In the future, I will be on the market for a temporary academic position (postdoc or visitor) in the US, in math. Because of my lifestyle and financial situation, I do not need a large salary. Ballpark, let's say I would be willing to work an academic job for about half the typical salary.

Is there any way I can use this to my advantage? I mean: is it possible to use the fact that I am willing to work for cheap to get a job that is better (with respect to some criteria like quantity and caliber of research at the university, strength of students at the university, desirability of teaching duties,...) than I would have been able to get otherwise?

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    I have often thought that their should be math monasteries. Come and learn for free with the masters who own nothing but their knowledge. How are monasteries funded, anyway? Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 23:37
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    @StevenGubkin Sign me up!
    – User
    Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 0:35
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    @Steven I suggest reading Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. I think you'd enjoy it.
    – user16167
    Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 2:10
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    Leveraging your willingness to work for sub-standard wages is called "lowering the bar". Please don't.
    – casey
    Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 16:16
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    @casey - it's also called the free market.
    – Davor
    Commented Jan 21, 2016 at 18:31

10 Answers 10


There is some possibility of this, but it would work only in certain restricted ways and in certain limited contexts. I don't know of any reputable college or university that, when considering applicants for a position that already exists, consider an applicant's willingness to accept less than the standard salary as a point in their favor. If you think this through, probably you can see why it makes everyone look bad.

You might have some luck getting an academic institution to make a position with an unusual combination of duties and salary that is tailored to you. Here are some possibilities:

  1. At some institutions, faculty couples "share" positions in some fractional way: e.g. the couple together has 1.5 positions and each does 75% of the work of a full-time faculty member. If someone had come to me with this as a new idea I would have rejected it as ridiculous, but nevertheless it actually exists in the real world. I know several examples.

  2. Similarly, you may be able to arrange a single position which is "part time" in some specified way: so maybe it is a visiting teaching position with half the normal teaching load and half the normal salary. In the very short term, such positions are common. It is not directly in the spirit of what you are asking about, but the effect could be similar.

  3. Finally, if salary is really no object, it is much easier to get a visiting scholar position which pays no salary whatsoever. I did this myself once: the summer after getting my PhD (at Harvard), I moved back to my hometown (Philadelphia) and got an apartment in University (of Pennsylvania) City. I noticed that there was a wonderful library and gym a few blocks away from me, and I presented myself "cold" in the UPenn math department with a copy of my CV and my PhD. I walked out as a Visiting Scholar. (Nowadays I think that what I did was a little weird: why not first contact some specific faculty member in the department? Maybe I didn't know who to contact, or maybe I was curious to see if walking in cold and presenting Ivy League credentials would actually work. It did! This "position" still appears on my CV.)

If what you are interested is not covered by the above, then I would say: in general this will be hard to swing, but if you have a more specific arrangement in mind you can ask about that (e.g. here) and maybe it can be worked out.

Let me end by saying something that I suspect you already know: if you aspire to have anything like a conventional academic career in the future, advertising yourself broadly as someone who is willing to work at a discounted rate is a pretty bad idea. If you do seek to pursue this idea of yours, I would do so with much discretion.

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    As a Visiting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania you had use of the library and gym. What other benefits and responsibilities were associated with your appointment. I am asking b/c I would like free gym membership.
    – emory
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 18:04
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    @emory: I didn't say that the gym membership was free! But it was reasonably priced. Essentially the benefits were (i) that I had a card that granted me access to campus buildings as though I were a regular member of the university community, (ii) I was invited to attend and speak in one of the seminars (which I did), (iii) I got a key to a "visitor office" which -- since it was the office for all visitors of a certain type, not just me -- I never used. There were no responsibilities that I can recall. Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 21:26
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    Nowadays I think that what I did was a little weird: why not first contact some specific faculty member... Depending on how long ago this was, perhaps you didn't have the Internet to make all of this easy? We tend to forget now, but back in the day, this was actually hard to figure out without access to an academic library. Walking a couple of blocks was a lot easier then than getting those names and numbers externally ... Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 22:39
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    @RBarry: This was in 2003, so: yes, I had internet access, even at home. Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 22:41
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    I like the subtle "I got my PhD from Harvard" embedded in this answer. Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 22:32

My friend, please don't shortchange yourself. Having a modest lifestyle does not mean that you should not consider, say, buying an apartment or building a house of your own someday. And to do that you would need to save.

Also, even if you're not concerned with your own expenses and savings, remember that most of the rest of us - academics without a tenure-track position - are struggling to make ends meet with our salaries. We need to support ourselves, and often our family as well. For someone to be willing to work for less, to "undercut us" so to speak - would mean to apply a downward pressure on wages and working conditions as a whole. Now, obviously, an individual's effect on the entire system is small, but this stuff can add up; and the influence on your immediate colleagues, at the university where you will end up working, would be much greater: You would have an effect on the attitude and expectations of your department or university regarding what it offers non-tenured academics.

So, I urge you not work for cheap. If you really feel you don't need that money - consider donating it to a worthy cause (or whatever you believe is a worthy cause; it might even be donating to some scholarship fund at your alma mater).

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    I'd second this point... Operationally, what is proposed would literally be under-cutting nearly everyone else. Upon reflection, this is why it's bad, or not allowed, to volunteer to do work that others do for pay... not that the volunteerism is innately bad, but that it reduces the leverage of people who need_the_money. Similarly, "Teach for America", while having good-sounding features, nastily undercuts the livelihoods of teachers. Some days I wonder whether retired high school teachers and retired professors offering to teach at low cost isn't a similar bad-thing... Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 23:18
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    Is Academia somehow exempt from free-market laws? If your job is well-paid, you will be undercut, sooner or later, by someone who can work for less. Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 10:03
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    @DmitryGrigoryev: I'm not having this ideological debate in Academia.SX comments, thank you. You're free to post your own answer to the question with your own perspective.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 12:15
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    @paulgarrett, not that I disagree, but to play devils advocate, the similar logic can be applied by those that need_the_experience over needing the money, and I don't think that is inherently problematic. Commented Jan 21, 2016 at 1:11
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    @DmitryGrigoryev I agree. The answer strikes me as "Don't do X because X would hurt me - your hopes and dreams don't matter." For all we know, User is independently wealthy and has a life dream of being an academic. Perhaps the best course of action for User would be to fund his/her own position.
    – emory
    Commented Jan 21, 2016 at 13:07

Whilst not applicable to your case (as you're only concerned with US universities) I thought I'd add this for colour.

I've worked for 3 UK universities (currently still a visiting lecturer at one of them), and the payroll has always been done using "salary spines"; all staff of a certain level are on a "spine" - they aren't free to negotiate their own salary, so there's no pay rises unless the whole spine level goes up within the school in question, and as such there's always an explicit set salary for whatever position you apply for, with no room for manoeuvre.

  • So the nominally-part-time position would still work, as part time salaries are pro-rata or something like it.
    – Chris H
    Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 14:36
  • @ChrisH Yes, I suppose in this case it would, as a proportion of the full-time salary spine, or its own "part-time salary spine".
    – DrObey
    Commented Jan 21, 2016 at 9:36

I am not involved in Academia, but I think that advertising yourself as cheap is not in your advantage. This is a sign for any employer that you don't value your skills. This raises more red flags, maybe you're evaluating yourself accurately but you're pretty unskilled.

Also, you're missing an opportunity to earn more money. You are losing money, not only now, but also in the future, because if this temporary position turns in a permanent position, it will be a lot harder to catch up and get a normal salary.

I'd use a salary range and if you really want to sell yourself as cheap, I'd use 60%-90% range(YMMV). This way you're still cheap, but you have less chances to raise questions about your skills.


If you decide to take a job for less-than-average salary, at least make sure that it is clearly labelled as part-time. If you ever decide to leave Academia and take a job in a field where salaries are negotiated (e.g. engineering), expect that your new employer will try to find out your previous salary and base his offer on that. In that case, it will be hard for you to negotiate, unless you can explain why you used to earn so little.

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    ...expect that your new employer will try to find out your previous salary and base his offer on that...I understand the sentiment and I do understand that this is a negotiation tactic that is actually in use, but I find that it is much much more likely to occur in market areas where labor supply forces tend towards oligopsony.As a software engineer, I have never been asked "what I used to make" and I would be offended if a skill buyer tried this tactic with me.They state their requirements. I state my requirements. If we don't match, we negotiate;if we can agree to terms,we have a contract. Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 13:11
  • A "part time" position might not have key benefits such as health insurance, in the U.S. Commented Jan 22, 2016 at 12:02
  • @OswaldVeblen Does that mean that professors who occupy faculty positions in a fractional way don't have health insurance? Commented Jan 22, 2016 at 12:25
  • @Dmitry Grigoryev: Are you talking about two faculty who share duties a single position? I have never seen details of how that works, but those are normally full-time positions. I suspect that the "position" has health insurance, including employer contributions that cover one of the faculty members, and that the faculty in question have to pay more for the second person to be covered, no different than if one person held the position alone and the second person was "just a spouse." Commented Jan 22, 2016 at 12:28
  • If you mean a non-full-time position held by a single faculty member, I think i would be very likely not to include health insurance. The same holds for adjunct faculty who are paid "by the class" for each course that they teach - those positions are often like an independent contractor, with no benefits besides the payment for teaching the course. Commented Jan 22, 2016 at 12:30

Ignoring any philosophical debates about whether it is good to work for less: what you are trying to do will be challenging simply because of the way that ordinary academic hiring is done in the U.S. The typical academic "job search" process in the U.S. has at least two "phases". In the earlier of these, a committee of mostly faculty evaluates applications and performs interviews. If this phase is successful, the committee sends a final list of successful candidates to the administration, which makes the job offer and handles the actual negotiations for the job in the later phase. I am leaving out many details here to emphasize that the people who do the interviews are different from the people who negotiate the salary.

Because of this, it is unusual in my experience for the people in the first group to worry about salary at all. For the plan in the question to work, this group would have to look at your application, go to the administration, ask them about it, see whether the administration was willing to go through with the plan, etc. - which would require a lot of effort on their part for just one application. So I don't think you will increase your odds of getting through the normal process by mentioning that you will work for less. The job search process is not designed to handle such requests.

If you really are willing to work for less, and just want to be at a better school, I think you'd have higher odds if you try to bypass that search process entirely. One possibility, if you do not need health insurance, is to contact several departments directly, and see whether they are planning to hire any part-time lecturers or adjuncts, and whether they are interested in having you.

At some schools, these hires are made directly by the departmental administration, without the same formal "search" process. It is perfectly conceivable that a department chair might be able to find a calculus class or two for you to teach, or something like that. I do not think you would get to half a regular salary in this way, and you would probably not have benefits (retirement, health insurance, etc.). But you would likely be able to get some kind of office (maybe shared) and library access.

I am not sure, however, that this kind of plan will really get you what you are looking for, such as desirability of teaching duties. At best, it might give you more time to work on your own projects, or allow you to be in a location you would prefer.

  • +1 for this answer. OP needs to think in terms of the priorities of the people making the hiring decision. If the dept already has authorization from the university to hire a person at a certain salary, it makes no difference whatsoever to them that you are willing to work for less. If anything it sends a really weird signal to them that you don't understand how academic hiring decisions are made, which might lead them to question your professionalism, independent of the signal that you don't value your time and talent as much as others.
    – user10636
    Commented Jan 23, 2016 at 13:26

Even if you can get a job at this lower salary, you should also wonder whether you want to. Ultimately, when you are in academia, you are likely looking for intellectual challenges, and you are likely looking to work with the people at the top of your field - the kind of people who have their pick of positions.

When you offer yourself as the lowest bidder and get a job that way, even if you are personally happy with your salary, your co-workers likely aren't. And the only reason they are working their is that they wouldn't get hired in the better positions.

As a side note - you don't explicitly say it, but it sounds like you would be coming to the USA as a foreign visitor. Some of the other suggestions involved part-time positions. When you are foreign, the terms of your visa may not allow that. Even if the terms of your visa do allow it, it may later become difficult to switch to full time if you change your mind.


I think the closest situation to your question revolves around your intended job. Instead of applying for a professor position and stating you can work for half the salary, you can apply to a lecturer position, which may very well be half (or less) of the salary. The actual salary of this position will already state your willingness to work for it (since you applied). It could very well lead to an interview where they question your motives as you may be 'over qualified', which could lead to a suggested change of title.

I have known this situation to happen more than once, albeit from a different perspective, where someone applying for a position was borderline of higher qualifications, so negotiations reached a similar salary as the lower position, but higher status.

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    I picture a lecturer teaching something like 4 sections of calculus a term (maybe this is wrong), which is what I am trying to avoid.
    – User
    Commented Jan 21, 2016 at 16:28

...is it possible to use the fact that I am willing to work for cheap to get a job that is better...?

With all due respect, if you were able to do the job better than the university's current faculty members, they would hire you paying full salary.

The reason why most universities set high salaries is precisely to keep the quality of research and education high.

If you really believe you are competitive, then you should signal it to your potential employer. The best way would be with publications. You can also visit the university as a visiting researcher to demonstrate your competence. In any case, dumping the salary is not a good strategy. If salary is indeed irrelevant for you, you can communicate this to your potential employer by stating that you are very passionate about your research/job and you don't care about the salary. There is a whole science behind setting salaries in organizations. Unless this is your field of research, let the university set the salary for you. It is likely to be the same as your colleagues'. Benefits are usually negotiable though.

If you are not that good and don't have enough on your CV to impress your potential employer in the US, go to another country that has lower standards for academia and allows lower salaries.

Edit: Every country I've been to had fixed salaries for employees, at least within one institution. So it really comes down to what country you choose to go to and how highly ranked the university is in that country. But it is HIGHLY unlikely that you will be allowed to work for lower salary doing the same amount of work as others.

If you are not convinced, here is a paper by Akerlof and Yellen (1990) discussing why lower wages for the same amount and quality of work are harmful for organizations. Akerlof is a Nobel laureate and Yellen is the chairwoman of the Federal Reserve.


If you want higher caliber work I recommend asking for more, not less money. The reason is they are looking for a high caliber employee, and high caliber employees tend to ask for high caliber pay. If you ask for less they may not think you are a serious candidate.

Also, don't offer an amount unless asked for salary requirements. Sometimes an application will ask for salary requirements, but typically salary and benefits discussions take place after the interview process when the hiring manager knows you are the one they want.

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    Note that this question is related to academic hiring, where customs and procedures are completely different to industry. There is no hiring manager, and applicants are evaluated on their extensive CV (for example, my supervisor's is 20 pages long, as opposed to the typical 1-2 pages in industry).
    – Davidmh
    Commented Jan 23, 2016 at 8:53

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