Dissing the Doctorate

From today’s Chronicle of Higher Education comes an article I wish people like my well meaning uncle (a doctor of the medical variety) could read. Before he tells me again that the phd he wants me to pursue (in addition to the one terminal degree I’ve already earned, will pay for itself).  Shoot, the first one hasn’t paid itself off after over 7 years…but I know he means well.  

As I know an associate pastor at my family’s church who proudly calls me Professor (I’ve graduated from “Cuz”) means well too when he hugs me after morning service.  For all the perks (like summer vacations and schedules where I have a “day off”—for researching and grading papers it turns out), this job ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.  That’s all I’m saying.  And it turns out Professor Pamela Johnston agrees.
Trust Me, I’m a Doctor
By Pamela Johnston  

During a Democratic presidential debate earlier this year, the moderator, Charles Gibson of ABC News, inadvertently brought down the house when he suggested that a two-professor family might generate an annual income approaching $200,000. The debate was hosted by St. Anselm College, a small, church-affiliated, liberal-arts institution that sounds a lot like the university where I am a faculty member. It didn’t surprise me to discover — as bloggers and reporters followed up on Gibson’s gaffe — that according to data from the American Association of University Professors, the average salary of an assistant professor at St. Anselm is $49,600. The only way a two-professor family at the college might even approach $200,000 in annual income is if they were both full professors, for whom the average salary in 2006-7 was $77,000. I wasn’t surprised by Gibson’s assumption, either. Most of my own friends, neighbors, and family members initially believed that all college professors earned substantial salaries. When I try to explain why professors at small, private universities — where tuition costs tend to be high — usually earn significantly less than faculty members at more-affordable public universities, people shake their heads at the absurdity of academe. My salary makes even less sense when people realize that my years of education don’t really factor into the compensation I earn. Many university professors make less money than public-school teachers, most of whom haven’t earned doctoral degrees. (Those in K-12 education who have earned Ph.D.’s have usually moved out of teaching and into administration.)

In the district where my children are enrolled, for example, a new teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no full-time experience will earn a base salary just slightly lower than what I earn after nearly seven years of full-time teaching, three years of full-time administrative work in academic affairs, two master’s degrees, and a Ph.D. 

I’m not suggesting that public-school teachers should be paid less; I’m proud that teachers in my district earn a salary that shows how much the residents of our community respect the important service they provide. 

But it seems absurd that after only a year of full-time experience, those who started teaching with a bachelor’s degree this year — some of whom were students in my classroom just a year ago — will be making more money than I do now. In our neighboring school district, new teachers began their careers this year at a salary that exceeds mine. They are also guaranteed a standard raise for every year of experience they accumulate, which is not the case in higher education. 

Many people don’t know those figures. So the response I receive when I tell a new acquaintance that I’m a professor is invariably positive. Being a professor is apparently uncommon enough, and seems important enough, to merit admiration. 

One friend nearly always finds some excuse to insert my profession into any conversation we’re having with people I’ve just met. Every Sunday, a woman at my church greets my husband and me by saying, “Here come the professors!” although I’ve never heard her refer to “the doctors” or “the lawyers” who are also members of our congregation. And my teenage daughter’s best friend insists on calling me Dr. Johnston — in spite of the fact that I’ve told her it’s unnecessary. 

“You worked hard for that name,” she observed once. “You should use it as much as you can.” 

Given the apparent respect with which professors are regarded, then, it’s no surprise that people expect our salaries to be higher. After all, in our culture, admiration is often expressed monetarily. And people in other professions that require years of advanced education — like law and medicine — often earn high salaries. 

So what explains the gap between the apparently high value placed on a professor’s education and the relatively low number on that professor’s paycheck? 

We might begin to answer that question by looking to U.S. News and World Report. Best known in academe for its annual list of “America’s Best Colleges and Universities,” the magazine recently offered up a list of 31 Careers With Bright Futures” that included this description of a professor’s work: 

“You’ll get the pleasure of teaching — but only six to 15 hours a week, so you’re unlikely to burn out. Outside of class, you’re required to meet with students, but that too is just a few hours a week. Most of the time, you’ll do research or write on a scholarly topic that interests you. . . . Plus, after seven years, you get tenure — lifetime job security.” 

I can hear the crowd at St. Anselm (and every other small college across the country) reprising its laughter at that description of the professoriate. 

It doesn’t account for overcrowded classes, the frustration of facing unprepared and apathetic students, or the enormous work involved in preparing to teach classes outside of your specific areas of expertise — a fairly common experience at small institutions. 

The list of faculty responsibilities completely missing from that description is too long to offer here, but it includes such basics as grading, academic advising, committee work, and administrative assignments. Those tasks are often as time-consuming as teaching an additional class, but don’t always merit release time (or monetary compensation.) And the characterization of tenure as a reward for years of service ignores the many faculty members who are denied tenure every year. 

But if the average person reading U.S. News assumes that characterization is accurate — the same person who, perhaps, sits on the governing board of a university and approves faculty raises each year — then it’s no wonder that faculty salaries are as low as they are on many campuses. Why, some trustees might wonder, should anyone be paid full-time wages for part-time work? 

Adding to the misperception is the fact that many professors, myself included, do much of their work in locations other than their campus offices. We work in the library or at home, both places where our labor isn’t visible to anyone who might be looking for us outside of our scheduled office hours. But the fact that no one sees me grading papers at home at 11 p.m. doesn’t mean I’m not doing my job. 

My campus office is not usually a quiet space for uninterrupted reading, reflection, and writing. Those things are requirements of a professor’s job, but they’re leisure activities for many people. For them, reading time is a reward for hard work, not work itself. 

But the fact that I’m sitting by the side of a swimming pool in the summer while rereading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening as preparation for a fall course only means that flexibility is one of the benefits of my profession. It doesn’t mean I’m at leisure. If that were leisure time, I would be reading one of the many books I actually want to read that are collecting dust on my nightstand. 

“I wish I had your job,” said a friend who works in the banking industry, when I characterized last summer’s poolside reading as work. 

“I wish I had your savings account,” I replied. 

The indolent professor is such a familiar cliché that we no longer recognize it for what it really is: an indicator of a serious lack of trust. Professors aren’t paid a wage commensurate with our level of education and experience, and that can only be because the people who control our salaries — the families who decide how much tuition they are willing to pay, and the administrators who decide where those tuition dollars will go — don’t believe we work hard enough, or that our work is important enough, to warrant better compensation. 

Perhaps that is because they don’t really believe we’re working. Perhaps it’s because our work leads to outcomes that can’t be measured as easily as blood pressure. 

My guess is that the crowd at St. Anselm wasn’t laughing at Charles Gibson’s naïveté. They were laughing at the absurdity of a system that too often fails to invest in its only real resource and, instead, trusts that professors will continue doing the work they love, whether or not they can afford to save for their own children’s college education. 

Instead, maybe we should do exactly what’s expected of us: spend fewer hours working and more time enjoying the perks of a laid-back professor’s life. 

Pamela Johnston is an associate professor of English studies at Texas Lutheran University, where she teaches creative writing and American literature. Her first novel Little Lost River, is forthcoming from the University of Nevada Press this spring.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Copyright © 2008 by The Chronicle of Higher Education  

One thought on “Dissing the Doctorate

  1. “The Dark Side of Higher Education”

    I’m just an ordinary Aussie of the street with no particular qualifications or college training and I earn nearly double (with current exchange rates) than what these poor people do !

    I can’t believe that devoted teachers with this intellect and level of qualifications get paid the piddling amounts of money quoted here. What is the world coming to when we can’t pay a person their real worth? Surely these saints that devote their life and skills to improving and educating their country deserve a little more than this.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love my job and look forward everday in getting up and going to it, but a person should be paid according to their worth and contribution to society.

    As far as I’m concerned these people are the salt of the earth and should be justly rewarded for their efforts.



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