For many of us, returning to life on campus--this time as a professor rather than a student--holds plenty of allure. It certainly did for me, and a couple years ago, after 14 years as a public school teacher, I transitioned to the academic world. The change has been incredibly satisfying, and my quality of life is so much better. When it comes to compensation though, I wish I’d been more informed. I’m sharing what I learned so others have the knowledge you need to make the pivot.
Moving into academia was, for me, a natural evolution. I graduated with my teaching certificate at 22 and taught fifth grade before getting my master’s degree in Language, Literacy and Culture. I taught literacy, supporting kindergarten through fifth grade. Over the next decade, I began leading professional development for teachers, and realized I enjoyed working with adults as much as kids. So I left my $65k teaching role and took a job with a university as a literacy coach, working to improve children’s literacy throughout schools as part of a research grant. In three years in the role, I earned a pay bump to $72K, and an appreciation for the possibilities an advanced Ph.D. could bring--most of my colleagues had one. In 2012, I took the plunge, becoming a full-time Ph.D. student at the university. I earned my Ph.D in May 2017 and soon started as an assistant professor, preparing teachers to graduate with a degree in education--at $20k less than my last position.
The work-life balance is terrific, and the work is rewarding, but I wish I’d negotiated better when I accepted my role. When I was offered this role, the dean told me he had no leeway on salary, because my institution is working within a salary schedule agreed upon by a collective bargaining agreement with the union. The salary was $52K with a strong benefits package for a nine-month contract (typical for academic roles), but I was told I could request other elements of my compensation. That sounded great, but I had no idea what candidates typically requested. Here are the “extras” I now know you can ask for:
Inquire about getting “course releases.” These are gold! Academic positions generally require three elements: Teaching grad or undergrad classes, researching, and service (sitting on committees or serving an organization). By getting a course-release, you can free up some of the time you’re expected to spend in the classroom and use it to do research, which is what enables you to move forward in your career. To go for tenure--typically after five years as an assistant professor--you need to do research and publish that research. Course releases enable you to do that. Time really is money!
Ask for start-up funds. No, not for launching your own business (though many of us in academia have a side-hustle), but for the supplies and opportunities you need to be successful in your role. I asked for--and received--$3k in start-up funds, but I have colleagues who asked for and received as much as $5k. You can use start-up funds for moving expenses, transcription services, books, classroom materials, conferences and more. Consider what would be useful to you--whether it’s a powerful laptop or an out-of-state education conference that could enrich your professional network--calculate their costs, and then confidently make the ask!
Ask about going up for tenure early. Each institution has its own rules for tenure and promotion, but typically, you spend about five years as an assistant professor ($50-60k for a 9-month contract) and then five years on tenure track as an associate professor ($55-65k) before becoming a full, tenured professor ($70-100k). One exception: If you have a considerable amount of your research published, you might be able to get early consideration for tenure. If so, you could negotiate to enter tenure track at year 4 of being an assistant professor rather than year 5, getting the $4-5k salary increase that comes with this title change a year earlier.
Above all, know that all Googling compensation packages can’t compare to having honest conversations with real people. Reach out to faculty you trust at the institution you’re graduating from and ask them how they negotiated. Stay in touch with your fellow Ph.D. students and compare notes as you pursue new opportunities. Or join a group like Wager to have salary conversations with other academics. It’s worth it!