Tuesday, January 04, 2011


How to Read Salary Ranges

The academic job market differs from most others in any number of ways. Salary ranges are one of the ways that nobody ever talks about.

I'm not referring to the absolute level of salaries; everybody knows that teaching is not the path to great wealth. I'm referring to how 'salary ranges' are handled.

Since I'm writing from the context of a teaching-focused institution, we don't go out of our way to recruit national superstars. We post openings, sift through applications, and hire the best teachers we can find. The Harvard/Princeton model of hiring is simply irrelevant here, as as its salaries.

I'm writing, too, from a union shop. The collective bargaining agreement sets out a rigidly prescriptive formula for determining salaries. The intention is to prevent inequities, though it often also prevents hiring.

In this context, published salary ranges bear almost no relationship to what a new hire can actually expect to get.

That's not because we're lying jerks, or bad at math, or out to screw people over. It's because salary ranges are defined by the highest-paid and lowest-paid people at the college holding that rank. And in a context in which salaries are determined mostly by seniority, it's possible for someone to command a salary at a given rank that has far more to do with how long they've been there than with anything else. Worse, since some fields command salary premiums – Nursing, most obviously – their relatively inflated salaries are included in the published ranges. An Assistant Professor of Nursing in the last year before promotion makes more than a new hire in History ever will.

The problem is that, as a public institution, we have to make our salary ranges public. Candidates frequently see the range, and assume that if the range is, say, from forty to seventy, that they'll get around fifty-five. They won't. In practice, most will land between forty-two and forty-six, depending almost entirely on factors beyond their own control.

Based on some discussions I've had with frustrated candidates, it would have been better if they hadn't seen the range at all. In the corporate world, it's normal to expect to start somewhere in the middle of the range; after all, if you were at the minimum, why would they hire you at all? But here, with a mechanistic grid, that's just not reality. (And heaven help the poor sap who tries to go above the grid for a candidate who seems especially appealing. One of my predecessors tried that, and the union grieved it. It wanted to stop its own members from being paid β€œtoo much.” I am not making that up.)

It's one thing to offer an unimpressive salary. It's another to offer an unimpressive to salary to someone who thought she had good reason to expect about ten thousand more.

Unfortunately, in this context, that's the way it has to be. So my free advice for job candidates at unionized schools is to read salary ranges, if at all, as only vaguely relevant. To do otherwise will just set set you up for disappointment.

One thing schools could do to help with this is make an HR person available to those who interview for positions who can quickly run the numbers and give a ballpark estimate of salary. In a union shop with prescriptive categories, there should be little mystery as to where someone would fall. This would allow candidates to have a realistic idea of what they were going to be offered and allow them to bargin or choose from a stronger position. Also, it would give them time to gather evidence needed to bump their salary up based on experience, degrees etc.
In our system, the person's credentials are evaluated by someone off campus -- so, it's even more frustrating. On the other hand, the contract is public along with the way that outside person evaluates new hires, so I was able to research the range etc... and figure out where I fell - - the folks who hired me couldn't do it...
My college is NOT a union shop, but some of what you write also applies here, although the HR document that turns up if you search our own web site (not state data like you refer to) is pretty clear that the salary range depends on previous experience. It just doesn't spell out what "experience" means.

Also, in some places the published data is for "total compensation", which includes substantial contributions for health insurance and retirement plus other fringe benefits that will not appear in your gross income.
It sounds like salary ranges are highly relevant -- just not the way people are used to. The range tells you at the low end what to expect on hire, then up through the middle and high end what to expect during the ordinary course of promotion.
One point to maybe consider out of this is how little career preparation/mentoring is done in academia (sometimes) for things like starting salary, job searches, job prospects, etc. Knowing that salary ranges are highly variable for positions like "Assistant Professor" based on location, discipline and institution is something that recent PhD should know. The exact advice given by DD in this post would be exactly the kind of information that would be highly relevant in a job search.

Clearly, academic positions are much different in many ways to industry jobs. It would be helpful to new graduates to know at least partially why and how to use this information to make wise decisions.
Specifically for your location, DD, could you show a maximum salary for the rank in a given department? It would be confusing if they showed a departmental salary range for a department with only very senior people, but if they could at least say that the highest earner at whatever rank in that department earns XYZ within the larger pool of that rank's salary range it would cut out premium departments like nursing.
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Incredibly simple solution: include the actual salary range for the specific position in the ad, just like virtually every other sector normally does. Why academia in general refuses to do this is one of the most puzzling aspects of the field.

The idea that the salary is unknown because it's subject to negotiation is crap. You have a budget number in mind already, and there's probably only about a 5-10% range of flexibility to beef it up except under exceptional circumstances such as multiple offers and bidding wars (which generally don't emerge at the community college and regional comprehensive levels).
Salary schedules can be a real can of worms.

Out here in CA, the Ed Code says that initial placement is based on experience (which is a no-brainer), but experience is defined as "full-time experience."

So someone who has been adjuncting for decades--and adjuncting 'way more than "full-time" because s/he's been working at several cc's--has no "full-time experience."

My district gives these people salary schedule placement credit for part-time teaching, but initial placement is limited to step 6 on the salary schedule (which is worth $12K/year).

Other districts don't. I have a friend who was hired for a full-time, tenure-track position, presumably because of his years of experience, and was placed on the lowest step of the salary schedule. Ironically, this happened in a really rich cc district (the existence of which is a whole 'nother story, but they're called Basic Aid districts and have hundreds of millions of dollars in reserves).

Long story short: My friend went to the college president who told him he could take it or leave it. He left it.

People who are lucky enough to get full-time job offers should take a careful look at the salary schedule. Check out how long it takes to get to the top. If top pay looks attractive, but it takes 45 years to get there, then you'll never make it.

It's also instructive to compare salary schedules for faculty to salary schedules for classified staff and for administrators. At my cc, it takes 25 years for a faculty member to get to top pay. It takes classified staff 12 years, and it takes only 6 years for administrators.

Finally, Dean Dad, I don't understand your concern about the union grieving an "above the grid" salary placement for an "especially appealing" candidate. The alternative would be that every candidate, appealing or not, would have to negotiate his/her salary schedule placement. We'd be in an auction situation where candidates who were willing to work for less would be more likely to get the jobs.

And what would happen if members of a hiring committee found out that a candidate got a salary $20,000 above the grid? And the candidate was a friend or relative or lover of the college president?

That's why there's a "collective" in "collective bargaining." The union negotiates salaries--and initial salary placements--for everyone.
I appreciate this post because I was one of (apparently) many who went to a major research university intent upon learn my craft - which I did - and got absolutely no practical advice about how to turn my craft into an economically sustainable career. Apparently I was either supposed to just know this at the age of 24, or else I was supposed to gladly resign myself to "starving artist" wages for the rest of my life. So, thanks for the tips.

But I also don't see the union angle as a problem here. The point of negotiating a salary grid is to remove some of those swirly clouds that obscure real pay expectations and lead to inequalities that are (all too often) based on a range of things other than actual qualifications. Or, at a minimum, people tend to believe this, which causes problems even when it isn't entirely true.

I work in a system where entry-level pay is completely negotiable, above a certain (rather low) floor. And all future raises are figured as a percentage of starting base pay. The result is that we sometimes get brand new people (still unproven and relatively unknown commodities) who are making $5-10k or more ABOVE the pay of folks who have been here for a decade or longer and who have proven their worth time and again, but who (for whatever reason) weren't able to negotiate a better starting salary when they began working here. That causes all sorts of problems and headaches and is just bad management. If we had a negotiated salary grid, we (and management) could have avoided most of these problems.
I don't understand why this is a hard problem. This seems easy. The fix to misleading information is: provide more information. Just provide additional information in your job ad. You could provide the salary range but add a disclaimer: warning, this range may be misleading. Or you could provide a range of typical salaries for new hires. Or you could provide the median salary for this kind of position. There are so many things you can do. Blaming the law seems like a lack of vision.

Besides: What's the citation to the specific law that requires this? When I've been told that I had to do something that sounded stupid because it is required by law, I've often had good success by asking for the specific statue and reading the text of the law myself. Often when I read it on my own to inform myself and then have a conversation with someone responsible, the objection magically evaporates and all of a sudden people are willing to admit that, hey, maybe this isn't actually required by law.
I'm in a similar situation. After being fortunate enough to land a tenure track position, I find that little of my adjunct work will increase my pay. I took a temporary position last year that "counted" my adjunct work, so I am shocked and dismayed (and feeling very undervalued) to find that my temp position last year paid me more than I'll be making in a tenure track position. I've been advised to take the position as it makes me a more competitive applicant for next year. Does anyone concur with that? I really like the position, and love the action the school is taking on behalf of the students - I wish they valued their incoming faculty as well. Advice is welcome and appreciated.
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