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 “too 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.