Friday, August 15, 2008


Ask the Administrator: Salaries in Advertisements

A frustrated correspondent writes:

In looking at the academic job market (including academic library
positions), I have noticed that a lot of institutions do not publish
the salary (or specify benefits in any meaningful way) of the position
in the posting. Often, there will be some vague comment to the effect
of "TBD - depends on experience and qualifications." Why not provide a
range or a minimum/maximum though? I find it difficult to believe that
the university/college does not have a minimum or maximum already set
before it starts the search. Why hide it? Or fail to include it? There
are a lot of cases (esp. in cases where a collective agreement defines
salary levels) where it is included in the ad, but I'm curious why it
would be omitted in any case.

On the potential applicant side of things, that is important data to
know. It can help determine if it is worth packing up and moving to a
new city, for example. Any ideas about this?

Ooh, I like that. Put the salaries in the ads, and see what happens.

Unfortunately, there are several reasons not to do that.

The most basic is that, for many positions, the actual salary depends on the applicant. In a collective bargaining setting, there's often a grid you have to use, based on the person's degrees and experience. Depending on which person gets the offer, the offer will differ.

Ranges can help, but they can also cause problems of their own. Say the range for a given position is listed as 45-60k. You're offered 46, and told that they can't really negotiate. How do you respond?

In the real world, you either walk away, or you take it but start nursing a sense of resentment. Either way, the employer loses.

Say, instead, that you somehow negotiate your way into the middle of the range. What happens internally? Salary compression, and crabbiness amongst the natives. The employer loses again.

Worse, I've seen ranges like 42k-92k. Those are so broad as to tell you almost nothing. They're usually artifacts of some outliers caused by weird historical survivals, but try telling that to a disappointed applicant who expected 65 and got offered 48.

From the applicant's perspective, some truth in advertising could certainly save a lot of time. When I was trying to escape from Proprietary U, I had an interview for a faculty gig at Nearby Catholic College. What I didn't know until the end of the interview was that their salary scale had been set back when the faculty were all nuns, and hadn't really been adjusted since. It would have represented a substantial pay cut even from PU, and that's saying something. Had I known that upfront, I wouldn't have bothered applying, and wouldn't have wasted everyone's time with an interview that wasn't going to result in a hire.

Benefits are even harder to specify. Health insurance packages change almost hourly, and their value depends largely on the family and health circumstances of the employee.

Public institutions have to make their salaries known, but they don't have to make it easy for you to find. They also don't have to explain them, so it wouldn't be hard to reach some shaky conclusions based on very partial information.

Annoyingly, you can't just infer likely salaries from combining, say, national averages for a given position with a vague multiplier based on region. Salary scales are often artifacts of relatively arbitrary decisions in the distant past – before what Bill Bishop called 'The Big Sort' in his wonderful book of the same name – and then changed incrementally. Since the rest of the country polarized much more than incrementally, some serious mismatches have developed. My rule of thumb, at least at the community college level, is that salaries tend to cluster closer to a national average than does the actual cost of living, so cc faculty can generally do better in the Midwest than on the coasts. Of course, that's just a general trend, with plenty of exceptions, so extrapolate to your own case at your peril.

It's worth noting, too, that private industry generally doesn't post salaries in its ads, either. There's a broader cultural norm at work here.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think? Should colleges list salaries (or at least narrow ranges of salaries) in job ads? What's in it for the employer?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Dean Dad,

Here in the UK it is typical for job ads to list salary ranges. Check out for example. I don't know if it is a result of putting the salaries in the ads (I'm sure there's a lot of other factors at play there), but it seems to me that there is a much smaller variance in lecturer's salaries than in the States.
You should always check out the AAUP faculty salary survey stats before applying. They don't tell you a complete picture (such as whether higher demand fields get higher salaries), but you can get a ballpark.
I send out my university's salary schedule to candidates who get job offers, since it is, afterall, a public document. That gives them an idea of how to negotiate. Most of our would-be hires are freshly-minted Ph.Ds and have little experience negotiating salaries. It gives them an idea of what is fair. Generally, they see the administration is trying to bring them in at the top or near the top of the scale. It tends to lead to warm fuzzies all around.
I'm not sure if this applies to academic jobs, but "guesses" the salary range. There's also
In our state system, essentially all faculty are hired substantially above the "scale rate," but since there is supposed to be a scale it is hard to put anything more realistic into the job ad. So we leave all numbers out. Putting ranges into ads can also cause problems if we need to exceed the range (e.g., to match a competitive counteroffer), since under the new labor certification program for permanent residency there are substantial penalties if a non-citizen candidate is hired above an advertised range. This has led our administration to recommend that ranges not be published in any ads. People can always check the AAUP data, or look up actual salaries in the state employee database.
We don't list our salaries - I suspect because our administration is cheap (as are our state's taxpayers) and (a) doesn't want candidates negotiating towards the top of the range; (b) doesn't want to deal with compression and even inversion.
Old cynic that I am, I suspect that keeping salary ranges secret benefits the employer far more than the employee. A friend of mine worked at a company where they were told, explicitly, that details of their salary were not to be shared. She was given the best performance rating every year, and told she was getting the maximum raise they could give her, for ten years.

Then one day she got headhunted by another company, and her old employer suddenly found that they had the money after all to offer her a 40% raise to stay!

Public salary figures prevent stuff like that happening.
Applicants can often refer to their professional organization's webpages for salary info. In my field, our national professional organization does annual salary research, and publishes average salary ranges based on rank. Also, check out the Oklahoma State University salary studies for actual salary data by discipline, specialty, region, and type of school. A copy of the study costs somewhere about $75, but if having your own copy lets you assertively negotiate with your new dean for another few thousand a year... well, that seems to me to be a bargain.
What if colleges posted the minimum amount alone, and then any increase, big or small, would make the applicant happy? I can't see the employer really losing in this situation
When I was hired at my CC, the board of trustees had to approve the hire at its monthly meeting. Standard practice at most CCs, I suspect. My starting salary was included right there in the minutes. Although someone reading those minutes would not know precisely what degree or years of experience I had accumulated in order to "score" that salary on my institution's salary grid, they probably would have gotten a rough idea of what a typical starting range was, based on my salary along with other faculty hired that month or in subsequent months. All just a Google search away, by combining the name of the school and "board of trustees" and "minutes" or something like that.
Some disciplines (many in Business Administration) conduct annual salary surveys and publish the results.

The professional association sponsors the survey that goes directly to faculty members.

In my disicpline the salary survey comes out about a month before the interviewing/hiring cycle.

Our recently minted PhDs go into interviews knowing exaclty what the means, medians, spreads, and sds are for salaries at public vs. private, by size, geographic region, type of school, applicant rank, time in profession, etc. etc.

And the search committees and department chairs/deans know the exact same information . . . I used to think this sort of thing was widespread in academia but apparently not.

It's a simple thing and the school doing the survey gets funded for doing the research, and the person doing the survey prep and analysis gets a guaranteed hit (in a B+/A- journal).
OBTW there is also a separate published report on hiring that comes out around the same time.

This document compiles all the anticipated hiring requirements by school and rank (with any special requirements) for the coming cycle.

Come to think of it, all we need to add is add some kind of "Match.Com" functionality and we could do away with the whole awkward interview/offer letter process!

Think of all the fossil fuel wasted by all the travel that could be avoided . . .
It's odd that a lot of universities would be so coy about the job salary. I guess they want to pull you in by name alone.
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