On Not Getting Paid Enough

Regular readers might remember the guest post we had here on the blog from awhile back, called The Real Life of a Tenure Track Faculty Person, which explored the usually unacknowledged financial struggles attendant on having a tenure track job. That is to say, beyond the depredations of a debt-filled Ph.D. program and years of adjuncting at minimum wage levels, there is the real likelihood that even after obtaining the coveted tenure track job, financial struggles continue, and indeed might intensify with the addition of health challenges and other aspects of real life into the mix.

This guest post grew out of a lengthy exchange on the comment stream of an earlier post by me, entitled Should You Go To Graduate School? In that post, I give a list of 11 conditions that I believe should be met by anyone considering graduate school to protect against a fate of poverty and unemployment. Astonishingly, several commenters to that post responded with the view that it is simply an example of first world “entitlement” to expect to earn enough as a Ph.D. student/adjunct/assistant professor to be able to afford the rent of a studio apartment, deal with a health challenge, or support dependents.

The absurdity of this claim needs no elaboration here and I direct everyone to the two respective comment streams to see the spirited reaction to this line of thought. In exasperation, I eventually wrote, “When did middle class become a dirty word? Why are American academics expected to embrace without a murmur the standard of living of other, less wealthy countries? Why is it somehow wrong and ethically tainted to want and expect a modicum of financial security at the end of a decade or so of advanced professional training? Why is the inevitable response to these critiques: find a different job? How have so many intelligent and educated people been so successfully indoctrinated that they’ll accept financial chaos and struggle as the ‘natural’ accompaniment of the academic career? The real financial disequilibrium of the tenure track (partic. in the humanities) is yet another layer of misinformation in the Ph.D. training enterprise, and one that like all the others is defended fiercely (especially in the humanities) so that the cult can remain unchallenged and intact.”

In any case, today I want to direct readers to another recent blog post by Triproftri, Let’s Get Real With Numbers: The Financial Reality of Being a Tenured Professor.

This blog post takes the discussion a step further—to life post-tenure. And to the reality that for many faculty outside the elite institutions, even tenure does not bring relief from the constant financial struggle that is the outcome of the depressed salaries of the humanities and many social sciences, which have lagged far behind the rising cost of living, particularly in expensive cities that are home to so many universities.

When I posted a link to this article on the Facebook page, once again the “entitlement” crowd showed up, telling professors to stop “whining.”

To which one respondent replied, “When did you decide it was OK to live in a society where any job from janitor to professor did not provide the means to meet the most basic human needs of secure dwelling and the capacity to provide for a family? This is a deeply rooted structural problem perpetuated by this cult of ‘personal responsibility’ which denies the existence of society, and dictates that is your own fault if you failed to read the tea leaves properly when first embarking on your career path.”

Indeed, as one regular TPII reader has pointed out, the problem is one of changing goals. What was fun and exciting in your twenties (sharing an apartment with three other people and living on ramen while getting a Ph.D. in continental philosophy for example), slowly becomes untenable over the course of your thirties and forties, as you acquire children, health challenges, aging parents, and the need for more secure living arrangements. But you didn’t (indeed couldn’t) anticipate that in your twenties. Because people can’t; that’s just human nature.  What is wrong here is not the less than completely accurate career planning of individual Ph.D. students but the massive defunding of universities (with special ferocity in the humanities) that has deflated faculty salaries to 1995 levels while the cost of living skyrockets all around. Telling people to stop whining, change jobs, or change careers individualizes what is a structural problem—that the world of the university professor in the humanities and many social sciences has become increasingly financial untenable for those outside the elite institutions.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


On Not Getting Paid Enough — 16 Comments

  1. Bravo! I am sending this to my colleagues who always shut me down when I demand that faculty should have a living wage by dismissing me and saying, “go into another profession” and “no one said you would be rich.” hello! I just want to be able to pay my bills and not use credit cards to buy groceries! By the way, I am a tenured associate prof (single mom) and these are the folks who live in two income households…just sayin’

  2. One thing that makes academic complaints about pay and working conditions different — and therefore gives them the flavor that can be perceived as “whining” — is the unavailability of options that are available elsewhere in the working world. Ordinarily, if a job pays too little or demands too much, you quit. The only reason to keep going is if the job gives you other satisfactions — or if you have no other alternatives. Therefore when outsiders hear academics “whine,” they either assume that the job is not so bad or that we’re losers.

    In fact, there’s a whole complex of things that binds academics to bad workplaces — most of which have been well-discussed on TPII. (Maybe there’s also a complex of things that binds people to rotten jobs in the private sector — but that’s too big a can of worms to open here.) One beautiful thing about this is it often leads academics to talk about systemic reform instead of simple personal comfort. Even an ensconced Ivy League professor can feel the unfairness of unemployed graduate students and adjunct slave labor, while their colleagues in private industry just look for flex time and better pay packages. But TPII is right to point out that academics need a healthy dose of self-preservation. It may feel selfish to bargain for health insurance when one’s time is better spent teasing out the economic effects of enclosure. But making sure that you have enough money to take care of yourself is a basic form of adult responsibility. Implying that academics should be above such petty concerns puts them in the same category as children or mental incompetents. If no one else will take care of scholars, it’s the scholar’s responsibility to take care of herself.

  3. Thank you for this comment: “Telling people to stop whining, change jobs, or change careers individualizes what is a structural problem—that the world of the university professor in the humanities and many social sciences has become increasingly financial untenable for those outside the elite institutions.”

    As a political scientist, I am shocked at the number of academics who make structural arguments in their intellectual work, but make individualist arguments about their graduate students. It is a relief to hear another academic identify this issue.

  4. It’s been my experience that the perpetuation of the petulant “it’s the life of the mind/not the money what matters” attitude is transmitted (both vocally and by loaded silence/body language) by faculty earning hearty six-figure salaries.

  5. You write that “Astonishingly, several commenters to that post responded with the view that it is simply an example of first world “entitlement” to expect to earn enough as a Ph.D. student/adjunct/assistant professor to be able to afford the rent of a studio apartment, deal with a health challenge, or support dependents.”

    This is not what many people said. What many of us said is that $60k a year as a starting salary is, in fact, solidly middle-class. If it’s not enough to rent an apartment or support dependents then it seems there are two options (1) the middle class in general is not making enough to support basic needs, or (2) those who claim this is not enough to cover their basic expenses are consuming and spending a lot more than is reasonable for a middle-class household.

    People have differing opinions on which of these two points is true. What comes across as “entitlement” is thinking that somehow, academics particularly (as opposed to everyone considered middle-class) should be paid much more than a middle-class salary.

    Whether or not we agree, I’ve been really disappointed in the level of discourse you’ve maintained with your readership here. Dismissing readers’ responses offhand as “brainwashed” and characterizing our responses as anti-middle class (when really what a lot of us are saying is: are you kidding? $60-80k is solidly middle class!) or as idealistic (when we’re also saying of course, we’d like to get paid more and will negotiate for the most we can get!) is far from a reasonable and thoughtful response.

    • Please let me know where I can find that starting salary. I have been on the tenure-track since earning my PhD and have had to change positions three times just to increase my pay and I still haven’t hit that salary. At one university, the full professors were earning just over $60,000, some with over 30 years of experience. Here’s the truth. At my third tenure-track job, I finally earned more than I did my last year as a graduate student. While we can lament that so few PhDs find jobs because universities have closed positions or turned to low-paying adjuncts, we also have to realize that the life of a graduate student at an R1 is often a better deal than a position at a SLAC or regional university. As a graduate students at an R1, you teach smart, competitive students in maybe two classes a semester (as opposed to three or four on tt). You have opportunities for generous dissertation fellowships and travel money. You have an amazing library. Benefits for health care, etc. are more generous. I know many people (from grad school and serving on search committees) when they find out how little a real professor makes and how little the institutional support is, they prefer to continue at their graduate school as a lecturer or adjunct rather than take that tt job. I found myself envious sometimes, because I knew they (as non-tenure track lecturer at an R1) earned more than I did (tt at a slac). Never mind that they continued to live in pretty places and teach smart students and fewer classes and had no committee work. What I did notice in the comment stream from those that defend the institutional structure is that a lot of the defenders of the system were graduate students and maybe they need that mentality while still operating as a student. The institutional disparities between the universities that train PhDs (R1s) and the ones that hire (most) of them (SLACs, regional schools) have grown so great that they have exacerbated the adjunct/non-tenure track problem.

      • thanks for this, NR2. The issue is what has become acceptable for a so-called middle-class income, and why are we in a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of how little we’re willing to work for?

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  7. I found this post really illuminating; it seems to me that in general, all these phenomena coexist (race to the bottom for TT salaries, adjunctification, divide and rule policies by universities, middle-class angst and middle-class envy, etc etc), making it more difficult to develop counter-strategies and vocalise political demands.
    This was a good read as well

  8. Thank you so much for posting this. This was a very timely post for me, since I’m currently in the process of deciding whether it makes sense to stick it out at my first TT job because it pays so inadequately relative to cost of living that I drained a substantial portion of my retirement savings during my first year just to make ends meet, and there’s no indication the bleeding will stop. So what should one do when they find themselves in a financially unsustainable situation? I contemplate quitting frequently (particularly since my partner lives hundreds of miles away), but worry that doing so would wreck my career, even though leaving a job because it doesn’t pay enough would be reasonable in any other industry. I know your blog is mostly focused on helping people get and keep TT positions, but I would love to read a post about how to make a graceful exit when a job that seemed ideal ends up coming at too high a personal cost.

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  10. Thank you for posting this. I make 56,000 as an Associate Professor and will never be able to afford a home. What bothers me is that students have the impression that we are paid more. If we don’t get paid more, fine, but I’d at least like students to be aware of how difficult it is (absent family money or a spouse with a career) for their faculty to make ends meet. Some faculty I know cannot afford to park on campus or to buy lunch on campus.

  11. Karen,

    This is an important topic, but I think you’ve misconstrued some of the arguments that people are making. It’s not that I think academics should “quit whining and get a new job” its that I think academics should quit whining about academics only making $50,000. As you said it’s a structural problem, not an individual problem.

    Academics have not made the case that they should be treated as a separate, protected class that society has determined has a unique skill set that deserves a minimum compensation. Until that case is made articulately, what academics should be arguing is that $50,000 is not enough money for anyone in the middle class to live on given rising costs. Why should it matter that you’re a taxi driver or a line cook or a grocery store cashier or an associate professor? Why inherently should academics have a salary floor, but not those other professions? I say this as someone who agrees with you. It is a structural issue. But it’s a structural issue for the American labor force, not just academics. And I think until that delta is addressed, why specifically academics should have a salary floor, adding details about how long you spent in school or how many conferences you have to attend or how much time research takes, will continue to upset people who don’t think you’re arguing for structural change for them, but for just academics.


  12. The key issue is that it depends where you live. $50k per year is OK but not great in up-state NY where I used to live. I was paid $75k when I quit in 2007 and felt very well off living there. But it is not very much money at all in New York City. So, I think a lot of people’s thoughts on what is an adequate pay level depends on where they live.

  13. As long as some folks are willing to be compensated by enjoyment instead of actual cash, the universities will have no incentive to raise salaries. If you want to increase salaries, you may have to quit the academy. This won’t help YOU get a higher academic salary, but it may well help the next person. If you’re not willing to sacrifice yourself, then you are possibly an enabler.

    But on a happier note, it really is possible to join the tenure track in the humanities in Asia, and have a US$1 million investment account by age 40. And the jobs aren’t nearly as competitive, because apparently a lot of folks would rather be adjuncts in New Jersey making $18k per year, than full-time profs in Asia making $80k in year 1 and $180k by year 15.

    I speak as an American who regularly tries, and fails, to recruit other Americans to positions at my Asian university. I’m not going to elaborate, as I don’t want to reveal my identity, but a quick Google search will reveal some of the options.

    And yes, I know there’s a certain type of American who’d rather be poor at home than comfortable in Asia. That’s fine; it’s your right.

  14. I find this article interesting. I am in my third year as an Assistant Professor on a tenure track and make a whopping $41,600. I am young and would love to hear that my salary would increase throughout my time teaching at the university level-but I’m afraid it may take awhile with a maximum of a 2% raise each year.

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