Is it possible for a young assistant professor to receive a higher salary than an associate professor in the same department with many more papers, citations, etc?

Why would this happen?

What determines the salary of a faculty member, if not papers and citations?


Although there is overlap, my question is not duplicate. The (realistic but maybe erroneous) example is edited away, so it changes the context of my question. In the situation I want to ask, the associate professor not only stays longer, but also has much more reputation than the assistant professor.

  • 5
    I would advise even a member with 1 million rep said that you can post the names, please do not do that. It does not add to the discussion. Commented May 27, 2015 at 23:19
  • 2
    Now I'm wondering if B is me :)
    – Suresh
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 23:19
  • 2
    If B is me, the number is wrong :)
    – Suresh
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 23:26
  • 1
    it's not correct.
    – Suresh
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 23:28
  • 2
    The phenomenon is real -- and common. See my answer. Thus there is no cause to delete the question.
    – Corvus
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 23:33

3 Answers 3


The phenomenon you describe is known as compression and, in the case where salaries are actually reversed, inversion. Unfortunately these are very common especially at state universities. The principal cause is that faculty get hired as assistant professors at market rates, but the university salary structure fails to keep up with inflation and any other sources of increases. Given the severe funding cuts, salary freezes, and so forth that have plagued public higher education over the past few decades, this situation has been almost inevitable. The result is a salary structure such as you describe.

The only ways to fix this are either explicit allocation of funds to correct compression, or for individual faculty to obtain raises via retention packages to fight off outside offers.

In general, salaries are basically set by market rate at hiring (which for assistant professors is largely independent of citations and papers, conditional on getting the job in the first place) and by outside offers received later during the career. Both the availability of outside offers and their magnitude will depend on stature in the field. Even if one does not actually take an outside offer, receiving one or more such offers can prompt the home institution to put together a retention package. The willingness of the home institution to put together a top package will also depend on stature, and similarly the magnitude of the retention package depends on the outside offer and is thus also based on stature.

In principle, regular merit raises could also reward faculty in accordance with their productivity and impact. But for whatever reason (I blame self-governance, but that's another discussion), merit raises and such tend to be allocated in relatively egalitarian form, rather than proportional to differential merit and productivity.

Other answers provide additional important information. Some salaries are 9 month, some 12 month. Some faculty on 9 month appointments can cover summer salary off of grants; others spread 9 months salary across 12 months. Public databases often list total salary received rather than 9 month salary; this considerably increases the variation among faculty.

  • 2
    I think merit-based raises for professors are actually just very hard to implement. Given that a prof. does not really have a "supervisor" who follows the progress of the faculty closely at all times, you would basically need a specific committee (like a tenure committee) per professor to fairly decide each year whether he was doing great, good, or just ok. It may seem tempting to task department heads or deans with this, but that would in practice lead to way too powerful heads and very bad blood in the faculty.
    – xLeitix
    Commented May 28, 2015 at 6:10
  • Anecdotally, I have recently learned that in Singapore they do this via a "point system", where each publication is assigned points per a ranking that is renegotiated periodically, and per place in the author list (first author counts more etc.). Raises are given out strictly following how many "points" a faculty has at the end of the year. Apparently, the system works about as well as you would expect.
    – xLeitix
    Commented May 28, 2015 at 6:12
  • This earlier question is related to @xLeitix' point: What is a good scheme to determine percentage contributions to a paper Commented May 28, 2015 at 6:27

There are very many reasons. For starters, some faculty have 12 month appointments, others have 9 month, and some have less than 100% for however many months. Some specializations within a department are very competitive and faculty in that area can get high salaries compared to areas that are less in-demand. Some faculty get university awards which translate into a salary bump. Som faculty are very research productive and some are not; and some deans have a policy requiring e.g. 75% of the raise money to go to 25% of the faculty (i.e. prohibitiving splitting the pot evenly).


I can think of some reasons such as

  1. It is not uncommon that new hires get higher salaries, even in industry.
  2. Faculty A could have more grants than B. Publications and citations don't matter much if a faculty doesn't bring money to the school.
  3. Faculty A could graduated from a top school.
  4. For new hires, their salary could include summer salary for first few years.
  • 1
    I have never seen one faculty member get a higher salary than another just because the first one graduated from a top school. At least not directly: all salaries are positively correlated to one's stature in the community, with starting salaries being much more precisely correlated. If the person who graduated from the top school is perceived as being a present or future star that they need to give an especially high salary to in order to attract: OK. But no one would say it the way you did, and I honestly don't think they think that way either. Commented May 28, 2015 at 4:42
  • I think that your first point is really the key one. If one were comparing two associate professors with the same seniority and with a large salary disparity, justifying it by saying that the one with demonstrably less research activity had gone to a top school would be rather outrageous. Commented May 28, 2015 at 4:43

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .