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I am a postdoc in Physics areas and trying to get myself ready for applying for tenure track positions. However, the US academic salary system seems still mysterious to me. In several salary surveys, a reasonably close figure for starting salaries of starting assistant professor positions emerge as $75-80K per year. The point is that, as far as I understand it, the salary is based on the calender year basis. However, the contracts for the assistant professors are usually academic year basis (except that probably in the first couple of years they may get this full salary in their start up package). This means that practically they get $55-60K for 8-9 months. The rest of the salary, called the summer salary, needs to be obtained via applying to the respective funding agencies.

However, funding is obviously not guaranteed every year. So it is obviously out of question that people should be based on the full year salary amounts shown above. Truthfully, their salaries are $55-60k per calender year and if they are able to get some funding, they can get some bonus over the summer.

Now, the first question is: isn't it way too low of a starting salary for a PhD in STEM areas?! Especially, people are normally already in their mid 30s when they get a tenure track position so they usually have a family to support. Sure, there are many people survive with much lower salaries and also the stereotypical argument that you don't enter academia if you want to earn money is also around. But I am talking about skills, experience and qualification. Anyway, it just seems too low salary to me and I would really want to know if there is something crucial I am missing here.

Secondly, what do faculty members do if they don't get the summer salaries, what other options are there for them to compensate the money.

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    A couple of notes: (1) I'm guessing, perhaps wrongly, that 75-80K is in fact the mean starting academic year salary at the kind of places where most faculty get grants. (2) Summer teaching is often an option. (3) If you think 55-60K is low, you should see what typical humanities Ph.D.'s working as adjuncts get. – Anonymous Aug 4 '13 at 23:02
  • Also: At a lot of public universities, including mine at least in the U.S., complete employee-by-employee salary data is public and available on the internet. In all cases I know about, this doesn't include additional external grant funding. – Anonymous Aug 4 '13 at 23:05
  • @Anonymous, Thanks for your reply. (1) So, is it true that in the USA most of the times the faculty members (at least in fairly well research universities with a fair enough research proposal) get the summer salary funding, making it effectively the $75-80k salary being the actual annual salary? My impression was that getting funding becoming harder and harder and so getting funding is not always possible unless the proposal is exceptionally high quality. (2) Does the summer teaching pay equivalent to the 3 months' salary? – John Aug 4 '13 at 23:50
  • (3) Yes, but there are quite a few options outside academia for the STEM PhDs compared to humanities. So the free market will pull the salaries in humanities down. This is unfortunate though as I think that they are also equally important for the society. I am just trying to gauge the situation here. Academic salary-wise, Canada or Australia, in this case may be much better as their universities pay for the whole year roughly at the same rate, whereas in the US there is always a risk that you would be unemployed for 3 months a year! It is better to apply for jobs there for our family's sack. – John Aug 4 '13 at 23:52
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    You can do consulting during summer months if you don't have summer support. – Yury Aug 5 '13 at 4:08
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In the US, salaries for tenure-track positions are usually for the academic year; one might get the summer salary thrown in as part of the startup package for the first year or two. So your academic-year (9-month) salary of $70K would translate to a full-year salary of $70*12/9 = around $93K. The expectation would be that you would use those first two years to establish a research program, write grant proposals, etc., so as to be able to fend for yourself after that.

While it's true that grants are getting harder to get, remember that single-investigator grants are not your only option: you can also participate in larger multi-PI and collaborative proposals. For example, you may be able to put together a collaborative proposal with your dissertation advisor while at the same time striking out on your own -- his greater seniority and track record may make it easier to land such a grant.

Finally, I would counsel against spending a lot of time teaching during the summer --- IMHO you'd be better off spending the time moving your research forward (remember why your initial summer salary was included in your startup package). One reason (not the only one) is that having a solid record of peer-reviewed external funding greatly strengthens your case when you go up for tenure.

  • Thanks for your reply. What discipline pays $70k for 9 months?! To the best of my knowledge, $75-80k for STEM disciplines is what you are looking for (unless you are with an exceptionally high caliber or something) for the full calender year - well, for a first year assistant prof position, that is. This means that the 9 months salary turns out to be 55-60k. Moreover, I have also been told that you can only get at max 2 months salary per summer, out of the rest of the three months. So you are employed for 11 months and unemployed for one month a year! – John Aug 5 '13 at 3:33
  • (1) The $70K number was just a made-up example: my point is that (assuming these are US salaries) your university salary is for the academic year -- not the calendar year -- and that you should add in the summer salary to figure out your total annual salary. (2) The "max 2 months per summer" sounds like a misunderstanding of NSF policies: NSF allows a maximum of 2 months of salary per year from all your NSF grants, but other agencies, e.g., DARPA, NASA, AFOSR, etc., have no such restriction. So, e.g., you could take 2 months from NSF and 1 month from DARPA or some other agency. – debray Aug 5 '13 at 14:09
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    @John No, when they tell you your salary is $70k/year, and you are employed on an academic calendar, what they mean is that you make $70k and only need to work the 9/10 months. – Morgan Rodgers Mar 6 '18 at 3:58
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A couple of points on both the question, and comments by the OP above.

  • As others have indicated, "too low" is sadly not a relevant comment where salaries are concerned. Faculty salaries, like any other salaries, are driven by the marketplace. In a field like CS, where there are many good industrial options, starting salaries might be a tad higher, and in the humanities (as others have indicated), even 55-60k would be considered higher than average. This has nothing to do with the time it takes you to get a tenure-track job, the amount of effort you put in, and so on. It's just about supply and demand.

  • In most universities, your 9 month salary can be spread out over 12. This doesn't change the amount you get, but it helps monthly income management: you get the same amount each month of the year and can calculate your expenses accordingly.

  • On the issue of being unemployed for 1 month a year: this is true with the NSF, but not necessarily with other funding agencies. The NSF will not fund you for 3 summer months, but you might (for example) get 2 months of support from multiple grants with the NSF, and potentially (given your area) some money from NASA, or ONR, or...

  • As Yury mentioned, consulting is another possibility. Again, I wouldn't worry about this right now if you're starting, but theoretical physicists are often hired full-time by financial firms, and so I imagine consulting agreements might be possible with them as well.

  • on the issue of an "honest conversation", I think you're having one right now. Also, why not ask your advisor/postdoc mentor ? I've explained this to my students a few times already, and not just the "average salaries", but in particular how my salary works (my actual salary is a matter of public record in any case).

  • in my area (CS), it is common for new faculty to get summer support baked into their startup package (say 2 months for 2 years). this gives you time to get a research program rolling and get some grant money. Find out what's common in your area, and what junior faculty typically do to get summer support.

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    ONR = Office of Naval Research? – gerrit Aug 5 '13 at 12:53
  • yes, sorry. wrote it quickly. – Suresh Aug 5 '13 at 15:16
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    @John, I'm not sure you saw the point about market driving faculty salaries. In fact, the US competes with Aus./NZ/Canada/Europe for qualified university researchers. If you find better opportunities in those places, take them! In fact, passing up "arbitrage" opportunities like that just contributes to an imperfect market governing US academic salaries. ;) – wsc Aug 18 '13 at 19:55
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    @John, my point is that even if "the government" was able to control faculty salaries in the USA in some coherent, unified way, it cannot control the salaries paid by universities in other countries. If you think any other country's schools conform to a better salary system, get a job there! This will apply a market pressure to raise salaries at US universities (or the other possibility is that we're less hot a commodity than you think). – wsc Aug 22 '13 at 22:54
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    It's news to me that the "government" "controls" salaries of faculty at public institutions. Public institutions have pay ladders and ranges, but there's a fair degree of flexibility in that range. – Suresh Aug 22 '13 at 23:04
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All quoted academic salaries are for the "academic year" i.e. 9 months, unless otherwise specifically stated. Sp your 70k would be for 9 months (perhaps paid over 12 months), but you would be free to do any other work (consulting, paid summer grant research, etc) over summer with no work expectations for the university. So why is it called a 9 month salary - because you do not have to show up over summer -vacation in Tahiti, or work in 711 for extra income, or consult for a million dollars if you like. My first AP job paid 70k, 9 months (paid over 12 months), and I taught 2 extra classes over summer for which I got paid 5K apiece.

  • And my field is marketing, and such starting AP salaries were quite common 9 years ago at even lower comprehensive 4 year univs – Kendra Mar 6 '18 at 1:31
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    Please take a closer look at the other answers: they clearly indicate that the salaries are "academic year" salaries. – aeismail Mar 6 '18 at 1:39
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    I'm skeptical of this advice. It's my impression that, at least at R1s and maybe beyond, research expectations for tenure are such that it would be very hard to satisfy them without spending most summers on research. So if you don't have summer research money, yes, in principle you can teach or vacation or whatever, but in practice, you must spend it doing unpaid research, or you won't get tenure. Is this impression inaccurate? – Nate Eldredge Mar 6 '18 at 2:36

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