“I wonder if the academic world is unusual in the extent to which the things for which people go into the field cease to be the things they most have to do.”
That is Professor Susan in the comments on this post, which is the best post of all the posts on this matter. Her question is a good one and I do not know the answer.
I have so much stress that is my own that it is easy to say it is not a problem of the institution or the profession, and so much that is idiosyncratic to the institution in its particular situation and in my own subunit in our particular situation, that it is again easy to say it is not a problem of the profession. But then everything is obviously a problem of the profession since this latter is so dependent structurally upon contingent labor.
That is why Dr. Crazy‘s post, linked above, is the best of all the posts; it is the most balanced and the least polemical, and the best informed and most informative.
I think the stress is inherited, but from one’s own earlier stages. It is the stress of the wolf at the door and the feeling of gambling, which is stressful if you do not have backing and you do not have illusions about your luck. For me graduate school was not stressful, for instance, because I did not move away and I was in a pleasant place and I was funded, and if I had left the program I could have done something else without moving. It was a low risk proposition, especially for someone starting at 21.
Other people take on more risk to go to graduate school — they are older than I was, they move to an isolated town — so they have bet more and they need more return. The rest of us start on that path when we get academic jobs. And the longer you stay in, the more you have at stake, and the more you need that return materially and for many, also psychically. And I know from personal experience what happens if you do try to leave — people really get upset, and it is very wrenching because what they say is a siren song to which anyone would by now be perfectly attuned.
So as the wolf at the door becomes wolves it is of course stressful.