Monday, March 01, 2010

Financially Secure Faculty

This post is inspired by a recent comment that referred to "financially secure faculty". The context was that graduate students (with their low salaries) are financially insecure but faculty (with their higher salaries) are financially secure.

Of course it's not that simple. Financial security does not correlate exactly with salary; i.e., you can not conclude that because faculty have higher salaries than graduate students, faculty are financially secure. Faculty may be more secure (in some ways) but that is not the same as being financially secure.

Tenured faculty have a certain type of job security because it takes an extreme event (criminal activity; an economic crisis) for a tenured professor to lose their job. Most of us with tenure are therefore in little danger of financial disaster owing to being unemployed.

Nevertheless, some faculty, and in particular early career faculty, struggle to cover the basic costs of living, in part because professors are typically paid for only 9 months of work by our universities. Consider in particular the financial situation of an early career professor with one or more children. Graduate students with families may be in a similar or more difficult situation, but some of my younger faculty colleagues are in financially precarious positions despite their higher salaries. There are many factors in the financial security of any family, including costs of daycare, mortgage, other loans and whether the family relies on one or two incomes (and what those incomes are).

Even mid-career and senior faculty may have serious financial challenges. Some of my colleagues have been dealing with personal financial crises related to the costs of caring for ailing parents and other relatives, college expenses for one or more offspring, the economic consequences of divorce, or the recent devastation of investment-based retirement accounts (the result of which is that some professors cannot afford to retire and continue to have adequate health insurance).

Certainly there are financially secure faculty, especially those who spent some time in administration and retained their higher salary once they returned to their regular faculty positions. And those of us in science or engineering fields tend to have higher salaries than our colleagues in the humanities, in addition to the greater possibility of summer salary from grants. I personally feel financially moderately secure in my two-professor family, although we are somewhat intimidated by the future costs of our daughter's college education and the slow rate at which we are accumulating retirement savings.

I feel fortunate in my job and even in my (9 month) salary. But: You can't generalize about the financial security of faculty just because our salaries are significantly higher than those of our graduate students.


Anonymous said...

I found this post a bit pointless. There is no doubt that someone making $50k+ a year is more likely to be financially secure than someone making a $25k stipend. As someone who is currently living "comfortably" on a job paying $400/month, your argument may be falling on def ears. Sure, someone raising an autistic child, with another child in college and supporting an elderly parent could be stretched thin despite having a faculty position.

You could approach the argument from the other point of view that graduate students are financially secure. Of course this depends on what your idea of "financial security" is. $22k/year TA stipend with health insurance opens up all sorts of possibilities in my opinion.

This again supports your argument that this type of thing cannot be generalized but my question would be...why are you making this point?

Anonymous said...

I would never have guessed as a grad student that I would have so many financial problems as a faculty member. It's a combination of kids, aging parents, supporting an underemployed spouse, living in an expensive city on that low (yes low!) 9 month salary. And the expectation that I should be doing much better. I'm successful! I have a ridiculous amount of training! It's against all odds to get a tenure track job! How can this be?

Recent graduate said...

It is my understanding that tenure secures a given position, not a given salary - is that the case?

GRDN HOE said...

As you have pointed out, financial security is based on many factors, one of which is family "output". It is a simple fact that to be financially secure, you have to spend less than you make and unfortunately for many people in many different jobs, that was not the case for many years.

As a tenured Associate Professor, I do feel more secure than my Assistant Professor colleagues, but also realize that I am simply one major disaster away from financial ruin (much like my graduate school days) - STILL. I am, however, well aware that I really have only myself to blame for my current financial insecurity, and am working toward fixing it; at my salary, I should be more secure than I am.

There is irony here, I have a job title that comes with some (perceived) prestige, and, I make a decent salary, but still struggle to make ends meet in much the same manner I did 20 years ago when I first moved out of my parents home!

It's hard to complain about salary though, when my bottom line seems much higher than many other professions out there.

Joseph said...

"Graduate students with families may be in a similar or more difficult situation, but some of my younger faculty colleagues are in financially precarious positions despite their higher salaries."

Or postdocs. At least a grad student can fall back on student loans (and any existing loans are in deferment) if worst comes to worst. I'm an academic postdoc making less than half of what I made as an intern in industry. If we'd not had this stupid recession, I'd likely be employed in industry right now simply due to the fact that academics get paid precisely jack (and a postdoc gets paid significantly less than jack, which is slightly more than grad students get paid.) I have the feeling of "I was in school for years to get a PhD to get paid significantly less than I could in just about any other non-service job?!"

Additionally, you have to consider when to have kids. Although career- and finance-wise, it's ideal to have kids when you're in a completely financially stable situation, birth defects increase significantly later in a woman's childbearing age. In addition, you don't want to be significantly older than the child, and you want to be able to at least mostly keep up with them. As a result, we're parents while I'm still a postdoc (she's a student).

Financially, postdocs are in the same situation as faculty (if you're a sensible house buyer, rent can be significantly more than a mortgage!) and are not unlikely to have kids so they have extra mouth{,s} to feed and daycare to pay and college and retirement to pay for (grad students might meet all of these requirements too, but they're younger and less likely to have a kid perhaps so the population will likely look different). Sadly, postdocs (and gradstudents) aren't eligible for retirement--right at the age where it's optimal to be saving for retirement! What's more, they're paid crap so they can't sock much, if anything, away. Additionally, postdocs are temporary and will be fired in the next two to three years. So they have some aspects of being unemployed too. Huzzah! Personally, I think the postdoc system is slightly more than crap, but not hugely so. Oh, yeah, and there's no relocation, so you've also gotta allocate from your already paltry salary a few grand for relocating across the US on your own dime.

PIs actually paying a living wage would be a nice change of pace. But where's the incentive for the PI or funding agency? They can get 2x the computing power if they conveniently ignore the fact that their students and postdocs are people and not calculation tools. "Human Resources" if you will.

plam said...

I definitely cannot complain about salary, since 1) my university pays very well; 2) the cost of housing is relatively low; and 3) Canadian universities pay 12-month salaries. Also, people here complain about Canadian university tuitions for their children, but they're much lower than American tuitions, and that would be far in the future (if ever) for me anyway.

Now, I do sometimes fantasize about being independently wealthy, and I've always wondered why tenured faculty who are independently wealthy (I know of a couple of CS profs in this position) bother writing grant proposals. I guess it depends on the number of 0s in your net worth.

Anonymous said...

My advisor did make a point similar to FSP's. Despite making a good salary and greatly augmenting it through consulting, he's mentioned that he seemed to have much more disposable income when he was a graduate student. Many of us have fewer financial obligations when students, and also lower expectations, so that's part of it.

Kevin said...

I agree with GRDN HOE, that financial security has as much to do with expenditure as with income. I've been "financially secure" since I was a grad student, saving enough money then to pay the down payment on a house when I got my first faculty job.

After 25 years a faculty member I've saved enough to pay for my son's college (unless it doubles in price in the next 4 years—a distinct possibility in CA) and retire at a reasonable age, despite having a relatively low salary for a faculty member, rarely taking summer salary, being in a single-income family (most of the time), and living in an expensive housing market. The key is to keep the expenses way down and spend only on essentials (like food, housing, education, and books): no car, clothes from the thrift store, eat out rarely.

Anonymous said...

Financial security is relative. A grad student living in subsidized housing, with few additional expenses, may be better off than tenured faculty with 3 kids in college and/or day care and a mortgage. On the other hand, a grad student or postdoc with kids or rent to pay may be in much more dire straits than a single professor who gets subsidized faculty housing and has no familial or other major financial obligations. Personally, I'm a grad student with kids living in an expensive city. If I did not have very generous parents who can afford to help us out, we'd be in serious trouble. My advisor also has kids and a mortgage, and recently went through a messy and expensive divorce, so despite making several times my salary, he's not much more secure than I am right now. On the other hand, some of the single grad students in my lab have money to burn. When assessing financial security, you need to weigh salary vs. expenses.

John Vidale said...

While anyone can live beyond their means, especially in an expensive metropolis, I'm reminded of the passage in Bonfire of the Vanities in which Sherman McCoy laments his limited budget as a master of the universe in NYC.

Anonymous said...

(and a postdoc gets paid significantly less than jack, which is slightly more than grad students get paid.)

Careful with over generalizations. There are fields where a PDF gets $50K as an absolute minimum and $80K is not unheard of.

Having said that, scholarships are often taxed at a lower rate. So a student with a $30K grad scholarship might well trump a $45K PDF fellow.

Female Science Professor said...

And it shows a lack of understanding of what is possible with grants to think that PIs could pay their grad students and postdocs a lot more if they only wanted to.

Anonymous said...

Sorry FSP, but cry me a river. Compared to grad students science faculty are way more financially secure.

Anonymous said...

"I would never have guessed as a grad student that I would have so many financial problems as a faculty member."

This is a good reason to make the point -- so that people don't make the mistake of thinking they'll be on the *easy* financial road when they become faculty.

and, as someone else said, financial security/ruin is indeed relative. You mentioned those faculty who were administrators, and have retained their higher salaries as being in the gravy, but they'd probably argue the same complications of expenses v income.

PUI prof said...

I went to grad school in a place that had a great program (top 10) AND low cost of living. It was a fun city with lots of urban amenities. I was able to afford to buy a little house as a grad student and that turned out to be a very profitable financial decision.

Now I live in a nasty little city where the cost of living is much higher, and urban amenities, well, "urban" is a bit strong...
My salary is low compared to my colleagues at the university across town because we are a small, religious institution.

I definitely had a better lifestyle as a grad student, financially and otherwise. For example, now I am a slave to the academic calendar while as a grad student and post-doc I was not. That means we pay more for vacations because we have to travel during peak times.

Anonymous said...

Joseph-- I agree entirely. You have summed it up well. I had my 1st child as a final year grad student and 2nd as a postdoc. I tell myself it was a trade-off of time vs money. At this stage, we have significant flexibility and have spent more time with our young children than many working parents. That's been my gift to them. On the other hand, we struggle financially and as the kids get older, it only gets harder. $100 for soccer is a big expense for us. An ER co-pay can wreck havoc on the budget.

I don't get the sense that faculty are aware of how stressed many post-docs/students are when it comes to finances. The worst is having to pay for travel out of pocket and wait for reimbursement months later. Even as an invited speaker, I still have to pay up front for airfare and hotel- some of it international. I doubt that faculty members decline invitations to present because they don't have a credit card they can use to charge the airfare.

In the past year, I've heard multiple postdocs say that academic science is on its way to becoming a pursuit for the independently wealthy and the trust fund demographic. This shocked me the first time but I now suspect there's some truth to it.

Anonymous said...

Faculty members also vastly underestimate the purely economic value of tenure (because they don't think of it that way). Judges do, too. Life time tenure, say at 50K or 100K/year has a huge present value.

In the chatter about Sonia Sotomayor, people often commented on her relatively low rate of savings. But, as a federal judge, she had lifetime tenure, at a guaranteed salary >100K (and associated health care benefits). So, her guaranteed salary and lifetime tenure was equal to about 3 million dollars in the bank. Federal judges (unlike tenured faculty) retire at full salary, so she had no need to save for retirement.

Kat said...

I think it also comes down to how you spend your money on all the extra "stuff". I just finished grad school and it always baffled me how other students in my dept would be living from paycheck to paycheck, when I was easily saving 30-40% of my own paycheck. After talking to one of these students one day, I learned that although we had similar fixed expenses (rent, bills, etc) and we were making about the same amount of money, he also went out to eat almost every meal, went out for drinks often, did a lot of shopping, and would often go away on the weekends. I rarely do any of that. This certainly made me financially secure enough so I could stay the extra semester I needed to finish my degree when my advisor didn't have enough funds to pay me and not have to work an outside job.

Anonymous said...

I think the most vulnerable period of time is between the time you receive your PhD and when you get tenure (ie, postdoc and assistant professor). As a graduate student, sure, you are poorly paid - but when you receive your PhD you have the option of getting a $100k job - a PhD is still worth a lot today. As soon as you move to an academic line, your worth on the overall job market falls precipitously. As a postdoc and as an assistant professor you are one emergency away from ruin.

Perhaps more interesting is the question of "Scientific Security". More worrying to most people than the money one gets doing science (not much) is the very real (and very likely) possibility that you will find yourself in your mid thirties without the possibility of tenure and without the possibility of a high-paying job that you might have had five years ago.

Anonymous said...

This post is ridiculous. Even with a 9 month salary, the average starting salary of assistant science prof in the US is at least $80,000. With summer salary, it is over 100K.

This is way above the mean/median US income. If you can't live on this, please don't complain! It's not just graduate students--there are postdocs now who do not earn much and DO NOT HAVE A JOB for next year!!! And there are other people who are highly qualified, but do NOT HAVE JOBS NOW!!! So please spare us the complaints from someone who earns well over the median US income.

Joseph said...

"And it shows a lack of understanding of what is possible with grants to think that PIs could pay their grad students and postdocs a lot more if they only wanted to."

Of course I'm ignorant of how grants work. I'm in my first (and hopefully last) postdoc position. I've seen some more of the machinations behind the scenes as a postdoc, but it's difficult to plumb further. I've tried several times to get in on it a bit more so I can know what to do, but so far very little has come of my efforts (not that I have a ton of time for said efforts).

Perhaps instead of condescendingly pronouncing my "lack of understanding" you could inform me? I'm completely willing to learn, and I'm not above trying to change the system for the better with whatever meager resources I have.

Alex said...

A related peeve: Once in a while I'm told that I have it easy because my wife doesn't work in higher education. Usually the people saying this have spouses who make more than my spouse. I've never pointed to people who make more money than me and said "Oh, you must have it easy!" because I know that it's a bit more complicated than that, but I wish that people would return the courtesy. It is true that my wife is not in an elite profession, and thus job searches are easier, but she has often struggled with job satisfaction, and there is the money issue. Although her job situation has improved a bit in the past year, and she is now enjoying it more and has better hours, it used to be that she was required to work a lot of weekends and holidays. How many professorial couples talking about work and family have had to forgo Christmas with the relatives out of town because one spouse is required to work Dec. 24 and 26? Aside from a few med school faculty who have to be on call for patients on those days, I doubt it happens much.

I don't go around saying that we have it harder, but I don't know that we have it much easier either. The next time an academic says that my life is easy, I will invite him or her to slice a large chunk from the family budget, and then we can compare notes.

Anonymous said...

Like Kat, I am baffled by some graduate student peers who literally live paycheck to paycheck when I easily put away 25% of mine, and my wife nearly all. I will start a postdoc in the fall, and will receive nearly double the salary, but with increased expenses of an expensive city. I should break about even on the increases. But, wife will be able to take home also a bit more and thus we'll be able to save more than current, particularly if she goes to industry (of which there is NONE outside of major cities).

I fail to see how someone making significantly more then than a postdoc struggles with financial security, barring any major unforeseen expense (disability, parents, huge health bill).

I would bet that lattes, a fancy car, an unnecessarily large home, cable w/ add-on channels, 60" flat panels, drinks out, a latest-greatest electronics obsession and lots of dine-in/take-out would do more to explain financial security than anything else, in any salary range.

Anonymous said...

"And it shows a lack of understanding of what is possible with grants to think that PIs could pay their grad students and postdocs a lot more if they only wanted to."

Although this is true, especially for grad students, it's disingenuous not to admit that faculty/PI's are part of the special interest group that keeps the division of the scientific labor costs the way they are.

PI's don't have an interest in having the pie divided up in a way that results in fewer workers or decreases their salary, which are two solutions that could raise stipends.

Anonymous said...

I'm a grad student who managed to save some on my miserable salary. How? Low rent, no car, no tv, no cell phone, free internet. It's totally easy to save money with my lifestyle! I don't understand at all why you people who have kids with $$$$ dental bills, child care costs that dwarf my salary (yeah, for real), aging parents, a mortgage, a need for two cars, etc can't save. You ought to ditch the kids or put 'em to work, bike to your job like me (strap the kids on the rack in back if necessary), and refuse to get those braces.

(Actually, as a 29-year-old I'm looking now at braces as my parents indeed didn't get me them, though they are needed. However, they'd eat up my entire summer salary and I don't know how I can do it and stay on budget. The emergency root canal when the dentist accidentally drilled into a nerve was bad enough...)

Female Science Professor said...

Financially insecure faculty do not necessarily lead extravagant lives. A child in daycare in a single-income family makes for a precarious economic situation. My post argues that we can't generalize about the financial security of faculty just because we make more than graduate students.

Re. why PIs can't easily pay grads/postdocs more:

This is sort of relevant. Somewhere else in the archives is a discussion of how much we can reasonably put in grant budgets, considering the essential costs of research + 'overhead'. Grad/postdoc salaries + benefits are typically the major component of my grant budgets. Consider an NSF budget that needs to be not much more than $125k/year total or it will be chopped by a program officer to that amount anyway. Approximately half of that goes to the university as 'overhead'. Postdocs make $40-50k, grads make half that, but an amount equal to the grad salary goes to the university. Funds for research activities are already bare-bones. Hence my point that PIs are being insensitive or selfish in not raising salaries. We are limited by what we can reasonably put in a grant budget.

Principle Investigator said...

The other point that hasn't been made is that grad students, at least the lucky ones, aren't paying for their own benefits, social security, etc. When I started my postdoc at a higher salary, I was taking home exactly the same amount after 20% was skimmed off for social security etc (because I was considered an employee and not a student). Then when I started my assistant professorship, there were even more withholdings and benefit premiums, plus now a mortgage so that I don't have to rent an apartment below students who party all night.

Also, I'm still single, and while it's normal to have housemates and split expenses as a grad student, it gets harder to do this as one ages and get busier and crankier. I have kept most of the frugal habits that I established as a grad student, but it's still hard to save as much money as I would like.

Finally, I agree with the commenter who said that the most precarious period is post-degree, pre-tenure. We get reviewed every two years, so I could easily lose my job and be left high and dry with my mortgage, a high degree of specialization, and an incredibly competitive academic job market in my late thirties.

And is it really possible for the average starting salary to be $80,000? I was told to expect $45,000 when I went on the market. There are a lot of smaller colleges who hire us, and they don't pay much.

Joseph said...

That doesn't really explain much. Of "overhead" and automatic salary going straight to the university I'm already aware. What can be done about this, especially from your end? Capitalism and organizations in general rely on pushback. Section A pushes on section B and vice versa in order to work out a happy-ish medium. Particularly with tenure, this gives PIs some degree of power in the balance (compare to postdocs who're there for 2 or 3 years and have even less pull than grad students who pay tuition and (nominally) for whom the university exists).

What can be done about funding agencies? Clearly the power there, as with all sponsorship scenarios lies most directly with the funding agency. How can we as taxpayers and voters shine more light on this?

(and most postdocs don't make 40-50k at least in physics, and that's still at the uppermost less than a two-thirds of my intern salary!)

I think it's becoming clear to me that unionization of graduate students and postdocs is essential. Union-wise, postdocs get even more screwed because they're temporary staff and not immediately essential to university operations, so there'll need to be solidarity with and from the grad students.

Kevin said...

For salary comparisons, check out the salary issue of Academe (I think the next one is coming out in a month or two). I think that many university libraries subscribe (or you can join AAUP to get your own subscription).

You'll find that there is a huge variation in faculty salaries, with religious colleges paying the least and 1st and 2nd tier private research universities paying the most. The ratio is over 2 to 1, if I remember right.

Ms.PhD said...

FSP, I didn't like this post, although I know where it's coming from. Faculty on 9-month salaries are not paid that well compared to med school faculty (who have to pull in their own salaries, but tend to raise more dough) or industry.

Many of the comments here are good; but your response to the question about why PIs don't pay postdocs more is kind of lame.

Yes, there are usually limits on how much you can pay grad students. This is usually set by the university, though, unless your students are paid off of training grants or fellowships.

Having said that, have you ever TRIED asking NSF for an additional outrageous amount, like say $5k more for a postdoc? This is not much to NSF, but it's a lot to a postdoc.

Supposedly the funding agencies will give you these things if you ask. I served on a committee that discussed exploring this as a possible option, and several of the faculty said that it was impossible, would never happen, etc. So we asked them to please do the experiment.

They came back and sheepishly admitted that NSF said yes and they should have asked sooner.

Maybe you should try it before you say it's impossible.

For that matter, why don't you try being a postdoc for 5+ years, before you act like we're whining about something minor.

Most PIs can't relate because when you went through the system, things were quite a bit different.

William said...

Hmm... somehow the challenges of fitting the usual middle-class expenses (aging parents, growing family) into the usual middle-class income sounds great to me. Maybe its because my out-of-work spouse and I recently spent a year living in an expensive urban area on my graduate stipend. The only good thing about being below the poverty line was that the state stepped in to pay our unexpected hospital bills.

Anonymous said...

don't get me wrong--whining is extremely important and i do my fair share of it. however, do people here think faculty deserve higher pay than they get currently?

I don't. I'm no expert on the matter, so forgive me if I have facts mixed up, but seems to me that compared to other "prestigious public service" type jobs like politicians, firemen, and primary/secondary ed. teachers, faculty do just fine.

inBetween said...

What university pays the average starting assistant prof $80k? I want to move. I am a couple of years past tenure working at a top research university in a very expensive urban area and I only make $88k/year. If my husband hadn't bought into the market 25 years ago we'd have a really hard time living here... and the furlough/pay cut didn't help any.

Anonymous said...

"Even mid-career and senior faculty may have serious financial challenges."

ANYONE may have serious financial challenges in their life, no matter what career stage, or for that matter what career, they find themselves in (a bell curve of financial stability, perhaps?). I am a lucky graduate student who makes well above average for my department -- and when last year I found myself making more than either parent (hooray recession), I had to help pay for some of my younger sibling's college expenses. It's silly to try to one-up each other with anecdotes and create animosity between the faculty and non-faculty on here, especially in such a rough time for everyone.

Anonymous said...

I think most laypeople are unaware of how little postdoctoral researchers are compensated.

I mean, the parking garage attendant at my university makes 2x what the average postdoc makes.

Anonymous said...

Like Kat, I am baffled by some graduate student peers who literally live paycheck to paycheck when I easily put away 25% of mine, and my wife nearly all.

Recently one of my students with a generous scholarship didn't have enough money to pay for a $350 travel expenditure which would then be reimbursed a few days later. I said nothing, but it did left me wondering about her financial management skills.

As a grad student I was always shocked about how little money my fellow students had salted away, even the ones who were seemingly more frugal than I was!

Anonymous said...

Oh the vitriol this post incited.

Why is this phenomenon so difficult to understand? When you're young, healthy, and without dependents, it's possible to live off a pittance. Not always, of course, but often enough. And some people even save money - I did, and evidently some posters do as well. Fast-forward to a faculty line - yeah, I'm making twice as much as I made as a postdoc, but I'm now supporting four people on it, not just one. And dependents become increasingly expensive. In ten years I'll be supporting my parents (hopefully not my spouse's). And in 15 years, I'll be worrying about college tuition. And I'm healthy. For now. Of course it was my decision to have kids blah blah blah, but I hope we don't digress into *that* discussion.

I think the most depressing moment of my faculty career was when I realized a postdoc in the department was making more than me. And these salary quotes crack me up. In biology, they are inflated by the much more generous salaries in med schools. Fancy cars and lattes, indeed. Give me a break.

Anonymous said...

Ms.PhD, the average award in my field from NSF is 350K for three years. My program officers have no problem whatsoever if I offer my postdocs a more generous salary, but they're not going to give me extra money for it. That money comes out of general research funds for the project. And no one benefits in the long run if the we can't get the work done.

Female Science Professor said...

That's right. Budgets involve a delicate balance between paying researchers as much as possible vs. having enough funds to get the research done. I spend a lot of time trying to find the right balance in my budgets. In some cases I have to decide whether to pay someone a higher salary for a shorter amount of time (reasonable if they will move on to another job) vs. a lower salary for longer (more security for those who need that).

I wonder which topic is more controversial: sexism or money?

Doctor Pion said...

The median household income in the US is a bit over $50,000 but that tends to reflect more than one earner per household. However, the mode is around $20,000 so there is a slippery slope down below where faculty live. Nonetheless, what makes most people uncomfortable is when credit card debt exceeds income and you can get to that point no matter how much you earn -- but particularly if you were relying on a second income that is no longer there.

A very smart person told me that the ideal situation is to live on one income and invest the other. This leads to a happier retirement and insulates you from the loss, even temporary, of one of those incomes. (Your costs are lower and you can tap into your emergency savings.) This can be done, but you might not have the house or car you think you are supposed to have. Then again, you will actually have the house. Even better, you might have paid off the mortgage.

Income numbers quoted here are interesting. The AIP has actual statistics that show a starting Asst Prof salary in the 40 to 50 k$ range circa 5 years ago. There might be some institutions where Asst Profs start at 80 k$ in physics, but that is not what you find where the other half of the jobs are. I know for a fact that there are BS-granting colleges that pay less than a CC does.

BTW, I actually saved money when I was a graduate student. It helps to have shared lodgings and none of the expenses that came with being married and becoming a post doc. I also know someone who took a massive (almost 30%) pay cut when going from a top post doc to a very good Asst Prof position. That situation was also evident in the current AIP data.

Anonymous said...

Sexism or money? Don't get me started. We both know they're related.

Fia said...

Umm. No wonder this post created so much buzz.
As a postdoc with two kids and a single income (of said postdoc position), I feel a offended.
Of course there is the odd faculty member who can't handle their money well.

But even with good money handling skills, I actually often find myself in a situation as described above: go to a conference (and shell out $$$ before getting reimbursed +3month later) or feed my kids *now*.

There are *basic necessities*, like food, health insurance and daycare, and there are *extras*, like college funds for offspring, retirement savings, ect. I don't say they are not important, but they are not immediately important.

There is a significant qualitative difference between feeling insecure because of not knowing whether one will be able to pay this month basic necessities vs this month savings.

physics grad student said...

I don't really understand this post. Barring a crisis, no graduate student is going to sympathize with the financial problems of faculty members. Most of us have graduate student friends that are supporting young children on their stipends. Obviously anyone can have financial problems and could use a bit more money, but really, tenured professors are very well off compared to most of the rest of us when it comes to financial security. The combination of decent salary and total job security is the envy of many Americans. Back of the complaint line for you guys.

Anonymous said...

"I wonder which topic is more controversial: sexism or money?"

It's just a bit painful to hear someone who likely makes $100k+ complain about their salary. That is WAY more than avg Joe and with a WAY cooler job (again, on avg).

so I'd much rather hear about sexism cuz that's where people in academia (at least in the fields I have experience with) really are getting screwed.

Cloud said...

FSP- oh, money is definitely more controversial.

I don't have a dog in this race (but maybe I do have an extremely large cat?) since I work in industry, not academia.

I will say that when I was in grad school I was shocked to discover that the stipend I thought was so meager was actually just at the poverty level for a family of four. I was a family of one at that time, and I was still largely living paycheck to paycheck (yes, I had a budget and yes I tried to save, but I went to grad school in a very expensive place). My saving grace was the security of my position (it is hard to get fired as a grad student) and my excellent health care.

Now, we're a family of four, with two day care bills and a mortgage. But my husband and I pay more in taxes than I used to make as a stipend. My job is quite insecure, due to the industry I chose to work in. But my paycheck is big enough to allow me to plan for the inevitable lay offs, and I definitely do make all of my financial decisions with that plan in mind. I can't complain, so I won't. I knew the rules when I decided to play this game.

On the more general topic of how you can feel financially insecure on what should be an adequate salary, I think it usually comes down to risk. Once you get above subsistence level income, insecurity usually arises because you chose to take on financial risk (e.g., buy a house whose mortgage requires two incomes, pay for a new car rather than adding to your rainy day fund). You're gambling that everything will work out. It usually does, but the knowledge that it might not makes you feel insecure.

Foreign and Female in Science said...

I am sadly disappointed with this post FSP. For every one of those situations you listed ask yourself this: would you rather be a grad student, postdoc or faculty in that situation? While a debate can be waged on grad student vs postdoc, I bet you most people would want to be faculty.

Simply put, everything else being equal faculty should always be the most financially secure of the three. Here are some, not all reasons:

1. You have a job. With this come benefits and salary. Benefits include retirement funds and in that, if not everything else, are better. Your salary is higher.
2. If you loose your job, you have a better chance to take a 1 year visiting or lecturing position to patch things up. You have more research and teaching experience to give you a leg up on the next job search. And you know you could go on unemployment. And you will have way more warning you will be not needed. Faculty members I know have on occasion told their students in December they have no funding for them come January.
3. You cannot exclude parents or siblings having health issues even for younger graduate students. It may be less likely statistically but it isn't zero, and it is growing since each generation tends to postpone when they have children a bit.
4. Divorce rates among graduate students is incredibly high (I recall figures about 80% but couldn't quickly find the citation). That number even if i am off by a factor of 2 is reasonable seeing how time away spent with spouse = time not spent on work, and added on that is the financial strains and the fact that most such marriages are very new. It at least agrees with my anecdotevidence.
5. Faculty expenses may tend to be high but that is to a large extent a choice. They made a choice of when and how many children to have, where and what house to buy (instead of rent). Grad students, and don't get me started on postdocs, should have the right to start families too. Grad students and postdoc in their late 20s should be able to consider having children.

You say "I personally feel financially moderately secure in my two-professor family, although we are somewhat intimidated by the future costs of our daughter's college education and the slow rate at which we are accumulating retirement savings."

As a postdoc I say "I personally feel financially incredibly insecure in my postdoc+law student family, especially considering the non existing child we can afford and the slow rate at which we are not accumulating savings instead paying off my minimal student debt and rapidly accumulating his student debts."

Furthermore, to ease your trouble: one of those lovely benefits you as a person with a job at your university almost certainly has, and your graduate students would not, is that your daughter can get a college education at your university at a highly reduced rate.

Woe to the postdocs, who chose to have a child in grad school, who are wondering how to pay for that child's education the time for which is rapidly approaching.

a physicist said...

The one issue I wonder about is the tension as a PI between paying your own summer salary from a grant, or paying a higher salary to the people who work for you. Alternatively, the tension between paying yourself summer salary, and hiring another grad student. (3 months summer salary = roughly one grad student, for typical assistant profs at my school, given the costs my school assesses for grad students.)

I will say that when I was trying to get tenure, I certainly erred on the side of hiring that extra student to get more results. I needed to get results and tenure more than I needed the money at that time.

Which also relates to the issue of paying the people in your lab group more (assuming it's under your control, which it is for postdocs) or hiring that extra person. The pressure to get tenure biases this toward hiring the extra person.

Anonymous said...

"A child in daycare in a single-income family makes for a precarious economic situation."

what? i'm having a hard time envisioning a situation where this would be necessary for more than the short term.

i'm not really going to bitch any more than that, other than to add that i do get sick of hearing "you're young and single so you don't need any money and/or free time because you don't have a family to take care of" ... i'm not saying i need to live extravagantly by any means, but je-sus, how am i supposed to ever MEET someone if i'm supposed to spend seven nights a week at home working and eating ramen?!

Foreign and Female in Science said...

On budgets...
I am pretty sure that some faculty have tough choices to balance when making budgets. Some is not all.

Here is my anecdotevidence:

I made the budgets many (>5) times for the grant proposals my adviser was involved with. We used a lovely Excel spreadsheet which calculated a projected annual cost of living increase. I know this was uploaded as part of the budget and how it was rationalized since I uploaded them and verified them before the proposals were pushed out(and still have access to them online). Some of these did get funded. None of the students named in the proposal or those funded from it got these salaries.

There was also a lovely column for faculty salary. My adviser always asked for 1 month salary, which equaled my yearly salary. To his credit he was ashamed the first time he gave me the number apologizing and mentioning that he pays more for childcare of 1 of his children.

Now considering that this grant writing spanned 5-6 years I got to see how his salary got yearly increases and mine stayed the same. Even if the budget said it did.

The budget is a lie.

If the university budget said we should be paid X and Funding Agency fully approved the budget, whose fault is it we didn't get paid X?

And I won't even go into what other things faculty acquired for themselves for so called lab supplies.

Some budgets are well crafted, and the PI behind them are honest and thoughtful. Some budgets are not.

Female Science Professor said...

Sigh. My intention was not to say or imply that faculty are in worse economic situations than grad students or postdocs, merely to state that you can't generalize. Some of my younger colleagues are struggling financially, and they are not living extravagant lives of luxury. Furloughs or other forms of pay cuts will hit them hard, and I think this should be appreciated, even by students.

Anonymous said...

I'm six years past tenure, and my base salary is $50,000 a year. I live comfortably on it (in a two-career family), so I'm not going to complain. (Especially because I've got a job, and a lot of people don't.) But I'm seeing numbers quoted (salaries more than $100,000?) that I'm unlikely to ever be paid.

If post-docs are paid in the $40,000 to $50,000 range, their salaries overlap with faculty salaries.

Anonymous said...

I think the high salaries refer to fields such as CS, maybe engineering in general.

Perhaps "pure" science such as chemistry and physics have lower salaries.

I'd be surprised if Bio profs have low salaries in general, though, given the amount of funding they can bring into a university currently.

Anonymous said...

For every prof that is struggling financially, there's another prof who takes a summer salary even though his "9 month" salary is more than enough ...

Even though a prof may not be able to control a postdoc salary, forgoing summer salary, for example, would allow him/her to employ more people. And there are some cases where people are making well over 100K and still take a summer salary at 10K per month. (I'm talking about Computer Science, for example.)

Hope said...

It seems to me that profs—even asst. profs—make enough so that with prudent choices, financial security is within their reach. As others have pointed out, if you buy more house than you really need or a fancier car to get you from here to there, then you might experience some anxiety about making ends meet. But that is because you chose to live beyond your means, not because you make too little.

Grad students and postdocs, on the other hand, often have to choose among necessities (e.g., paying the rent vs. going to the doctor). The majority of grad students/postdocs aren’t twenty-something singles with no commitments anymore. So unlike TT faculty, who at least have a shot at financial security because of their higher salaries, it’s not even an option for these people. About that I think we *can* generalize.

One more thing: I can go to the Chronicle website and see the AAUP breakdown of faculty salaries (by type of institution, geographic area, year, etc.) for the past 10 years. No one who chooses to go into academia should be surprised by what they’re making. If you need more to feel financially secure and that is more important to you than the perks that come with an academic position, do something else.

Doctor Pion said...

Link to which shows starting PhD salaries from AIP data. A recent Anonymous might notice the two different ranges for post doc salaries, which reflect the anecdote I mentioned earlier.

Link to showing AIP salary survey results, but be sure to look at the median age of the population before interpreting the ranges given. They also don't define the range in this summary, but I think it is the 25-75 percentile group for that median age.

Hey, we were all grad students and post docs once. We know those battles, not to mention the job market. (There is a reason I blogged a lot about the physics part of the market in my "jobs" category.) But we also know people whose out of pocket expenses for medical care or care of a disabled family member are bankrupting them despite a "secure" salary, not to mention ones who made epically bad life decisions, some of which would overlap well with a sexism thread.

Anonymous said...

I know several professors who charge their cell phones to their NSF grants, because they use them for "research".

Also, someone who is a prof in a R1 dept bought an ~ $1000 digital camera for "research", to take pictures of white boards with equations written on them (instead of just taking notes).

Of course, I'm sure these things are never used just for personal reasons ...

Anonymous said...

FSP doesn't tell us how much she makes.

We don't even know what field she's in.

It's highly likely that both she and her husband get more than 100K, so yes, this post is quite inappropriate .

Anonymous said...

The post says I personally feel financially moderately secure in my two-professor family. This post is clearly not a complaint about the FSP family salary. What is inappropriate about pointing out that some faculty struggle financially?

Anonymous said...

I couldn't really believe this post either. Of course, financial disaster can befall anyone, but the differences between the plights of faculty and postdocs/grad students are enormous.

I'm a first-year postdoc in an expensive city. I saved 25-35% as a graduate student in a cheap town. I'm pretty frugal, but I'm wondering if I have the stamina for years more penny-pinching in the face of immense job insecurity. Money saves time and promotes good health and good ideas. My "luxury" is not having to live with a roommate anymore--I lost tons of sleep as a grad student--and the only reason I can do this is that my parents are subsidizing my rent $400/month. I'm almost 30, so this is ridiculous. (My parents, who together have earned >$500,000/y for over a decade, might go bankrupt in the next year or two, so I might find a roommate again. And no, they wouldn't accept offers of financial support from me.)

Reproduction seems like a far-off luxury. I'm amazed by the students and postdocs who have the energy, determination, and resources to raise kids on their salary.

The point made earlier about trust fund grad students and postdocs is spot-on. It's true for my local network. The low salaries and career instability select for people who are supported by their parents/spouse or who are really prepared to push in all their chips for science (i.e., to the exclusion of families and saving for retirement).

The most ridiculous part is that not six months ago, I turned down a postdoc position that offered 2x what I'm currently making (and included retirement benefits) because I thought it wasn't a good enough fit intellectually, and that I would learn more here. How romantic. My perspective couldn't be changing faster. I want to say it's too bad that science demands such sacrifices in comfort, but maybe this is an appropriate way of weeding out people (like me) who love the questions and the work but cannot subsist so well on them alone.

Joseph said...

Regarding the APS data:
the salary info is summarized at

"typical" salaries:
9-10 mo: 80-100k
11-12 mo: 103-174k

Assoc. Prof:
9-10 mo: 64-85k
11-12 mo: 73-102k

Assist. Prof:
9-10 mo: 54-69k
11-12 mo: 61-76k

Research Faculty (11-12mo):
Postcoc within 2yrs of PhD: 36-43k
Postdoc 2-3yrs since PhD: 38-45k
Other Research Faculty: 53-80k

Anonymous said...

I'd like to point out that in many fields, faculty are expected to generate their own salaries for much more than 3 months a year. At some institituions, not bringing in enough grants means not getting paid, in others it just means risking promotion. Even tenure doesn't protect you in many of these programs. So, these faculty are not secure and are always at risk financially, despite how high their salaries may look on paper.

Anonymous said...

I have colleagues in that situation, consistent with the main point of the post, that you can't categorically say that all faculty are financially secure. The post didn't go beyond that, even if some are seeing in it other things that were never said.

Hope said...

@Anons 8:16 and 8:22 – Excuse me, but “financially secure” doesn’t mean free from any uncertainty. If you know that your salary can vary depending on how much grant money you bring in, you can plan for that – in the same way that those outside of academia without tenure plan for the fact that they can be laid off at any moment. Otherwise, no one without a guaranteed job/salary for life would be able to call themselves financially secure, which would make the term pretty meaningless.

physics grad student said...

"What is inappropriate about pointing out that some faculty struggle financially?"

I didn't find the content of the post inappropriate per se, but the way it was presented in terms of comparing the financial resources faculty to grad students was a bit strange. I think that the gist of many of the comments is that these faculty members aren't going to garner much sympathy from graduate students or postdocs, many of whom face (or know others that face) similar burdens (childcare etc...) but don't have the same financial resources that faculty members do.

Female Science Professor said...

Grad students don't have to sympathize, but they should be informed. See the second Anonymous comment on this post.

Anonymous said...

@ Foreign and Female in Science,

Just checking, are you sure what you thought of as "salary" category did not include benefits and other things that the Prof. was responsible for paying that you don't see? There are a lot of what might seem to be "hidden" costs of employees, including postdocs and grad students.

Most University systems have a grants office (and perhaps even more oversight) that go into managing the money received from the grants. The Prof. cannot easily make these kinds of money manipulations that you least, that's my understanding...maybe I've been doing things all wrong! (Or maybe my University has more rules & regs than most?)

Anonymous said...

this post is an overgeneralization. It's true that faculty make significantly more money than mere grad students. But most grad students don't have as many financial obligations either due to their younger age and earlier stage in life - no mortgage, no kids to feed. the problem is much more pronounced for postdocs because they are usually older than grad students - often they are the same age as a lot of faculty, yet their pay and job security is closer to that of grad students.

Anonymous said...

I find so many of FSP's posts to be insightful, helpful/instructive in some arena, or at least amusing--but not this one. As a graduate student for whose terms of study were not guaranteed funding, I have zero sympathy for anyone with a tenured position.

It may be instructive, while thinking about relative financial security/insecurity, to read this blog

unknown said...

Disaster hits at all stages in an academic career: phd, postdoc or faculty. As a postdoc I am making a little bit more than I made as a PhD student. But this past year, we've had pretty much close to a health and thus financial disaster as you can get - I got a brain tumor and had to have surgery.

Precarious is exactly how I would describe our situation. Despite our efforts to save, our money gets eaten up by the medical bills. Unlike tenured faculty, I don't have the security of knowing that next year I have a job to pay for those bills.

However, I'm also not naive and realize that the social and political context can aggravate an already tenuous situation. In Canada, that money would have remained in our savings and we would have some contingency in the event that we had to move half way across the country. In the USA, the social net is non-existent and thus it makes everyone's life more difficult.

Anonymous said...

It's very interesting to see how this post ignited the comments and hints of rancor. I'm a TT asst prof just 3 years into the job, so I still easily remember my postdoc years. At my postdoc school and at my current school, postdoc salaries include paid health benefits and retirement accounts. My current school mandates a minimum postdoc salary (about $6k above the NIH level) and automatic annual cost-of-living increases. Our postdocs also qualify for reimbursement of moving expenses and deferral of all student loans. Our administrative staff also closely monitors that we actually spend our grant budgets as written in the proposal. This means we are not able to take budgeted summer salary and reallocate to another category, just as we are not allowed to lower our grad student or postdoc stipends below what was budgeted. Clearly my experiences as described above may be very different from the experiences of others (and are very different, given what I've read in the comments by other readers). Overall, I thought that this was the point of FSP's original post, which I really enjoyed: each individual's experience is an individual case; therefore, one cannot make a blanket statement that all (or even most) faculty are "financially secure". Of course, all academic scientists (students, postdocs, and faculty) benefit from our chosen career path being valued and financially compensated appropriately by society. This is an excellent forum to exchange information about the various rules and norms across fields and across different types of institutions. If we learn that postdoc moving expenses are paid for at one school, that empowers a future postdoc to negotiate for this in his/her case and encourages other faculty to offer this to their postdocs. Similarly, it was important for me to learn that some schools offer daycare/eldercare assistance to pre-tenure faculty, an important issue for me now. I consider myself relatively financially secure now, much more secure than during my grad student days, but less secure than my postdoc days for my particular personal and family situation. It's been very helpful for me to read everyone's comments. For example, after reading comments from students and postdocs about troubles attending conferences due to pre-payment of expenses, I plan to ask my group members about this tomorrow. I'm embarrassed to say I'm not certain if they have to do this or not at my school. Anyways, in my opinion - sharing of all opinions is very powerful - that's why we all like to read FSP's blog!

Anonymous said...

As a financially struggling untenured faculty member, a lot of these comments really bother me. It took me a while to figure it out. They're from graduate students who have it all figured out about these foolish spendthrift faculty.

Hello? We have all been graduate students. We know what it's like to be a grad student. We have an experience that you do not have. Why is it so hard to consider that faculty life (esp. untenured faculty life) may differ from your preconceptions derived from one overpaid advisor?

Now what has the maid done with my latte?

Anonymous said...

divide these numbers by 1/2: "the average starting salary of assistant science prof in the US is at least $80,000. With summer salary, it is over 100K"

Anonymous said...

I am a prof who will hopefully get tenure next year. I took a pay cut to move from post-doc to prof, but relative to the cost of living in the two relevant cities, it was an increase. You could also say that the $42k I was offered for the prof position was more than the $0 I would have gotten from having nothing after the post-doc ran out.

But my question is this: what is the big deal about whether a salary is "9 month" or "12 month"? I get paid a set amount for a year. Why does it matter if that money is split into 9 pieces or 12 pieces? It's not like it's any less money in 9 pieces than it is in 12 pieces. It seems like the 12 month is more convenient, because you don't have to set aside money every month for nine to have cash for the other three, but that's not hard. Or am I missing something important? I don't get paid by the hour, or the month, so I don't see why the 9 month vs. 12 month thing is relevant. But so many people seem to make a big deal about it, I feel like I must be missing something obvious. I would be very grateful if someone could explain this to me.



SamanthaScientist said...

Thank you, FSP, for pointing out that professors' salaries are not so high that professors can just breeze through all the financial obligations that present themselves. Sure, professors make lots more than grad students and postdocs. And lots more than a lot of people. But often they don't make so much money that it's easy-peasy to buy a house, raise kids, save for college and retirement, deal with aging relatives, and deal with medical issues and other emergencies. It's good to know what the future holds for people who look ahead and think that professor-salary will make life financially easy.

But here's the thing (which you semi-acknowldege, when you mention that graduate students with families may be in a similar or more difficult situation). Graduate students and post-docs are not kids anymore. We're adults in our 20's and 30's, of peak reproductive age, who are supposed to be saving for retirement or emergencies, and with parents who are also getting old. We're supposed to be grown-ups now, and we should be facing real, grown-up financial responsibilities. But, many of us postpone it, waiting for those dreamy professor salaries. So, thank you for pointing out that those professor salaries are still not-so-dreamy, but I can guarantee that if a professor and a grad student are facing the same financial responsibilities, the grad student is definitely in more dire straights.

Kevin said...

"what is the big deal about whether a salary is "9 month" or "12 month"?"

The difference is whether you can pay another 2.5 (sometimes 3) months out of grants. A 9-month salary allows higher salaries for people who get grants, providing (sometimes strong) incentive to write grant proposals rather than doing productive work.

Gingerale said...

Thanks FSP. You've raised another valuable issue. I notice you hit a nerve even with mild assertions.

I pretty much agree with Anonymous from 3/01/2010 02:21:00 PM.

I see it like this. When I was a grad student or a postdoc I invested in my education. That meant less money. Of course that was less financially secure.

As a faculty member we're supposed to be paid enough to pay off that prior investment. Even if we're younger than some grad students, younger than some postdocs, we're older than WE were as grad students and postdocs. As our lives march forward we better be making good on the days we invested in our education.

But many (I did not say all) faculty see only modest returns on our investments even though we get awarded tenure etc. Higher ed is in decline nationwide. It is a big problem.

I better not get started about the faculty colleagues whose wives or husbands or parents support them financially through their productive summers. Realities some of us will never know. It isn't that I wish those colleagues ill. But I want the same break. Sometimes it seems like faculty have to be born into money, or marry into money, to subsidize our professional work.

Anonymous said...

My guess is that professors feel themselves financially secure because they compare what they make to what comparable professionals make and feel underpaid. As others have pointed out, our salaries are well above the median and the value of tenure is not properly taken into account.

Hope said...

@Anon 3/02/2010 04:28:00 AM – Hello? We have all been graduate students. We know what it's like to be a grad student.

Hello? Your comment makes no sense. If you accept FSP’s premise that you can’t generalize about the financial security of faculty (and you seem to), then it’s not possible for you to generalize your experience as a grad student, and say that you know what it’s like to be a grad student these days. See where that “no generalizations” gets us? It cuts both ways.

As for my opinion of what faculty make, I look at the data, freely available online in lots of places. I assume prospective faculty do the same.

Cloud said...

@Anon 4:33:
""A child in daycare in a single-income family makes for a precarious economic situation."

what? i'm having a hard time envisioning a situation where this would be necessary for more than the short term."

It is called single parenthood.

Anonymous said...

Sigh. One problem with grad school that screwed me over was this crazy thing called summer, where I had no stipend, no guarantee of work, and qualifying exams the first year. (Like I was going to go live at home in the summer or something? Or do an unpaid internship, whee!) This created credit card debt that has only escalated. A sad state of affairs. On the other hand, given that my parents are absolutely terrible with money, it could have been a lot worse.

Anonymous said...

Reading these posts makes me want to laugh sadly. This is the reason why everyone in academia makes jack shit. Academics...with their heads up their asses...can't seem to see a world outside academia.

Here's a full professor wondering if she is financially secure compared to asst professors, postdocs bitching about professors "high wages", deliberating over grad student stipends and postdoc salaries.

Ha Ha Ha.

Don't you see? EVERYONE in academia is poorly paid. Grad students earn nothing of what promising young scholars should be, postdocs are made to work (nearly) free on hopes of making it out someday, asst profs are worked to death and tenured folks are told to be forever grateful because they are sure to earn something at the end of the month.

And yet...academics are so petty and lacking in perspective that they don't see that the system has turned them into cheap indentured slaves. We're in this together... from 1st yr grad student to Full professor.

Female Science Professor said...

EVERYONE? The fact that I am not poorly paid sort of argues against this point.

And postdocs are not "made to work (nearly) for free", at least not in my field, unless you consider ~$40-60k "nearly free".

Female Science Professor said...

Also see this: