How Hard Are Professors Actually Working?

If there were a “10 Things That Piss Academics Off the Most” list, ranking near the top would be the perception that academic life is easy and relaxing. Professors get annoyed at having to explain to their neighbors and family members that their work extends far beyond the lecture hall—and far beyond the seven-month-or-so academic year. They might be seen walking their dog in the middle of the day, but chances are they’re going back home to grade papers or prepare a seminar discussion or conduct research.

Despite broad consensus among professors that their job isn’t for slackers, they tend to disagree, primarily among themselves, about exactly how hard they work. While some scholars say they maintain a traditional 40-hour workweek, others contend they have a superhuman workload. Take Philip Guo, an assistant cognitive-science professor at University of California, San Diego, who on his blog estimated that in 2014 he spent 15 hours per week teaching, between 18 hours and 25 hours on research, four hours at meetings with students, between three hours and six hours doing service work, and between 5 hours and 10 hours at “random-ass meetings (RAM).” That amounts to as many as 60 hours per week—which, he noted, pales in comparison to the 70 hours he worked on average weekly as an undergraduate student at MIT.

America’s higher-education system is under increased scrutiny largely because of rising tuition costs and ballooning student debt; concerns about liberal indoctrination on college campuses, which are subsidized by taxpayer dollars, have also started to bubble up. People want to know where their tuition and tax money is going—are professors working hard for that money?

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