Sunday, September 25, 2011

On Pay in Academia

This post is about money. You know, the one thing we're not supposed to care about or talk about in academia, since we grad students and faculty are "doing it for the love of the subject," and common things like money aren't supposed to matter to us. Yeah.

Well, this is a postacademic blog, so I'm no longer subjected to the norms of academia in what I think and say. So screw it ... let's talk about money. Because it does matter, at least a little bit.

It's not that no one expects you to consider salary when you apply for academic jobs. Of course you are expected to care about what you'll be making ... but you're definitely not supposed to care too much or too obviously about it. At least in my discipline, it is considered seriously tacky and "common" to talk about whether a school's offered salary was too low or to (heaven forbid) turn down a job based on the salary you were offered. Simply put - if you got offered a faculty job and didn't have another offer, and no one did something egregious at your job interview, you take that job regardless of salary. After all, any faculty salary is better than what you made as a grad student or you could make as an adjunct, right? And, of course, it's "not about the money, it's about the importance of what you're doing as an academic." So you should be grateful for that job that pays $40k for a 4/4 in Nowheresville, Idaho, dammit!

I started thinking about salary more deeply after reading Recent PhD's post about the job market from a few days ago, in which s/he notes that most academic job ads these days don't list a specific salary in the ad, but instead say that salary is "competitive." Competitive, in academia, usually means that you'll earn somewhere in the $50k range, unless you're a total rockstar. (Don't believe me? Find your discipline here and check out the assistant professor numbers).

As RecentPhD notes, however, what is thought of as "competitive" in academia is actually more like "meager" compared to the outside world. Whatever you may think about the importance of money, it is very likely that you will be able to make far more than $50k with a Ph.D. outside academia.

But, okay, You are in academia for the love of the subject, and from where you sit with your grad student stipend or adjunct salary, $50k sounds pretty damn good. Okay, I understand.

But let's take a step back and think about this from a wider angle ... let's look at how the contemporary structure of higher education has created a system where you are led to view a salary that is far lower than the salary you could command outside of academia as a great opportunity, and how there is therefore no pressure on academia to raise faculty salaries.

Academic salaries are not based on "fair market value." They're based on the fact that the system of higher ed has created a captive pool of desperate people who will work for any salary and who will rarely exert pressure on the system to make salaries fairer.

The only reason that $50k is considered a competitive salary for someone at the Ph.D. level who is doing something as important as teaching and research is because academia is set up so that you will spend years toiling away for barely five figures before finally being given the golden ticket to an academic job. And by that point, you'll be so tired of making TA/adjunct wages that anything higher than $15k will look impressive. And even if it doesn't, you will likely face the following two choices while mulling over a job offer: (1) take the $40k job because it's better than what you're making now, or (2) turn down the job and go back to making $15k while ten other new grads clamor for the $40k job you just turned down.

In other words, the structure of higher education keeps salaries (comparatively) low. Even low faculty salaries look huge in comparison to grad student stipends, and there are so many desperately underemployed Ph.D.s out there that universities will find someone (probably several someones) who are willing to work for whatever salary they're willing to pay.

And, okay. I'll say it. $50k per year is, objectively, not a lot of money for someone who has spent 8 years in grad school earning a Ph.D., and who is teaching the next generation of college students and who is expected to travel around the country presenting research. $50k per year is about what a decent employee with a bachelor's degree could reasonably expect to make after eight years of working for the company making a slightly smaller salary ... rather than after eight years in grad school making $1000/month and gorging yourself on student loans.

If academia was set up like other industries, chances are that starting faculty salaries would increase over time. People would be able to play several universities' offers off each other, or turn one offer down if the salary was too low. And eventually universities would feel pressure to bring salaries up, or to make better offers to attract the best people.

And sure, some academic rockstars can do that right now. But not many. In the past five years, I know of exactly three people in my department who had multiple job offers ... and we're a highly ranked program in the social sciences. If you're not a rockstar or you're in a humanities discipline, chances are that you'll have one or zero job offers to mull over. You will have no other offers to use as leverage, and given that you're currently making $12k as an adjunct, the offer of $50k would be pretty stupid to turn down. And if you did, they'd just offer the job to the next candidate at the same salary, who'd be happy to take it. They won't fight for you as a candidate, and they won't feel pressure to raise their offer ... because there are hundreds of other candidates willing to work for the salary they're offering. If you won't work for $50k, ten other people would be more than happy to do it ... and their CVs probably look pretty identical to yours.

What we see, then, is that the salaries being offered to all but the biggest academic rockstars are pathetic simply because the system has created a class of underpaid, overstressed adjuncts and grad students. Rather than offering salaries that are actually fair for the education level and type of work faculty members will do, schools can get away with offering pay far below what a Ph.D. with years of experience in higher education could get in the nonacademic world. Because people are desperate.

And by continuing to admit full classes of grad students and by keeping other people on staff as adjuncts who are barely able to make ends meet or keep their stress level low enough to be able to stop and think critically about the system they're working in, higher education has created a class of desperate workers who are happy to take anything that provides a modicum of stability and middle-class living. With the pool of desperate workers and the universities holding all the cards, there is no reason for the salaries to increase to a level comparable to what you can command outside of academia. And they never will.


  1. Two thoughts on this.

    First, 50k in nowhere iowa is a livable salary. 50k in a major metro area (LA, SF, NYC, Boston, DC, etc) is barely above grad student wages. While there can be arguments about what a PhD is worth, it certainly deserves a middle class wage appropriate for the local area. It rarely seems to draw that.

    Second, this is one of the reasons why I am took my PhD and didn't even go on the job market. And I was comparatively a rock star in my department. I took my years of professional experience and applied them to my studies, resulting in publications and a positive reputation. However in my day job I STILL make twice would I would make on the academic job market. Why would I put myself through that degrading hiring process only to take a massive cut in pay?

  2. Yes, I tried to shy away from saying that $50k was a BAD salary. It certainly isn't in certain parts of the country. And if you had a partner who pulled a decent salary, $50k in a major metro area would be nothing to sneeze at either.

    But like you say - the salary paid in many academic jobs (especially jobs that aren't at the top R-1 institutions) seem to bear no relation to the cost of living in a given area or to the education level and experience of its applicants (and what they could command on the nonacademic job market). Two jobs I interviewed with were offering salaries of $51k (in metro NYC) and $38k (in a small southern town). The NYC salary would have probably given me a worse quality of life than I had in grad school, and the other salary was, frankly, about what I earn at my current full-time job (which does not require a graduate degree).

    I don't mean to imply that academic salaries are terrible or unlivable. But they don't seem to have much to do with the time and effort you spend getting qualified for such a position, nor with the salary that is necessary for a middle class life. Surely people who have worked their way through grad school and gotten a Ph.D. and a job deserve a middle class wage. But with the buyers' market of academic hiring, salaries stay down and people stay exploited.

    (Of course, this post also didn't touch on how new faculty salaries compare to the salaries of administrators ... which is a whole other issue).

    But yes, I agree with you. I'm realizing now that it's quite possible I could find a job without even using my degree that would pay much more than what I could get as a prof. That's been eye-opening.

  3. Nicely put: "Academic salaries are not based on 'fair market value.' They're based on the fact that the system of higher ed has created a captive pool of desperate people who will work for any salary and who will rarely exert pressure on the system to make salaries fairer."

    The captivity and desperation are the reasons why I chose to walk away from adjuncting and will never go back to it. I will never go back to it even "for fun" should I be comfortably situated in a new career and find myself excessively missing teaching (ha!).

    However, there are reasons, admittedly idiosyncratic ones, that are motivating me to try a third and final attempt at the tt "market." I'll put something up on my blog about that later. Worth mentioning here is that this search will be on MY terms, not academe's. While this strategy probably won't lead to a job anymore than any other strategy, at least I won't be a desperado. Given that I've taken some steps out into the Great Nonacademic Beyond, I have options, and I won't ever be in the unenviable position of choosing between the $40K tt job in Nowheresville and the even more unenviable adjunct job just about anywhere.

    On salaries, a quick glance at Iowa City's Craigslist shows secretary jobs like mine with salaries between $31K and $62K. While such jobs can pay $80K and above here in Crapital City, these salaries do suggest that academe is pretty far behind the curve. Sure, nobody becomes an academic with the expectation of getting rich -- but you don't become a secretary with that expectation, either. College and university faculty should be able to earn at least as much -- really more, when you think about it -- as the people who run their offices.

  4. You can lower your standards and go into the public school system of a major metro area. I did, loss of prestige, status, but a huge bump in pay. In NY, top tier teachers make over 100K. When I started I made 54K, now I'm at 70k, with a PHD you come in at a higher pay scale and you also get to see why our education system is failing. Then you can write about it and make more money. Try it, if you don't mind the out of control kids, imposed common core curriculum, and teacher evaluation system. You might even get used to it! Or at least, enjoy the quality of life you are able to live and don't forget you get every Christian, Jewish, and now a Muslim holiday off along with 2 months for summer! How's that for academic rigour!

  5. I think one thing to keep in mind is that 50K is usually (though not always) for a 9 month contract. You could supplement these 9 months with secondary work during the summer months, as long as your publishing requirements for tenure are not too steep.