Today's ponder

Dec 19 2016 Published by under NIH Careerism, Tribe of Science

Today's version of this was me pointing out that if you are on a "9 month appointment" of Salary X but every workplace expectation is that you will be doing University related work for 12 months, that in fact Salary X is your base 12-mo salary. The "9 month" thing is a dodge the Universities pull to turn your job into a contingency plan like selling cars.

If you sell a grant idea, you get to bonus your Salary X to the tune of those three extra summer months.

I'm sure there are a lot of fancy accounting reasons Universities pull this. There is certainly a whiff of distasteful "sing for your supper" in the underlying expectation that such Profs must acquire extramural funding to pay for themselves that I'm sure is being whisked aside with this dodge.

What I don't understand is why so many of the victims of such schemes are so amped to defend them and call me terrible for pointing this out.

Look, if there is genuinely a situation where your Professor career is a-okay from start to finish if you only work 9 months out of the year than sure. I buy it. This person's 9-month salary is plausibly a 9-month salary. I'm going to raise an eyebrow if they don't cut off your card key access and VPN over the summer but....okay, fine.

But, the second you have a situation where you are expected to work those extra three months on University related business in order to retain your job or to advance normally (see: tenure) then this is a base salary for a 12-month job.

33 responses so far

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    It's easy. Reminding the 9-month-ers that they are are on partial soft-money removes the their sense of superiority they have over 100% soft-money people.

  • qaz says:

    The 9 months was a fiction so that you could augment your salary with 3 months funding if you went out and successfully staged a pirate raid (see Pirate Stronghold post) on NSF (*) and get "summer salary" from NSF. To say that it was a cheat is disingenuous. A 9 month salary at $x was BETTER than a 12 month salary at $x because it meant it was possible to supplement it. So universities would offer a salary of $x and then (as a bonus!) call it a 9 month salary. People used to negotiate for the 9 month designation.

    There is nothing distasteful or bad about this. It was simply a "base salary" (which was supposed to be more than enough to be a good salary in the local area [and usually was]) that was augmentable by extra work.

    * I have no idea if NIH used to work this way. But it was definitely the case for NSF.

    Kind of funny to have someone who defends the soft-money position trying to trash the 9-month salary idea. What we need is to go back to the base salary + augment idea. (See Pirate Stronghold post!)

  • Grumble says:

    What qaz said. DM, you're getting caught up in labels. If Profs John and Jane both take home $120,000/year, but in Jane's case it's a 9 month salary whereas in John's it's a 12 month, which one is better off? The important thing is the *amount of money*, not the administrative details concerning number of months supposedly worked.

  • Ola says:

    Yeah what Grumble sez. Lots of folks across the street from our medical center on the liberal arts campus are on 9 mo. appointments, including those in the biology department where actual real research happens. Their salaries are quite respectable in monthly take-home pay terms spread across 12 mo. (i.e., on par with faculty in basic science depts. in the medical center). Yeah they have to teach a lot more, but they don't have the dean breathing down their neck grinding them to get moar grantz, and they don't have the publication expectations for tenure that we do in the MC.

  • drugmonkey says:

    It was simply a "base salary" (which was supposed to be more than enough to be a good salary in the local area [and usually was]) that was augmentable by extra work.

    I was taking fire for expressing it exactly like this, qaz.

  • drugmonkey says:

    JB- I think you have identified an important point about a large subset of the people getting all angree at me for my observations. Or perhaps an important reason that I am pursuing this in the first place.

  • qaz says:

    Where were you taking fire for expressing it this way?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Twitter of course

  • drugmonkey says:

    Grumble- I was also taking fire for exactly the point you are making.

  • Morgan Price says:

    Now that grants are harder to get, are a significant number of scientists actually getting just the 9 month salary and working for "free" over the summer? Or do they end up being paid for something else (maybe teaching summer courses)?

  • qaz says:

    Well, I guess (as usual) twitter is wrong.

  • LIZR says:

    Morgan - I have a 9 month academic salary. If research $'s are tight I still work, even though I have no summer salary. Under theses circumstances, some research faculty will opt to teach during the summer sessions to earn additional income.

  • A Salty Scientist says:

    I've treated my 9 mo. appointment as a perk and tradeoff for increased teaching, with the benefits being the aforementioned pirate stronghold (I can get by with less directs) and the 3-mo. "bonus" if well funded. I would assume that 12-mo. soft-money folks have more time protected for research and don't get funny looks asking for more than modular (true?). I would venture that a high percentage of PIs funded by NIGMS have 9 mo. appointments, so the "get rid of the pirate stronghold" brand of "Do it to Julia" probably touched a nerve.

  • Established PI says:

    The 9-month contract has long been the norm for tenured and tenure-track faculty at colleges and universities, irrespective of field. In earlier times, when it was not necessarily expected that faculty do research, the contract reflected the fact that faculty did not teach in the summer. Faculty without research grants could (and still do) supplement their 9-month salary by teaching summer classes.

    The expectation today at a research-intensive university is that you do research and - of course- bring in grants. I know of some unis that provide summer salary for the first few years but then expect faculty to cover it through grants. No grant, no summer salary - and no tenure, either. The down side is that, even after tenure, you can lose your grants and get caught in a death spiral of increased teaching and no opportunity to recover (if no alternate support is offered). The up side is that, for faculty who are no longer funded or active, they have a guaranteed salary for however long they want to draw it. Since this often comes at a time when they are no longer supporting kids, the house is paid off, the 9-month salary suffices. And, yes, I know of specific examples.

  • MorganPhD says:

    I'm at a state R1 in an undergrad biology department. We're expected to have grants, and those will pay our summer salary of 3 months. If we don't have active grants, we don't get paid over the summer. Our 9 month salary is spread out over the 12 months, not unlike K-12 teachers. Overall, the 9 month salary is about 20% higher than my previous staff scientist (ie super postdoc) position, so it's already a good salary IMO.

  • jmz4 says:

    Kind of an aside, but when you're looking for TT jobs, is there any way to suss out which faculty searches are for which type of position (soft-vs hard money)? Someone once told me there was a bit of coded language in announcement that would tell you which kind of position it is, but I can't recall what it was.

  • drugmonkey says:

    "School of Medicine"

  • A. Tasso says:

    This strikes me as unnecessary whining. The university pays you to teach 9 months out of the year. What you do during the other 3 months of the year is your business. If you want to go to northern Ontario and spend the entire summer in a cottage with your family, that's your business. You might not get tenure, but that's also your business.

    The university is not in the business of paying you to do research. Those 3 months are yours, truly yours. (You don't have to get tenure if you don't want it. You can always go to another university.) If you want to do research, then get a grant. If you want to spend some of those 9 months doing research, then get another grant and buy out of some teaching time.

  • Dusanbe says:

    I have a $80k/month salary. I just work for free 11 months of the year.

  • A Salty Scientist says:

    @jmz4: In addition to DM's key word, if the position is listed as a 9 mo., it is most certainly hard funded. In the absence of specifying 9 vs. 12 months, a description that includes teaching (especially undergraduates) very likely means hard funding.

  • A Salty Scientist says:

    The university pays you to teach 9 months out of the year.

    This is not exactly true for many 9 mo. positions. Appointments can range from 20 - 80% research, so the university does in fact pay their hard-funded TT faculty to perform research. Of course you still need grant(s) to do research, but that's true for everyone and beside the point.

  • BEN says:

    The expectations associated with a 9 month salary vary widely across institutions. At my ILAF institution, it's a 9 mo hard salary and you are explicitly expected to spend half your time doing research (the other half teaching). I recently learned that it is even possible for the administration to cut the salary of a tenured faculty member in half if they refuse to engage in research (i.e. if they become 'deadwood') because of this explicit expectation. In practice, I think that's quite rare and reserved for particularly egregious cases. Teaching loads are reasonable, but buying out of teaching is not allowed in many departments, including mine.

    Summers are yours to spend as you like. There is no expectation that you will work on university business. Of course, most people work on research and writing in the summers. I don't know anybody who has an active research program that doesn't work on research during the summer, but nobody seems to think this is somehow abusive, probably because the 9 mo salary is fine. It's also perfectly acceptable to teach summer courses, at our institution or another one, or work as a paid consultant or do other paid work.

    For people who are on the job market and trying to compare multiple offers, it's important to get a clear explanation of these things during your conversations with the chair.

  • EPJ says:

    "suss", a british thing? it smells

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    Yeah, teaching duties is a sign that a position must be (at least partially) hard-funded because teaching (unless you have some sort of grant dedicated to education) can't really be done on soft-money -- grants are typically geared towards specific research projects.

    This actually was a real issue at the research institute I used to work at -- we were trying to get adjunct positions at a nearby university so we could get grad students, but the university understandably wanted adjuncts to occasionally teach a class in return, which just wasn't possible for 100% NSF/NIH soft money researchers.

  • jojo says:

    J. Badger

    I know of a situation like the kind you're talking about - a colleague works at an associated research institute and commutes over to teach one section of a course once a year. And in return gets some salary back plus the ability to have grad students from Big U. I guess I don't see why it "isn't possible" for 100% soft money people to do this though. Although I guess by virtue of doing this technically speaking you are no longer "100% soft money".

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    The argument that was presented to us by our grants office was that if we were funded 100% on research projects then teaching for free would be "stealing" from the funding agencies. Even if we were teaching outside normal work hours (the 100% would just include more hours). But I can see how even a small salary could work if you then took only 90% time from your grants or what not.

  • socsci says:

    Saying that we could take three months vacation in some cabin far, far away overlooks the reality that our work doesn't stop in the summer. Last summer I attended one domestic and one international conference, had to attend to dissertation defense/edits, met with students for various reasons, and prepped a fall course. I rationalized to myself that I get paid during the 9 month, but it's hard to make peace with doing work while one is not receiving a paycheck from the school.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    The idea that you're only being paid for 9 months is mostly a convenient fiction. Sort of like "no writing federal grants during time that's paid for by federal grant dollars" is a convenient fiction.

    I've worked in both a soft money medical school position and (currently) in a hard money position with more teaching responsibilities. Both environments have their pluses and minuses. For myself, I'm actually doing higher impact science in my current position, but I can see how certain kinds of research (mostly the animal heavy stuff) probably needs to be carried out in a med. school environment.

  • drugmonkey says:

    socsci- it sounds as though you have merely chosen to have your 12 month salary delivered in 9mo of paychecks to me. And the only reason this bothers you is because you have internalized the accounting fiction.

  • JC says:

    What I hope the universities never truly figure out is just how little money I would take to keep doing this science thing.

  • MF says:

    We have a 12 month hard money salary, with the expectation of 80% research effort, the rest is teaching and service. There are no summer breaks, and committee meetings, student exams and other activities (including some teaching) take place over the summer, although one can certainly use the earned vacation days as needed.

  • SFGiants says:

    I have been in tenured 9- and 12-month positions at the same university. Both are basically hard money positions (even the medical school for folks who have been here for a long time, but this is a smaller med school with a lot of teaching responsibilities even when you have grants). To me, there is no comparison in which is the ‘best’ positon. It is the 9-month option after seeing both of them. Strengths of 9-month appointment: 1) not that much difference in the base salary at rank between the med school departments versus biology, chemistry, psychology, pharmaceutical sciences, etc.; the salary is just spread out but the absolute amount is not that different; med school average salaries will always appear higher because the Chairs at med schools and superstars make a lot more and skew the number higher, especially at the Full Professor rank; 2) if you have a grant, you will get about a ‘double’ pay check during the summer months; if you don’t have a grant, you can consult, teach, or just hang out at the beach if you are tenured; many folks on 9-month appointments make more on consulting than they do through the university; 3) if you have a grant, that is great in the 9-month appointment; if you do not, nobody can really make you write one (yes they can try, but you can just ignore it more easily than in the med school); 4) your time, your time and your time (in addition to the summer break, I always tell my med school colleagues that a 9-month appointment is really an 8-month appointment because you have almost a month off for winter break as opposed to only a week off at the med school. In fact, med school classes frequently start on Jan 3 – ouch!); 5) 9-month appointment to me is an academic appointment where you teach and do research; the med school is a business and even if you are tenured folks want to know where you are and is much more micromanaged. These are my thoughts and based only on a single university in 2 different schools. But, to me, the main difference is the better flexibility and perk of having more time away from the office. Like many of you, when I was in the 9-month position, I worked and had grants but it felt more flexible and less controlled. Just my opinion.

  • BEN says:

    JC - definitely!

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