This guest post came out of a conversation that’s been percolating among readers on the blog, facebook page, and over email, about the actual financial risks and repercussions of doing a Ph.D.. Indeed, last week’s blog post, Should You Go To Graduate School?, catalyzed an intense debate in the comment stream about just how little a graduate student should be willing to live on to “live the dream” of the academic career.
Far less understood, however, is that even those who get the coveted tenure track position often still do not make enough to cover their actual day to day expenses, which may include unavoidably high rent or mortgage payments (depending on the locale), medical expenses when dealing with a health challenge, day care that is easily $1000 a month, as well as the payments on 5- or 6-figure undergraduate and graduate student loans.
I’ve helped hundreds of clients negotiate tenure track jobs, and the fact is that it’s a binarized (feudalized) economy, in which the ivy league and elite schools offer wonderful, generous packages to new hires, while “all the rest” offer salaries that are scarcely above 1996 levels, when I was on the market, and are often inadequate to cover the reasonable living expenses of my clients.
Salary stagnation in the face of escalating costs of living has undermined the middle class and the whole idea of the American Dream. This is true in all spheres of the economy, not just academia. Academia is just less honest about the real financial suffering attendant on the career choice.
I’m currently “living the dream” as an academic. I got a TT job after four years of searching during the recession. Needless to say, I was thrilled, and I still feel like I won the job lottery. But I have noticed that many of my graduate students as well as those who have not yet gotten a TT job have a rather unrealistic idea about what “living the dream” entails. I’m going to try to provide a little window of insight into the real life of a TT faculty person in the first two years – the stuff that no one told me. This is from my own experience as well as colleagues in a variety of disciplines who all entered TT in the last five years.
When you are offered the TT job, it usually includes a relocation package. This is awesome, except that it may take several months for the university to reimburse your relocation expenses. It also doesn’t pay for a whole host of major expenses, such as deposits. When you relocate to a major urban center with a very high cost of living, as I did, this means you will need several thousand dollars you will not see again to give to your landlord and the utility companies. You also want to be very careful about how you use your relocation funds, because the limited guidance the university often provides before you relocate is not necessarily what matches the very detailed requirements that higher level fiscal auditors have. This may mean more delays in processing your reimbursement or some expenses not being reimbursable at all.
Additionally, at my position, our contract did not start until a couple days before the semester began. Our contract, therefore, did not cover any of our time preparing fall classes during the summer, nor did it cover the summer pre-semester faculty meetings. Be prepared to pay for 1-2 months of living expenses in your new location while working for free. Health insurance did not kick in for an additional month after my contract began, so you will also need to plan for paying out of pocket for several months for insurance. It is a real possibility you will get sick, which is normal when you combine limited sleep (more on this later) with relocating to a new place and exposing yourself to several hundred new people in the first month of work – your new students, who are a breeding ground for germs. So be prepared to pay for insurance on your own (because you can’t go to a low-cost county program, because technically you are making a middle class salary, even though you have not seen a paycheck yet). If you can’t afford all this, as many of us can’t, what you end up doing is spending all of your limited savings to relocate with no ability to pay for luxuries such as internet or phone, no health coverage, and no furnishings. Basically, you go “all in” hoping that you’ll recover somehow in the following semester.
After surviving the first semester, which entails the financial stress of living like a middle class person without yet having a middle class income and working virtually every second, you enter the marathon of the first 2 years toward tenure. During this time, be prepared to work approximately 60-70 hours per week. Your contract will cover 9 months per year, and theoretically you have the summer off. But you don’t actually have the summer off. During this time, you must prepare your fall classes and do the bulk of your research and writing, because during the academic year you are too busy teaching and performing administrative service. But it is a break, in the sense that you can work 40 hours per week. During these first years, you must simultaneously develop a stable of classes (preparing lectures, activities, assessments, and content for 2-3 new courses each semester for a while), teach a couple hundred students in about three classes per semester (whose evaluations also count toward tenure, quite a lot at a teaching university like mine), prove that you are conducting new research (i.e., go after grants and conduct research that is not repeating your dissertation), write one or more publications per year, attempt to transform your dissertation into a book (which is a bit like doing the dissertation all over again, but with a lot more criticism and stress), attend endless meetings to be in service to your university, and waste a lot more time than you’d think answering emails and filling out paperwork. In your few spare moments, you will attempt adjust to a new city where you know nothing and no one, and must find everything from a dry cleaner to a neighborhood you can both afford and not hate. You have to love university life enough that you don’t mind working 50%+ more hours for the same pay (or less) that you’d get in the corporate sector and having virtually no work-life balance.
Before attaining the coveted promotion and tenure, you will likely make a very substandard income if you live in a high cost of living area – the very areas where most of the jobs are. Be prepared for “middle class” to cost more money than you make, and to accept that on a professor’s salary, you are unlikely to be able to afford to buy a home in a decent neighborhood until you have received at least the first promotion. For example, you may make around $60,000 per year and a two-bedroom home in a good neighborhood may cost $500,000 or more (compared to $1500 in rent on a one bedroom for the same area). This means that many of my colleagues have delayed having children or opted to not have them, because they couldn’t afford a second bedroom or child-related expenses until they were in their mid-40s to early 50s. If you have a spouse with a high income, it helps, but considering they may have to relocate and start over for you to take your TT job, it may actually pose a financial liability to be married. Be prepared also to use a substantial chunk of your salary (in the realm of thousands of dollars per year) toward work-related expenses, including parking fees, union dues, building your library, attending conferences, paying professional association dues, equipment, and augmenting research funds while you wait for a large grant to come in. Your university is likely to have some funds toward some of these things, but given budget cuts, will be unlikely to cover enough expenses to allow you to be free from having to substantially augment.
My strategy to deal with having expenses that were beyond my salary (such as alternative medical costs for my chronic illness that are not covered by insurance), aside from cutting corners elsewhere, was to continue doing limited consulting (which I had done prior to the TT job) in order to afford it all. Given the reality of how many hours I work each year, on my salary I am paid $21 per hour (before taxes, mandatory pension, etc.) as an Assistant Professor (this is given 60 hours per week, 50 weeks a year – which really is about how much I work). As a consultant, I make approximately $100-150/hour (pre-tax). It is no wonder that I am willing to take on an additional few hours per week in consulting in order to pay for the “extras” of home furnishings, clothes, having pets, and my medical expenses.
Given all this, you may well say (as do all of my non-academic professional friends) that I am crazy to do what I do. But I can’t help it. I drank the academic kool-aid and I am addicted. I get enormous fulfillment from seeing patterns in my data I never saw before and from seeing my students “get it” for the first time. I love having the ability to work many of those 60 hours from my home office in my pajamas, and to work with my bio-rhythm (I get my best ideas and writing 4 pm to 1 am, so that 9-5 schedule really doesn’t work for me). When I did much easier corporate work, I missed having the intellectual community of a university and the independence to lead my own research teams on whatever topics I fancied. And I am stubborn. I worked my entire childhood and adult life to get the perfect scores that would get me to this dream, and I’m not giving it up. I am four weeks from the “finish line” of the end of my second academic year – the end of the period I’m told is the hardest of my career. I now have a stable of classes, a book under review by a publisher, and a few large grants under review. I’ll forgive the exhaustion and my biological clock telling me I am getting too old (with not enough resources) to have a child. But my advice to my graduate students and colleagues – make sure you want to “live the dream” the way the dream really exists. Be realistic – you will work long and stressful hours for very little pay… but if you love research and teaching as much as I do, you just might be crazy enough to love it and let go of what you miss.