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.
This is a helpful and interesting article. Thank you for posting it. Since I don’t have a TT position and probably never will, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that I’m not missing as much as I think. When it’s all spelled out like this, we really do seem crazy to work so hard for so little, but as the author says, we get addicted to academia.
Non-EU Migrant scholar says
Thank you so much for this post. It certainly gives graduate students a clear picture of what to expect if they land a TT. Also, it’s not very different from Germany…where I’ve lived and am about to leave. Juniorprofessors (equivalent to the Assistant Professor) work about 60-70 hours a week as well, and it doesn’t change when they became full professors (or tenured professors). Full profs. literally DO NOT have a life outside the university life. It’s like the guest post says, you must be willing to “live the dream”.
As someone working at a private 4 year institution, I can say that even in those schools, the salaries can paltry. I mean, really, really bad. I’m not TT (so I’m paid less than my son’s elementary school teacher), but even the TT folks here get paid a pittance. There are tons of resources to develop curriculum, research start-up, etc. But actual salary barely covers the bills, and we have 2 salaries coming in because my spouse is in the private sector (and while spouse is VERY well paid, all of the debt accrued having a family while in grad school makes it really tough just to scrape by).
light at the end of the TT tunnel says
I so appreciated this perspective on the economic realities of the tenure-track. And I have 2 comments to make in response.
1. I moved to my current TT position (large research univ., state land-grant institution) after 1 year at a small-town branch campus whose major benefit was a strong faculty union. I knew cost of living at the new place would be higher, rents were off the charts, even groceries were ridiculous. One thing nobody told me was that I would effectively take a pay *cut* coming to this “better” job because of the health-insurance cost to full-time academic faculty. I am grateful to have health care, but wish someone had thought to tell me that my monthly cost for insurance coverage would quintuple. I went a few thousand dollars into debt my first year here, and that was because of health-care costs alone.
2. I want to add that not every TT position lands you somewhere more expensive than where you came from. One of the difficulties of being geographically limited (or preferring/applying to only jobs in large urban centers) is precisely that these places are so much pricier. There are literally hundreds of smaller colleges in less-urban places where cost of living is much more affordable; you *can* buy a house (even in my current city, $500K is absurdly overpriced and it’s very possible to find a good house for $150K-$200K), have pets, travel to a conference or two every year, and even buy the occasional treat for yourself. It’s not the lap of luxury, but it’s not as bad as in the big cities either.
Durrell Bowman says
I’m a “welfare Ph.D.” and just did my taxes for 2012: I made somewhere in the “high four figures” last year. So, anyone who feels that he or she can’t live on $60,000 (or even $30,000 or $15,000) is being unreasonable.
I’ve had some temporary full- and part-time teaching positions (dozens of courses), co-edited a book, have eight book chapters and scholarly journal articles out there, have written almost 200 program/reference/review articles, and so on. However, I’m now unemployed and no longer have a car (and have never had a spouse, children, or a house) and usually have to live in some kind of shared, student-type situation.
On the other hand, I’ve been approached to write a book for an emerging series and have managed to continue presenting around two (out of 3-5 accepted) conference papers (or invited talks) per year since completing my Ph.D. in 2003. (I can usually only manage them when I can get a ride with someone and/or stay with someone else, i.e., for free.) I also have some innovative ideas about technology, collaborative websites, digital content, and so on.
In the humanities, only about 20% of us ever get full-time jobs in our fields, even for just one year. I know that lots of people in the sciences, etc. get post-docs, but the number of them in the humanities is very small, and in my field only about 3% of Ph.D.s ever get one. Most of us (in the humanities, anyhow) are simply never going to make $60,000 per year, at least not in the fields we studied. So, it would be a very good idea a lot fewer of us went to graduate school.
Interesting post. I would just like add a quick description of “the real life of a contract worker in corporate America.”
You go to work under the aupices of a 3-month, a 6-month, or if you are really lucky, a 12-month contract. But all that contract means is that they can let you go at the given interval, no questions asked. They can still fire you whenever they want. In fact, it’s likely the coporation will lay people off and shut down the project that you work on in order to make it appear as though they have more cash on hand. This raises the stock price by a few cents so that the shareholders can make a bit more profit at key times of the year. You are paid pretty well by the hour, but you get no insurance benefits, no vacation time, and no sick time. If you are offered insurance benefits you cannot afford them.
You have absolutely no control over what you do on a daily, weekly, or yearly basis. You are probably not very interested in the work you do. The work you do may help push that stock price up a bit, or it may not. Either way, since you are capital to be squeezed for the sack of the stock market, the quality of your work does not affect your continued employment. You might do really good work and get laid off. You have no idea if you’ll be employed in six months, let alone next year.
I’m not arguing against the points of the blog post. Academics do work hard and are often not paid enough. Lord knows our work is undervalued. But whose work isn’t, these days? We may certainly have better options in the private sector. But many of those options come at a cost.
Annymous, did you go to university for a minimum of 7 years to get that contract job?
I don’t want to start a comparison of woes, but I second the problem of delayed insurance / paychecks: Our University health insurance starts *90* days after the start of the contract, which is already 2 weeks after classes even begin! It’s state policy.
Same here. Ridiculous. Fortunately, my spouse had insurance, so the family stayed on that.
Thanks so much for taking the time to write this up to give people a more realistic view in (and all of the people outside academia who insist to them that they are giving up having summers off if they leave academia – having time off from paychecks and time off from work are not the same thing).
Stacy Rosenbaum says
I am a 5th year graduate student in a prestigious program at a large research university. I took 8 years off between my BA and starting my PhD. I’m set to graduate within the next year and am dipping my toes in the job market. This post and others like really, really rub me the wrong way.
How on earth does one get all the way through the process of thinking about, applying for, and going through graduate school without realizing this stuff? What makes anyone think these challenges (poor health care coverage, “inadequate” salaries, expenses of relocating, long work weeks, etc. etc.) are unique to academia? If you were determined to make a lot of money and own a four-bedroom house in an expensive city, you should have chosen a different career. Period. You should not have acquired a bunch of loans and then complain when you choose a career that makes it hard to pay them off.
I’ve worked in the private sector. The great, GREAT majority of people who do struggle with these same issues. Contrary to what seems to be popular opinion on this blog, not everyone in the private sector is a CFO with a private jet. I have friends who are doctors and lawyers that work 100 hours a week, never see their families, and can barely afford the house and student loan payments they’ve taken on to “live the dream.” And that is at the highly-paid end of the private sector…most people don’t make enough money to even consider buying a house. Shockingly, they too have to pay union dues, parking fees, training workshops, and find a way to cover health expenses their health insurance doesn’t. This is not a consequence of being an academic. It’s called “being an (upper) middle-class adult in the United States in 2013.”
We have incredibly flexible jobs. We get to go to cool conferences in exotic locales. The public PAYS US to spend our time learning about things we find interesting. We make PLENTY of money to live on. I would be willing to bet my right arm that this person owns an iPhone, a car that is less than 10 years old, and eats at restaurants at least once a week. They have cable and comfortable furniture and fly to see their family on the holidays.
Complaining about relocation packages not being big enough, or coming too slowly, is the very definition of first-world problems. The lack of perspective on the larger world demonstrated here is laughable. This kind of thing is *exactly* why the general public has little sympathy for academics. Welcome to adulthood…let the rest of us know when you catch up.
I’m still trying to understand how private universities are not the “private sector.”
Stacy, in the parlance of this blog, you have ‘drunk the kool-aid.’ Ie, you have accepted the prevailing graduate school premise that academic work is so “cool” and “flexible” that it is adequate compensation for a wage-scale that is not, in fact, sufficient to do things like purchase homes or pay for day care in most major cities. The fact is that “successful”, highly educated people are being squeezed out of middle-class standards of living—which includes a reasonable work-life balance—in all sectors of the economy. Instead of blaming academics for complaining about this, perhaps we could step back and blame a larger economy that is intent on eviscerating the middle class and with it the notion of a balanced and sustainable lifestyle.
Stacy Rosenbaum says
No, I don’t believe I’ve “drunk the kool-aid” so much as just experienced the alternatives. It drives me crazy how many people go to graduate school without having experienced anything in their lives except, well, school. I had/have no illusions that I’m going to get paid a lot. I do it anyway, because there are other forms of compensation that make up for it (and I used to make a lot more money, so I understand exactly what those tradeoffs were). Grad school is not cool; who on earth thinks that? It keeps you in an ongoing state of, essentially, childhood, which was tough for me as someone who has had to behave and work like an adult for quite some time now. And anyone who thinks that grad school/academia is not flexible has clearly never worked a private sector job. I used to get dragged out of bed at 1am on a regular basis, after working 9 to 5, and since I was salaried there was no extra pay that went along with those middle of the night hours.
One of my committee members is only a year older than me and will go up for tenure next year. She has a 2 month old baby and is looking at houses with her husband, also an academic. We live in an incredibly expensive city, as I mentioned before. A friend took a TT job in a mid-sized city two years ago and had a baby last year. Neither she nor her husband make a fortune, but they bought a house and have their kid. Somehow dual-income families in much lower wage brackets manage to have kids all the time; it only seems to be academics who require certain salaries to deal with the sacrifices of child rearing.
The middle class is definitely shrinking, that I completely agree with. There are wide-spread, systemic problems that need to be addressed before we end up with a two-class system and (even more) extreme wealth inequality. What drives me so insane is many people posting here seem to believe that *somehow what is happening to them in academia is harder/more disappointing than what is happening to others elsewhere.* It’s not, folks. If you ever, for one second, thought you were going to be wealthy AND have tons of free time as an adult, then you are either Bill Gates’ kid or delusional.
We, due to our education and largely upper-middle-class, racial majority status, are in a better position than almost anyone to stop bitching about the personal inconveniences of not earning quite enough money and begin to change the deeply destructive norm that created an unsustainable American Dream in the first place. It’ll be a better world when we do. In the meantime I’m going to enjoy what is left of grad school and thank my lucky stars I’m no longer a wage slave.
I think Karen was referring to your saying that we go to conferences at “exotic locales” and that we get the privilege of spending our time learning about what we wish.
I have attended many conferences over the last ten years, and none of them were in exotic locales. They were in places like Denver and San Francisco.
I get a fair bit of latitude to do research on what I wish, but many of my colleagues at R1 going for TT do not. They have to do what will bring in a large grant, or what fits with the department’s needs. Which to me, is not all that different from when I did research for a for-profit company. I was interested, but I didn’t own my research entirely. Many of my colleagues who are in community colleges or small liberal arts colleges don’t get to really have any research program at all, or if they do, they don’t get the time and resources to do anything very substantial because their teaching loads are so high.
I think there is a presumption that the original blogger has not experienced anything but graduate school and the TT job, which is not necessarily accurate. It is also not accurate to portray all other sectors as wage slave labor any more or less than academia is. So much depends on one’s company or university. Some companies and government agencies offer great perks, benefits, salaries and job security. Some of my friends are employed by them. Some universities do the same. Some don’t.
Bravo! I have worked in a TT position and in other settings. Things aren’t all puppies and kittens in the TT, true, but the idea that people in business only work 40 hours a week is outdated at best. Like Stacy, I have had to be on call all hours of the night with no extr apay, and I made less then a TT professor in my area. I also had to provide my own training, or I would have been out on my ear. Thigns are not always grener on the other side of the fence and posts like this do more to harm academia than help. It is only more evidence of the ivory tower.
Svetlana Asanova, S.Korea. ex. employee. says
Hello, I am a naive person, who is truing to gind a position of assistant professor of Humanities.Besides I am currently working in S.Korea. I think, in many universities is the same situation. I had been working for regular TT position. But my university had paid only $21.600 per year. While the head of the department gets over $75.000!!!!
I think, It’s humiliation!
There is also the problem of debt, which plagues a huge number of PhDs (especially humanities and social science ones, without access to paid internships, etc., during grad school). Can a new TT prof, making $55k a year, support a spouse and a kid or two, when the prof is tens of thousands of dollars in debt? I’m assuming some private-sector people also take on debt, but often those jobs that require them (e.g., doctor, lawyer) pay enough after graduation to make up for it eventually. Many PhDs come out of grad school with huge debt… I know a dual-academic couple with debt larger than a mortgage. Can those people afford a house, a new car, etc.? Where does debt figure in to your “stop whining about academia” rant?
I’d have to agree with you. I work as staff (as opposed to faculty) at a major university. I have many of the same problems with my job that faculty have with theirs (slow reimbursements, low pay, high healthcare cost, weird and often long hours, and contract work — which is how I started out at the university). Yet — I wouldn’t change jobs for a better-paid private sector job (which, for what I do, would pay 1.5 to 2X as much as my uni job). I love my work, the work environment, and the people I work with. Does it have problems? Yes, but so does every workplace.
For those of you complaining: I have not one, but two degrees and enough hours for a master’s had I put it all into one field. I don’t have student loans because I worked and paid as I went (I did not have family help; I did have scholarships). If you have trouble with money, don’t blame it on your job; very few jobs will make you rich. If academics is something you want to do, you will find a way to make it work. If you can’t, maybe there are actually other things you want more than academics.
Richard Parsons says
This is in response not only to this post, but also to the entire thread.
First, one important point to highlight perhaps is this: “I took 8 years off between my BA and starting my PhD”
Whether in academia or in the private sector, recovery from what may be rather substantial debt accrued in the course of attending school takes time.
A lapse in time separating undergraduate studies from graduate studies may help to distribute the burden of recovering from debt over a longer time interval. The proportion of individuals granted a TT position (which is low to begin with) drops off substantially if one moves to the private sector following completion of a PhD for a significant period of time (in contrast to the stated situation of returning from the private sector to pursue graduate studies – which is different, but also surely presents a different set of challenges).
Having worked both in the private sector and a TT position, there is no doubt that both may entail a significant time commitment, and pose a challenging situation (especially immediately following graduation). That said, the initial period (2 yrs at least) on the TT is exceptional in this regard, owing to overhead in learning to do 100 new things at once (it is easy to underestimate the time required for managing budgets, responding to e-mails, acting on committees etc. alone) alongside aggressive application for funding, and substantial time investment in developing new course materials. I can attest based on my own experience, and based on my observation of others that this is an extremely taxing time even in the best case scenario. This may also come at a time that for many wherein:
1. There hasn’t been any period for recovery from accrual of debt. – i.e. continuous enrollment from undergraduate through graduate studies.
2. Hearing one’s biological clock ticking quietly in the background.
3. The necessity to relocate, implying a loss of any support network that one has established (it’s easy to underestimate the value of this until it’s suddenly absent)
I believe it is within reason to state that there are many that find themselves in the very situation described above. A break between undergraduate and graduate studies *might* be prudent in helping to offset some of the above – but perhaps not. I don’t wish to pass any judgement (or fuel the fire) over public vs. private sector, or what situation is easier, better compensated, and so forth or the prudence of continued education vs. time off. There are a few points appearing throughout this thread that might benefit from additional input.
1. The one difference that I do think is relevant (in my own experience!) is the “ramp up” in academia is exceedingly steep, and comes at a time when there are many life pressures, financial and otherwise. A constructive question to ask, is whether this transition may be made easier, and how this might be accomplished.
2. I don’t believe some of the generalizations in this thread are helpful – the focus of this discussion would be better served on constructive suggestions to challenges described whether widespread, or specific to a subset of individuals.
3. I would also add that I don’t believe it’s constructive for anyone to make statements to the effect that “If you wanted financial stability you shouldn’t have taken on debt to study X”. This is not helpful for at least a couple of reasons:
1. It undermines the importance of X.
2. Decisions on which path to take in life do not often include foresight of the eventual outcome which is highly stochastic, subject to changes in one’s personal values, and often made at a stage in life when one is making decisions that will have an eventual impact on a whole myriad of factors that are impossible to appreciate except in hindsight (in particular given that many of these decisions are made at a relatively early age). It is easy once one is standing at the top of the hill to point back towards the path that someone who is “complaining” might have taken based on one’s own great wisdom, but do not discount the impact of hindsight, and do not assume that the path that leads one person to the top of the hill will take everyone there (and not in an elitist sense, but in acknowledging that everyone is different).
4. One could argue that it may be constructive to provide younger individuals faced with important life decisions with more exposure to different career options (at a level that offers a true sense of what day-to-day life will be like), to provide statistics on what typical outcomes are from engaging in any particular training program, to offer some sense of what factors may weigh on one’s mind 5, 10 and 20 years down the road to help inform decisions that are made – and not purely in the pursuit of financial gain, but towards attempting to impart some sense of what opportunities or scenarios might avail themselves in deciding whether to turn right or left at any given juncture. There are clearly already some efforts to do some of this, and predicting eventual outcomes, or the richest path to enlightenment and satisfaction with life is perhaps wishful thinking given the noisy stochastic nature of things (and also try to imagine your mindset at age 18 vs. today assuming you are now older). But perhaps we can do a little bit more towards helping individuals land in a situation that provides for more comfort by better informing young adults.
“I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity, and I am more invulnerable than Achilles; fortune hath not one place to hit me.” – Sir Thomas Browne, 1642
I second all your comments Stacy. I got an MBA in 1998 and worked in the financial industry for 12 years until returning to get my PhD at a top research institution. Academia has lots of challenges but, as my advisor says, it is a nice gig. It is tough to find the right fit but you can certainly ride on your coattails a few years down the road. You dont need to tame a lion a day, just tame a few and your reputation will carry you around.
I was very succeful in the private sector for over 10 years and then got donwsized after making a bad move to another company. My jobs were extremely stressful and my success was not always dependent on my own effort – like research.
I was on TT at a large research univ for 5 yrs before getting tenure. I’d like to thing al things combined, that academic freedom is addictive, even if there’s less of it now than say in the 70’s. What tenure means though is that my life doesn’t change much after getting it. The grind must go on. Nothing I have learnt observing my peers both within and outside suggests otherwise.
Entitlement and privilege seem to be key themes in these conversations…What standard of living and workload are reasonable? Should one’s relative position within the academic hierachy mean the difference between being able to afford to live comfortably, have children, time, or not? How does 60K or 21/hr stack up to other entry-level positions in skilled occupations? I don’t think the issue of the high price of real estate vs. stagnant wages is a problem in academia alone. It’s a pretty universal these days. On that, I think many of the problems highlighted here are linked to other changes in society.
Why do people continue to accept offers from places where they must live so poorly? At what point does one say “this is unacceptable” and act consciously to make change? Does the personal feeling of satisfaction of research and/or teaching trump material security and mental health needs? I don’t mean disrespect, but that really does sound like an unhealthy addiction!
Do people have other motivations, such as a desire to address a major social problem?
If money and time are so scarce, why isn’t there yet a serious effort to restructure institutions toward a more even distribution of resources and workloads, for example like a cooperative? Where are the alternatives?
Blue Phantom says
While entitlement and privilege are valid conversation topics, this guest poster is raising an issue all too frequently ignored (the practical realities of the academic world), and I applaud the bursting of bubbles that idealistic grad students might hold. So much talk centers upon *getting* the TT job that the confinements of the job — though they are a type of privilege, I grant — are seldom mentioned. But as for $60 K being plenty or not, I think that’s a very hard matter to adjudicate fairly. Does the individual have massive student loans? large previous or ongoing medical bills? is that person supporting an aging parent or a large number of children?
So rather than call this entitled whinging, why don’t we call it a warning to anyone who has focused on the goal (the TT job) to the exclusion of reality (the massive hours, the comparitively minimal pay, the unforseen demands like hours of service time per week, and so on). As a TT prof with a 4/4, I’m not even making $60 K, but I can see how it might be restrictive in certain areas and for people with certain monetary constraints. The bigger point here, it seems to me, is that conversations seldom if ever discuss the notion that struggling to earn the Ph.D. isn’t the end of academic struggles. Those who haven’t thought about life beyond the job offer must, and this post provides an excellent starting point. Thanks to the poster, and thanks to Dr. Karen.
I find it interesting that graduate school seems to train us to think that the cost of doing something we love is to give up material security or work-life balance, as well as the notion that because the American economic system increasingly exploits workers, we should accept this and criticize workers who point out the difference between “the dream” (of owning a home and having a family) versus the reality. What some are saying is essentially that because we barely survive in graduate school, we should be uniformly and unquestioningly happy to indefinitely live without owning a home or having a new car. Yes, these things are “first world problems,” but so is the life of even working poor individuals when compared to third world countries. I am not sure that saying we should be grateful to not live as third world people do fixes the problem of worker exploitation in a developed nation.
The “American Dream” that I observe in many of my students is that by going to college and getting degrees, combined with working hard, you will secure a job that you enjoy and are good at, reasonable middle class financial security (including owning a home and having a family), and have benefits (health insurance, vacation time, etc.). Yes, this is slipping away in many sectors and specializations of the economy. The interesting thing about academia, at least in the social sciences and humanities, is that we work toward humanizing systems… at the same time our own labor system is dehumanizing. Interestingly, we seem to be even more apt than other sectors I’ve engaged in to attack one another for any hint of wanting material reward for working hard… we are supposed to live off the benefits we provide to others, the immaterial rewards of doing something we enjoy, the “greater good.” While other sectors also are facing increased exploitation of workers and low wages compared to cost of living, the workers themselves do not seem to think that it is right or acceptable that they face continually decreased wages with increased cost of living or that their benefits are taken away. Yet, it seems graduate school trains us to have a baseline standard that is essentially being working poor, to which we compare any future opportunity.
The discussion around location and cost of living is also interesting, as at time it presumes that an academic has a choice of where to go. Most of my colleagues went where ever they were offered the TT job. The jobs are so rare and infrequent, and so specialized in my discipline, that you take what you can get. If this is somewhere you hate, you deal with it. If it is somewhere that is very expensive, you deal with it. The other option is to risk having *any* TT job at all, because you are opting out of yet another year of procuring the job. There is a rampant ageism and prejudice against those who spent a long time without a TT job, so with every year you are on the market, your likelihood of getting that TT job decreases. Most people in my discipline have few other options, as they are not trained in graduate school to take jobs outside the academic sector and often do not know even how to begin the process of trying to find a suitable one. Furthermore, much of their working life, by the time they receive the PhD, has been in service to faculty at R1 universities, who are often disinterested in providing guidance or letters of reference for non-academic jobs. They graduate with debt, little support to get a non-academic job, and little knowledge in how to pursue one.
While this feudalization, as Karen calls it, has occurred in other sectors and occupations, the gap between educational attainment, expectations of work-load, and material security in academia is one of the highest I’ve seen. At least in my region, K-12 teachers are paid comparable to professors, and usually have much greater mobility in finding a job (i.e., they can move to cheaper locations, because there are children everywhere, though there are not colleges everywhere). County and government worker salaries are easily comparable to or outstrip professor salaries, and require only a MA for most positions, so people’s debt load is not as high. Nurses with a BA are often exceeding the salary for professors, as are IT and engineering positions. My friends who became doctors or pharmacists did take on huge student loan debt, but are also paid much higher salaries and have more mobility than a professor. Yes, it is awful for many of the less educated workers out there. But comparing professor salaries to occupations that do not require a minimum of a MA is comparing apples to oranges and fails to address the “American Dream” story they are *still* selling to students — that the higher your education, the better economic security you have.
I’m in my mid-30s. Aside from a few fleeting moments, I have not existed in a situation of financial security since I was a small child when my parents made some decisions that did not pan out as expected. This directly impacted my confidence and therefore grades in high school, which in turn meant that I could not go to university. I didn’t begin PSE until my late 20s (on a student loan) in a discipline that might allow me to contribute something to solving a critical set of world problems. Terrified I’d get my butt kicked by a some 18 year old kids, I found I was actually very good at school and research and continued into graduate school. I have lived plus or minus the poverty line for most of my life, including now as a researcher at a small university that only hires “casually” which is a step up from the underemployment I was able to get at private research firm. From my point of view, anyone making a middle-class income, something that allows them to do more than maintain secure and comfortable housing, is extremely wealthy.
I dream of the day when someone might be willing to reliably pay me enough to live without wondering where my rent will come from next month and still allow me to make my contribution, but I understand acutely that this may never happen.
So while I’ve invest almost a decade of my life and 50K of debt into this academic game, my salary expectations are not tied to the time I’ve put toward educating myself. I do this because I’d like to see a secure future for humanity and this is the best way I’ve found to do it. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say this reward-effort correlation is big part of the reason we’re in this problem because it skews incentive frameworks in such a way as to reproduce inequalities and reinforce class divisions…
I’m not American and have never been economically middle-class despite my education so maybe I honestly don’t really understand the staying power of the “American Dream” narrative on expectations and, perhaps especially, highly individualised modes of living. This expectation that we all work and live (especially in academia) as rugged individuals, in individualised housing, and not somehow communally with a much more efficient sharing of resources seems to be an abberation in the history of the species. We have always lived communally from paleo-times until the division of the commons…
Moreover, the days of ecological and economic security are rapidly leaving us and everything posted here is symptomatic of the latter. I do not expect those of my generation and younger to see the kind of stability known to the boomers. I’ve mentored high school students and undergrads learning about catastrophic social and ecological implications of climate change. The Cold War of my childhood was abstract and trivial compared to what these young people are starting to think about today. I am both amazed and appalled that academics who are the experts producing so much of the knowledge of these issues are so unwilling to act and sometimes often actively advocate for the systems that perpetuate these problems. The concerns of the present generation matter little in the context of the future generations, and at least for me, passing through the cognitive threshold of what this means for myself is actually quite liberating when it comes to what expectations I might have in this life.
I was raising working poor, but told that education would bring me out of poverty, and it has. At the same time, I have seen many colleagues who were raised middle class whose educational debt combined with a lack of jobs have brought them into poverty.
I teach at a state school where our students have predominantly come from low-income backgrounds, are the first to go to college, and are ethnic minorities. Most have latched on to the idea that education will bring you out of poverty.
I think it is reasonable to expect that spending time honing your skills in any sort of educational environment, be it on-the-job or in a university, should provide more stability than not investing one’s effort and time into a career. However, this is not what is happening for many people.
As I see it, one of the big problems with regard to spending that time in the university (aside from the opportunity cost) is that many exit with large student loans they cannot reasonably repay without being perpetually in a precarious financial situation, and that they cannot get rid of through bankruptcy even if they become disabled or ill. It has ruined the lives of any number of my colleagues who, through no fault of their own, did their best to educate themselves on limited resources by borrowing money — and then developed a range of health problems including cancer, chronic illness or pain, or injury. In many cases, their university financial loan officers — the people who are supposed to guide (often very young) adults through good financial decisions — had pushed them to borrow in ways that carried high risk later and that were out of alignment with their reasonable earning potential post-graduation.
Is it the student’s fault for making poor financial decisions or idealizing post-graduation life? Perhaps. But when I look at my students, I remember that they are often young (and we don’t develop our full decision-making abilities until later), under a K-12 educational framework that pushes college as the answer to gaining a good career, and have no one else in their family who can speak to other options besides being working poor or going as far as one can in the university.
I believe in the value of higher education, apart from its value for gainful, stable, and profitable employment. At the same time, I spent much of my life in poverty and wanted out, just as my students do. And I think that is a reasonable personal desire, even for intellectuals.
I am the first person in my family to go to graduate school, and only the second generation to go to university. I can’t fault students for making poor financial decisions for the reasons you cite. In high school they instilled the idea that university was the only way to succeed to in life. Those of use without the marks to get there thus felt as if there was little point in even trying.
Perhaps my own decision to continue in this enviroment at this point in my life is unsound. But I believe in the value of education and research, it is critical for our future and worth fighting for. We see what happens to places where it erodes irreparably. Clearly there are large numbers of people who feel likewise and I hope people have enough courage to do more than just talk about how awful it is, and start thinking about what we might do to change it.
Stacy Rosenbaum says
To say that we “barely survive” as graduate students is just insulting to all the people who *do* barely survive, and I don’t mean in the developing world. I live a perfectly comfortable lifestyle on $20k in the country’s second most expensive city. I went to grad school knowing full well that I was taking a big pay cut to be here. Therefore, I do not get to complain about the fact that I can’t eat at Spago and buy myself a Lexus. I am the last person to attack others for wanting material rewards; I buy $18/lb cheese and belong to a private yoga studio. Someday I would certainly like a nicer car and a bigger apartment. But I also realize that those things don’t appear overnight, and that entry-level jobs, in virtually any field, are unlikely to get me those things unless I am willing to take on a huge amount of debt or live somewhere with a very low cost of living.
A close relative is an engineer with a master’s degree. He started out at $50k, a bit less than what this person is making. The difference is, he is not under the illusion that somehow he was supposed to be able to afford a nice house straight out of the gate. He also doesn’t somehow think that his degree means he is supposed to be able to live wherever he wants and get whatever job he most desires. There are compromises to be made. You want those TT jobs, you have to be willing to go where they are. If you’d like, you could go do human resources, or sell drugs for Pfizer, or be a high school teacher, and you can do that anywhere. A PhD is decidedly not American Dream story that anyone is selling…that’s undergrad, and it is, still, in spite of all the changes in our economy, a good way to help ensure a living wage. Education is a game of diminishing returns, with a few exceptions. If students don’t do the research on that before they get themselves into it, then they have absolutely no one to blame except themselves.
There is soooooo much complaining about the downsides of academia and so little acknowledgement that a) THIS WAS OUR CHOICE and all the information about the pros and cons is widely available, and b) there are a lot of great things about our lifestyle and work. If people dislike it so much, or feel that exploited, then go elsewhere. It’ll open up more of those TT jobs for the rest of us.
Stacia Street says
The big glaring flaw in your post is “and all the information about the pros and cons is widely available.” No, it isn’t, especially for students from less educated families, or from schools with little to no advising. Especially for women, or for an entire generation of academics who entered doctoral programs before all the goodies you enjoy existed – grad advisors, dissertation support groups, post-doc positions, grad student health insurance. Try to appreciate that all the props to your life, the very things that are making your ride through grad school easier, were agitated for and purchased by the generation of academics that came before you, and are still purchased by the oppression of kids who are elsewhere, being sold the bill of goods about a graduate degree, because grad programs are cash cows for universities that are running out of undergrads. Not everyone has “all the info they need,” not by a long shot, and this blog and cautionary posts are sorely needed by many. YMMV.
Stacy Rosenbaum says
I completely agree that this blog and these posts are needed; however, they are part of a much larger body of information that IS widely available if entering students bother to stop and weigh the pros and cons.
I am the first person in my family to go to graduate school. I also agree that the perks I enjoy are a result of the work of previous generations, but we’re not the previous generation, we’re now!! The internet (god bless Google) has made information available almost effortlessly, and this has been true for 10 years now. It was a very different story 40 or 50 years ago, especially for women, but today, if you honestly give no thought to long-term consequences of doing something like taking on massive debt then it’s pretty hard to have much sympathy. Also, the percentage of PhD students who are coming from truly underprivileged backgrounds, where such information is harder to come by, is insanely small. That’s another problem entirely.
YMMV is precisely why I’m posting so adamantly here. There tends to be a lot of one-dimensional complaining about all the cons of academia; how hard it is, how little it pays, how poorly people are treated, etc. etc. That is not true everywhere, and I think those who are reading this while contemplating grad school deserve to know that. Do your research, and you can end up in a supportive school with a good advisor who will help you get a job, and not drive yourself into the ground with debt. If you are not in one of those programs, then do something about it! Switch! Leave! Find another career! The amount of self-pity that goes on is mind boggling.
I find it hard to believe that the following came from a PhD candidate in a prestigious institution:
“However, they are part of a much larger body of information that IS widely available if entering students bother to stop and weigh the pros and cons.” – so what is your point?
“Also, the percentage of PhD students who are coming from truly underprivileged backgrounds, where such information is harder to come by, is insanely small. That’s another problem entirely.” – Not true!
“Do your research, and you can end up in a supportive school with a good advisor who will help you get a job, and not drive yourself into the ground with debt. If you are not in one of those programs, then do something about it! Switch! Leave! Find another career! The amount of self-pity that goes on is mind boggling.” – Heartless and shows a general lack of understanding!
The logic and assumptions made here by Stacey are preposterous! No wonder it is coming from someone who claims to have worked 8 years in the private sector. You had a “job” and had the luxury of making an informed decision to pursue a doctorate. Not so with everyone! You are assuming that most people who enter into PhD programs and academic jobs have options. After one full year of fruitless job search and not even getting an internship with my MPA degree, I decided to go back to school for a PhD instead of wandering around at the height of the economic recession and decreasing my chances in the merciless economy.
Now, I graduated with a GPA of 3.90 and was as competitive as most students who were accepted into prestigious institutions for their doctorate, but how many students does the average PhD program admit in a school year? I ended up in my second or third choice institution because my first didn’t have funding to accommodate me. I was even thankful to be one of the only 3 students accepted by this institution.
Your comments are really out of touch with realities in academia and I think the author is providing invaluable information to those considering this career route. You enjoyed the “luxury” of $20,000 stipend because a generation of concerned academics fought for it. I don’t know what your assistantship or fellowship entailed but there are TAs working 20 hours a week teaching a full undergraduate course while also working on dissertation who receive utterly less than what you made in graduate school. The idea that people should “leave or switch” programs is quite naive and insulting. Not everyone can end up in a prestigious program like you so allow the majority of struggling students to learn wisdom from blogs like this.
Why is it a problem that we want to make a reasonable wage and have a reasonable quality of life given our education and qualifications? I agree it is our choice to a certain extent. But by choosing our career path we forfeit all rights to voice concern about the state of our profession, compensation and quality of life?
I partially agree that there is now a lot of information out there about why graduate school is a very very bad idea for most (especially in the humanities), and how broken many aspects of academia are. But first, this information was *not* so widely available ten years ago when I and many others who’ve let to land a TT job started grad school. Second, society in general and unfortunately still many mentors constantly tell us that success happens by going to school and getting good grades and trying to achieve the highest level of what you do. This is a hard message for many people to fight. And universities are still hungry for cheap grad student labor so continue to make a hard sell. Maybe we should all still see through the BS and know a Ph.D. is probably a bad idea. But it needs to be acknowledge that unless you are trolling sites like this one, there aren’t a lot of big flashing signs or info pages on department websites that say: “STOP! It’s actually probably a horrible life choice for you to apply to our graduate program. You should really only do so if you are going to be in the very very top of our already elite field and are willing to make a bunch of life sacrifices along the way.” Finally, we shouldn’t want to improve things?
This attitude that everything is fine and great in academia and because we have made a choice and somehow therefore deserve to be undervalued our entire lives is very harmful to changing anything. I’m a postdoc doing basic science so I can’t even speak to my colleagues in humanities who are much worse off. But I for one think that after 10years of education and frankly *doing the work of science* (because that’s what grad students and postdocs do), a $60K starting salary is quite reasonable and on the low end!
Becoming a scientist or an academic researcher involves 4-7 years of grad school where you usually paid barely enough to live or need to take out loans depending on your institution and city. You are being trained but are also a source of low cost labor for universities by teaching and doing research. Then (in my field) you can now expect to do 3-8 years of postdoctoral research at a starting salary of around $38K if you are being paid off an NIH grant. I’m sorry, but there is no other field where you start at $38K (or less) after almost 10 years of college and grad school.
Furthermore, during that 10 years we are most likely passing up building any financial security (especially if you’re single and don’t have benefits of shared expenses and dual-income), and most likely are going into some debt. So in the end many of us are in our early 30’s or beyond, probably very smart, highly capable, and now highly trained people who are making around $40-50K a year (if we’re lucky enough to have a postdoc, say nothing of adjuncts!), with slim hope of a real job in our profession. Our similarly smart, highly capable friends are now close to making partner at their law firm or finance job and are making $150K a year or more. Even our friend from high school who skipped college and sells cars is probably much more financially secure than us since he’s got a 10 year head start and probably makes a better salary.
So yeah, I think $60K is pretty reasonable to start considering we’re probably 30-40 years old and have little to no savings as academics. We willingly passed up the $180K first year associate salary by not going to law school. I think most of us are totally fine with that. But does that mean we have to earn $35K a year?
Finally, the argument that all of us complainers should just get out of the way and let people like you (Stacy) take these jobs is a very bad one. What you then have is just a race to the bottom. Lower wages and more work for those who remain in academia. And frankly, a skew in the wrong direction toward the crazy type of academic who is so obsessed with their research and so oblivious to a reasonable work/life balance that they are willing to work for nothing in bad conditions. I think this is already happening in science and we are losing a lot of very very smart, capable people who could have made a great contribution but realize the insanity of grad school and academia and run the other way. I for one am very sad that we might lose someone who might have made a great discovery in basic science to a finance job because academia does not pay people anything close to what they are worth.
Yes. This.^^ You beat me to writing it.
We need collective action for change, as well as our individual strategies for navigating an exploitative system.
US/OECD goverments must do 2 things:
1. Subsidised dedicated accomodation to university workers, with rent set no more than 20-30% of their income (look for Germany as example). Can be in a dedicated Flats/Condos, somewhere on a campus if space permits (It would be way cheaper for the taxpayer, than propping up property megabuble by paying market rents).
2. Student loan forgiviness after long university service (Ex: In the UK loans are written off after 30 years).
— Othervise they would fall far behind Asia in 20-30 years…
Stacy, if you are talking about surviving on 20,000 as a grad student, you are not like most graduate students. You are one of the privileged ones that obtained a scholarship and full funding. Thus, it is easy for you to claim that “we” (the elusive” we) are so privileged in comparison to the rest of the world, when in fact, it is you who are so privileged in comparison to many of your colleagues who would receive far less in terms of scholarships and stipends–the poorest of which are working as strippers and sex-workers (Surprise, surprise!) So let’s not draw sharp divisions between the first and “third” world. Financial desperation is financial desperation. There are many third and fourth worlds RIGHT under our very noses if we care to see it.
I love that you think that a TT position is an entry-level position. It’s not. You’ve been essentially working for 5+ years before you took that position. PS: 5+ years are not really the same thing as a masters, so I’m not sure why you’re bringing your engineer relative into this.
Oh, and relating to a previous comment of yours, I’m a bit mystified by the fact you think you’re not a “wage slave” anymore, when you’re “dipping your toes into the market”. How does that work?
–Someone with actual, third-world problems that doesn’t appreciate you waving those around to play “less entitled than thou” on a very informative post.
Very well said! There are of course problems throughout the US economy and there are certainly many many people worse off than many of us. But I don’t see why this means that I should feel bad about voicing concern that I am undervalued and tolerate fairly extreme working conditions and poor work/life balance.
I can think of no other profession with the time invested and level of training that has a poorer return than academia. Yes, we are largely responsible because of our own choices. But as Kim points out. It is very frustrating to see others with BA and masters making two or three times as much money in far better working conditions. I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to change that.
Thank you for sharing, TT professor. I appreciate your making evident that you put in 60-70 hours of work your first year and then consider how having kids may be too expensive. This is good to share as it helps everyone understand the sacrifices involved in academia.
But, I think we should be wary around language like “Expect to” put in 60-70 hrs/week you first year. Some of us already have children, and familial responsibilities, and lots of things that make it humanly impossible to put in 60-70 hrs/week one’s first year on the tenure track. I don’t think you were suggesting as much, but your commitment should not be the job standard!! Each of us make different sacrifices for academia, sacrifices we’d be called crazy for. That is your point, and I agree with it very much.
Miss Canada 2005 says
Thanks to the author for the insight and to Kim, who commented above.
Kim, if I could “like” your response, I would.
Manuel Gonzalez says
I want to share my experience. I took a TT the second year after I graduated, having spent a year as an adjunct in the late 1990s. I work on relatively “hip” topics like gender and sexuality. Out of 50 applications, I got three campus interviews and took an offer from an upper mid-western public institution, making $38K a year. I went on the job market repeatedly, but nothing worked out, and I’m still at the same job. I now make $61K, no pay raises in 4 years, and am about to become a full professor making $66K. That’s at good as it gets. However, teaching extra classes, writing grants, publishing, and consulting, I bump my salary up to $90K a year. The moral of the story? Become entrepreneurial, and save money. It’s not going to get any better. At least we’re not taking bribes from students or assessing “exam fees” like the Soviet academics did in the 1990s. Nor are we setting up burrito stands or running raffles like Mexican academics did in the 1980s.
First year TT and already own a house. There is a secret. One secret. Do not go to a city. Go to some crappy place in the midwest with a low cost of living and all of these things are eminently doable.
And for many of people it won’t even feel like a “crappy place in the midwest”, it might just be the nicest place you can think to live.
This is a really interesting discussion and I want to thank the poster for writing this blog and being so honest about this issue. I understand fully the issues of living in an expensive city and having to pay extras etc. However, I think both Kim and Stacy raise really good points that I agree with too.
I wanted to ask the poster if they would be willing to expand on an issue they touch on in the post. The poster mentions they have a chronic illness and manage to work many of those intense hours from home. This interests me in particular as I have a chronic illness too and the thing that worries me the most about working in academia is obtaining proper accommodations and being able to work from home some of the time (since doing the 9 to 5, like the poster mentions, is also not always easy for me). Could the poster expand on this issue? Or maybe Karen would be willing to ask them to write more on this or maybe someone else would want to write on this? I would be very interested to know how negotiating a schedule works currently in academia. Are people free to negotiate when they teach classes (for example, afternoon instead of morning)? Can people choose when they want to work from home or when they have to be at the office? How flexible is academia in terms of work schedules for those entering the profession? (I imagine defining one’s schedule may become easier with seniority). If the poster or anyone else would want to write a blog about this I would greatly appreciate it and am sure others would be interested too. Karen, I hope you think this could be an interesting topic!
thanks again for the post
Stacy Rosenbaum says
Second this!! It is indeed a very interesting discussion, and I’d love to see more on the expanded topics Bea mentions.
Bea, the original poster read your request and quickly provided me with this response to post on her behalf. I am thinking of posting it as a whole second blog post, but for now, I’m going to put it here so that you can see it. Karen
I have a chronic illness that can causes debilitating pain (and by debilitating, I mean a flare up can land me in the ER). In my experience, working in the corporate sector (for-profit and non-profit alike) came with much lower hours and deliverable demands than academia, but I really did not do well with a 9-5 schedule. I would rapidly exceed the standard 2 weeks of sick leave in such a job, because I would be unable to work around the times I was in pain. In my academic job, I work more hours and have more stress (more deadlines, more deliverables, more challenges) but I also only have to be on campus for my classes, meetings, and office hours. This means that many of my hours can be moved around according to my health. I rarely miss anything, because even if I am in a good deal of pain, I can usually suffer through a 3-hour class or meeting and then go home and rest. The biggest advantage, for me, was that I was less stressed simply by having more flexibility to respond to my pain level, and this caused my condition to flare up less frequently (since flare-ups happen more frequently under chronic stress).
In terms of scheduling, I don’t know how most departments work, but in my department we have an excellent team-oriented approach. We are required to be on campus three days a week, but not necessarily all day long. Each of us have a top priority when we negotiate for our schedule each semester. This might be having certain days off, times off, etc. We all must work an occasional class in the times/days no one wants, but you can opt for all early mornings or all late nights, if you want (since these are both undesirable times). Even our senior faculty take their turns. It is a very equitable and friendly situation, which I am aware is not always the case in all departments.
One of the problems I have with how we often approach graduate school and academia is the ableism that runs rampant, and the assumptions about what others’ living costs “ought to be.” This is, in fact, a problem in many working environments, but perhaps I expect more out of academics in terms of humaneness and mindfulness of diversity. In my case, I not only live in an expensive city, but I also have my own chronic illness and a partner who has a (for now) chronic disabling injury. I don’t have the perfect scenario of a partner who brings in an equal income to mine and because I am in a gay relationship, we are penalized by both not receiving a marriage tax benefit (i.e., I am taxed at a single rate) and a very high tax on my partner’s health benefits (yes, we’re still grateful to have them, but it means I pay a bonus rate tax of around 30% on her benefits). This equates to about $6,000 of lost net income per year from my salary. In addition, we must pay for alternative medical treatments that keep each of our health conditions and pain manageable. I suppose that if we were both completely healthy and not gay, and therefore I made $500 more per month and we had a dual income household, that we could do all the wonderful things that everyone is talking about — owning a home (which comes with additional tax benefits we can’t get due to our situation), having a child, and being in a better situation all around.
It is easy to say that my situation is unique and others would be better off. Except it isn’t unique. I’d say about half my colleagues and friends have health needs not covered by insurance. Other colleagues have failing parents who they struggle to care for as they fly back and forth; they can’t just relocate as you can in other sectors and taking time off during the push for tenure can be deadly to your career. And all of my gay colleagues face the same problems because of DOMA, which means they basically pay a higher federal tax to be in a gay relationship. Many colleagues are in departments with few resources, who increasingly use their homes (for events and meetings), computers and phones, and personal funds to keep their department’s services and their own research afloat.
I think perhaps it did not come across clear enough in the original post. I love my life. I love my job. I love my students. I love my colleagues. I chose this over the corporate life I used to lead. Saying there are some serious work-life balance and salary:cost-of-living issues (at least in large metro areas), as well as rampant ableism, ageism, and in some disciplines sexism (which reduce your capacity to be picky about where you end up), is pointing out trade-offs and concerns about the humaneness of academia. As I said, I won the job lottery. I’m grateful. But I was trained as a social scientist to be critical of institutions and their cultures, and we do have problems in academia — problems that aren’t fixed just by procuring the TT job.
Thank you so much to the original poster for answering my questions regarding scheduling and to Karen for posting it. I am in a similar situation to the poster as my illness also involves a lot of pain and flares so I do understand what they are talking about and how this impacts your life. I would also have a very hard time doing a 9 to 5 because of the same reasons. I feel better knowing that the poster has been able to negotiate the schedule and that it is less stressful in the end. This gives me some hope and I think I would be willing to do the trade off that you mention as well. I also totally agree with how pervasive ableism is in academia and that this makes things very difficult.
I can certainly understand that having to pay student loans and large bills for medical insurance would immediately take a big bite off your income. Plus as people with a chronic illness we end up having day to day costs other people don’t have.
Thanks for your courage in speaking openly about these issues. Your two posts were very useful to me.
Keep strong of spirit!
Thank you for writing this encouraging article. Makes one aware that he or she is not alone among a group of devoted people who believe in pursuing their dreams. People in academia are brave to dream, resilient to persist. We believe in hope and progress, and we are not easily to be scared away or intimidated into quitting.
“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 do realize you sound like a parody of a spoiled academic? You are complaining about having to find a dry cleaner? I never had moving expenses in my life, and you are complaining that you weren’t reimbursed fast enough? It’s funny I never thought I was working for free just because I showed up the first day of class ready to teach.
Stacy Rosenbaum says
Should we not question that institutions expect to receive preparation time for free before our contract officially starts? Preparing to teach is a lot of hours. No one I know in other sectors (government, for-profit, or non-profit) is asked to do work for their job before their contract begins.
The Financial Chaos of the First Year says
I just switched TT jobs this year and my experiences this year have reminded me that — no matter how much you make or what your expenses actually are — moving and starting a new academic job will likely INCREASE the level of financial chaos in your life, at least for that first year.
And this is not what most early-career academics are typically thinking about when they look at the numbers (especially those zeroes and those commas) in their letter of offer.
As the original poster and subsequent commenters have noted, there are any number of money gaps to bridge, especially when relocating. These range from upfront costs (deposits, setup fees) to calendar lags (first/last paycheck, benefit start dates) to the routine-but-still-surprising expenses of moving and setting up a household. And then there are the residual costs of closing out your previous life amidst the sometimes startling pinch of discovering financial idiosyncrasies of your particular gig (parking passes, reimbursement rhythms, library/gym/ID fees). And, yes, as in most sectors of academic life, you will be expected to work anywhere from 30-90 days at your new gig before you get your first paycheck (which is usually your actual first opportunity to review what your rate of compensation actually looks like).
So, yes, in a firm-grasp-on-the-obvious way, occasionally having a comma in your bank balance might be a “first world problem.” So might be encountering the myriad challenges of the first year in a demanding job. So might be figuring out how to make a home in a new place and a new community. Indeed, the entirely banal financial hassles/hazards of the first year (or so) in a new academic gig are stressful and the “quit yer whining” approach to financial-planning-for-academics helps no one.
Thank you, Chaos. This was precisely my own experience all those years ago as a new asst prof., and it’s far worse now with the level of average student debt, and the cost of housing, etc. so much higher. 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.
Stacy Rosenbaum says
And how is it that you can dismiss others as “indoctrinated” because they believe that $60,000 a year STARTING salary is a reasonable income? The median household income in the US in 2011 was about $50k. That’s household, not individual. If you yourself are earning $60k then you’re doing pretty damn well. You are decidedly not “living the standard of other, less wealthy countries.”
The response “switch jobs” gets thrown out there because that’s what one does when one is unhappy with a situation in any. other. career. If you don’t like your job in the private sector, or you feel you are being treated unfairly, you have a few options, one of which is switching careers. Why should it be different for us? Everyone makes tradeoffs.
Newflash: don’t take on more debt than you can afford to pay off, given the salary you can reasonably expect to earn (and it pays to look at what “reasonably” means statistically). This is not rocket science. The indoctrination I see here is the delusion that we aren’t required to live the same reality as everybody else. A delusion which Dr. Karen makes a very nice living perpetuating, I might add.
Blue Fantomina says
But the post doesn’t seem to be making the argument that a TT job equates to living a different reality than everybody else. It seems instead to be that academia is a field in which precious little — if any — discussion transpires for graduate students that presents any of what the reality of a working life is. For instance, I’m a first generation college student and first-generation academic, so my parents’ examples of what a working world is like were not really like what my working world is like. It took me by surprise, actually, and while we can certainly say that that was my own fault, I still think that reminders like this are a genuine service to graduate students, adjuncts, and others who expect a TT job to be a salvation.
And, to finish up: Why do so many claim it as a badge of honor that they can survive on some $15,000 a year in an expensive city, when the necessity to do so is merely evidence of how profoundly devalued and exploited their labor is? It’s fine to make the choice to do so for some, certainly, but never mistake it for some kind of special moral achievement.
Here here! It is ridiculous. Do we make the same argument for those stuck in low wage jobs? Bravo on surviving on $15K? No. We (or at least I) think they should be making a living wage for cleaning hotel rooms or whatever. And that would be at minimum $30K in an expensive city.
I’ll also add- I’ve seen in quite a few colleagues that the “quit your whining” approach also means that the very real psychological stresses of relocating to a new place, which is quite disorienting on its own, combined with a mountain of stress of the first year in a new academic institution and position (which includes a lot of work that is rarely described as part of the job in graduate school and for which you often receive no training, such as organizing large events or managing committees), often results in the sorts of mental distress that Karen’s other blogs have mentioned, including anxiety and depression. I’ve known colleagues from many fields ranging from the sciences to the humanities who end up on medication and in therapy because there is the combination of incredibly high stress and disorientation combined with an utter lack of compassion or even a venue to discuss their fears, experiences, and suffering.
The attitude that everyone should just be grateful, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and shut up about what is challenging or painful in a rough transition basically perpetuates an occupational culture that treats workers as having no emotional needs and trivializes workers’ mental distress. Saying that our problems are “first world problems” is obvious, but then essentially negates any suffering a person in the first world may have, which is contributing, I would think, to the pervasiveness of mental distress and illness in academia. They may be first world problems, but they are our problems, and it is a basic human need to share them and receive support (as well as to warn others).
And, along with Karen, I share a concern that wearing the badge of honor as an academic or artist who lives off very little is a non-productive response to our economic problems. Such incomes, incidentally, also perpetuate a lack of familial safety net into the future, providing few resources for ailing parents, partners, or siblings, and utterly fail to account for a number of graduating PhDs who already had children prior to graduate school and therefore need living wages not only for themselves, but also for dependents. Blaming graduating students for having responsibilities, health issues, or other costs and basically saying they shouldn’t have gone in the first place and should have chosen some other career is, to me, the entirely wrong way to approach an institution that ought to be about intellectual and artistic merit (not who is willing to work for peanuts and not complain).
According to so many of the commenters here, a job with some level of respect and personal satisfaction is the new “pie in the sky” that we should be willing to “work and pray and live on hay” to maintain the hope of achieving.
Who benefits when you attempt to punish others who talk honestly about the rewards and frustrations of their situation in life? These mythical Third World people you are so happy to use as object lessons? No worker benefits when any worker is shamed into silence. I am grateful to those here and elsewhere who refuse to be.
Helen D says
Well said Kate! Silencing those who have the guts to speak up about the unrealistic expectations placed on academics (of all ranks) by comparing their woes to those of exploited peoples in the Global South helps no one. Cultural relativist statements are the best way to shut down a discussion, and I thought the purpose of this blog and discussion was to open up discussion, no?
anonymous anonymous says
“No worker benefits when any worker is shamed into silence.”
I think we’re working ourselves into a lather over what is, at heart, a very simple message: getting a tenure-track job is the beginning of the fight, not the end.
There is something quite galling about these laments, particularly for those of us who every once in a while stop to contemplate the life of a mother of three working two jobs in the fast food industry. In any case, these problems (or “problems,” in global perspective — waa, waa, I have to live in a 1 BR apartment) are the result of systemic characteristics of the US economy and US policies since Reagan — those which are not are largely self-imposed.
Can someone please clarify what is an ‘average’ TT starting salary in the US, and also for a full Professor?
I am from Australia. Here, a full-time Lecturer (i.e., equivalent of US tenure-track Assistant Professor) starting salary at most unis is at least $80k pa (AUD). Starting salary for anyone holding a PhD is set at a minimum $70k pa at most institutions. A full Professor would be earning at least $150k pa at any uni in this country, and have scope to negotiate an individual contract that could be much higher if they are top of their field. The catch: most academics never make it to full Professor (only about 10%). Even so, most Senior Lecturers here are earning $100k pa. I would be happy to be earning that, and am prepared for the tough few years to get there.
For perspective: the average wage of a full time worker in Australia is approx. $73k pa; a PhD scholarship pays approx. $20k pa, which is theoretically enough to ‘survive’ on. If I had kept my old public sector job, I would now be earning about $80k pa and working 40 hours max per week. At the next level up, I would be earning about $95k pa, but also putting in the same kind of hours mentioned in post.
My experience is that if you want to be earning significantly higher than average salary, you have to put in significantly higher hours, regardless of what industry you happen to be working in. I guess the main difference I see is that the higher hours kick in earlier in academia. In my case I’m ok with that because I (hopefully) won’t mind spending those hours doing a job I actually like and want to do. Apart from that, many of the other issues mentioned in the post concerning relocation allowance issues, delay until first pay, parking fees, etc, are by no means unique to academic jobs – I have experienced them in both the public and private sectors. If you have never had a full time job before some of the ‘realities’ can definitely come as a shock though. I still remember how p*ssed I was to discover ’20 days annual leave per year’ in reality meant ‘start work with 0 days leave and accrue 1.67 days per month’ versus ‘start work with 20 days leave which is renewed annually’.
Compaints about income are mostly whingeing. The median personal income in the United States is roughly 40,000 dollars/year. 60,000 is generous. Indeed, the cost of living is lower than Australia or Europe, even in “expensive” North American cities. 60,000 in NA is easily better than 80,000 in Australia.
Insurance and deductibles are a genuine concern. If you are young, healthy and have no dependents, then this is an outrageously good deal. With any sort of family (wife and children/partner and dog/husband and cat) health insurance makes it a bad deal.
The issue is mainly that total remuneration (including health care) are defined and structured in a way that assumes folks are just starting out, but in reality, these are mid-career positions.
El Arairah says
Thanks for this post, and this blog. I love how the post author is laying out all the costs that the university is having even TT faculty pick up. It’s the era’s new management approach–force workers to assume not only the costs of reproduction, but also the costs of work itself, and there will be more money for bureaucratic initiatives, marketing campaigns, construction, competition for international “Tuition Units”, and ultimately big admin salaries that permit a small coterie to feel that they are within shot of being saved from the Great 21st C. American Loser Caste. As far as the responses go, thanks for the stories and the reasonable analyses that recognize they are affirming the effects of metastasizing class inequality.
Back in the 1990s, when I was in my mid-20s, I decided that I wanted a) a modest middle class life (small home, family) with b) an job that could satisfy my intellectual curiosity, and (c) to live in a nice place. As at that point, I was newish to political economy, I had only the mid-20th century experience of my middle-class (but decidedly un-elite) parents to go on; I thought those things would be possible if I worked on and obtained a doctorate, with the intention of becoming a professor.
Just as I entered university, states and university managers began devising ways to extract value from students. I put my nose to the grindstone and got my PhD, but not without accruing terrible debt (though I also obtained fellowships both prestigious and university-based). I married a graduate student colleague, who also couldn’t help but accrue debt. Just before we produced our dissertations, we produced our one (1) child (We could never afford, in money or time, any more). My spouse is male and got a job first, and I followed around, over the course of the financial-sector’s big pummeling of the US economy, obtaining increasingly more desperately-underpaid, under-recognized and overworked adjunct jobs. Finally we left the US–for a nasty, gritty, frontier city, and after 4 years, we both have TT jobs. We’ve put together the work we want, the family we want, and we even have a bit-dilapidated old house and a used car. We even go on trips. We still struggle to make ends meet. Our son will probably not clear the hedge-fundies’ caste hurdles. I cannot attain all three goals I had in the 1990s. But, with huge and continuing struggles, we’re a middle-class ‘success’ (based on mid-20th century Euro-American standards, such as it is) story for the 21st century. We’re lucky.
Now the sane response is not to spew vitriol at other working people because they are slightly more or less ‘privileged’ than you at the moment; but to recognize that all working people deserve less haggard lives, such as would be possible by sharing in a bigger slice of the political-economic pie.
this is such a great piece of writing. Can I put it up as a guest post?
Thank you for this post (late to the party!). I think this is a great post for people considering a career in academia to hear.
I wanted to mention that your results will really vary depending on position. There are numerous types of institutions, each with different goals and there are even some dramatic differences between institutions within the same type.
When I was a graduate student I often thought about my “dream position”- it was at a prestigious school in a desirable metro area. During my postdoc, I had many illuminating discussions with others who were living my “dream” and also during my interviews. I came to realize that I didn’t want that “dream” life. This was in part due to the work-life balance issues and the low wages compared to cost of living. Much of this change was due to me having a child. I felt that many TT positions asked more than I was willing to give -both in terms of time and stress. This realization led me to a bit of a crisis and a renewed period of exploration as I tried to find a career that would work for me.
This turned into an opportunity for me and my spouse to sit and re-evaluate our life goals after graduate school, since our goals had changed since we began so many years ago. I feel this made us stronger as a family and am ultimately happy that I had this “crisis.”
After this re-evaluation, I still ended up in academia. The position I ended up taking was not one I would have even considered years before. I ended up at a regional university, and not a particularly prestigious one at that. The position is also not in a particularly desirable part of the country. It is a small metro area, but it is big enough that there is an arts community, there are good schools and it is closely located to some great national parks. The cost of living is such that we live well enough on our small salaries. The scholarship expectations are present but significantly smaller than many other places I interviewed at. I typically spend somewhere around 50-55 hours per week working during the school year. I enjoy my students and my colleagues a great deal. The position is not without it’s challenges (scholarship is particularly hard to conduct at a school like this), but I found a place that is in harmony with my values.
My colleagues at my graduate school and postdoc scoffed when I told them the position I was taking. I don’t blame them, as a graduate student I would have scoffed as well. Since taking this position, I have tried to share what I like about it with others so they may consider a seemingly undesirable position advertised in the future.
One piece of unsolicited advice for those on the market- pay close attention to the lives of the faculty members at an institution you are interviewing at, they resemble the life you will have.
Your last comment comes to late for me, but you are spot on. That small town life that is in a nondiverse, backward setting should have raised red flags!
I don’t leave a ton of remarks, but i did some searching and wound up here The Real Life of a Tenure Track Faculty Person (A Guest Post) | The Professor Is In. And I do have 2 questions for you if you don’t
mind. Is it just me or does it look as if like some of the comments appear like they are coming from brain dead visitors?
😛 And, if you are posting at other sites, I would like to follow anything fresh you have to post.
Would you list of the complete urls of your shared sites
like your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?
Interesting read. I’m a PhD candidate, Public and Urban Policy at The New School, hoping to be done by next year. There seems to be a trend in academia that institutions are not really doing tenure, rather, long term contracts. I’m not overly concerned about getting tenure. I’ll likely be 50 when I’m done and I don’t think they give 50 y/o ladies tenure.
My plan is to maybe find a long term contract position in the Greater New York Area while testing the waters of the speaking circuit. In terms of publishing, I’ll continue blogging and work on publishing in academic journals.
I would not do the process again. I was hoping for higher level discussions, to write research and articles and work with a team. I got no relocation package (half way across the country), I took a 20k pay cut from teaching in a high school, and I am working in a feudal, white male dominated profession that rewards lying and researching without IRB approval. We are a state university that has a tenured professor that goes to churchs to present and the university pays his way, we have a new department chair that has a PhD from a nonaccredited institution (and we knew it and hired HIM, although I firmly believe if this had been a woman, it would not have occurred), and the sexism is strong and apparent at every level.
The university had a survey last year where a significant number of new faculty stated they could not pay their student loans (we brag as being the cheapest university in the US). They put individuals of minority/international background to teach diversity courses since they equate they are the same (!), individuals from diverse backgrounds do not last here (there is a high attrition rate) either through lack of support and understanding, and a prevalent discrimination in the small town in which the university sits.
I agree with most of this article, but my university is off the chart at the bottom end of this. I would caution those seeking a position in higher education…be careful what you wish for!
Thank you for this. It really helps to get the inside story.
Stacy Rosenbaum: I am stunned by your comments. Your argument goes something like this: All people landing TT jobs should be content earning laughable salaries, not complain, and instead be greatful that they earn a salary at all.. afterall how dare they complain when the person flipping burgers at Burger King earns less than them. How dare they, these arrogant individuals who expect to earn a wage to buy a small apartment after a mere 10 years studies, and a further 5 years or so post doc, lets say about 20 publications in high end journals and generally a flawless academic record – how very rude of them !!
YOur comparison with an engineer is so flawed I don’t even know where to start. A masters degree is a very different story to a PhD, point number 1 (I have both). Point 2: to GET a TT position one typically needs several post-doc stints, in various far flung locations, and perhaps, just perhaps one then lands a TT position (of course for the various post docs relocations are NOT paid, and one earns even less and looses the opportunity to build up some sort of reasonable wealth, which your engineer relative (who probably landed the said job in his 20s (I was 23 when I finished my MS) would have built up by 35). So, its NOT an entry level job (wach auf !), what IT IS in light of the years of PhD, Post doc(s) etc etc etc IS A job one lands at best in your MID 30s (assuming you have a perfect record, summa cum laude PhD, and masters, several excellent post docs and a gazillion papers to your name…) ! A far better comparison, which I believe was already made, is to compare what a TT person DOES, what their qualifications are, and what experience they have to hmmmm , let see, say that of a lawyer – fresh out of grad school, or an accountant (in their mid 20s) or for that matter a car sales man who never saw the inside of a lecture theatre, or for that matter a gym instructor – the list is endless – pick a job any job at all. It is as though you try to justify the pittance these highly valuable and important for society people earn, and accuse the author of this very reasonable blog of “being whiney” ? I am at a loss. You obiously have a chip on your shoulder… It is opinions such as these that have resulted in the current untenable situation for academics, the bleeding of talent to more lucrative careers, and the poor state of academic science in GENERAL. Passion and love for something does NOT mean one has to forfeit the damn right to live at least a reasonable life, if the contribution you are making to society is a damn fine one and you have spent the better part of your young adult hood fighting in what is a very very competitive arena, only to arrive on the top of the heap and realise it was all smoke and mirrors.
To the author of the blog: thanks for the great blog. You hit the nail on the head !
May everyone please expound on the field of subject there PhD’s are in? This will help readers a lot in terms of understanding which subjects pay what. Thank you.
P.S I am considering PhD in economics. I have my undergrad in Finance, and do well in finance and economics classes. Although a PhD in the humanities would be much more intrinsically rewarding, I am a bit afraid of the job market for those out there for those subjects.
that would be helpful for commenters to list field of Ph.D.
I’m a Tenured Full Professor at an Ivy League Business School. B in Economics, MBA, MS, PhD and PostDoc in Finance. I would advise a PhD in Finance rather than Economics as the TT to Professor of Finance seems to be a bit quicker (I was tenured a month before my 38th birthday).
But be careful, you may find getting a non-academic job with a PhD in Finance almost as difficult as with a PhD in Economics
P.S.: I have also found from my own as well as from serving on Promotions Committees Finance academics seem to be differently assessed, in terms of tenure time. More often than not a Finance (Business School) academic is assessed along a broader range of criteria. For instance I was appointed Asst. Prof. with just a MBA because I was seen to have valuable experience working at an Investment Bank prior to entering the academy.
Also don’t underestimate the power of a solid PostDoc to get you to TT at one of the better institutions.
I got my first TT job this year, for which i moved across country. I was unable to save during my graduate study because I am a single mom and I made so little (I’m in the humanities). I was reimbursed for moving expenses, which were literally the cost of getting a truck and moving my stuff. I did have to pay all the deposits and utility stuff out of pocket, as well as student loans which had come due, all during the summer during which I was not paid.
New faculty orientation began in early August, and classes began in mid-August. I stepped into courses that had already been scheduled, which were not in specialty areas I had, so I did a lot of prep work for materials and syllabi for the courses. I highly anticipated the end of August for the first paycheck (we get paid monthly), since I had not had a paycheck since April.
Imagine my surprise when I found out my actual contract start date wasn’t till Sept. 1, which meant I wouldn’t be getting a paycheck until the end of September. Suddenly my depleted funds took on a whole new tint of desperation as I was suddenly going to food banks and charities to be able to keep the lights on and my child fed. I had no idea I wouldn’t be paid for my first three weeks of work. And by work I mean ACTUAL WORK, at the university, teaching students, advising students, running meetings, organizing events, and doing required trainings, not including the time to prep classes etc. My car broke down and I had used up my whole emergency fund to pay for food, so I had to seek assistance from friends and family to help cover living expenses for the next thirty days.
Three months later and I’m barely seeing daylight. I’m finally at the point where I can pay all my existing bills with nothing extra to repay the loans from friends yet.I lived absolutely paycheck to paycheck during grad school and I thought finally I would be able to breathe a little once I got a real job again. Not being paid for the first two months I lived in my new city, on the heels of not being paid for May-July on top of it, was a huge shock. So yes, I feel that we SHOULD be informing people that this kind of thing occurs, so they can at least be aware that this happens.
thank you for sharing your experience. It’s a cautionary tale for everyone—a lot of jobs do in fact require you to work the first month before you are paid. Another stress.
I have an MBA and have been yearning to complete a Phd in order to obtain a ‘coveted’ TT position in a teaching univ in some area of Business. I know starting salaries in Business is usually at the higher pay scale…above 80K per academic year. Anyway, I know work at community college in a big city and people with Phds start at 60K with yearly increases, lane changes etc. One instruct with a Phd is now making 75k a year after 6 years and that don’t include her overtime or summer income which is easily $6-8K.
If one chooses to push it and teach at another college part-time, the earning could be significantly higher. Tenure is usually achieved in 3 years; no research necessary. This option does not look to badly.
Then again some believe one must teach at a big name univ for the esteem and prestige. I have seen instructors with only masters earning over 80k although they have been in the job for 15+ years.
Vikram Shenoy says
The article gives a good idea about the TT life in the USA. The biggest problem with nowadays researchers is, they are more interested in performing research to publish papers than invest their time in innovation, which they can sell. I am sure if the researcher invests his or her time in performing some original and innovative research that can change how we live, he would have less to complain and less to depend on University pay check!!!
This is late in the thread, but for the sake of inspiring academics reading this, I want to offer my view on the realities of being an academic versus working in the “private sector”. Specifically in response to Stacy Rosenbaum’s comments on the perceived entitlement and delusion among academics that their lot is somehow worse than that of those in the private sector. Stacy, it is not delusion, it is a hard reality, and the longer you are in the game, the more you see it. Here is my very small case study – me and my close friends. Close enough so I know their work habits and salaries. We are all about the same age, and we all worked long and hard to get to where we are.
me – I am 39, have a PhD in biological science, and 2 years ago, I obtained the coveted TT position at an ivy league university. I work 50-60 hours a week and my salary is 105k per year. I should really work 60-70 hrs a week, but I have 2 young children. These “reduced” hours definitely jeopardize my tenure chances.
my husband – pharmacist at a private hospital, works 40 hours a week, base salary is 110k per year. Nobody drags him out of bed at 1 in the morning, unless he is on call, which he does do sometimes, in which case he gets paid for those hours on top of his base salary
friend 1 – MD, works 3 days a week, 25 hours total, for 85k per year. She does just 3 days so she can spend time with her children. If she worked 100 hours as you say, or even just 60, she could easily make 250k+
friend 2 – has a PhD in biochemistry, but while I was slaving away as a postdoc at 40k per year, she went to law school. She now works for a private law firm as a patent lawyer, about 45-50 hours a week, and makes about 160k per year. She would have to work 60-70 if she wanted to make partner, but doesn’t have to make partner to stay with the firm. She also has an option of part time work, if she wants to spend more time with her children
friend 3 – has an MBA, works in business strategy for a large corporation, 50-60 hours a week, for 250k per year (including bonuses)
friend 4 – has a PhD in biological science, senior scientist at a biotech company, works 40-50 hours a week, makes about 130k per year.
So all of them, working in what I think you would call private sector, either make considerably more money or have a lot more time with their children/families, or both, than I do, living the dream of the TT. I am not complaining about my 100k salary, it’s more money than I’ve ever made, but please do not misrepresent what the private sector offers that academia doesn’t. And mind you, my friends have been making these salaries for a few and in some cases, many more years than me, and that makes a huge difference for middle class living, like saving up for a down payment on a house, or college funds for their kids. And in 3 years, I very well might not get that tenure, and then I may be back to 40k teaching biology at a community college. Is it “entitled” to complain about how academic hard work does not often pay off while private sector hard work usually does? Or about the fact that academia offers some of the worst hours to reward ratio? Once you have a family, many private sector jobs are better at providing either the life balance or the money that you would need.
This is totally counter to the prevailing myth that academia is the “most flexible” option for people with families. I really appreciate your candid disclosure of real salaries and conditions, and would welcome a guest post based on this comment. if you’re interested, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for sharing your experience! I am TT now, and just started last year. For me, academia is my dreaming career. I am so happy to realize my dream. However, I have a big trouble to find my husband in a small college town,which is more than 100 miles away from any big cities. People around me keep saying you are too good to find husband here. I do hope my husband is well educated.
I am offered an industry position recently, and it will be in a big city. I really feel sad now. Should I take the industry position or keep working in my dreaming career? I really want to have my own family.
Thank you for this article. I’ve been trying to get on the tenure track for years and worked a variety of postdoc, staff, adjunct, and visiting positions. I am now advising a number of seniors heading to grad school as the next step in achieving this dream. These are all the things I wish someone had told me back then. I don’t think it would’ve changed my ambitions, but it would’ve been helpful to know.
Do I need to have a Phd in order to get a TT job? Cause I only have an MSc….
Travis C. says
It seems to me the major constraints within the academic career path are “common knowledge” and easily identified. The comparison of this reality as opposed to some other reality seems biased by the author provides nothing in terms of a solution.
There is plenty of enthusiasm for lamenting the issues. Please forgive my lack of empathy, but why not direct that energy towards developing a solution?
You people are precisely what deters me from pursuing an academic career. Spoilt, entitled, middle class to the bone. Why exactly do you think learning about something you have a passion for entitles you to anything? Your whinging is greatly insulting to those who have had to struggle on REAL low wages – for example the great injustice of having to find a dry cleaner is never something I have had to be subjected to! And even if it was, finding something in a new, alien city should be treated as an adventure, a learming experience. If you were to make the most of the wonderful opportunities you have received through your study, you would be happy and fulfilled. But instead you spend your time moaning – typical air-head academics who evidently have no experience or capability in the real world.
I am a male Tenured Full Professor at an Ivy League University. The pressures my colleagues highlight here are real and emotionally painful. I entered academia by accident, needing to quickly find a job after being laid-off when the Investment Bank I was working at was acquired and employees displaced.
When I entered the academy my salary was 1/3 of what I was making as an Investment Banker and my senior colleagues held out the TT as the best way to improve my situation. Working at major Universities means that TT is often slower than other institutions without “brand” and so my desire to fast track tenure (received at 37) has meant that I was Ast. Prof.; Assoc. Prof and now Prof. at three different Universities in very different cities, sacrificing much time producing my own research and supervising the research of others.
Once you do get to the top and you realise just: how much you’ve missed out on in terms of relationships with friends and extended families, how little others UNDERSTAND of the commitments required and are thus unprepared to be accommodative; how much my need to have some kind of “normal” life (with a wife and family) has suffered and how I have to grapple with enormous debt, often seem to have race working against me, have an elderly parent and disabled brother to care for and a chronic illness to deal with. Yes, I have been able to (at 39) pay off the mortgage on my home (in a middle-income neighbourhood) mainly because I got in at the right time (after the sub-prime crisis).
Coupled with the fact that too often affirmative action seems to require less of others to get to the same position I am in, it is very easily to become despondent/cynical.
My greatest desire is for a home and family and it is VERY DIFFICULT not to resent my subject and the lure of the “ivory tower” for robbing me of these experiences.
Life is about choices and yes, I made the choice to go to graduate school, now two decades later I realise it may not have been the wisest one and if I had the chance to do it over I won’t seek a career in the academy – maybe its my midlife crisis?
Just the financial pressures I’m under (the country I’m currently living in just hasn’t recovered yet from the great recession and looks like it will struggle to) are forcing me to seriously look at an altac career but even here holding a PhD is severely counting against me.
I have been on ant-depressants for about 6 months now and am especially lonely.
Be careful what you ask for…
I’m grateful for this post, and some of the counter views posted as well.
I think one of the underlying points is that we are raised to believe we live in a meritocracy – where, if you have the opportunity to acquire an education, and work very very hard, you will be rewarded monetarily. It just isn’t true. That reality can be very painful, and costly, regardless of which world pulled the rug out from under your feet.
Sharing that experience isn’t whining – it’s trying to save someone else the trouble and pain.
I have worked in both corporate and academic worlds. I was in high-tech for 20 years (making quite a bit of money) before going back to get my PhD in biological sciences. Both worlds have extraordinary challenges. I can, however, say that getting my PhD was bar-none the most difficult thing I have ever endured. I knowingly chose to pursue work that mattered to me over money. I got to, and still get to do work I care about; I just had no idea how heinous some of that path would be.
I think this blog and author does a great service to people thinking about academia as a career and lifestyle. I was unaware of the trade-offs in academia and how many decades are spent scraping for the next life-line. I’m watching 20 & 30 year career academics pick up and move their families because medical school research does not have tenure. You must bring in billable hours or grants, or you are out; the impact of your research weighs little in this equation. And I am continually shocked to see $20K/yr post-doc job postings asking for experience that would easily garner $200K in industry.
Of course those PhD’s can go into industry. It just makes me sad that there is such a gross imbalance, and that we as a culture don’t place more value on the decades that it takes to acquire enough knowledge to be able to generate new knowledge for human wellness.
My new favorite quip has become “science doesn’t pay”. It always makes me laugh. I think because I feel the deep absurdity of it. It was a rude awakening for me, that after 10 years of additional and extremely difficult effort, I had positioned myself to make what I would have made my first year after undergrad as a EE (~$50-60K).
I have no regrets. I left the money to do work that I care about, and I continue to get that out of my efforts. I still love science. I still love my research. But I do tell people now, the only reason to pursue a PhD is because you absolutely LOVE LOVE LOVE your research questions. Without that blind love, I don’t know how anyone would survive.
Thank you for the post. I wanted to know that in general, if one is already running a consultancy business, can he/she apply for a TT position in US?..doing both at a time?
I am unable to find any rules regarding this on the University page where I am applying.
You get what you accept says
Well, once I was in a bar in Riga, Latvia having a beer and the waiter was complaining about how the country was stupid. How wages were low. That he had to extra work in a bar as waiter, although with a BA and MSc. I asked him, sorry, but what is your field? He answered Theology. He was teaching some courses at some university, but as part-time lecturer. No demand for guys with his education. Besides, if you want to make money, get a business degree and go working in the banking sector.
This is the first problem. The elephant in the room is that we have too many graduates in Humanities and Social Sciences for the actual demand, including myself. It’s difficult for us to find employment in the private sector, let’s be honest. Which bank would hire a PhD in Hegelian Philosophy? And which PhD in Hegelian Philosophy would be willing to work in a bank? As a result, the idea of “I was so lucky to get this job” results in accepting low wages, low social guarantees, unpaid extra work, etc. It’s pure supply X demand analysis. If people were not accepting the low salaries and other “advantages”, universities would be forced to offer more. In the Exact Sciences the situation is better.
The other problem is that the ones making Academic life are ourselves. Not only we’re giving too much decision power to administrative personnel – and some are getting higher wages then us – but we’re giving away opportunities to make good money. I explain. How many of you got ever paid for a book chapter or journal article? I mean, we work for free for the big publishing houses, they charge outrageous prices for our work, we don’t get a penny, our universities pay huge sums to get access to our own work – that in principle they payed for – and just because we need to publish with them to get tenure; but we are the ones establishing the rules forcing us to work for free for them.
In other words, we’re intelligent, we have high IQs, but we’re stupid. And stupid people in crowded markets deserve low wages and social guarantees. I really don’t want to offend anyone, but the truth (ok, it’s my truth…) has to be told sometimes.
I will start my TT job soon. I was lucky in some sense. But, boy, what a dangerous path academia is! You work for decades hoping to get 60k/year as an assistant prof, and even with that low salary, if you miss, you are broke! Which industry is going to hire you at age 35-40 with zero experience? Even if you had worked for industry since your 20s, your boss would love to get rid of you by the time you are 45. Academia is a stupid career nowadays. I had so much interest in, and respect for, research in grad school. But I woke up to reality in the past few years. I saw chairs and PIs who cannot solve their own homework problems, yet get the lion share of income and credit. PhD students get 1.1k/month stipend. Postdocs and grad students are treated as slaves who do most of the research work. PIs sign documents, go around and present results at conferences! They present themselves to the government and public as scientists, but they are nothing of the sort. Even research grants, we postdocs have to write (’cause it can be technical). And there is huge fight over distinctions, titles, grants, etc., in the community. These are decided chiefly by politics, not by people’s work. Forever you will depend on others to write letters for you. The committees are so incompetent that they cannot read and judge your work; they need someone else to tell them. The only thing you do NOT do after you go up the ladder is research! Oh, I almost forgot to say that after decades of living at university, you are gonna make a salary as much as any average Joe on street. Stay away folks, my sincere warning.
Not to mention that the chances of landing a TT job are ridiculously low. Hundreds of applications are received for each position, many of them from top applicants. I wonder how they are sorted out properly.
I served in a search committee last semester, it is not that scary, most universities they receive about 40 applications, and most of them are either fresh out of school or those professionals coming back from the industry around their 50 or 60.
so the chances to get a position is not that slim, for the sorting, if you have the minimum requirement, put together a nice application and be yourself !
I just want to add few positives points about being in a TT position, because I read enough negatives points. I got my TT job last semester, right after my graduation (am very lucky), without taking in consideration the cost of living which the problem of every citizen of that town.
I work only 2 days a week, yes 2 days a week, and have about 45 days break in the winter and 4 months in the summer, I get a job as a consultant for the summer time which pays extra money.
if you are a phd student, try to finish as soon as you can, your life will flourish after you graduate, be positive and positives things will come to you, I am doing what I love and I love what I am doing
I want to thank Karen and the guest author for the great post. There have been several insightful comments while others could be best described as “ignorant”. On a more serious note, it saddens me that no one acknowledged or sympathized with the guest author’s chronic illness. That is only humane. Her condition is part of the story as it provides a salient context for keeping things in perspective. I would like to thank her for the selfless dedication to the profession despite her health condition.
I am not sure if Stacey still reads responses to this thread but I would personally love to know where you ended up after the PhD and whether you still think the guest post overstated the plight of most TT assistant professors. Of course, judging from the fact that you were making $20,000 in graduate school, you were far better off than other students currently making between $15,000 and $17,000 or less. Unfortunately, this post resonates with most of US and until you disclose your familiarity with TT or any academic position for that matter, it will be difficult to judge whether you understand the situation.
As a new assistant professor of public administration, I am lucky to have landed a tenure-track position late February 2016 even before my dissertation was completed. Thanks to this great blog, I was bit prepared for the TT surprises. It is said that to be fore-warned is to be fore-armed. Unfortunately, being fore-armed has not entirely insulated me from the shocks from the realities of my new academic job.
Generally, the teaching profession is undervalued. This is a global issue and not peculiar to the USA. Even within the academy, pay variations across disciplines is ridiculously incredulous! Again, I was lucky to have participated in a preparing future faculty course, which exposed me to some of these issues
Shaming the author for questioning these issues was not helpful and it is certainly quite disconcerting that as PhD candidate at the time of your initial responses to the guest author and Karen, you failed to demonstrate any modicum of respect as I do not think you would have used similar choices of words if you were communicating with your advisor or doctoral committee.
Shrini Neelaveni says
Dear Brothers and Sisters of Academia,
I came searching for growth prospects for a BioTech/BioMed PhD field that my high school son seems to be interested in. I have to admit that after reading the posts, I’ve gained a good insight into post-PhD life if academic route becomes an alternate path. That said, I want to leave folks who are still searching for a decent gig post-PhD with the following thoughts:
1. If you are from a big label university, there are Asian countries that are willing to pamper you with not only muchos $$s but, also with love, respect and warmth that teachers deserve.
2. Private Universities and High Schools in Europe pays mega bucks for US grads too.
3. Middle East always is looking for some bright minds. While cultural limitations and security concerns exist that is teh chance you could take.
4. If all else fails, take your research and start a business around it.
5. Finally, I want to salute all the folks who spent their prime years researching and adding value to the universe. You’ve boarded the boat of academic excellence. I am sure one day you will also be blessed with financial rewards and name recognition.
Thank you for your services in building the future of our country.
My god you nailed it! I wish I had found this sooner! I’m at the end of my first semester and the financial strain is no joke. I’m easily the poorest I’ve ever been in my whole life. I’m more or less floundering. It’s pathetic and frustrating. Thank you so much for your honesty. It makes me feel a little better that I’m not a complete failure at life with cents in my bank account. Seriously, thank you!