For many, working as a professor sounds like the ideal job: flexibility to set your own hours, lengthy summer vacations, and the chance to help shape the minds of future generations.

But in speaking with educators across North America for Top Hat’s annual Professor Pulse Survey, we found the reality to be quite different. In particular, assistant and associate professors looking to secure tenure struggle to balance their competing priorities.  

While tenure isn’t the goal for everyone—72 percent of survey respondents said their primary focus was on teaching—it’s still important to many, and for good reason. It offers educators prestige and security; tenured professors can only be terminated for cause, or under extraordinary circumstances. This affords them not only a level of stability that part-time and adjunct professors don’t ever get, but also the freedom to conduct research on their own terms, without fear of job loss.

But attaining a tenured position requires research, which has to be balanced with teaching—a mixture that some respondents are having trouble coping with. The number one out-of-class teaching challenge among respondents was ‘not enough time to do research’. This, despite 30 percent of respondents working over 50 hours per week.

So what’s taking up their time? In addition to teaching, many are serving in administration, burdened with course prep, or participating in research centers.

“It feels like everyone is overwhelmed, students and professors alike,” says Lori Peek, Director of the Natural Hazards Center and a professor in the Department of Sociology at UC Boulder. She keeps up with the pace of her work thanks to a very efficient routine, blocking off specific hours for specific tasks (“Monday mornings are spent prepping the week’s lectures, and I have an office in a corner nobody knows about where I can avoid all distractions”), while also making sure she has “time for quiet, slow reflection.” (You can get more ideas for improving academic work-life balance in our free guide, here.)

Unfortunately the extra workloads don’t necessarily translate to more financial compensation. Like every other profession that requires a lot of working hours, professors also think they’re undervalued. Roughly two in five professors earns between $41,000 and $80,000 annually. Meanwhile, when professors are asked what a fair salary would be for their work, the most popular answer was $81,000 to $100,000.

One professor also highlighted the myth about those lengthy summers, saying that that time is usually when they do research and writing — tasks that aren’t possible to complete during the academic year, which is filled with teaching and administrative responsibilities.

At the same time, given that colleges are faced with funding cuts and declining enrollments, few professors are expecting a hefty raise in the next year despite all the work they do—which is fine, they say, because they don’t do it for the money in the first place. When asked how satisfied they were on a scale of 1 to 10, the average response was 7.5.

As one prof said: “[Despite] the department politics and extra committee work interfering with research time, I am doing what I set out to.”

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