'There’s no better job'

It pays to be an academic during a recession, says Jon Marcus

November 8, 2009

Being a university professor has been rated as one of the best jobs in America.

That’s the verdict of this month’s Money magazine, which ranks the top occupations in a time of high unemployment, stagnant salaries and sluggish hiring. It finds that one of the best places to be is at the front of a university classroom.

“We rated all the jobs based on quality of life, flexibility, stress, job security and personal satisfaction – as in, do you think your job makes the world a better place? – and on those factors college professor ranked very high,” said Donna Rosato, lead writer on the project.

“No job is perfect but college professors felt they had a lot of flexibility in their jobs and more job satisfaction, and they really felt their jobs make the world better. And it’s probably the last profession where there is some measure of job security,” Ms Rosato said.

The finance magazine selected its picks for best US jobs from an original list of 7,000. Being a professor was judged the second-best job, behind being a systems engineer. They were followed by physician’s assistant, human resources manager and financial adviser.

It has got a little tougher to be a university professor, though. Budget crises at some public universities have resulted in salary and hiring freezes, crowded classes and even mandatory furloughs.

But demand is also rising. The magazine has forecast a 23 per cent growth in faculty jobs as enrolment continues to increase even as ageing academics are retiring.

“When you also factor in that there’s a growing demand for worker retraining, that adds a layer of job security as well,” Ms Rosato said.

For all the challenges, said Cary Nelson, a University of Illinois professor of English and president of the American Association of University Professors, he agrees: “To me there’s no better job.”

When he decided to become an academic, Dr Nelson said, it was because “I’m just not a guy who wants to work from 9 to 5. I wanted to be in control of my own life. I wanted to devote myself to intellectual questions that intrigued me.”

But Dr Nelson also said the relative comfort that university professors enjoy may work against them when they seek a bigger share of dwindling resources. It’s an argument that he makes in a forthcoming book, No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom, which urges academics to embrace reform if they want more public support.

“Faculty have not done a good job of telling the public what they do,” he said. “In times of economic distress, people will resent job security, especially when they don’t understand its connection to academic freedom.”

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