Looking for love in all the wrong places...

Not so long ago, one of my relatives sent me a gift card and a note wishing me well. This was especially kind of them as I've not been in touch the way I should be, and I certainly haven't managed a visit. Tucked in the card was a note asking about my well-being and about that most typical of my family's concerns - am I seeing anyone.

I've been struggling for months with how to answer the question, and it may seem strange to address it here rather than across the dinner table or by the tried-and-true "reach out and touch someone." But bear with me. Let's ignore for a moment my own dating idiosyncrasies (and there are a lot of them, to be sure). Why talk about it in light of my career as a fledgling academic? The reason is relatively simple economics. What my relative doesn't understand - in fact, what many friends and family don't quite get (and what is never addressed directly) - is that I simply can't afford what they think I can. Not only am I not visiting (and rarely calling), but dating itself becomes a dicey proposition at best because I live on an income that's decidedly smaller than you'd expect.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education points out that while for the first year in quite awhile faculty salaries have grown at a pace that is higher than inflation and cost of living, it's only one year out of many. And, it notes, there are pretty wide disparities by discipline, rank, and type of institution.

Let me take a moment for anyone unsure of how life in academia works to help explain the notion of rank and type of institution.

In (American) academia, there are a variety of ranks which are largely invisible to anyone not actually involved in some way with this career ladder:
  • adjunct/instructor
  • assistant professor
  • associate professor
  • full professor
Generally speaking, as you move from the top of that list to the bottom, job security and pay increase. One hitch in this is whether a position is a tenure-line or not. Typically adjunct/instructor positions are not tenurable. In some cases, this is strictly a financial decision on the part of the institution; in other cases, such positions are offered because the person in question hasn't completed a step in the process (and academia does love its process).

For example, it isn't uncommon for someone who is still completing their Ph.D to be hired as an instructor with the understanding that once the process is complete, they will jump to the next rung. The lack of the Ph.D is often a distinguishing feature for the adjunct/instructor position.
Moreover, quite often adjuncts and instructors carry a different workload - sometimes less, sometimes more - as a cost saving measure. At some institutions, for example, adjuncts are only allowed to teach a limited number of courses because exceeding that number would require the institution to offer health insurance to them. It is worth noting that at many institutions, a large percentage (often a clear majority) of undergraduate coursework - particularly large courses and introductory courses - is taught by people employed at this level.

It should also be noted, though I'll keep this part brief, that it isn't uncommon for institutions to hire someone at any of the above ranks as a fixed-term faculty member, which denies them the chance for tenure but tends to pay better than the typical one-year or term-by-term adjunct or instructor position.

With that in mind, one of the perks of academia that seems well-ensconced in the public consciousness is the notion of tenure. Typically this is understood to be a perpetual sort of job security that once achieved makes the holder invulnerable to being fired, etc. This isn't actually true, and it also ignores the process both pre- and post-tenure. In the typical case, tenure requires a six or seven year process (it varies slightly by institution and by the individual worker).

In order to get tenure, the typical faculty member must:
  • produce enough research (measured in books and articles published, conferences attended, etc.),
  • taught to acceptable standards (a particular number of courses with acceptable student and peer evaluation)
  • served at an acceptable level for the university in other capacities (serving on committees, helping get the university's name out into the academic and civic communities, etc.)
In practice, this is the first step to moving up the career ladder. Once tenure is achieved, some small reward is given (at my university, it is a one time pay raise of about $1,000 - I'll let anyone reading this offer other figures), then you begin the process again to move from assistant to associate, and then from associate to full professor with fairly similar pay increases.

Pay also changes by the type of institution - whether the school is large or small, whether is has endowments from the State or outside business, whether it produces only undergraduates or graduates (and if so, what kind - schools that grand doctorates tend to pay higher wages). For more information, see the Carnegie Foundation's explanation of its classification system and uses.

In my case, I'm at a small, non-doctoral granting institution with a fairly small outside resources (State assistance is minimal as it is private, business support is limited because we're in an economically depressed area and the university hasn't done a good job at tapping alumni or seeking outside connections). I'm in the liberal arts side (which tends to pay less than the hard sciences and business sectors, though it is consistently the area that most employers indicate helps future employment the most). And my university doesn't pay well (this will come up again in this blog, I'm sure). So my pay is going to be smaller than it might otherwise be.

Let's put it in perspective: most people in this career path are going to have roughly ten years of higher education in order to get such a position. Think about that a moment and jot down or make a mental note of what you think that career must pay, considering the cost of higher education, the limited number of degrees, the importance consistently placed on education by employers, government policy, etc. Got your number?

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the average starting salary for someone with that education is roughly $55,000 a year at the typical Master's granting liberal arts school.

And that, my friends, is why I'm so rarely dating or visiting.

Comments

2 Responses to “Looking for love in all the wrong places...”
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amelie said...

Dating doesn't have to be costly.

August 29, 2007 at 6:28 PM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

You're right. It doesn't have to be. Neither does education. But both often are.

In any case, my point is less about how relatively unaffordable dating is on my salary with my debt load than to suggest that the average professor is in much worse financial shape than all their accumulated and hard-earned cultural capital would suggest.

August 29, 2007 at 9:51 PM