Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Summer Salary Season

When reviewing proposals, I don't spend much time looking at the budget unless there is some particular reason to do so, such as: comments on the budget are requested/encouraged because a proposal concerns equipment or some other large-ticket item; the proposal budget total is surprisingly high or low; and/or I am curious about some aspect of the budget, e.g. how funds for a particular aspect of the research are allocated or justified. The part I care about least is what people request for summer salary. I figure that that part is between the program director and the PI's to work out, and I don't really care whether someone requests 2 weeks or 4 weeks of summer salary.

The amount of summer salary I request typically has no relationship to the actual time I spend on the research -- I always spend much more time on the project than what I can reasonably budget in terms of salary. Similarly, the random (but low) number that my university assigns as my '% effort' on a project never has any relationship to my actual 'effort', which would be nearly impossible to calculate anyway.

When constructing proposal budgets, most of my colleagues and I try to pick a 'reasonable' number that is neither too high (causing sticker shock and making one seem greedy, even if it is theoretically reasonable to request funds to make up for at least part of the 3 summer months many professors are not paid by their university) nor too low (causing people to doubt the PI's commitment to the project).

If the overall budget starts to get out of control owing to the high cost of grad/postdoc salary, fringe benefits etc., my salary request is typically the first thing to go. And even if I do keep some amount in the budget for my summer salary, if the grant is awarded and funds get tight owing to unexpected costs -- e.g. when my department mandated a raise for grad students, including for RA salaries paid from existing grants that didn't budget for this because the raise was announced without warning -- my summer salary gets whittled away because it wouldn't make sense to take the money from the amount budgeted for the actual research. It is the same for many of my colleagues as well.

It's of course nice to get paid something in the summer. I work hard in the summer, and there are various expenses involving the offspring, house, car, travel that are easier to deal with if one is paid in the summer, if only for 1 month out of the three. Or three weeks. Or two.

One of my senior colleagues refuses to tie summer salary amount to base salary. He calculates summer salary as a fixed amount that is the same no matter what the base salary of the senior personnel. That is, if he writes a proposal with a junior colleague, they both get the same summer salary. His philosophy is that they both work as hard, so why should he get paid more, at least in terms of grant-generated funds? From what I've seen, this approach is rather rare, and most people prorate summer salary requests to their 9-month base salary.

As my salary has increased over the years, I find that I ask for less summer salary, mostly for the reasons mentioned above re. priorities in a limited budget and a wish to avoid budget sticker-shock. And some years, I don't request any summer salary, even though I don't do any less research. As long as the cost of everything keeps going up and funding agency budgets don't increase, summer salary erosion will likely continue, and some of us will be able to add "volunteer" to our list of titles.

12 comments:

PhysioProf said...

And even if I do keep some amount in the budget for my summer salary, if the grant is awarded and funds get tight owing to unexpected costs -- e.g. when my department mandated a raise for grad students, including for RA salaries paid from existing grants that didn't budget for this because the raise was announced without warning -- my summer salary gets whittled away because it wouldn't make sense to take the money from the amount budgeted for the actual research.

This shit is fucking nutso!

There are advantages to being in a School of Arts & Sciences (SAS) position, including that typically 9 months of salary is paid by the university (theoretically as compensation for teaching) and does not come out of grant budgets. Some of us in hard-money medical school positions seem to like to bitch and moan about how we have to support 70% (the exact number varies from institution to institution) of our salaries from our grants, and to speak as though our SAS colleagues are lucky fucks.

Well, guess what? If we have lean periods of grant funding and are not covering 70% of our salaries, we still get paid the full 100%, at least for some period of time. And this is the case even for non-tenured faculty (who will, of course, eventually get shitcanned if they don't pick up the slack).

The notion of tenured senior faculty scrounging around for money to pay their summer salaries and taking money away from their own salaries to cover raises for trainee stipends is an outrage.

And do we want to talk about the fact that at the same time that real-dollar NIH grant budgets have been in fucking free-fall over the last five years, grad-student and post-doc stipends--de facto mandated by NIH--have been skyrocketing? (They are, finally, leveling off a bit.)

Anonymous said...

so 3 mo summer salary looks greedy? 2/3 of that would go to summer camps for my kids, so it doesn't seem outrageous (plus my salary is looowww)

ugh, should I edit my budget for the 5/6 deadline?
These things can be so arbitrary and capricious.

Becca said...

I'm glad you posted this- it's a subtle point on academia I don't understand really well. It doesn't sound like you've worked out a really good solution, but I can understand why you do it the way you do.

@physioprof- "Get off my lawn" indeed.
As a fourth year grad student, I'm fairly familiar with the NIH NRSA funding levels. First, let me assure you that there are (Research I academic medical center) universities that have *not* historically viewed NRSA stipend levels as defacto mandated minimums. Secondly, as far as I can tell from my limited googling, the NRSA levels for predoctoral students has been at $20,772 since 2004. It appears post-doc salaries for those with 0 or 1 year experience made Stunning Extravagent increases of $1428 and $1500, respectively, from 2004 to 2005 (with no change in more experienced postdoc salary levels).
Am I accessing the wrong figures?
Where are trainees salaries skyrocketing, and how do I sign up?

Anonymous said...

What is typical for humanities professors? If I remember correctly from my formative years, my father, a historian, simply didn't get paid over the summer; his 9-months salary was *it*, and had to budgeted year-round accordingly. If that's still the case, perhaps we should all consider ourselves lucky that it's so much easier to us to fund any summer salary at all out of grants than it is for our colleagues in other departments.

That said, kudos to FSP for forgoing summer salary to make sure grad students and others paid from her grant get paid. Not every PI would do that.

I can't say I feel much sympathy for physioprof's apparent conviction that exorbitant trainee salaries are eating up research money. We postdocs and students deserve to be paid for the work we're doing just as much as faculty do. I'm a postdoc getting paid roughly at the NRSA-recommended level, albeit in a city with an extremely high cost of living, and I'm not exactly swimming in disposable income. From FY2002 to FY2007 the NRSA stipend for a beginning postdoc rose from $31,092 to $36,996. To me, that is "skyrocketing" nor particularly generous for a highly-trained biologist with substantial graduate experience and an advanced degree. If grant money is supporting trainees at all, it needs to support them at a reasonable level.

Anonymous said...

I asked a senior colleague advice on summer salary, and he said: "I'm a professional and I pay myself first". Small business owners are also advised to pay their own salary in full.
And, as my husband put it, given how unproductive my group is ... they can TA. At least half the time.
I should add that I am untenured, and grossly underpaid. Our most recent hire makes about 25% more than I do. Incidentally, that's more than recently tenured, successful associates. We are in serious salary inversion.

PonderingFool said...

From FY2002 to FY2007 the NRSA stipend for a beginning postdoc rose from $31,092 to $36,996. To me, that is "skyrocketing" nor particularly generous for a highly-trained biologist with substantial graduate experience and an advanced degree. If grant money is supporting trainees at all, it needs to support them at a reasonable level.
*****************
When taking inflation into account, it did not skyrocket. Relative to the budget though it does. If each year there is a 10% cut across the board from the previous year (which has happened to some NIH grants). From the PI perspective that is a problem, especially when inflation is taken into account.

Anonymous said...

This is eye-opening. I'm in the social sciences, and, yes, I've always put research assistant salaries, and materials, and everything else before summer salary. The small scale of the grant money available in my field makes it hard to imagine doing otherwise, if I want to get any research done. So not only are my science prof colleagues (in a school of Letters & Sciences) getting higher 9-month salaries, they can actually use their grants to pay themselves in the summer.

neurowoman said...

I'm shocked that a professor would forgo a summer salary as if it were a perk. Good grief. You work all year, your institution expects you to (and maybe take on special summer undergrad students as well!), why the heck should you not get paid?? As a research associate/postdoc, I would be appalled if my boss said, I'm only going to pay you 9 months, but I expect you to work your tail off during the summer...so plan accordingly. The PI is probably the most productive personnel - talk about self-devaluing. How about paying your own mortgage and putting into retirement?

Do humanities professors kick back during the summer, like schoolteachers? Take odd jobs?

River Tam said...

I found your post about summer salary really interesting. I was trained in a lab that had the same summer salary philosophy: science before salary. The goal of the grant was to do science and summer salary was a nice fringe if possible. However, I have recently had conversations with several of my colleagues about this issue and they have been clear that they don't believe a grant is worth writing if they can't get summer salary on it. (As a side note, all of these people were 9-mo tenure-track. I think there is a very valid argument to be made by people on "soft-money" whose only income is salary from grants).

plam said...

I don't think that stipends have skyrocketed in general (although here in Canada there are some new, lucrative, external fellowships), but it seems that tuition costs have continued their gradual but inexorable increase.

PS Canadian salaries are 12-month, so the question of whether to pay myself or my students is purely hypothetical for me (also because I don't have any students yet).

EliRabett said...

There is an underlying issue called institutional base salary, e.g. the amount your university guarantees you for 9/10 months. You cannot pay summer salary at a higher rate. Further, you cannot claim 12 months salary on grants (affects research faculty) because you have to allow for vacation and for writing grants (the government will not pay you for doing this).

Thus, your colleague who puts the same amount of summer salary for himself and collaborators, has to pay it over different periods or be in violation. This is a VERY weedy area.

mentaer said...

even if they skyrocketed, compare the saleries to industry saleries first. Some sciences may have trouble to hire postdocs/gradstudents or something alike as the salaries in industry are way higher
(some number: my grant is 40$/y but i could get 80$ if I would go to an IT company ... for a particular country)