Let’s Talk about Money

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom
Money talk

We humanists don’t like to talk about money, but it is a key piece of the puzzle when considering our careers.

About a year ago, I was facilitating an alumni panel featuring three recent Duke humanities Ph.D.s working in different industries (English professor, museum historian/curator, and nonprofit consultant). The conversation was going swimmingly, the grad students were engaged, and then the Awkward Question came out.

From a staff member in Career Services: “So … what do these jobs actually pay?”

I experienced a fleeting moment of panic. My immediate fear was that our guests would feel pressured to disclosure their salaries. But they each took the question in stride (and two of the three did end up volunteering salary information, which made for some interesting comparisons).

Afterwards, I pondered why I had that “dinner party gone off the rails” feeling, when it was a perfectly reasonable question to ask.

Why is salary the Awkward Question? Because we humanists almost never discuss it. We talk about tenure a hell of a lot. We talk about teaching loads.

Why don’t we talk about money?

I can’t answer those questions, but I have noticed that some of my advisees have well-fleshed out ideas of what they want to be doing, and often where they want to be doing it. But when it comes to salary, things are sort of a hazy cloud. I’m not faulting anyone; I’m pretty sure I was the same way when I was a grad student making $8,200 a year as a TA.

Depending on how far along you are in graduate school, you may not have to worry about negotiating your first post-Ph.D. salary for a while (a topic deserving its own blogpost). Nonetheless, I would encourage you to begin reflecting (if you haven’t already) on the salary that you feel would be sufficient for your needs, appropriate to your experience and qualifications, and in step with what others in similar positions are getting paid.

What? I can do that? I just want a full-time job after graduation.

If you happen to be thinking this, cut it out. There’s a term for that, and it’s called “learned helplessness.” And it’s fed by years of horror stories about job markets—about academic job markets where tenured lines are disappearing, and about nonacademic job markets that seem to have no place for humanities Ph.D.s (which is a myth, by the way).

I’m not saying you will always have control over what you make, but I worry about mindsets that blind us to clear and present opportunities for exercising agency. There are a number of things you can do now to put yourself in a better position to feel good about your starting salary later on.

Examine your assumptions and values around money.

Some people are genuinely unmotivated by money, and we tend to assume that people who gravitate toward teaching and nonprofit work fall into that category. Don’t automatically assume you fall into this category. Have you spent time thinking about how important a certain level of income might be to you? Where might it fall in relation to other components that you feel are absolutely necessary for a fulfilling job (e.g., tenure-track, flexible schedule, desirable location, opportunities for advancement)?

Don’t be afraid to make money.

I don’t think this is a widespread fear, but in conversations with academics I sometimes discern a false binary between noble, fulfilling, and lower-paying jobs at one end, and self-serving, soul-sucking, and highly paid jobs at the other. Things are rarely that simple. It’s okay to make money, and it’s not impossible to do it (even with a humanities Ph.D.) and enjoy your work at the same time. I know some Duke Ph.D. alumni who are doing just this (and am happy to make introductions).

Find out what other people get paid.

I am not suggesting you start asking people what they made last year. Rather, research salary ranges for professions that interest you. (Glassdoor.com is one good place to start.) The Chronicle of Higher Education publishes faculty salary information (by rank and institution) on an annual basis. Also be aware that in many states (including North Carolina), you can look up the salary of anyone working in state government (included: professors and staff at public universities).

You might need (or want) more than you think.

You may, for example, decide that making $60,000 as a starting professor is fantastic (especially if your last paycheck was from your TA-ship). As you’ve likely discovered, people’s perceived needs expand to meet (and exceed) their resources—pretty quickly at that. And because people are hard-wired to expect fair treatment, that $60,000 might suddenly look less great if you learn the person hired at the same time as you makes $65,000. Also know that in many industries (not just higher ed), salaries don’t always keep up with inflation or cost of living. Significant raises post-hire can also be hard to come by.

Salary, or financial well-being?

While it’s certainly easier to build up a nest egg with a robust annual income, it’s far from the sole consideration. Other factors, such as the presence or absence of debt, and general spending habits make an enormous difference. Benefits such as health insurance and retirement packages are critical. And while it may sound impossible if you’re just scraping by right now, one of the smartest things anyone can do is to learn about investing, and to start making it a habit.

More than any particular nugget of advice, I hope you take away from this post some general encouragement to think very practically about your future, and to have conversations within your programs that also get financial issues out on the table.

So, the next time you’re assembled in the annual academic job search workshop hosted by your department, you might consider tipping back your chair back a bit, assuming an air of deep seriousness, while saying,

“So…what do these jobs actually pay?”    

Go ahead … I dare you.