Not in it for the money

Not in it for the money

When a friend recently found out I was working as an engineer, he said, “I never saw you as the worker bee type.” It was a good assessment of my personality, but not a good assessment of my job. All engineering jobs don’t require one to become a worker bee. Because the theme this week is engineering salary, it’s a good time to talk about what I do and do not expect from a job especially as I hope to go into academia (which, as far as I know, is different from my fellow bloggers here).

There is a down side to this career path…or two, rather. The first is the stiff competition for open jobs. (Let’s pretend for a moment that it’s not there.) The second is the pay.

As a grad student, I’ve averaged around $20k for an annual salary. That may not sound like a lot, but as far as grad students go, I’ve been very well paid. (I cringe thinking about my cohorts in the humanities who often live on less.) But what about down the line?

Peeking at has given me some insight as to what I can expect. As a beginning professor in electrical engineering, the national average salary is about $70k/year. (Of course, I would probably get dinged for not being in a ‘high demand’ field as well as the fact that I don’t particularly care to leave the midwest.) With my skill level, experience, and background, I might be able to expect about $10k/year more if I went into industry. If I were to get an academic job in physics, I can expect about $10-20k/year less.

(Not that such pay leaves people penniless, but it is surprising how much effort it takes to get a PhD only to find that you aren’t going to be compensated monetarily for the effort.)

After that, things get trickier. While it’s nice to hear that women can be effective leaders and do well at getting raises and promotions, the world of academia functions differently enough that I don’t know how well such assertions would work there. Academics don’t get bonuses, and most only get cost of living raises until they get tenure. When they get tenure and again when (if) they reach full professor, they get more substantial raises, probably on the order of $10-15k.

But think about it – profs only get two substantial pay raises and two substantial promotions in their entire career. Then they’re ‘stuck’ at that level of pay unless they decide to make a move elsewhere that will give them a more substantial paycheck. I know of situations where professors are teaching part-time grad students who are working, and the grad students make more than the professors.

So why would anyone want to go into academia?

For me, it’s a question of what kind of work I want to do. I’m very interested in learning new things, figuring things out, and studying them until every little bit of information has been extracted. I have a hard time seeing myself fitting into the corporate culture because I am too curious to let something rest: I like exploration and open-endedness and ambiguity. I like trying new things. There are also perks such as a somewhat flexible schedule relative to a normal 8-5 type job as well as the job security one gets from tenure.

However, unless one goes into administration, the perks of the job simply aren’t money. Even starting off at a reasonable level, I expect my cohorts to surpass me in short order. The point, for me, is to find a job I really enjoy.

1 comment

You sound like you think there’s a neat, clean well-defined career path between your PhD and tenure. Now, you can land a quick three or four year tenure-track post doc right after graduation, then segue smoothly into a well-deserved tenured faculty seat. It does happen.

But don’t count on it. Don’t count on having to do just one post doc. Don’t count on being able to do them all in the same part of the country (or the world). And most of all, do not count on you actually having a paying job at all for all that time.

Be prepared to have stretches of time where you are effectively unemployed. Or where you’re effectively a full-time post-doc but being paid as a part-time “assistant” or “technician” or similar, with a lower take-home pay than you’d get from the fryer station at your local hamburger place.

And don’t count on actually landing a tenured position. Have a back-up plan, an alternative career, and make sure you keep that plan viable over time (extra consulting to keep your hand in, keep industry contacts fresh and so on). The statistics are quite simple, with several post-docs for each open faculty position. Chances are you will need your backup plan, so make sure you have one.

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