Wednesday, July 7, 2010

New Faculty and “The Latte Factor”

Money is a touchy subject among academics. However, we actually live in the real world and have to make real-life budgetary decisions. And, our research and writing may well depend on us being judicious about those decisions.

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 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. When my I sat down and came up with a budget based on my income and expenses, I realized 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 restaurants on a regular basis.

With a mortgage, bills, taxes, a student loan, child care, 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.

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. 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 re-did my budget, and included a line each month where I set aside money for the three summer months when I don’t get a paycheck, and money for vacation. Each year, as my paychecks and living costs change, I re-do my budget so that I can prioritize what I need and want in my life.

Budgeting Can Help Your Research Agenda
Why am I 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.

Money for Research
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 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.

Summer Teaching?
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 teach summer courses. 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. If, for example, teaching a summer class is the only way you can help your mother pay for open-heart surgery, then, by all means, go for it. Most of us, however, do not have such life-threatening reasons to teach over the summer.

Many of us can avoid the need to teach over the summer through careful budgeting. 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. The only way for you to know, however, is to create a budget, and, moreover, to track your spending.

If you are starting a new faculty position this year, I encourage you to 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. Money is *such* a taboo topic in our society. Thanks for clarifying a typically opaque topic. While I will just be doing a postdoc next year, not a professorship, a lot of this advice is still relevant. Thanks again!

  2. Thanks, Chi-Chi! We don't like to talk about money, but it is such an important part of our lives, whether we like it or not!

  3. Yes, some universities allow you to distribute 9 month income into 12, others like Northwestern pay you in 12 month increments. It is annoying that KU does not let one do this but I've decided to set up a bank account so as to transfer about that amount (5-6 k) for the summer. I am also eligible for the same 8 k you mention and already thought that I'd be better off not taking it as salary..instead I need more archival work for my book's qualitative chapter so I plan to use it for that but yes for it you need a balanced credit card account or preferably money in hand! I am glad for this blog and glad to find that most of the strategies I come up with match yours. Given your success, it tells me I'm on the right track! As for teaching, I am leaning against it for the first few years; thankfully I have been guaranteed summer 9ths for the first year but even after that having summer off to research is paramount to me. hats off Tanya for managing a family on this income!