold!), and, well, pesto-filled pork chops & other delicacies masterfully prepared by our resident chef.”

    • Thomas says:

      Yeah, I have to admit to taking one (sometimes two!) week-ends off each semester 🙂 (Though you’ll notice we didn’t forget to bring the whiteboard along.)

      One think I won’t admit to, however, is to being a physicist…

  2. Guillaume says:

    Hey Thomas,

    Great article ! We even talked about it with Natalia.

  3. Hamish says:

    Sorry about accusing you of being a physicist! One thing that I find disturbing about this stress debate is that many young researchers consider stress as a badge of honour — ie if you are not stressed out, you are obviously not working hard enough. It seems that some academics were genuinely insulted by being told that their jobs aren’t stressful, because to them it sounds like an accusation of not working hard enough.

    While a little bit of stress can be good, lots is bad for your health and I doubt very much that someone who is truly stressed-out could actually function as a creative scientist. So academics should celebrate their low-stress status! Indeed, given the remarkable longevity of many Nobel-prize winners, top scientists enjoy the health benefits as well!

    We are having a bit of fun of fun (a great stress-buster) with this by running a poll on our Facebook page….

    • Thomas says:

      Hi Hamish,

      I was not offended — I don’t see any reason to be offended at being called a physicist. I just said I wouldn’t dare acknowledge such a statement.

      As for stress, I don’t know if we’re proud of it. I wouldn’t say I am. I think the reaction to the article is more that it gave the impression academics had it “easy”. Maybe we are particularly sensitive to this because we feel our contribution to society routinely comes under attack, for the wrong reasons. So it doesn’t help if on top of that someone starts claiming we don’t put much effort into it. We *do* put a lot of effort, and feel like we do a pretty decent job given all the constraints that we (or, well, they :-)) have (obtaining grants, teaching, etc.).

      Regarding creativity, I only half-agree. There is a general myth that the most novel ideas come looking through the window (and I was definitely playing along these lines with my train story). But (and this is especially true in CS) we also know how deadlines and constraints can make us more creative by focusing our thoughts. Some researchers get their ideas through constant interaction: they somehow extract them from some kind of sensory overflow, instead of underflow. So even the most unexpected ideas can arise under pressure… it depends what the stress is due to. If it is truly an obsession about publishing, or getting all the grading on time ready, etc, it may be detrimental. But well-managed stress can sometimes help get moving 🙂

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