Thursday, August 16, 2012

On Compensation

Postacademic in NYC wrote an interesting post last week, where she discussed the somewhat disconcerting feelings she's been having as an hourly wage worker in the world outside of academia. In this post, she wrote that the lump sum payments she received every month or so in academia were fine with her, while the hourly pay she gets now is causing her to have some uncomfortable feelings about how her work is "quantified" in dollars.

More specifically, she's been calculating how many hours of work at the temp agency she needs to put in in order to earn enough money for the things she likes to buy - a sandwich or a coffee or a bottle of booze. This, in turn, is (I think) making her feel a bit discouraged. I got the feeling from her post that her pay in academia was lower, possibly ... but that despite that, she felt less exploited/dehumanized because it wasn't as easy to translate her work hours into a dollar amount.

I enjoyed the post, and some of it definitely rang true to me. Until I got my promotion and raise this spring, I was also an hourly wage worker at my current office. And while I was paid fairly well and could afford a decent quality of life as an hourly worker, I would occasionally catch myself thinking "if I buy those concert tickets, I'll have to work a full day to pay for them," or "damn, I'm working 4-5 hours for a tank of gas? Ridiculous."

So, I've definitely done the "quantifying what I'm purchasing in work hours" thing, and it did feel a little weird. Now, I never found myself calculating the amount of work that would "pay" for a sandwich or coffee - I really never got down to the nitty-gritty of what, say, 15 minutes of my labor was "worth" in terms of consumer goods. But if I wanted to spend a decent chunk of money? Yeah, I'd sometimes find myself calculating the number of hours I'd need to work to earn that money back.

And I agree, it's kind of an odd feeling to be able to directly calculate how much money your work time  is "worth," in such concrete, calculable terms.

But looking back on my time in academia and then on my time as an hourly wage worker outside of academia, I can honestly say that I preferred being paid hourly to the pay I got in academia. And I'd still go back to hourly work any day before I'd go back to academia. With absolutely no hesitation.

Now, PAINYC's outlook on her job is totally valid. Her job is far different from mine, and her work environments sound challenging, to say the least. I'd have a hard time not feeling like a cheap cog in the wheel of my workplace if I was working in buildings that have butlers (WTF?), doing basic tasks for the top 0.1% of wage earners in this country, alongside miserable and exploited support staff. There's absolutely no question in my mind that I'd feel pretty damned exploited and underpaid if I were in that position.

But I wanted to put up a post here that explains the outlook that I had on my life and my compensation as an hourly worker. Because my outlook and my experiences have been different from PAINYC's ... and while I don't think there's anything wrong with her outlook, I want readers of both blogs to understand that there's no guarantee of how you will feel about a job that pays hourly until you have one. Perhaps you will feel like PAINYC ... but perhaps not.

So as food for thought ... here are three reasons why I found hourly pay to be preferable to my academic salary.


Reason Number One is simple ... I preferred my hourly job because it put more dollars in my pocket. It's that simple. I was paid better at my hourly job than I was in academia.

Now, some of you might be thinking that there are definitely jobs out there that would pay less than an academic salary. And you are absolutely right. However, I have a feeling that if you leave academia - especially if you are a grad student or adjunct - virtually any job you will be competing for will pay you better than what you were earning in academia. You may not have a ton of experience in the "real world," but you will have a masters' or a Ph.D. So even if you have to take a crappy job to help pay your bills at first, I highly doubt that that will be the job you stay in. I feel confident in saying with certainty that you will make more money outside of academia than you did as a grad student and adjunct.

Because let's not kid ourselves about what kind of salaries are given to low folks on the academic totem pole. Unless you've won a super-prestigious fellowship or something like that, grad student and adjunct academic pay is low. In my last year in grad school, I earned just over $14k teaching at Grad U - a salary that I've learned is about typical for Ph.D. students. At 40 hours per week spread out over a whole year, that works out to be less than $7.00 per hour. That's less than the federal minimum wage in the U.S. I would bet everything that I own that you would make more than that than that if you took an hourly job.

And please don't discount the importance of sheer dollars in your bank account. As much as academic types like to pretend that "money doesn't matter," having enough money to pay your rent and pay down some debt and to have the occasional dinner out is important. As you all know, I'm really really really fucking tired of pretending that money doesn't matter at all. People certainly don't need to be rich to be happy, but it is pretty important to be able to pay your bills. And my hourly job did that better than academia ever did.

But that's not the only reason I preferred hourly pay to academic pay.


I also seem to have a different outlook on wages than PAINYC. (Both outlooks are totally fine, by the way. But I think it's worth hearing from both perspectives.)

I believe that people should be paid a wage that corresponds reasonably to the hours they work.

I'm using the words "corresponds reasonably" loosely here ... while I'd love to see everyone making a living wage, that's not going to happen in my lifetime. What I mean by "corresponds reasonably," though, is that I believe people should earn more money if they work longer-than-normal hours in a set time period, or if they work longer/harder hours than other people. So that could mean that you earn a larger paycheck for working 50 hours one week than you did for 40 hours on the previous week. It could also mean that you earn more as a doctor working overnight 12 hour shifts than as a sales employee working short daily shifts.

Obviously, it's not a perfect continuum, but hopefully you get my meaning. People should earn more money as they work harder and longer hours ... and if they're a salaried employee, there should be a set number of hours where they are expected to work, with the rest of the time understood to be free from work. Basically, I believe that there should be a rough correlation between how hard you do work (and how hard you are expected to work) and the (relative) size of your paycheck.

Academia fails royally on this test. You are given a (low) lump sum every month that never increases or decreases, no matter how much you work.

Perhaps you're thinking, "well, that's the same way that any salaried employee is paid. I'm just a salaried employee, working for a university!" Well, yes and no. Yes, it's true that you're technically "on salary." But the kicker is that - unlike most salaried jobs - you are expected to work constantly and to not have a life outside of work. So when you leave the office on Friday at 5:00pm you are expected to keep working throughout the weekend ... while your salaried neighbor who works outside of academia is allowed to enjoy their weekend (while earning at least twice as much).

And okay ... maybe this is fine with you. You're working for the love of the discipline and the job, and you make enough to live on. You'll take the financial hit for a few years, and catch up later.

Okay, great! That's fine ... as long as you love the work.

But if you're like me - a Type 1 academic leaver who grew to hate the work? It might start to drive you a little crazy that you're being paid so little while you're working so much. You're spending hours and hours per week working on tasks that you hate ... and what's your grand reward for all of that hard work on tasks you hate? $1000 or so a month, if you're lucky.

In contrast to that, an hourly job in an office can feel like heaven.

If you hated academia, even a crappy office job or whatever can feel like a tremendous release. You may not like your job ... but you have your scheduled hours, and you work through them, and you go home. And once you drive away from that building, you're done. You may have a shitty job for a crappy paycheck, but at least the 128 hours of each week when you're not in the office is yours to do whatever you want with.

But if academia is that crappy job you hate? You have no time "off of work," entirely to yourself, as long as you are awake. The work, and the guilt, and the pressure to work constantly will follow you everywhere. You won't be able to go home to escape your crappy job (because all of your academic work is at your house, haunting you and making you feel guilty). And if you go out to do something outside of the house, you'll feel bad because you should be working (especially if you socialize mainly with academics, who will remind you of this). Academic work will probably be around you - physically and mentally - all the time. And after awhile, $1000 per month (and never a penny more!) isn't going to feel like enough compensation for that level of work and stress.

As coldly quantified as it was, fulltime hourly work came as a relief. At least I could see some relationship between my work and my compensation. At least I had free time so that I could get away from work when I didn't like doing it. And at least I got my weekends back.


Finally, let's not discount the very real fact that in an hourly job (even a temp job), you will likely keep your job as long as you're doing a satisfactory job and the company is doing okay. Even if you hate it, as long as you do an okay job you will probably be able to keep your job.

In academia, though? Even as universities keep raking in the funding and administrator salaries skyrocket? Unless you're on the tenure track, there are no guarantees of continued employment. Even if you keep doing a good job and get rave reviews from your students and land publications and book contracts and whatnot, your contract can be cancelled at any point (with hundreds of people eager to take your spot for whatever pay the university is offering). This goes double if you're a grad student, because there is no way that you can hang around forever in grad school.

So in academia, you can be doing a great job for a successful "company" and still wind up terminated. In the outside world, that's unlikely to happen. That alone makes the whole "cog in a wheel" feel of outside work feel worth it to me. I may be a cog in a wheel, but at least they'll keep letting me "cog" for them, earning a paycheck, as long as I'm doing good work. :)


For the record, again, I'm really not disagreeing with anything PAINYC wrote. She's right that it can be a little bit depressing and dehumanizing to be able to quantify your time at work into a flat dollar amount. And if you really love the work you were doing, it makes sense that you'd be happy with the lower paychecks and the workload.

But that's not going to be the way everyone feels, and I think it's important to note that reality.

Personally, I felt more valued and less dehumanized when I started seeing a paycheck that was correlated with the number of hours I was working. And even now that I'm a salaried employee, I still feel like the salary I make is fair. In short, it reflects the work I do. And I don't really care if my money comes in once a year or once a week or if I have to punch a time clock or not ... I just like seeing clear connections between (1) the quantity of work I'm putting in, (2) my non-hatred of said work, and (3) the paycheck I'm earning.

A Type 1 Leaver like me didn't have that in academia, but I have it now.


  1. Well put. Even for the type 2 leavers like me, though, I just don't get the mindset so prevalent in academe that love-of-work is somehow supposed to be just compensation for lack of a fair wage. I love to cook, too, and I'll cook for my family and friends just because I enjoy it, but no one would expect me to cook in a restaurant merely for the love of food. The person who made the sandwich I just ate for lunch probably makes more money than I did as an adjunct. There is not only something deeply, deeply wrong with this sad reality but also with the mindset that says academe is somehow special and not subject to the rules most of us consider fair in the rest of the work-a-day world.

  2. I agree with all of this, and yeah, the relation between compensation and the hours one is expected to work in academia is one of the reasons I left. And my former university has a very strong union, reasonable teaching loads, and probably one of the best compensation packages at a public university (albeit in an area where the cost of living is quite high). We did get cost of living increases (we also got a salary freeze one year, after which the cost of living increases came back but were much lower, so that was not so fun). I do think things were a lot worse for adjuncts than for teaching "assistants" though.

    At one point I tried to calculate my hourly wage based on the number of hours I was actually working, and while I think it was above minimum wage, it wasn't that far above it. My hourly wage as a temp is definitely better, however basic the work I am doing may be. On the other hand, the availability of temp work is kind of sporadic, but at least I can use the downtime to focus on finding a real job, instead of being expected to keep researching and fulfilling the other duties of the job I may or may not still have!

    Another anecdote about crappy wage exploitation in academia: I have a friend at another university where if you teach two sections of comp, you get paid less for the second one. The university's reasoning is that you get to use the same prep for both sections. !!!! That is all I have to say about that.

  3. Great post!!! It seems also that salaries in academia, even for TT positions are going down because of the competition.

  4. The 2 Year Life of the MindAugust 17, 2012 at 7:43 AM

    @anotherpostacademicblog - I've taught writing classes (and currently teach one now) and that lower pay is a load of CRAP! It's unfortunate they can get away with it.

    I find the "love rhetoric" very prevalent in the system. However, there are still TONS of adjuncts who show up every week, ready for their exploitation. Many have been brainwashed to think that working in academia is the ONLY acceptable career option because the "real world" is a brain numbing, mindless, evil place.

    I also find that in it's current state and on the lower levels, you can be a college instructor (especially adjuncts) and get the benefit of having a captured audience. This means you can be a little bit crazy and since you are in charge, nobody else can hold it against you because you are "the boss" in that room. For those of us who are mentally balanced, we see it for what it is: low wages for lots of work. Still, the university system has plenty of minions who continue to work based on the love rhetoric. I have people come to me every semester, begging for me to get them a job adjuncting. College provides the crazy people a chance to make money and continue their behavior. For the rest of us, we see it for what it is and know that the administration depends on their slave labor. So, they sell it to us in the form of "love" compensation. The crazy people don't mind. But we do....

  5. Hi, thanks for your posts. I'm contemplating leaving my doctoral program and I've been looking for jobs. What's the best way to tell employers about my status? Do you know others, who have been in a similar position, of interviewing for jobs unrelated to their field while still enrolled?

    1. Hey, thanks for the comment! Rather than answering this here, I think I will answer this question in a full post later this week or maybe the week after.

      But to start you off: virtually everyone on my blogroll has managed to land a job outside of academia, and has written quite a bit about their job search and interview processes on their blogs. I encourage you to check them out! Also, register for access to the forums at Versatile Ph.D. There are a lot of people offering concrete advice about job-hunting over there.

      Good luck!

  6. For more on academic compensation, read this