After years of explaining this phenomenon to family and friends, I need to say it publicly: Professors do not make a lot of money. *Putting the (ab)use of adjuncts aside for the time being, allow me to briefly explain.
I am well aware that because of the prestige of the career, people assume professors make a lot of money. Alas, this is untrue—especially when you are beginning your career as an assistant professor. I explained in my post Tick Tock: Love or Learning? the timeline for promotions in academia. Allow me to explain salary. It’s simple: your salary increases with your rank. When your rank doesn’t change (it changes once, maybe twice in your career), you receive modest salary increases per year (as is common in most fields). By modest, I mean around 2-3% (unless we are in a freeze, which is what happened when the economy crashed). The specifics vary by institution and type of college/university. There are four types of colleges: Doctoral, Masters, Baccalaureate, and Associates. They are obviously labeled according to the highest degree offered by the institution. Schools that offer Doctoral degrees tend to pay more because they generally have more money since their professors produce research and earn grants (it’s much more complicated than that, but for my purposes the point is that Doctoral institutions pay more). The correlation is clear: the higher the degree offered, the higher professor salaries. This is unfortunate for professors like myself that value teaching above research and are thus employed at institutions that do not grant Doctoral or (in a lot of cases) Masters degrees (my institution has 1 Masters program).
Here is some data on (non-unionized) average Assistant Professor salaries from the “Annual Report of the Economic Status of the Profession” (AAUP) dated April 2012. The data are from the 2010-2011 academic year. ( Here is the Link to the Document for Full Data –medians are available here) I focus on assistant professors because that is where I am in my career and the tenure/promotion processes are highly variable across institutions. In the beginning, we are all assistant professors (those of us blessed to have tenure-track positions).
*n= number of institutions in the sample
Public: $70,093 (n= 50)
Private: $83,332 (n= 66)
Public: $57,735 (n= 110)
Private: $61,374 (n= 176)
Public: $55,729 (n= 32)
Private: $55,726 (n= 358)
Public: $51,189 (n= 57)
(there aren’t enough schools to gather information on private community colleges)
So you see, even those teaching at doctoral institutions are by no means making ‘a lot’ in terms of wealth in this country. The average salary in the country in 2010 was $41,673.83 (Government’s Data ), so I acknowledge that faculty do earn more than the average worker in the US; however, our salaries as Assistant Professors render us middle class. We are not even upper middle class (many qualify for lower middle class). And once you take taxes out of that, well…we are hard workers, whom like most of the country, are not making nearly as much as we deserve (except that 2% who earn over $250,000—I’m looking at generations of your family Mitt Romney!).
So to my friends—a lot of whom make 6 figures, please stop asking me to go on cruises or to come visit you three times a year. Mostly, please stop getting engaged, married, and having babies.
I can’t afford the gifts.
*P.S. I do want to state that the majority of higher education faculty is comprised of adjuncts whose data are not included in these surveys. Sadly, adjuncts comprise 67-75% of faculty now. And their pay is awful. Check out this site for more on the plight of many PhDs: http://www.adjunctproject.com/