The White Collar Blues

When the employment-robot-futurist-dystopian people start their rants about the modern economy, they usually point to traditional blue collar jobs that are falling behind. Farmers are suicidal. Desperate coal miners vote for Trump. There are sobs for the steel workers, the automakers, and electricians.

Actually, there’s a huge need for talent blue collar workers. And I’ve been hearing more and more middle class parents who are willing to explore those options for their kids. It’s probably because they all know people with white collar jobs who are having a hard time making today.

At least once a week, there’s a new story about a desperate adjunct. The Wall Street Journal has a book review today about a new book, The Adjunct Underclass. And the New Republic has a fabulous article about the adjunct-equivalent in journalism, the freelance writer.

What do adjuncts and freelance writers have in common? Well, they are highly skilled jobs that require major education and investments of time to do well. They pay really poorly. They are high status and not well understood. They are white collar jobs. And I’ve done/do both. Ha!

Those jobs take advantage of primary parents who need 1/2 jobs and of highly optimistic and stubborn individuals who keep hoping and hoping that things will pan out. They never do.

If we want to teach our kids employment skills that they’ll need today, flexibility is probably important. Not because robots are stealing jobs, but because other forces at work that are making intellectual work irrelevant. They should know that paying dues, aka doing low paid, grunt work, is fine for a very, very short period of time. After that, if there isn’t respect and proper paycheck on the table, they should walk away.

About twenty years ago, Steve sent out job applications for assistant European History professorships around the country. When the colleges bothered to reply, they told him that he was one of hundreds of applicants. So, he got a temp job on Wall Street as an administrative assistant and then stayed.

It was the smartest thing, we did. He could have been like my friends, tying together one crappy job after another, until it was too hard to do something else. And Steve was a champ for walking away from a vocation to simply do a job.

I think high schools and colleges should be straight up with students about where they can find work after graduation. They should be some guidance about the cheapest and fastest education path to those jobs. Of course, there are no guarantees, but every student in a journalism program today should read that New Republic article. Every student entering a graduate program in English literature should be presented with the numbers and that adjunct article. There should be complete transparency.

We’ve cracked down on shady for-profit colleges for hiding employment figures. I think every educational institution should be held equally accountable.

UPDATE: I should say that I get paid a lot more per article than the New Republic guy.

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68 thoughts on “The White Collar Blues

  1. I got to say that every professor in my field that I know tells students who want to go to graduate school that the odds of finding a job are not good. And I know that everyone in my department tells students that if they don’t get full funding plus a stipend for living expenses they shouldn’t go to that grad program.

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    1. Many years ago, the blogger thoreau wrote about this. Telling young people how difficult something is only encourages them. Tell the students that advancement in the particular field has nothing to do with ability, and depends solely on kissing up, knowing the right people, and playing politics. That’s the only thing that might work.

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      1. I haven’t found this in my experience. Students seem to get the message. Especially the ones who get in some place without funding; they often don’t realize that the lack of funding is a signal that they aren’t really wanted.

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      2. bg said,

        “I haven’t found this in my experience. Students seem to get the message. Especially the ones who get in some place without funding; they often don’t realize that the lack of funding is a signal that they aren’t really wanted.”

        That’s good.

        This is one of the “tricks” that people aren’t necessarily going to be aware of if their family doesn’t have some serious academic background.

        In our family, we hammer it in, “WE DON’T DO DOCTORATES WITHOUT FUNDING,” but out in the more normal world, people expect to pay for school, so they’re not surprised to find a doctorate costing money.

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      3. “But why do grad program admit students that they don’t want? That’s kind of horrible.”

        Yeah.

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      1. Laura said,

        “I think that every grad program should have job data on their admissions webpage with all the numbers.”

        My old grad program claimed a 100% placement rate.

        I should have been waaaay more suspicious of that at the time, but I was a young thing. (It turned out that people hung around circling the runway until a job appeared, and voila–100% placement rate!)

        So you want not just percentage placed, but also how many years until graduation and the last 10 or so placements. (I looked it up and the worker bee type who was in my “class” took 7 years to his doctorate, whereas our more happy-go-lucky classmate took 9 years.)

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  2. I have a student here who has a twin who is graduating from Rutgers! My student is very career-focused and driven. He’s working on an honors thesis on social media analytics and is also running a side business doing consulting. He’s graduating in May and is entering one of our MBA programs.
    His twin just got accepted to a very high level grad school in a field that made me laugh (and is specific enough I don’t want to identify online). Even I have a hard time justifying this field, and I am super open-minded. It’s a job that can only lead to a faculty job, and there are probably less than a handful of those.
    Anyway, I just thought that was interesting enough to share. Identical twins with totally different career trajectories.

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  3. “What do adjuncts and freelance writers have in common? Well, they are highly skilled jobs that require major education and investments of time to do well. They pay really poorly. They are high status and not well understood. They are white collar jobs. And I’ve done/do both. Ha!”

    I have a growing pet peeve for the whole genre of article that is basically, “I will blow up my life and destroy my privacy and my marriage and embarrass my children for $200, basically strip-mining my personal life, because I have no dignity, no imagination and no future-orientation and don’t realize that the internet is forever.” Also, “I will get $200 for this, but my employer will get a gazillion when it goes viral because the article is so cringe-y.”

    There’s a vastly larger appetite for those pieces than there are break-out jobs for the people who sacrifice their dignity to write those pieces.

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      1. Laura said, “Very much yes. Just skimmed the Dooce memoir in B&N. It’s that bill, except she probably will make a lot of money from it.”

        Yay?

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    1. Related: There’s an old saying about how an editor should have an older brother who is a pimp so he has somebody to look up to.

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  4. I should say that I get paid a lot more per article than the New Republic guy. I get paid $1 a word. Sometimes more. I get paid to help do research and brainstorm topics. And someone is paying for conference attendance. I could work more, if I wish.

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    1. How does that work? Does ‘a’ get paid the same as ‘nixtamalization’? Does an editor under budget pressure ever remove all the adjectives? The last time I wrote for money, I got $20 a story for the campus paper. It wasn’t bad money.

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      1. It’s a ballpark thing. Most articles are between 1,000-1,400 words. I usually write a bit more, especially if I’m working with a new editor and I’m not sure what they like. They usually offer 1k to 1.3k for an article. The big name places pay crap though.

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      2. Similar for translations. There are people and companies that will count every penny, and generate long e-mail trails about numbers of words and whether you count the starting language or the finishing language. They are bad clients and should be left to do their thing.

        The big-name places pay crap because they can. The best thing for a freelance writer who wants to pay their bills is to try to get in each of them once, or at most aim for them very occasionally. Then your CV and your online bio say “Has published in Big Name, Famous Weekly, and Famous Newspaper.”

        My experience was that places nobody had heard of paid best.

        Two other big things were variability and musical chairs among commissioning editors. For a few years, I had a sweet gig as the Germany-Austria-Switzerland correspondent for a biotech trade publication. It was business-to-business and specialized, so the pay was good for the early 2000s. They also wanted copy every week, which meant that I could actually do reasonable budgeting. But after a while things changed at headquarters, and that work gradually dried up.

        I had a portfolio of writing, corporate publishing/editing, and translating because I found that trying to do one exclusively left me too vulnerable to changes in the various markets.

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      3. The $1 a word thing isn’t that great if you’re working for an editor who wants more and more interviews/research/rewrites/new angles — much of which will end up on the cutting room floor. You agree up front to a fee, but there’s no controlling how much will be demanded afterwards. Or how hard it will take to track down the right person for an article. It took about 50 (at least) emails to get a quote from a superintendent for one article, and that sentence was cut in the end. Some articles take months to finish off.

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      4. ” there’s no controlling how much will be demanded afterwards”

        True dat.

        One of the corporate pubilshing places I worked for had a client with some internal issues, deparments that wouldn’t communicate with each other, suchlike. A four-page brochure for that client went through 28 rounds of changes. The next contract with that client specified that more than, I think, four rounds of changes incurred extra costs.

        I realize that the power dynamic between a commissioning editor and a freelance writer is, to an extent, different. On the other hand, one of the reasons I had a portfolio of clients and income streams was so that I could walk away from any given one of them if it was turning into a money-losing proposition.

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  5. While I agree that students entering graduate school need to be fully informed, that’s not sufficient. Case in point – my cousin who is currently pursuing her PhD in history at mid-rank program. We talked to her A LOT about the dismal job prospects in history and the need to be willing to move really anywhere to get a job. She is fully funded (thank goodness she listened to that), but she’s not willing to move anywhere to get a job. She’s convinced she’ll finish her PhD in 5 years and get an amazing job in a great location. We’ll see how it goes.

    Ultimately, the solution to the problem requires structural change – institutions need to stop admitting people they won’t fully fund. And let’s face it – some programs need to go. I don’t know how we’d go about making decisions as to which programs should go – I worry that leads to a situation where only the Ivies and huge R1s have graduate programs, which don’t really prepare students for the variety of jobs out there (like those at community colleges and regional state schools like mine).

    I won’t even start on the replacement of tenure track lines with adjuncts as that one is well documented. But I do want to make the point that individual solutions to structural problems can only go so far.

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  6. slnoonanj said,

    “While I agree that students entering graduate school need to be fully informed, that’s not sufficient. Case in point – my cousin who is currently pursuing her PhD in history at mid-rank program. We talked to her A LOT about the dismal job prospects in history and the need to be willing to move really anywhere to get a job. She is fully funded (thank goodness she listened to that), but she’s not willing to move anywhere to get a job. She’s convinced she’ll finish her PhD in 5 years and get an amazing job in a great location.”

    *cringe*

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    1. Ack! At least my paralegal, who graduated in the middle of her class at a second tier law school, has a job that pays over $100K. Life as a Ph.D. from a second tier grad school seems truly horrible.

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      1. I have friends who graduated fully funded from top tier PhD programs, who ended up with tenure at second tier colleges. They make less than 100K. At my last job (temporary position at a second or third tier school), my colleagues made less than my kid’s kindergarten teacher (she had lots of seniority). None of tenured professors made over $100K. I do enjoy writing and the flexibility of the work but in September, I’m going to start looking at other lines of work unless I get a book contract.

        Ian’s doing really well. This year, I’ve needed to be around, because the math department has taken him under their wing and are starting to talk about college. We’re doing a lot of after-school tutoring to help him overcome his reading disability. He has to pass the reading section of the entry exams. Work is still going to be difficult, but I’m going to give it a shot.

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      2. Best wishes to Ian on that. Once you get past college, you can find a job where you barely need to read if you can do math or programming.

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      3. “None of tenured professors made over $100K”

        I make over $100K, fwiw. Then again, we also do not have tenure. Also, that is before overloads, which I teach in order to keep my daughter in the collegiate lifestyle to which she has become accustomed. The minute she’s done, I’m not teaching overloads again. Can you believe it’s only 2 more years?

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      4. Laura said,

        “Ian’s doing really well. This year, I’ve needed to be around, because the math department has taken him under their wing and are starting to talk about college.”

        Nice!

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      5. Wendy said,

        “I make over $100K, fwiw. Then again, we also do not have tenure. Also, that is before overloads, which I teach in order to keep my daughter in the collegiate lifestyle to which she has become accustomed. The minute she’s done, I’m not teaching overloads again. Can you believe it’s only 2 more years?”

        GO WENDY!

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  7. I mentioned this discussion to my husband. Here was his take (which cribs from a colleague’s thoughts). It’s OK to do a PhD even with little hope of a job on the other side if you are:

    a) funded
    b) having a good time
    c) have no dependents

    If any of those ingredients is missing, it’s not such a great idea.

    Related!

    https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/03/06/new-study-says-graduate-students-mental-health-crisis

    “Some 39 percent of respondents scored in the moderate-to-severe depression range, as compared to 6 percent of the general population measured previously with the same scale. Consistent with other research on nonstudent populations, transgender and gender-nonconforming graduate students, along with women, were significantly more likely to experience anxiety and depression than their cisgender male counterparts: the prevalence of anxiety and depression in transgender or gender-nonconforming graduate students was 55 percent and 57 percent, respectively. Among cis students, 43 percent of women had anxiety and 41 percent were depressed. That’s compared to 34 percent of cis men reporting symptoms of anxiety and 35 percent showing signs of depression.”

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    1. a) funded
      b) having a good time
      c) have no dependents

      That sounds about right. I’d have never learned as much any other way than being thrown into that kind of environment. Not that we didn’t have good hopes for a job, at least the ones who finished.

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      1. d) (or maybe a subset of (a)) – trustafarian. Lots of people in the ‘doomed’ programs when I was in grad school were people who would never have to work. When grandfather’s trust fund is kicking in a couple hundred thousand a year, it’s perfectly plausible to go for ‘curator’, or ‘art history’.

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    2. Yup, given those three, it’s not a bad way to spend that time. I enjoyed graduate school. But, even though I was funded, in an emerging field that was on its way to being hot, I always had another plan in mind. I don’t understand how people continue to remain so optimistic/delusional. Maybe it’s the sense of entitlement,

      Although I agree about structural issues, I do think there’s only so much we can do to save people from themselves.

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      1. There are so many reasons that people stay in doomed jobs, like graduate programs.

        1. I honestly had no one tell me that there were no jobs. In fact, professors told me that things were going to open up.
        2. I had always excelled at everything and gotten everything that I wanted, so it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t at least find a job at a community college.
        3. Life changed. I got married and had kids in grad school. When I started I could move anywhere in the country. When I went on the job market, I was willing to commute about 40 minutes and no move. That severely limited my options. I only applied to three or four schools, and I was nine months pregnant at some of those interviews.
        4. All of my friends were either writers or grad students. We were all poor and struggling. It seemed normal.

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      2. 1) I do agree that there was a time when people were predicting a grand retirement followed by hiring and that some students were actively mislead (potentially more in teaching positions). Since I was in an expensive field in which grants are vital, I was very aware of the growing competitiveness of grants, a trend that has only gotten worse.

        2) I also agree that the people who think about grad school often have had a lot of success. That worked for me for a very long time — but, I saw that as falling off the cliff being averted (and often attributed it to luck). Say for example, the chance conversation with a invited speaker that resulted in my advisor putting me on a high risk project that paid off in two Science papers.

        3) I do emphasize to everyone the need to be willing to move for an academic career (and how much more limiting the path becomes, magnitudes more limiting, with constraints on location). But, as you say, life can change. So, one has to have another plan.

        4) Yes, it does make a difference who your peers are. When I was a post-doc, our most adult friends were two government lawyers with a kid. They pointed out how different it is to take the lower paying jobs (as theirs were, high prestige but less pay than they would get in private practice) when your peers are living a different life. That peer comparison is insidious.

        (and, I should admit that though there was no trust fund, there was a husband who was likely to have a higher salary than me and we were never poor as graduate students).

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  8. A friend’s brilliant daughter is heading from a top-five undergrad to a fully-funded top-five PhD history program, and I had the talk with her: here I am, with a top-five humanities PhD, and I was not the “slacker” in my program or anything like that, and previous grads in my field at that school had all gotten jobs. I had exactly one tenure-track job offer in five years of applying, state university in the middle of nowhere, a pretty good job to start out but now the university is in the tank and I have few options in the field if I get laid off. She was *furious* with her father for soliciting my opinion when she was in the application process.

    But the fact is, she is in a specific subfield that is well-funded, had a paid internship at a Smithsonian-level museum as an undergrad, and did get full funding, so I’m not too worried about her. The museum is a long-term job prospect if a teaching job doesn’t work out, or if the only teaching jobs are somewhere she doesn’t want to be.

    In many parts of the country, $100k is a really good salary. We’re unusually low-cost out here, but 3BR houses in great neighborhoods are under $100K. There are profs who buy an extra house (or two or three) and rent it out. I have some friends who have become very good at rehabbing.

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  9. A 100K puts people in the top 13% of income, according to a random Google search. I consider that a good enough salary, and though my kids’ private schools put us in another socioeconomic peer class, we have friends and family who consider that the salary they expect to live their lives with.

    (And, I’ve never understood why academics think they should be paid more than K-12 teachers. I consider K-12 teaching a much harder job. I think K-12 teachers should be paid better than most college professors (and, in the science world, the pay depends largely on bringing in outside funding).

    I think one of the other structural issues is the greater income inequality in white collar professions. It makes the salaries that seemed OK no longer feel that way.

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    1. So, the funny thing is that K-12 teachers and unions think that people with PhD should get paid more. Union salary charts are based on seniority and education credits. PhDs make top tier salaries.

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  10. bj said,

    “A 100K puts people in the top 13% of income, according to a random Google search.”

    But spend $300k and 10 years at minimal income getting the $100k income, and the math gets really bad.

    This is obviously not a real example (I hope nobody has done that exact thing!), I just want to throw out there that people need to consider not just “gross” income but also the return on investment, both of time and money.

    Also, $100k is quite respectable–but how soon do you get there? For example, a good academic track eventually does pay well, but it takes a LONG time to do so compared to other fields requiring similar amounts of training.

    There’s also the calculation that if $100k is the likely top salary possible in the field, but very few people achieve that career track and there’s a significant investment of time and/or money to get a shot at that $100k, that it may not be worth the risk.

    So, it’s not just a question of best-scenario income in the field.

    Beyond the money, what is the distribution of happiness in the field? Does the field interact inappropriately with one’s personality? We are trying to (gently!) steer our oldest away from fields where the most likely outcome would involve her having heavy daily social contact with people. Knowing oldest, not having to have heavy daily social contact is probably worth a good $20k-$40k in terms of her happiness and quality of life.

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    1. One of C’s areas of interest is one where the most likely outcome is either college or 7-12 teaching because it doesn’t have a private sector application.

      –A good college job would be good, but unlikely.
      –Bad college jobs are much more likely–but might still be hard to get.
      –7-12 teaching in this area is accessible, but might be hard for C day-to-day long term with regard to stress and interpersonal stuff. (I’m a lot like C and found my Peace Corps high school teaching pretty stressful.)

      So, it’s quite the dilemma. I’m hoping C goes for a different field that has a broader range of options, but in the meantime, it’s bringing her a lot of joy in high school.

      Like

      1. I found the subjects I enjoyed in high school were not as fun in college. I switched out of my physics major to a liberal arts program (the Western Program at Miami of Ohio for those in the know). Similarly to Laura’s husband I took a temp job at a financial institution and today make in the low 6 figures as a business systems analyst. And I really enjoy what I do. And I would never have wanted to study it in college.
        A few caveats: health insurance was way cheaper then; I didn’t find it hard to live a bare bones lifestyle with a lot of roommates at first and I was willing to do scut work to get where I wanted.
        I have a good friend who did finish his physics degree with honors. He took a break to work in a lab before applying to grad school and found he hated research. He now manages a gourmet/ fancy grocery store and loves it. So you never know.

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      2. Marianne said, “I found the subjects I enjoyed in high school were not as fun in college.”

        That’s a really important point (that subjects are different at different levels) but I’m not sure how to get that across.

        “Similarly to Laura’s husband I took a temp job at a financial institution and today make in the low 6 figures as a business systems analyst. And I really enjoy what I do.”

        Yay!

        “I have a good friend who did finish his physics degree with honors. He took a break to work in a lab before applying to grad school and found he hated research.”

        Your point about high school versus college might apply equally well to undergrad versus grad.

        Like

    1. y81 said,

      “BTW, note that entry level paralegals do not make $100K. It takes at least ten years to get to that level.”

      Good to know!

      Like

      1. Sort of. She works for a large investment management firm as an analyst. She was worried about whether her prospects would be better if she were in the business school (the sort of foolish thing that students believe these days), but I told her that New York financial services firms LOVE math majors, and I was right. That doesn’t mean that computing Eigenvalues is a big part of her daily routine.

        Like

      2. y81 said,

        “I told her that New York financial services firms LOVE math majors, and I was right.”

        Nice!

        Like

  11. I wrote a long comment on Friday to add my 2 cents, but WordPress really hates me, I guess. It’s just that I have a couple of dormant WP accounts and I can’t use most of my emails to login for a comment.

    I was saying two things.

    1) my husband is tenured, he makes not much more than 70K

    2) there is a new “in-between” class of non-tenure track faculty — “senior lecturers'” or “general faculty” like me who can continue indefinitely, with a middling salary (50K+)

    Let’s hope this gets posted.

    Oh,

    3) I always tell grad students that if they are aware that they will probably end up in my “in between” position or teaching high-school, they can keep going.

    Like

    1. L-Mamae said,

      “there is a new “in-between” class of non-tenure track faculty — “senior lecturers’” or “general faculty” like me who can continue indefinitely, with a middling salary (50K+)”

      That is interesting and not terrible compared to adjuncting.

      Like

    2. I was told, by tenured faculty about twenty years ago, that the only way to move up in salary (aside from small raises) was to switch schools or bluff by getting a job offer from a different school at a higher salary and hoping they liked you enough to counter-offer.

      Also, it sounds like research staff are in a similar salary class as lecturers. The difference being that if your research skills include things that private industry wants, you can jump over.

      Like

      1. MH said,

        “I was told, by tenured faculty about twenty years ago, that the only way to move up in salary (aside from small raises) was to switch schools or bluff by getting a job offer from a different school at a higher salary and hoping they liked you enough to counter-offer.”

        I believe that that is often the case.

        Marginally related, husband and I are watching The Five-Year Engagement. There’s some weirdness over details of academic hierarchy and culture, but I’ve enjoyed the painful realism of the part where Violet’s post-doc in Michigan means that Tom’s formerly promising career gets sidelined.

        Like

      2. Yes, MH, or one can raise a salary by going on to become department chair for many years and/or a dean-ling in administration — that will bump your salary. Of course the people in the sciences are supposed to get grants to supplement their salary, that’s why it’s kind of low, (maybe), but people in non-R1 schools have a hard time getting grants.

        Yes, research staff is also “general faculty”. They also apply and get grants, so they have the potential to make more than those of us in humanities who are stuck with the super low salary and need to teach in the summers or do other things to help supplement the income.

        Like

      3. Usually grants pay your salary, not supplement it. The university says what you get paid and tells you to get the money for it, but you don’t get extra if you get more money. You get to other people to do some part of the work.

        Like

      4. MH said,

        “Usually grants pay your salary, not supplement it. The university says what you get paid and tells you to get the money for it, but you don’t get extra if you get more money. You get to other people to do some part of the work.”

        …and you get to keep your job, right?

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      5. At my school (and most other institutions in our consortium) we get substantial bumps in our pay when we move from asst to assoc and then to full. About $20,000 for the asst to assoc bump and another $30,000 for the assoc to full move.

        Like

      6. bg said,

        “At my school (and most other institutions in our consortium) we get substantial bumps in our pay when we move from asst to assoc and then to full. About $20,000 for the asst to assoc bump and another $30,000 for the assoc to full move.”

        I don’t think that the bumps are nearly as big here, but I think there’s something similar.

        Like

      7. Usually grants pay your salary, not supplement it. The university says what you get paid and tells you to get the money for it, but you don’t get extra if you get more money. You get to other people to do some part of the work.

        In my experiences at R1 research schools and selective SLACs, it wasn’t quite that explicit. (“You get paid from your grant.”) The incentives were more implicit:

        1. If you were a job candidate you were either unlikely to be hired (R1) or less likely (SLAC) if you didn’t already have external funding.
        2. If you had a grant you could use it (and usually did) to buy a lower teaching load.
        3. At R1s you are expected to fund postdocs and graduate students, at least in part, out of your grant. No grants, no postdocs, no students, no research group…
        4. Finally, no grants, no tenure (at R1s) or a diminished chance of tenure (SLAC).

        But you did usually get paid up until your career evaporated.

        Like

      8. At R1 medical schools, there are faculty who are fully funded by grants. Some of them are called Research Professors, but others, especially in clinical departments, are just called Professors, but do not have salary funding from the university, even when they have tenure. I don’t know if this track is predominantly at Public Research Universities. Even at Private R1s, though, there are various institutes where you may have an appointment at, say, Harvard, but you are actually an employee of the institute, where you have no salary guarantee. The Salk Institute, for example, has no salary guarantee for its employees.

        At some medical schools, faculty can have a “A” and “B” salary, where part of their salary (A) is guaranteed (at a Public University, potentially by the state) while a B salary is paid through grant funds — probably similar to summer salary, except these employees have 12 month salaries.

        There are clinical professors (usually with MDs), where part or all of their salary might be paid by clinical services they provide (i.e. the patients they see) while they also run research labs.

        The biomedical model for professors is pretty complex and varies a lot in different environments.

        Like

      9. There was a story last summer of a faculty member at Colorado State who faked a competing offer letter in order to try to get a salary boost. He got caught and resigned and is now charged (and offered as a defense that lots of people cheat about offers).

        Like

  12. Bumps at the regional university at $6000 for promotion from assistant to associate professor and $8000 for promotion to full professor. Union had to fight hard for that.

    Like

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