The tyranny of the 9-month position


I’m convinced that 9-month positions are bad for pretty much everybody. Especially driftwood faculty.

This week I was having a conversation with folks at Charles Sturt University* in Australia, which has a bunch of wonderful ecologists. This is the middle of the summer break here in Oz**, and classes don’t start back up for at least another month or so. But there wasn’t any problem catching everybody for lunch at work. They were writing grants, or papers, or getting other stuff done. Do you know why they were on campus? Because they were working. They were getting paid to work. Over the summer break.

This might sound normal to you. But for readers outside the US, you might not realize that this is not the status quo in US universities. By default, faculty at US universities are employed for nine months. Or maybe ten months.

I spent a few minutes chatting with my Australian colleagues about the contradictions and illogic of the 9-month position, which to anybody outside US universities, is a bizarre administrative concoction.

Of course, we faculty do work in the summer. Usually, I’m working harder during the summer than during the academic year, especially if it involves fieldwork and supervising student researchers. (Even my former Dean didn’t get this concept. I came back from working in the field, supervising ten students and working with almost no sleep, and she asked on my return, “How was vacation?“)

Tenure-track faculty who don’t work in the summer wouldn’t get tenure.

It’s tacitly understood that while we have a 9-month position, that we are expected to work year-round. Of course, if you take some weeks off in the summer for holidays, nobody will look askance. If you don’t respond to emails, nobody will hold it against you. But if you don’t get anything done in the summer? That’s not good at all.

That is, until you have tenure. After tenure, if you don’t do anything in the summer, then, well, you’ve just given up on research, that’s all. Right after you get tenure, you might keep it up for a while, but if you’re at an institution where you’re teaching 2.5 or 3 or 4 classes per semester, then, well, year after year it’s hard to rationalize to yourself why you’re working in the summertime when the university isn’t paying you. If you just have a three-month holiday, you’ll still get paid, you won’t be violating major social norms, and you’ll be keeping your job and performing as well as most others in your university.

It’s not that I don’t get a paycheck or university benefits during the summer. Like other tenure-track faculty, I get healthcare and other bennies year-round. Our nine-month pay is automatically reallocated to a year-round paycheck schedule, so I get an equally-sized paycheck every month. The financial drawback of the nine-month position isn’t getting less money in the summer, but getting less money year-round while the university can claim that they’re paying us adequately for our work during the academic year, when in fact those of us who work year-round are being underpaid for the scholarship that we do in the summertime.

We can pay ourselves summer salary, but only if we have a substantial grant (increasingly-difficult-to-get federal funding, or a big contract, or some amazing foundation). But to pay yourself summer salary, you’ve got to be working every summer consistently to maintain a research program that can garner summer salary. And those summers might not include salary.

It turns out the majority of people I know who have grants with summer salary sometimes don’t even pay themselves with it, because they end up needing it for keeping post-docs from poverty, or keeping a technician afloat, or helping out their grad students. At least, this is true among colleagues with whom I have a talk-about-this-kind-of-stuff relationship, who tend to be tropical biologists. (I’ve had summer salary budgeted in my grants for several years, and if I recall correctly, I’ve paid myself only twice so far.) If we do, it’s like a big bonus check that arrives when we file the paperwork in these summertime.

If someone tells you a 9-month salary is good because you get the chance to pay yourself extra salary in the summer, you’ve being sold a false bill of goods. Why doesn’t the university pay you twelve months at the same monthly rate? Because they can get away with it, for at least the first several years of your career. They are banking that that you’ll grow so used to working for free, chasing the carrot of tenure, that you’ll do so after you are tenured.

If university scientists only worked in the summer when they received summer salary, then things would shut down in a jiffy.

I feel decadent when I take 2-3 weeks of the summer for genuine vacation. But really, the only rational thing to do between now and retirement is to not work at all in the summertime. The only reason that I do research in the summer is that the research matters to me, I want to continue offer opportunities to students, and the idea of not publishing all the cool stuff I’ve done is worse to me than not working.

I also recognize that real tenure is portable. If I’m not capable of jumping ship, then I might end up trapped with tenure in a miserable situation. Dream jobs can quickly evolve into nightmare jobs, and you’d be surprised how jobs that appear unattractive can turn into quite a peach. A Dream Job can’t stay a Dream Job for your whole career, unless you don’t evolve.

deadwood3Nonetheless, it’s no surprise that most faculty at non-research-intensive universities scale back on research after they get tenure. I mean, if we’re not getting paid for work in the summer, it’s absurd for us to do it. I have absolutely zero contempt or negative judgement or problem with faculty that have slowed or stopped research when working on a 9-month position at a teaching-focused institution. I mean, you can’t get much done during the academic year, if you’re teaching a full load. And you shouldn’t work when you’re not getting paid. Right?

The university goes through a lot of expense and effort to make sure that they hire research-active faculty and support their research until they get tenure. But at most teaching-focused institutions, the support for faculty research tends to fizzle, as service expectations climb. You do research to get tenure, and then after that, you focus on teaching and running the university. That’s a very common model.

It seems rather bizarre to me that the university hires and supports faculty to do teaching and research, but the funding model of faculty only involves supporting the teaching. Getting substantial research done during the academic year isn’t that likely, and for many of us, requires extended travel to the library or the field or to collaborating sites, or for long-term experiments that require full-time attention. If our job is to be a scholar, then we are required to work in the summer. The university wants us to be scholars but not pay us to be scholars.

You can call non-researching faculty deadwood, but I think of them as the wise ones who aren’t bending to the university’s model of benefiting from faculty scholarship without paying for it. I’m the one who is the sucker by working when I’m not getting paid. If they’re doing their job as well as they can during the academic year, and they’re carrying a reasonable service load in addition to their teaching, I have zero problem with them. This blog is about doing research in teaching institutions, not about expecting everybody at teaching intuitions to do research.

The university is squandering the investment in faculty by hiring scholars but not paying people to be scholars. Paying faculty for nine months is like buying a nice car but never paying to change the oil.

As far as I know, the phenomenon of the non-research-active professor at a 4-year university is most common in the US. But what the hell else would you expect when faculty aren’t being paid to work when classes aren’t in session?

What I find surprising is how many people work year round, year after year, when not getting paid to do so. I shouldn’t be surprised, though, because I’m in that number. I might not answer admin emails or curricular communications, but I’m clearly at work. I see this as a part of my identity as a scientist. My job is to do science. I’m not going to let the tyranny of the 9-month salary alter my ability to do science. I don’t think Darwin was pulling down a salary, either, but he still scienced. So I’m using my own wages to subsidize my volunteer science efforts when I’m not working for my university. This makes me a sucker, I know.

Maybe I should not list my institutional affiliation on the manuscripts that happen from work that happens in the summer.

Here’s a vision. Close your eyes and picture this. No, wait, don’t close your eyes, because then you wouldn’t be able to read. Just imagine what your university would be like if everybody, when they were hired, received full pay for 11 or 12 months. Our universities paid us all to work in summer when universities are not in session. We’d be accountable for getting stuff done in the summertime. All of these people who gave up on research would not have given up, and all of the people who took the job for a 3-month vacation wouldn’t be taking the job. Think of all the new research opportunities available to students, all of the scholarship making the campus alive.

Universities took a financial shortcut by paying us for doing work when classes are in session, but they’re also sabotaging the academic climate of the institution, and not supporting the professional development of their own faculty. When I visit universities with non-trivial teaching loads, that also pay faculty for year-round work, they are more academically vibrant. I don’t think that’s a mere coincidence.

By the way, of course, Female Science Professor was spot-on when she discussed summer work and the 9-month position.


*Coincientally, the same day I visited CSU in Albury, Amy’s post about the value of interacting with other scientists online came out. As I was passing though town, I got chance to meet all of these people from CSU who I internet-knew from online. That was pretty cool, and I’m grateful for the hospitality. (The forensic evidence is here if you’re so inclined.)

**I pulled through town in Albury after coming down from Mt. Kosciuszko National Park. We saw some gorgeous stuff in New South Wales and Victoria. You can follow on me Facebook to see some of the better photos. Seeing a monotreme in the wild was definitely a high point.

9 thoughts on “The tyranny of the 9-month position

  1. 9-month appointments are the best thing about the academic lifestyle. I love not having to be anywhere that I don’t choose to be from May to late August. I’d probably leave the profession if I had to trudge to campus every day in the summer.

    The whole point of being an academic for me is to have a much freer use of my time than I’d get in any other profession. Ideas take time to mature, and producing ideas is my main work obligation. I need a lot of time to myself, to walk, read, watch movies, blog, even sit staring at the wall. The 9-month appointment system gives me that opportunity. Why give all that up to turn universities into some weird copy of a corporate environment?

  2. Although I agree with the sentiment, I find that my summer time is all I have to offer for grants that require a match. I’m glad I have a bargaining chip that is entirely mine to spend. I wish my university had other resources that they would contribute for matches, but I have been successful “volunteering” my summer time as match for school year funding that buys out my teaching and pays my students. So, by working for free in the summer, I can make my school years more manageable and allow myself to continue research when I’d otherwise be teaching a 4-class load.

  3. Just another thing about academia that doesn’t quite make sense. Throw it in the basket with the fact that you train for 10-15 years to do research and then your first 5 years of independence more-or-less determines whether or not you get to do research for the rest of your life, and with the reality that most professorships (even at the asst prof level) at R1 institutions are essentially bought with grant money (K99? Congratulations! The committee feels that you are the best fit for our department! Of course, if you want to continue to be a good fit, then you will need an R01 next). Universities masquerade as institutions devoted to education, but they are businesses like any other. Given that cold reality, it’s hard to blame the administration for wanting to be profitable. And, despite it all, we will continue to do research because we love it. And the administration knows that. Vicious circle.

  4. This is an interesting perspective. Coming from an R1 postdoc, heading into a SLAC tenure-track, I see it very differently. Grant agencies all but require that PIs put summer salary on grant budgets, in order to demonstrate their commitment to and involvement in the work. If the same faculty salary was labeled “12 month” there would be no way to do this, regardless of what you eventually did with the money. In the same way, it would not be possible to take stipends from other organizations without justifying the work as during your “free time,” i.e. weekends or vacation days. I considered whether my salary offer was enough to support my family alone, and the deal is that the summer months would be mine to do as I see fit. Whether that’s doing research/getting more grant money, professional development, or working (hopefully with pay) on other projects I value.

    Now from the college’s perspective, I think this is not a good policy. If they supplied summer salary for research, clearly they would get more of it. I fear that just labeling it “12 month” would mean that we would be fully tossed out of the grant pool, and then admin tasks, meetings, etc. would eat up our summers as well. And I’m not optimistic that it would result in increased salary for anyone.

  5. At my own institution, we are paid for our 9 months of teaching but our award letter states the time period of the contract is actually one calendar year. I asked the Dean to alter the language to reflect the 9 month nature of the position and was told that I am actually contracted for that period. My response was, “But I am not paid for that time.” The reply was basically, “This is the way it is.” I am sure that they think that by putting that time frame in the letter they have some control over us during that time period. But in practice they don’t becuase I do not do things for my institution during the summer months. I do things for me and one of those things is research. Another is bicycling more than I get to during the academic year.

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