Overpaid, Underworked Professor Meme

Perhaps it is the narrowness of my perspective, but I cannot understand why the overpaid, underworked professor meme has such cultural resonance. I am a professor, and it looks like bunk to me. One incarnation quoting statistics from February 2012 was David C. Levy, whose byline cited his experience as an executive education consultant, cultural institution president, and as a chancellor, which he claimed entitled him to speak knowingly about how hard executives work, 40 to 50 hours per week. I’ll take his word for it. In contrast, he found university professors to be overpaid and underworked, and in response to the question that headlines his essay, “Do college professors work hard enough?” he answered that professors typically work only “12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks” and so spend “only 360 to 450” hours working per year.

The only “work” that counts as work in his analysis is time spent in class while pulling down salary figures that he cites in the range of “$80,000 to $150,000.” Do note his qualification, that his salary figures represent only of “senior faculty at most state universities.” The title that he cites, “senior faculty,” is intended to raise the average. His salary numbers do roughly match the survey data provided by AAUP, which are posted in a convenient chart in the Chronicle of Higher Education. But Levy is engaged in rhetorical sleight of hand. Yes, senior professors in some fields—law, engineering, and business—can aspire to $150,000 and higher, though top salaries and the overwhelming majority of public institutions are far lower. Only 5 state institutions nationwide have salary ranges that average $150,000, but that’s out of 466 colleges. The mean is pretty near 80,000.

But if we dismiss what he makes up that can be disproven by facts, I do have new news for Levy: nobody made it to senior professor working 12 to 15 hours per week. Heck, very few make it to senior professor at the 50-hr.-per week he cites as tops for executives. And suppose that someone does in twilight years make it to such a lofty salary: at least two decades were spent at a lower salary. My experience as a university professor is so far from Levy’s norm that I have no doubt that he, not I, is living in a fantasy world. First of all, this assumption that everything else one does, like preparing for class or research, is not work is just mind-bogglingly offensive. I am not unaware of world outside academia. Before I went back to graduate school, I was a technical writer in software industries for almost a decade. After a decade of “real work” in a humming economy, 40 to 50 hours per week, I decided to go back to graduate school in 2002. At that point, from my technical writing job I was pulling down a salary close to $60,000 per year while actually working 45 or so hours per week, like an executive. When I indicated to a professor that I was considering going back to graduate school, he warned that I would be unlikely to earn the type of income as an English professor that I would and could earn as a technical writer. He was a smart fellow, and he was right.

After graduate school and two years in a post-doc, described in another post, I find in this a professional position that Levy and his ilk inform readers in a paper of record is the picture of cushy living. I typically spend 9 to 12 hours per week in class, but I generally prep for class at least as many hours as I am in class, so my average hours of week for class-prep and in-class work is a bit different from Levy’s estimate. With grading I spend at least an average about 30 to 35 hours per week. For example, the day before I first prepared this draft, I spent about 6 hours in non-work that will include meeting two students, consulting with a librarian about class project, and coordinating a departmental committee. Other non-work consisted of reading a dissertation chapter, and reading and grading the remaining 8 student papers out of sets of 35 and 20 submitted two weeks ago. I average close to 7 hours per day on class-related non-work. But, funny thing, the university won’t grant me tenure for the 12 to 15 hours of work-work and the fifteen hours of non-work-work that I do each week. The baseline work that is needed to keep my job beyond the tenure period is known as research, which has to come out of how much I can work in addition to the 30 hours of work and non-work work each week. My service burden is comparatively light because senior colleagues are kind and don’t demand too much service–yet.

During the academic year, outside of service work on committees, I struggle to devote 15 or 20 hours per week to research, which brings my weekly total of work hours always into the 60 hour per week range. Saturday and Sunday are just shorter work days. In summer, so I can continue to service debt that I accrued as graduate student and fellow, and so I can do useful things for economy like pay for the third car that my family has purchased during past 18 years, I apply for research funding or teach. So in last five years, I have spent every summer working the equivalent of full time on research or teaching. In the past 7 years, I have not taken any vacation longer than a day trip and never traveled anywhere except for research purposes or for conference purposes or to visit family, the last one a trip of about 5 or 6 days per year, about half of which is spent at work.

I’m not complaining because I like my work. But I resent it when a chancellor and executive who works 50 hours per week calls me out for earning $80,000 and working 15 hours per week when in fact my salary over the past four years as an assistant professor has been more than $25,000 less than the figure he cites. My salary for six years as a fellow and graduate student was less than half the figure he cites. In five years I have received three raises of two percent each from my starting salary. So in last 10 years I’ve worked 20 percent more hours than Levy imagines and been paid an average of 40 percent fewer dollars than the favorite rich professor meme he cites. A decade ago I worked 30 percent less and was paid 30 percent more in the private sector in a job that demanded far fewer skills and required only a BA.

Yet I am still pretty close to the definition of the privileged university professor. If I continue to work hard and achieve tenure and promotion, I hope, perhaps in the final decade of my career, to earn a salary close to the range that Levy considers “average.” If I fail to earn tenure, it will be to be another household finance disaster and probably will take a bankruptcy to make way out of it. Guess I’ll figure out something. But there would be no way in hell I could get within shouting distance of reappointment, promotion, or tenure by working 15 hours per week. And even if I do achieve tenure, as far as eye can see, it’s 70 or so hours per week for the next decade as I crawl out of grad school debt and housing collapse debt. The beauty of it though is that I’m going to work 70 or so hours per week on work that I LIKE doing. But who knows what the future will bring?

No, I am not a victim. I made an unwise financial choice. After a decade in the private sector as a documentation developer and technical writer, I attempted to become a university professor. If I had not landed a position—I received first interview for full-time position in three years after about 170 applications—I probably would have forced to abandon profession five years ago. No, I was not lazy and applying too seldom. In years that I was applying, the number of available positions in English was in the 500-per-year range. Because research consists of many specialties, I only actually qualified for about 5 to 8 positions per year. But I’m not a victim. The victims are my colleagues who do the bulk of the teaching work at universities, the adjuncts and part-time instructors who are paid about a third or half of what I am paid and work about twice as hard on teaching. On the backs of their labor is one of the ways I get the opportunity to do research despite long-term state funding declines.  There but for luck of employment lottery go I.

As for retirement…but that’s another post. For more on that, see Ohio STRS Pension Reform: The Death Benefit.


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