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I'm wondering how best to respond to queries from non-academics along the lines of "Why should you be paid during the summer holidays?" This is the sort of question I hear a lot in this economic climate here in Ireland, though I strongly suspect that one encounters similar questions and opinions elsewhere.

There is a subtext that public money is scarce, that people in "real" jobs work themselves to the bone and pay high taxes, while some people get to spend a significant proportion of the year on a sun lounger at the tax payer's expense. I like to think that we academics do earn our crust, but as somebody paid public money I think it's a reasonable question, and one I would like to answer better.

There are a couple of obvious responses.

  1. It's nothing like nine months, especially when you factor in exam marking and processing, dealing with appeals, Autumn repeat exams, lecture preparation for the following year etc.

  2. Did I forget to mention research? That's a full-time job in itself! And there are secondary activities such as applying for grants, judging grant applications, and supervising (post-)graduate students.

However these points don't apply to all academics. For example, I work in an Institute of Technology, possibly akin to a liberal arts college in the US, where there are typically 18 teaching hours per week in term time, but research is a bonus activity, and we have 10 weeks' summer holidays. So the core point seems to be that it's near-universal practice to have a teaching break during the summer months (exactly when this break is, and its length vary of course). But why is this? Are there good reasons that might satisfy somebody who is not already steeped in the academic life?

It's tempting to say that teaching is particularly intense, and this period of estivation is needed to avoid burnout. But is this true of teachers and academics more than, say, junior hospital doctors or care workers?

Presumably this question is tied to the question of why school teachers have summer holidays: I realise that this latter question may be off-topic for this site, but to the extent that answers to it have a bearing on my question, I would like to hear them.

Finally I am aware that not all academics are paid during the summer months. Many have temporary contracts that don't span the summer vacation. I hope that this situation remains the (in my opinion, disgraceful) exception rather than the rule.

EDIT: Thanks to Oswald Veblen and Dave Clarke for pointing out the general practice in US academia of being paid for only 9/12 of the year. In Ireland, and I think in much of Europe, academics are usually paid for 12 months. So some of the motivation for this question ("Why are we paying you academics during the summer?") may not apply in the US, although the basic question still stands ("Why don't academics typically have to teach during the summer?" or, in the more provocative (and inaccurate) terms that this is sometimes put: "Why don't academics work during the summer?")

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    In the US, some/all academics do only get paid for 9 months of the year, unless they have a research grant to cover the rest of the year. – Dave Clarke Sep 5 '14 at 12:05
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    What summer holidays? :-( – Marc Claesen Sep 5 '14 at 14:23
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    You can always say: "Don't worry, we get paid in those twelve months less than you in nine". Then simply let them make the numbers. The question doesn't make sense as soon as you consider that people make different amounts of money per hour... – Trylks Sep 5 '14 at 15:16
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    The premise of the question is that academics work 9 months of the year. This might be true in Ireland, but it is certainly not true in Canada, for example. My colleagues and I have up to 5 to 6 weeks vacation time by contract, but very few (at least in my faculty) take anywhere close to that amount. – Theodore Norvell Sep 5 '14 at 17:26
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    @TheodoreNorvell The premise is that academics are often thought to work only 9 months. This is as untrue in Ireland as everywhere else. Like many people, I find that the summer is the one big opportunity to make some progress on my research. So this is one good reason to have a teaching break in the summer, but I would like to learn of others. (The title of the question was originally in quotation marks; maybe I should restore them.) – Shane O Rourke Sep 5 '14 at 18:33
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The following applies to a previous version of the question: "Why do academics get paid to work only nine months of the year?". The question of whether academics do work work in the summer, compared to whether they are paid to work over the summer, is more difficult. Most faculty in the U.S. have 9-month contracts, but in my experience most faculty nevertheless work on their research and teaching during the summer.


In the United States, it is very common - nearly universal, in fact - for a standard academic contract to span 9 or 10 months. There are several reasons for this:

  • It allows the university to pay less. The standard rule of thumb is that a 9 month contract pays 9/12 of what the corresponding annual contract would pay. Many (most?) faculty have their 9 months of pay split up into 12 months of paychecks -- but this is an accounting fiction, not a sign that they are paid for 12 months of work. If few students are around over the summer, there is less reason for universities to pay salary to their faculty for that time - having a break in the contract balances the university income and expenses.

  • It allows faculty to be paid more. This is the flip side of paying 9/12 of an annual salary: the faculty member can, in principle, take another job during the summer.

    • Many grants, for example, are able to pay "summer salary", which is really just extra income. But these grants do not allow the faculty member to take salary from the university at the same time they take salary from the grant. The "9 month contract" resolves this: the faculty member can state they are actually only paid for 9 months of university work, so the grant can pay 2 or 3 months of extra salary during the summer.

    • Similarly, some universities pay extra to faculty who teach during the summer - that would not be possible if the summer was treated as part of the basic contract.

    • A smaller number of faculty use the summer for consulting work, or other jobs genuinely different from their university position.

  • Faculty like to travel over the summer. During the academic year, it is hard to leave for personal reasons, because of class. By claiming that the summer is "off contract", academics can travel however they like during that period of time, without having to justify their time. So having the contract pause during the summer makes the job more attractive to job candidates, allowing the university to attract some people who might otherwise take higher-paying jobs elsewhere.

The reason I just cited are all purely economic - they can be justified solely in terms of saving money for the school, increasing pay for the faculty member, or attracting better candidates. There is also "tradition" as a reason for the summer break, as is also the case at lower levels of education.

However, the "9 month contract" is fictitious in a few ways:

  • Most faculty still have access to their office, library, email, and other university resources even when they are technically not "on contract" over the summer.

  • Research faculty usually continue to work on research during the summer, and travel to conferences (which may even be reimbursed by the university, even though the faculty member is technically not on contract!). This often happens even when the faculty don't have grants or other summer funding.

  • Many faculty use some of their summer time to prepare for their classes, even though they are not being paid to teach over the summer.

  • There are other activities during the summer: committee meetings, advising, etc. Some faculty participate in these, for various reasons, even when they are off contract.

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    So my own response to "why are you paid over the summer" is "I'm not; my contract indicates I will be paid a fixed amount for 9 months of work. But they divide that amount into 12 paychecks rather than 9 for accounting purposes." – Oswald Veblen Sep 5 '14 at 12:31
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    This is all very interesting to me. So from what you've said, the premise of my question doesn't generally apply to US academics. – Shane O Rourke Sep 5 '14 at 12:37
  • It may be that the "contract" situation is different in other countries, so that professors are quoted a monthly or weekly salary, to be paid year round, rather than a fixed salary in exchange for work during the academic year. That is also very interesting to me, because it motivates the original question much more! At the same time, I think most faculty in the U.S. realize this 9-month vs. 12-month distinction is a little disingenuous, because few faculty really take other jobs for the summer, so apart from summer salary (grants and teaching) the 9-month salary is a de facto annual salary. – Oswald Veblen Sep 5 '14 at 12:40
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    Perhaps a similar argument could be made in settings other than the U.S.: although the faculty member is paid in smaller increments, the sum of their pay is intended to cover the sum of their work for the year. One cannot come and go from a professorship like a part-time job (teaching one week, then taking off a week, then teaching two more, etc.) So it seems inaccurate to think of each paycheck as independent of the others, which underlies the argument that faculty would only be paid during the semester. Rather, the paychecks together compensate the faculty member for their total work. – Oswald Veblen Sep 5 '14 at 13:07
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    It may be worth pointing out that universities would also usually offer a "startup package" to new hires, which covers the salary for the first couple of summers (and support for PhD students) until the new faculty can get a grant. On the other hand, over in Canada, professors are paid throughout the year, and the base salary tends to be a factor of 4/3 higher (but funding agencies do not include "summer salary" money with the grants). – Sasho Nikolov Sep 5 '14 at 13:09
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As someone who works in Asia (teaching for a British university), I get paid 11-12 months out of the year (depending on my yearly negotiations). I had one student ask me why I don't teach 40 hours a week since that is a full-time job. So, I took a moment to explain to the student that standing in front of students is only one part of my job. Yes, it is the most visible but there are many, many other things I do and my work does consume 12 months out of the year (even when I'm only paid for 11 of them).

There is always prep, which includes research (identifying what should be taught based on the latest literature). Of course, there is marking, resits, special classes, along with a host of general administrative tasks which need to be done.

While it is possible for someone to work less than I do, it is only possible by producing lower quality, quickly outdated content for the students.

So, in short, I do not believe teachers work only 9 months out of the year. Those in the US might only work 9 months and take 3 months off but that is more related to the lack of appreciation (and sadly the lack of pay) for the efforts that go into properly educating the next generation.

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    Please don't misinterpret my answer as saying that faculty in the U.S. can simply take 3 months off - that's far from true. In particular, active researchers are very unlikely to stop working on their research over the summer. It's just that the legal framework of employment is set up with a 9 month contract. – Oswald Veblen Sep 5 '14 at 14:39
  • In my experience any serious researcher in the US is still working summers, and if anything that is their busiest time. My lab converted the lunch table into a workstation for summer interns and we were nearly ready to start doubling down on desks. The lab was at its busiest. – Skyler Sep 7 '14 at 9:22
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 "Why do academics work only nine months of the year?"

As pointed out, we don't. I work year-round; for instance, this summer, I revised an online course that was introduced in Spring 2014 at my university. Without being paid. (However, the paycheck issues mentioned elsewhere might make this last sentence "not quite true".)

 "Why don't you work 40 hours a week?"

Working is not just teaching. There's also:

preparation for class ("what will I talk about today, and how will I do it?"),

creating preparation materials (the PPT Fairy doesn't create Powerpoint presentations),

responding to emails (homework questions, excuses for absence, policy questions),

choosing homework exercises (you can't use anything from a book that's a few years old, because all the solutions have been worked out and posted somewhere online),

grading tests (at my university, we have graders for homework, but tests we have to do all by ourselves),

and probably a few other things I can't think of off the top of my head.

Final note: I've always respected my high school teachers [well, the good ones; my Phys Ed teacher nicknamed "Bobo" is an obvious exception], but after realizing how much grading they do overnight for more classes than I teach, I have a new-found respect for them.

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In the Netherlands, I get paid 14 months (one of those is called “holiday allowance” and another one is called “end-of-year bonus”). One way or the other, it's a fiction, the most relevant comparison is between yearly income. Whether it's excessive or not is an entirely different question.

Academics are not the only ones to have a regular salary, paid holidays or flexible time. What sets them apart is that there is relatively little oversight compared to many occupations. To some extent, you can show up, read, write, etc. whenever you decide. And you do get two to three months without many concrete obligations or schedule constraints.

Note that at my university (and I guess at many places), you have to officially take holidays and you “only” get about 6 weeks (a couple weeks more than the mandatory legal minimum). During the rest of the summer, you are supposed to work and account for your time in the usual ways.

  • @MarcvanLeeuwen Personally, I think it's the German Lohn that influenced me but I did mean wage and obviously knew the difference. – Relaxed Sep 6 '14 at 22:23
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Having been in Academia in both the US and in the Netherlands, I can safely say that academics work the full 12 months and dedicate most of the summer to "real work" (i.e. research) when they are less distracted with teaching responsibilities.

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