July 11, 2009

New Faculty and “The Latte Factor”

The transition from graduate student to faculty member usually comes with a number of perks. A substantial raise is one of them. For example, I went from earning $1,000 per month to $4,000. One of the first things I did was to purchase a home. I was tired of living in apartment buildings with irritable and irritating neighbors, and yearned for the freedom of a single-family home. I also bought a nice mattress. I thought about getting new furniture. But, two things held me back. For one, I had three children under the age of five that could were very likely to damage the new furniture. Secondly, I didn’t have the cash and didn’t want to go further into debt.

In fact, I soon realized that $4,000 a month wasn’t actually that much money. I did not have enough money to buy whatever I wanted at the grocery store, to go shopping for new clothes, to drink lattes every day, or to go out to fancy restaurants on a regular basis.

With a mortgage, bills, taxes, a student loan, and credit card bills to pay off, I was not living in the lap of luxury. It took a while to come to terms with the fact that, although I was no longer a graduate student, I still had to watch my spending carefully. Once I began to budget my money, however, I was pleased to see that I did have money for some of the things important to me, such as taking a family vacation over winter break. I also was very fortunate my first year – I got a $10,000 prize in a scholarly competition and I was awarded an $8,000 grant for the summer.

At the beginning of my second year, I wasn’t any further in debt, but I did not have any savings, despite a substantial increase in my income. I decided that I had to be even more careful with my money, especially now that the first year perks were gone. I could not count on the extra $18,000 that got me through the first year. I did get a raise, but my paycheck changed little, as my health insurance costs had gone up, and I was now paying into retirement. I did my budget, and included a line each month where I set aside money for the summer, and money for vacation.

Why am I telling this story? I am telling this story because budgeting is something I rarely see discussed in forums on advice for new faculty. Yet, budgeting is one of the most important things new faculty can do. For one, it takes away some of the stress of not having enough money. Secondly, having money set aside can actually help your research agenda. Let me explain two ways this is possible.

At my university, they often award faculty summer grants of about $8,000. If you take this money as summer salary, they take out taxes and other things, and you end up getting only about $5,000 of it. If, on the other hand, you spend all of the money on research-related expenses, you can get the whole $8,000. Many academics need to travel for their research. Plus, if you live in a small university town, traveling elsewhere for library research or fieldwork can be a welcome break. The trick, however, is that the $8,000 is money they will reimburse you for expenses. So, you need to have the money on hand in order to spend it and get reimbursed later. In addition, if you have family members who you’d like to take with you, you at least will have to pay for their airfare up front. Again, you will need cash on hand for that. And, you can’t use the grant to pay your mortgage or bills. Having saved up your money over the course of the school year will make it easier to take the larger sum and get research done, as opposed to taking the smaller sum and not have funds to travel for research.

At my university, they also offer the option of teaching a summer course, for a percentage of your annual salary. With the exception of some people who do this as part of a study abroad program, all faculty I have talked to say they do this for the extra money.

I have to say this gives me pause, especially when Assistant Professors at R1 universities do this. Most new faculty members, presumably, are like me, and experienced a great increase in salary when they made the transition from graduate student to professor. And, even though the new position comes with new financial responsibilities – new clothes, a nicer place, student loans, etc. – I can’t help but feel inclined to suggest to new faculty that they more carefully consider their priorities.

At the end of the school year, we are all tired from the various service and teaching responsibilities that we have. Most of us have not gotten all of the research done that we would like to. And, if you are at a research-oriented institution, if you don’t publish, you will not be awarded tenure. Of course, you can get some writing done while teaching a summer course. But, most of us are too burned out to write in addition to preparing an intensive class. I think it is safe to say that teaching a summer class in most cases leads to a less productive summer in terms of research.

If you are not worried about your research productivity, then this does not make a difference. If, like most assistant professors, you are, then I would encourage you to avoid summer teaching unless it is absolutely necessary.

Careful budgeting might be one way to do that. Let’s suppose summer teaching nets you $5,000. That is equal to $417 per month for the year. Sounds like a lot to cut from your budget. For some, it could mean cutting out one latte a day, one night out drinking a week, and two nights out eating each month. For others, it could mean renting or purchasing a less expensive place or forgoing the purchase of a new car or new furniture.

If you are starting a new faculty position this year, I hope you will consider what I have said and think carefully about your budget before making any major financial decisions. If you are an Assistant Professor and already find yourself in a position where you are teaching every summer, I urge you to assess the extent to which this is allowing you to meet your tenure requirements. If it is getting in the way of them, it might be time to re-assess your budgetary decisions.


  1. If I had a quarter for every new faculty member that has told me this summer "it was a mistake to teach summer school" I would be rich!!!

    Your post reminds us all that if we can't make the budget work on our 9-month salary, it's time to re-think the budget.

  2. Thanks for reading, Diva! I know many people would rather read a post about why we should be paid more. But, give the current situation, it might be better in the short term to learn to deal with what we have! Money is a touchy subject for academics, but we have to deal with it anyway.

  3. Once again, I find this post about researcher economics very useful. I don't think of myself as someone who cares alot about money, but I do care about having a successful research career. Money is such a private topic, I don't know if anyone would ever tell me what you've said in this post, unless you did. Thanks!

  4. You're welcome, Emily. And, no one ever told me! You are right, money is not something most academics want to talk about!