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I have recently joined a US university on a 9-month tenure-track appointment. As I do not have any grant funding yet, my summer will be unpaid, so I pursued (and managed to get) a visiting researcher position at an industry lab over the summer months.

However, I am only now realizing that certain things will be expected from me over the summer even when I am not officially an employee.

  • In particular, I have recently hired a PhD student for my lab, and it would be difficult to provide sensible supervision without being physically present in the lab on a weekly basis. (And it wouldn't be very professional of me to simply tell the student that they're on their own for the next 3 months starting May...)
  • In addition, we are also being assigned as "academic advisors" of around 10 undergraduate students, which appears to be a year-round duty, i.e., they may need to get in touch with me for signing their course forms during summer when I'm not physically around.

How do other faculty deal with such duties over the summer, assuming they are on a 9 month contract?

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    My (new) advisor spent the first summer at a national lab, but we had been working together during the school year so things were pretty ok. No guidance for a brand new student is tougher. Do you actually have a lab?
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jan 1 at 16:56
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    @Buffy: Neither of your statements is true for a typical tenure-track position. Faculty are explicitly hired for 9 month appointments (which is what makes grant-based summer salary and summer visiting positions possible), and while it’s possible to have your 9-month salary paid out over 12 months, every institution I’ve been in has that as an option you need to request.
    – RLH
    Commented Jan 1 at 17:12
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    @Buffy, I never said that you’re not an employee of the university over the summer. Contractually, you are an employee year round, but are only paid for the 9-month academic year, and have a zero-hours contract during the summer months. You can’t have a grant pay you for time that you are otherwise employed, so taking on summer salary from a grant is dependent on you having those “empty months” in your main contract.
    – RLH
    Commented Jan 1 at 18:35
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    @RLH: Legally, I am not an employee between May and August. I know this for a fact, because we are on contracts that are extended on a per-year basis (yes even for tenure-track) and these contracts have an explicit duration from August to May.
    – CCAcademic
    Commented Jan 1 at 19:28
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    I think the undergraduate advising can be done remotely; you can meet on zoom and sign things electronically Commented Jan 1 at 19:36

4 Answers 4

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This is certainly an awkward part of the way universities employ faculty. You are right that you are paid for only 9 months of work per year (regardless of how specifically the contract is structured and/or how your salary is actually paid out over the year), and in most institutions, everyone is acutely aware that faculty are not expected to do work for the university during the remaining 3 months. So there are no faculty or committee meetings, and no other expectations, though there is often a certain low level of activity that consists of just moving things already in the pipeline along.

The one exception, universally agreed to be problematic, is that students need to be advised during this time. For your undergraduate advisees, this is likely not much of a problem -- half an hour here or there, easily done via Zoom -- but for graduate students, you have to expect 1-2 hours per week. It is clear to everyone that that is ethically difficult: The university doesn't pay you, but the student needs you regardless, and so everyone I know makes sure that their students are advised. This can of course happen remotely via Zoom too (that's all we had during the pandemic, and it worked reasonably well), but it is true that strictly speaking, it is unpaid labor.

I don't know that @Buffy's answer that you definitely won't get tenure if you don't do it is true in this generality. I know of one faculty member who just switched off their email during the summer, saying that since they're not paid they won't work for the university. You'd probably get some sympathy from your colleagues for taking a stance, but your colleagues (and your students!) would likely consider it an ethically hard to defend choice given that you've chosen a line of work in which caring for students is an integral part of the job.

So my recommendation would be to make sure you have time for at least rudimentary support of your graduate students. You don't have to be in the same place for that, and they'll understand that you can only offer a certain amount of time. I suspect that your summer employer will also understand if you had to take an hour or two every week to do university stuff -- the constraints on university faculty are well understood, and they hired you nonetheless.

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  • To add to your comment about @Buffy's answer. I would say they are speaking a harsh but realistic truth. If you don't do a great job as a supervisor and a colleague (ie by not being around) then that provides a counter argument to awarding you tenure. This is especially true if you don't have significant funding, which in this case is the reason for not being around. So you go up for tenure with low funding, and poor supervision. Doesn't look great. Nobody will bat an eyelid at someone who is well-funded with a productive and established research group getting an external research stint.
    – R1NaNo
    Commented Jan 2 at 19:15
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    @R1NaNo Granting tenure is a decision that is based on a holistic view of a case. Of course, if not being around is only one part of the problem, then that gives pause; but if it is the only piece -- say, if someone has grant funding but decides to work from elsewhere during the summer, and is productive in publishing --, then I doubt that just the absenteeism during the summer will sway the scale. Commented Jan 2 at 20:44
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In my university, faculty cannot be mandated to do anything over the summer without them being paid. That said, part of being a member of a faculty is that you, of course, do have to do some work over the summer. This could be a lot of things, but obviously you are doing research, writing grants, writing papers and prepping courses.

For your undergraduates, it sounds like not many and you can arrange with each of them to make sure they register for the right classes for the summer and fall and do whatever they need to do in terms of careeer prep You can do all that literally by the end of the spring semester.

For your doctoral student, again, I would spend time in the spring planning for the summer and then plan to check in on them on a regular basis. Not knowing more about the research it's hard to say how much supervision is needed, but if that research is supposed to help you get tenure it is definitely worth it for you to make sure that the work gets done, maybe even a 15 minute chat before you leave for your summer commitments every day or at the end of every day.

Even in my college I find that there is a lot of variation department to department. But one thing you learn is that a lot of important things happen in the summer.

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Two things. First, you can almost certainly have your salary paid over 12 months so there is no gap in income.

But, more important, if you tell students that they are "on their own" for three months in the summer you are very (very) unlikely to get tenure. Either the other faculty will vote against you or the chair and dean will veto your tenure. Moreover, if you have hired a PhD student you have a personal and professional responsibility to them that you can't ignore and need to find some way to manage. If that requires on-site presence, then it does.

There are ways to handle any summer duties with the help of staff so that it isn't onerous. But when there are decisions to be made that only you can make, you need to be available to make them. That probably doesn't mean on-site, though, but if you ignore emails people will notice and probably complain. And a lab that needs supervision over summer needs supervision. That may mean you or not. You aren't like an auto-worker whose job is done at the end of the shift. If you think that way you aren't likely to succeed in academia. You are paid to do a job, not to put in clock hours.

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    If there are dutioes to be performed then surely that needs to be paid for ....
    – deep64blue
    Commented Jan 2 at 11:40
  • Not sure why this was downvoted. It may not be what people want to hear, but it is true. If I have to vote on tenure for a young faculty who is never around and leaves their students unattended, then they are not meeting their mission of building a research program and training students. Hard to make a strong argument in their favor. Especially since their funding isn't strong, i.e. the reason they couldn't be around in the summer.
    – R1NaNo
    Commented Jan 2 at 15:01
  • @R1NaNo, I'm surprised you are surprised. When I wrote it I was pretty sure it would be downvoted. You may have tagged the reason, though that is usually difficult to say. But "professor" is a profession, not a job.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jan 2 at 15:04
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    @deep64blue, so, as a retired professor, if a student wants me to write them a LoR, how much do I charge them? Is $500 about right in your judgement? The university won't pay me as I'm not employed there anymore.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jan 2 at 15:06
  • @The Doctor - you downvoted an accurate answer, to a geographically specific question because you don't agree with how things are done in that country? Either way, you can choose disbursement over 12 months. Your healthcare does not stop, nor do any employment benefits over those three months. If you get funding, that's just extra money on top of what is already a highly competitive salary. My starting 9 month salary in the US as an assistant prof many years ago was already higher than a full professor in the UK and on par with associate profs in equivalent cost of living areas in Canada.
    – R1NaNo
    Commented Jan 4 at 18:34
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As noted, this is a particularly frustrating part of the US academic system. It's especially difficult when you start out, before the funding comes in. This is why I always advocate for faculty that are starting out to either negotiate for, or budget some summer salary as part of their start-up funds.

Unfortunately, from the perspective of running a successful research group, and going for tenure (I say this from a large public R1 perspective, but that's not the only one and all departments/colleges/universities have their own requirements), it is critical to be there in person, interacting with students, your colleagues, and building research capacity and internal reputation. Being away early on is not the right way to do that. While it will provide personal money, and can be a reasonable line-item on your CV, this is not your current task.

What all faculty should be doing when they start is building a solid foundation in their group. Establish a self-sustaining research program so that you can leave for extended periods with minimal (zoom and email) oversight. That means interacting with graduate students a lot in the early days so they are well-prepared and confident. Bringing in postdocs is also great (but not always feasible depending on funding). Allowing these well-trained students to then take on more responsibility (I'm not talking about pawning off your work to students, I mean allowing them to be more independent and take leadership roles with your group) benefits both you and them.

This takes time.

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