A Letter From a Reader (With Thoughts on What Professors Make)

I am interrupting regularly scheduled programming to share this email I received from a reader this week.

I share it for several reasons. The first is as a follow-up to last week’s post, “What’s It Like to Work with the Professor?” In that post I wrote,

Many readers have written to tell me that just reading my blog posts has given them the information they needed to succeed in their grant applications, conference efforts, and job hunt. This is very gratifying to me. Although I charge for services in working with me personally, it pleases me to also provide much-needed information at no cost to all readers.

This email provides an example of exactly how and why simply being a faithful reader of the blog can be an effective and completely free intervention into your job search.

Secondly, I want it to be seen as evidence of the continuing negligence of Ph.D. advisors to support their advisees’ actual employment goals, and an example of a person who still, despite that, prevailed.

Thirdly, it is a delightful object lesson in how “playing hard to get” and making them want you (ie, by asking for more time to think about the initial offer) can yield excellent outcomes.  It is a core tenet of all negotiating.

And then, lastly…..  not to be a total downer (sorry, writer!  I apologize that I’m kind of raining on your parade a little bit here…), but I want to draw attention to the salary level of the VAP position initially offered to this writer, and relate that to yesterday’s column in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, “From Graduate School to Welfare.” $35,000 is not a liveable wage for anyone supporting dependents in most parts of the country. That wage is actually below wages that were offered for similar positions when I was on the market in 1996. The salary structure of university labor is, as the Chronicle piece demonstrated, increasingly untenable for all but the super-privileged.

Let me be clear:  I am beyond delighted for this writer (as I told her), and proud of her determination and tenacity and clarity of vision, and her resourcefulness in educating herself about the demands of the market.  She is a success story, and I wish her the very best (and expect that she’ll achieve it, given her determination).

But I am also sorry that anyone has to begin a tenure track career, in 2012, earning $45,000, which is not, I state here, an appropriate wage level for a Ph.D.-level tenure track university professor, particularly anyone confronting 5 or 6 figure student loans (which this writer is not—but most Ph.D.s are). This salary represents in stark terms the devaluating of academic labor even on the tenure track, outside the ranks of the ultra-elite schools,  and that is something that is eating the heart out of the entire university system, for both the undergraduate students, who are taught by increasingly desperate adjunct faculty, and for the faculty, who are increasingly financially stressed and unable to pay back student loans acquired during undergraduate and graduate study.

Dear writer–I think you’re going to be a kick-ass SLAC teacher, and to use your own words, ‘I can’t properly express’ how pleased I am for you that you pulled this off.  And.  You’re worth more than this, and I encourage you to continue using your skills to agitate for better pay.


Dear Dr. Karen,

I cannot properly express my gratitude for all of the ‘behind the scenes’ mentoring you have provided me over the past few months. I am so thankful for coming across your blog; your honest advice about academia and the job market has been paramount for my career.

I am a 5th year graduate student in (xxxx subfield) Biology.    I knew very early into my graduate career that I wanted to pursue a faculty position at a SLAC.  Whether or not I wanted the option of developing a full-fledged research program was still up in the air.  Very much still up in the air.

The research environment in the hard sciences is brutal and the thought of spending another 3-5 years in it was nearly unbearable.  I knew, of course, that I would still need to pursue at least one postdoc experience to keep that door open.  As such, I went ahead and applied to several labs looking for a traditional research postdoc, spent a lot of time prepping my applications for combined research (75% effort)/teaching (25% effort) postdoc opportunities offered through the NIH, and decided to put myself out there for a few VAP positions (just to try).

I quickly discovered that mentors at R1 institutions haven’t the slightest idea how to advise their graduate students unless they are following in their own footsteps (graduate school, 3 research postdocs, secure faculty position at R1 institution).

Even though my mentor knew from the start that my goal was to have a teaching role at a SLAC, he was unable to understand my desire to pursue this path because I was accomplished as a researcher, secured my own $100k funding through federal grants, etc. Obviously I would want to stay in research.

My sentiments about the R1 environment are likely not relevant for this letter, so I will keep them to myself.

With all of that said, I became determined to make the leap into SLAC academia sooner than later and started to teach myself about the job market.

The first point of embarrassment:  I didn’t know that the mainstream hiring season was in the fall and that I had completely missed most opportunities for a continuing position.  I also realized I was only trained to pursue research positions.  I had no idea what a proper *teaching* CV should contain, how to form a persuasive *teaching* cover letter, how to describe my own *teaching* philosophy, let alone how to handle any job talks that might come my way or even negotiate an offer.

I did seek help from my own mentor and a few other R1 faculty members at my institution.  However, every bit of advice was tailored for a research position and when I pushed more for help on the teaching end, they responded with a big “I have no idea.”

This is where “The Professor Is In” played a critical role.

Thanks to your tutorials, blog posts and facebook discussions, I was able to craft documents that I was proud to send out.    I received many postdoc offers, had on campus visits for some, and even started wrapping my head around the idea of accepting one at [an elite private institution].

Then, one day, I received a call from out of state.  It was the department chair who had received my application for a one year VAP position at a SLAC and wanted to set up a phone interview the following week.  Two days after that interview, I had another phone interview with the Dean.  A few days after that, I was asked to come down for a campus visit.  I gave a research talk to an upper level biology class, was the (surprise!) guest lecturer for the first year molecular biology course (where I had to give a chalk talk on photosynthesis – a topic that I haven’t revisited since my own freshman bio course) and made rounds through the administration.

Because of your blog, I was confident throughout my visit and knew I made the best impression possible.

The day after I flew back in, the Dean called to offer me the job.  The specifics:  1 Year VAP position, $35k, hopeful that they would get approval to put out a tenure track line in the fall, to which I would be encouraged to apply.  We had a very nice discussion and I expressed my gratitude for the offer, but told him I needed some time to consider my other opportunities including doing a postdoc.

He called back the next day, and said that he, the VP and department chair met with the President and were authorized to offer me a tenure track position at $45k.  I was very pleased by this opportunity, cancelled my visits to other campuses for postdoc interviews, and accepted the job at this great SLAC.

Whether or not you know it, you became my pseudo mentor and I am grateful for that.  Right before I flew down for the interview, I put a quick post on your facebook wall asking how appropriate it would be to discuss the possibility of establishing a tenure track line after the VAP position ends.  You replied with “completely appropriate.”  I can’t help but think that your comment set the tone for the interview which ultimately took me from a VAP offer to a permanent position at a “wish list” SLAC.

PhD Candidate
Department of Biology xx
R1 Institution

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A Letter From a Reader (With Thoughts on What Professors Make) — 13 Comments

  1. The power of delay is incredible. I once had a start-up offer increase 30K in about 3 seconds because I paused for a moment and made some non-committal hmm-type noise when the Dean first stated the offer. The Dean came right back with and ‘ok we could increase that from X to X+30’ – not bad for simply not saying “yes” right away.

  2. As a 5th year graduate student, you blog has opened my eyes to the job market.

    This really stood out “The first point of embarrassment: I didn’t know that the mainstream hiring season was in the fall and that I had completely missed most opportunities for a continuing position.” I feel a bit better knowing I wasn’t the only one who missed this critical bit of information. Not to mention all the other crucial details required to apply for these positions.

    I had a chat with my adviser yesterday about my future. He was un-helpful, as always. I tried to make a point by discussing the PhD’s and public assistance Chronicle article. This was met by a look of disbelief and the statement ‘those are all English majors’ (I am in geoscience)!!! The entitlement of that statement had me packing my things and mumbling ‘see you next week’.

    Many thanks for the work you do, Dr.Karen. I tell every grad student I know about your blog.

  3. I agree that knowing how to negotiate and not sound over-eager is important. But it’s also important to be as informed as possible about limitations on the other side of the table given the realities of salary compression. At public universities, you can be aware of average salaries for Assistant Profs as well as specific salaries of faculty within the Department or Division making the offer. Having this information lets you know if you’ve been lowballed gives you a sense of when they’ve really offered as much as they can. If you still think they really want you and you deserve more, that’s a great time to go for non-salaried benefits: Negotiate moving expenses, summer salary support prior to your start date to work on curriculum development, a start-up package with equipment, reduced teaching load in Year 1 or 2, etc. etc. Preparing that list of information is immensely helpful, in part b/c it will make you aware of what think you need for tenure success (your ‘pie in the sky’ as well as your ‘bottom line’ for turning down a job). It’s really disappointing that more doctoral programs don’t include this type of information as part of a professional dev’t series. My doctoral institution did not, but the place where I did my post-doc and even though I wish there had been more, it was still invaluable when I did finally apply for a ‘real job.’

    • This is correct; all readers should read my blog post: How to Negotiate Your Tenure Track Offer. it explains all this stuff in great detail.

      • I absolutely love your blog and refer all my graduate students to you when they have questions about doctoral programs – never too early to think about what they might be getting themselves into and why the end goal isn’t just about getting (any) doctoral program but to be very strategic and careful about that decision as well – so glad you are out there as a resource.

  4. Yes, take a day to consider, etc. but, whether we like it or not $45 is reality of many opportunities and beats the hell out of public assistance. I accepted a temporary appointment on the phone once, but the contract that appeared in the mail a week or so later was for $5,000k less. After a VERY tough discussion with the Dean who denied ever offering the amount, I was able to get $2500 of the agreed upon total back but no more.

    When several positions opened up there the following year at a much better rate of pay, 3 different faculty members asked me to apply, but I never even got a call in response to the application.

    I can only conclude that the dean blocked it.

    • I had 17 years of professional engineering experience when I was unexpectedly offered a teaching position by a faculty member who I had known personally for two decades. As described by this acting department head, the position was to be more than adjunct and would pay some $50k. When the contract eventually arrived (as provided by the provost’s office) it was an adjunct position and only paid $45k. Because I wouldn’t relocate for a such a position, I had to drive 100 miles per day. While I was paid more the second year, for the upcoming year, they offered a raise of $825, which is less than half of one car repair bill ($1,875). That’s for teaching 11 sections of engineering laboratory courses a year, with usually approximately 90 students per course…

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