12

Having recently received a PhD in Economics from a European university, I am entering the academic job market for economists this year. I am targeting research-intense, PhD-granting universities in the U.S. and Canada. I am thinking about Tier 4-5 institutions (certainly not Tier 1 or 2, I do not think I would have a chance there).

I am now trying to wrap my head around the quoted salaries for tenure-track assistant professorships. Having little clue of 9 vs. 12 month appointments, notions like "nominal academic year salary" and the like, I am trying to figure the gross annual salaries from the job adds. After that I am interested in deriving the corresponding net salaries; my lack of familiarity with the U.S. or the Canadian tax systems certainly does not help here.

For example, "Survey of the Labor Market for New Ph.D. Hires In Economics 2015-16" reports "expected and actual offers" on p. 8. Should I understand this is the actual annual gross salary, or should I divide or multiply it by 9/12, or add or deduct something?
Similarly, "American Economic Association Universal Academic Questionnaire Summary Statistics" (2016) list "nominal academic year salaries" in their tables. Are these the actual gross annual salaries, or..?

Once you help me figure out how to infer the gross annual salary, the next step would be to tell approximately what net salary that would correspond to. Should I expect to earn, say, 60,000 net given 100,000 gross? When I say "net", I am interested in hard cash going directly into my pocket. I would not consider any pension or insurance contributions that circumvent my pocket as part of the net salary. I am interested in how much money I would have at the end of the day to pay the bills and to put food on my family's table.

In short, what I am looking for is a brief introduction into the U.S./Canadian academic salary accounting accompanied with a couple of examples.

Edit: The first two answers focus more (although not entirely) on gross vs. net salaries (where taxes etc. feature prominently). However, I am still very much interested in how to read the job adds as well as tables with salary comparisons. That is, does the nominal figure typically equal the gross annual salary, or not exactly? What about my two examples mentioned above?

  • @MassimoOrtolano, I am aware of that question. Meanwhile, my question is broader; 9 vs 12 is just one among the few points I have. Also, I focus on how to read a quoted salary (how to elicit the actual gross annual salary from the quoted figure) while the other question focuses on advantages/disadvantages or distributing salary over 9 vs 12 months and the like. – Richard Hardy Oct 15 '16 at 13:03
  • There so many differences in state (50 different states with different rules) and local (some cities have their own taxes!) income taxes, retirement plans, and health insurance plans (some employers pay 100%, others pay only a fraction), that it is effectively impossible to answer your questions. The cost of real estate and other aspects of the cost of living in different places in the US also varies tremendously. If/when you have multiple offers to compare, you'll need to consider all of these issues. – Brian Borchers Oct 15 '16 at 17:41
  • @BrianBorchers Those complications are no different from the rest of the world. Also, many of us are scientists, and our job is to come up with simple but reliable explanations of complex systems. – Jouni Sirén Oct 15 '16 at 18:19
  • @JouniSirén Making sense of salaries and taxes around the world could be too complex even for scientists :-) – Massimo Ortolano Oct 15 '16 at 18:29
  • As far as I can tell, the Tiers you refer to is an Economics specific ranking of Economics departments, not of universities. Most other fields avoid making such a detailed ranking of research departments. Also, you should keep in mind that, even at most public universities, salaries are individually negotiated; most universities have no set salary scale, though of course the administration has a budget in mind for the position. – Alexander Woo Oct 18 '16 at 3:43
16

In the United States, the "academic year" consists of the 9 months that comprise the fall and spring semesters. This is the period during which you are formally employed by the university and receive a salary. These 9 months also define what salary you are essentially guaranteed. However, it is possible that you will also get a salary for the remaining 3 months; for example, if you have grants from a funding agency or from industry, or if your department runs a summer program and you teach during these months. You can inquire with the head of the department that made you an offer whether they run a summer teaching program, and what your chances would be to get an assignment to teach. In other words, your salary may be up to 4/3 of the nominal, academic year salary, but that is not guaranteed.

How much of this money ends up in your pocket depends on a number of factors that are hard to estimate without knowing more:

  • You can look up the Federal tax rate for this income. If you're single, I would think that you have to estimate a tax rate somewhere in the 20-25% range on your total salary, including the 6.2% social security tax. But it may be significantly less if you have family and your spouse is not working.
  • Some but not all states (and in some cases, cities) have a state income tax. You can also look that up. Many states use a flat percentage of your income, typically somewhere in the 4-8% range. I don't know whether that includes deductions for dependents.
  • Retirement: Most universities have switched to a 401(k) system where you get no benefits from the university after retiring and both you and the university instead pays into an account over the time of your employment from which you can later draw money in retirement. Depending on university and state, you will have to expect to pay 6-10% of your total income into this account.
  • Health insurance: If your health insurance has to cover only yourself, then you can expect that your employer picks up all or almost all of the cost. On the other hand, if you have family that needs to be insured, then you have to expect that your share of health insurance will be in the range of $500 per month (for only a spouse) or larger (if you have children).

So if you add all of this together, if you start with $100k per year, you'll end up with maybe $100k-25%-5%-8%=$62k in your pocket if you're single, plus or minus several thousand dollars. But it may be quite different if you had family, depending on the state you're employed in, and any number of other factors.

  • That is very helpful. So if I see an advertised salary of USD 100,000, can I treat this as the guaranteed gross salary (and then probably hope for something extra that I could earn during the summer months)? – Richard Hardy Oct 15 '16 at 13:00
  • 2
    Payroll tax is 6.2% on your first $118K (and then nothing beyond that), not 3%. Note that schools that still have defined benefit pensions may mean that you don't pay the full payroll tax (and also won't get social security pension). – Noah Snyder Oct 15 '16 at 13:59
  • 1
    In cases where the university matches your contribution to a 401(k) or 403(b) retirement plan, those matching contributions are not part of your nominal salary. The good news is that you're receiving more deferred compensation than the nominal salary. The bad news is that you have to match it with contributions from your pay check. e.g. if your salary is $100K per academic year, than $10K of that might be withheld and put into a retirement account, along with $10K in matching from the university, so a total of $20K per year would be put into your retirement account. – Brian Borchers Oct 15 '16 at 17:36
  • 2
    Note that various kinds of summer work might have substantial opportunity cost. It's not uncommon that the department's research expectations for tenure are such that most people would effectively have to work on research through each summer to get tenure, even though they are not paid for that time. Summer salary from research grants would be an ok way to get paid during the summer, since you are spending that time doing research; but summer teaching might not leave enough research time. – Nate Eldredge Oct 16 '16 at 5:43
  • @NoahSnyder -- I stand corrected. My memory was wrong. I've fixed my answer. – Wolfgang Bangerth Oct 17 '16 at 21:35
9

The practice of calculating "net" salaries is not done in the US, because the governments tax your total income, not your salary, and the way it works depends on a number of factors that will vary between different people.

These are the major deductions from your salary:

  • Social security and medicare: 7.65% of your salary
  • Medical and related insurance: This differs from employer to employer, and you will also have a choice of insurance plans, some of which provide better coverage than others and some of which will cover a spouse and children as well as yourself. Expect to pay somewhere between $100 and $500 a month. (Keep in mind this is only about a quarter of the total cost - the rest is paid by your employer.)
  • Retirement: Usually this is entirely up to you, from 0-15% of your salary. You put a certain amount of money into an account that is invested for you. The income tax (see later) on the money you put into the account is deferred; instead of paying it now, you pay it when you take the money out after your retirement, which is a big advantage (because get earn interest on what you otherwise would have paid in tax). Your employer is likely to match some of what you put in as a way of encouraging you to put in some money.
  • Income tax: Every year in April, every American has to calculate and pay their income tax. You add up all your income (including income from investments and in theory the $5 value of the beer your neighbor bought you for feeding their dog while they were gone), subtract a myriad of deductions (for example, you have a personal exemption of about $3000 per person in your household, plus you either get a standard deduction of about $5000, or you can instead choose to itemize deductions which allow you to deduct state taxes, large medical expenses, interest you pay on a home mortgage, and a few other items), and look up a table to see how much you owe. To collect their money sooner, the government requires that at least 90% of what you owe for the year is deducted from your paycheck. Most people just elect the simple option of using the standard formula for paycheck deductions, but you actually have a lot of control over this process, and if you get it wrong and had less than 90% prepaid, you have to pay a fine with your taxes. (If you have over 100% prepaid, you get a refund.)
  • 2
    I think you're underestimating the upper bound on the cost of health insurance. This varies depending on the cost of insurance in your area (typically higher in rural areas because of physicians shortages and lack of competition) and the percentage paid by your employer. By state law, my institution can only pay 40% of the cost of my health insurance, and coverage for me and my spouse costs us more than $500 per month. This is not to mention that the insurance actually has high deductibles and copays, which are concepts the OP probably isn't familar with. – Brian Borchers Oct 15 '16 at 17:45
6

The salaries listed in the documents you've referred to are 9 month gross salaries. Opportunities for additional summer salary vary tremendously, so don't just assume that you'll be able to earn 4/3 of the 9 months salary.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.