Why are professors poorly paid?

From Daniel S. Hamermesh:

Using Current Population Survey data, I demonstrate a 15-percentage point wage disadvantage among academics compared to all other doctorate-holders with the same demographics. Time-diary data show that academics’ work hours are distributed more evenly over the week and day, although their total workweeks are equally long. This smoother distribution of work time accounts for as much as one-third of the wage disadvantage. Survey data (of economists only) indicate that flexible scheduling is an attraction, but only fourth among the characteristics of academic life.

Hamermesh then speculates the remaining difference may result from selection, namely that some people enjoy being less accountable to their superiors than do others.


Tenured job security?


Those who can do, those who cannot teach.

Never heard that one before.

And those who can do neither spout cliches.

Tenure = moral hazard.
I cannot fathom why any economics professor would find tenure a good thing, except for their own self-interest.

And tenure's a tax-free benefit, too

Because being a professor is wonderful life that many more people would love to do than their are jobs.
Same reason Poet, actor, athlete, reporter are low paid jobs (never mind the fact that the top 1% of them are all paid pretty well).

Now why is the supply so high? Doctors fight to keep supply low (restricting medical school openings and class sized). Who wouldn’t want to be paid to think about ideas and teach students? Also because science professors are incentivized to have slave labor PHD students.

In fact, I suspect the selection on unobservables actually makes the pay gap between professors and consultants, say, larger than it looks. At least in economics, the best candidates go to academia, and consulting soaks up some of the rest.

Also I wish he'd titled the paper something different. I get that it's tongue-in-cheek, but there's nothing about econ professors that is poorly paid.

Right? I mean, I heard that the lowest third of a PhD class in econ is the highest paid, because they're the ones who are stuck with going to banking/trading, which top candidates have no appetite for.

I would generally agree that the top people from PhD programs in econ take academic jobs, where "top" is measured by the research quality, not by general desirability as employees in a for-profit setting. The bottom third of the Phd program may be overall more desirable as employees or spouses or teachers or human beings, but not as researchers in a university setting.

If you want to hire a smart person with an econ PhD to do research for your company, you'll get a lot better deal hiring a disgruntled untenured professor from a top university than anyone fresh from the econ PhD market.

As a somewhat related matter, the top undergraduates are steering clear of econ PhD programs nowadays, no matter how you measure the top. Today, it's a selection of reasonably but not extremely smart people who are somehow serious flawed from the rest of the society's perspective that end up in econ PhD programs.

What's also interesting on this front is that consulting firms typically have candidates do the traditional job talk just like they would for an academic job. It's an odd thing to do if you aren't looking for academic research ability.

The funny thing is I make far more money than my econ PhD-suffering friends make, and a fair bit more money than econ profs (I suppose the Finance profs still have me beat) but I couldn't even get into a top econ PhD :'(. If I could, I would have gone.

There are individual people in the private sector who make more than an entire business school finance department. I don't think one can infer much about anything from that, other than that the world has some peculiar ways of keeping score

"other than that the world has some peculiar ways of keeping score"

This is coming from, what I'm guessing is, an econ prof?

TMC -- Been on the both sides, academia and private sector. No illusions about that making me either unbiased or informed, it doesn't! ;-)

It depends on what the author means by "same demographics." Personally, I suspect the gap is artificially increased the whole adjunct professor / post-doc phenomena.

Because as an academic I get to work on the problems that I choose, instead of the problems that my boss chooses.

This is pretty clearly the reason in my mind. I wouldn't even be shocked to hear that this study underestimated the wage gap. But for economists, the disutility they get from time spent working in academia is so much less than what they experience by having some pissant banker at JP Morgan dictate their every move.

The key bit here is "work on" as opposed to "solve."

Job - a thing where you go where They want, to do what They want, and They pay your for it.
Vacation - a thing were you go where you want to do what you want, and you pay for it.
Academia - a thing where you go to one of the 5 job openings this year in your field, to sort of work on what you want, and not get paid very much for it.

It's patently unture that academics on average work as hard (at least as measured by hours) as those in other professions counting sebaticals, summers, etc.

Although other commenters have correctly stated that professors are spending many many hours during those sabbaticals and summers working, i.e. doing research, this statement gets at the heart of the matter: yeah they're spending hours doing research, and if we count that as work then academics spend many more hours working than non-academics do. But that sort of work is not the same as toiling at a McDonalds or writing legal briefs.

Being a professor and doing research (even if "research" simply means keeping up with the field while at a teaching institutions) probably is akin to being a musician or professional athlete -- those people have to spend many hours practicing and working out, so it's not all fun and games. But it's still a lifestyle and profession that a lot of people would choose if they were qualified or talented enough. Those hours of work are not as moilsome as the hours that most other workers put in.

mkt42, that's a good point. (As a non-academic) the time I spend keeping up with the field has been substantial (otherwise, you end up in sales or management, perhaps the equivalent of academics who go into administration). But that's time non-academics wouldn't usually consider as time spent at work.

Policies on attending conferences, for example, vary widely among companies, even at the same company over time. It's one thing to have the company pay for the conference and your expenses to attend it. It's quite another to have to take vacation time and pay all expenses. Yet one is "work", the other not.

What are sebaticals? They are called sabbaticals.

The peer-review process is soul crushing. Don't put research in quotation marks to suggest it isn't demanding. It's worse than any non-academic could imagine.

So, what are the comparable demographics of doctorate holders that do not actually have to work a couple of months each summer?

Since some commenters are not aware of this: professors are not schoolteachers. When we're not teaching, we're doing research. Summers are spent doing research.* I've never taken more than 2 weeks off per summer, and I also work during winter "break" (taking just a couple of days off like Dec 24-25). Lastly, many professors are only paid for 9 mo (teaching terms). If they want summer money, they have to do summer teaching, or win a research grant that pays some salary. So if they *do* take the summer off, it's unpaid anyway.
*You could argue that professors should only be paid to teach, not do research. Fine, but that's besides the point for this issue.

Since some commenters are not aware of this: professors are not schoolteachers. When we’re not teaching, we’re doing research.

Those employed by research universities are doing research. Those working at fancy private colleges are commonly active researchers after a grant of tenure. Not universally, but commonly. There's a wide swath of teaching institutions wherein a faculty member might produce 1 paper every five years. When KC Johnson was granted tenure at Brooklyn College due to the intervention of CUNY's chancellor, there was a certain amount of public huffing an puffing about the threat to academic standards derived from disregarding the institutions vaunted procedures. Johnson has dozens of scholarly publications under his belt. One of his more vociferous critics had been on the faculty since 1974 and had published flat nothing.

'ince some commenters are not aware of this: professors are not schoolteachers' - Have things changed in the last 2 decades? I'm basing that observation on how GMU back in the late 1970s, 80, and early 90s, and how most of the faculty I knew enjoyed the fact that they generally had a couple of months without teaching duties, department meetings, etc.

'When we’re not teaching, we’re doing research.' - If you say so - the people I knew were in the humanities, in the main.

'I’ve never taken more than 2 weeks off per summer' - Maybe things have changed, but that was most certainly not the case a couple of decades ago.

'Lastly, many professors are only paid for 9 mo (teaching terms)' - You realize you really cannot have it both ways, right?

@Art Deco & @Clockwork:
1.) Point taken about teaching colleges: however, they probably 9-10 courses a year, doing very long hours.
2.) Not having it both ways: You get paid in the summer if you work (teach or research grant). If you don't work, you don't get paid. Hence, not 3 months holidays. Unpaid holidays are not holidays. It's unemployment. If you drive a taxi and decide to talk the summer off, not work, and not get paid, would you call that a summer of holidays?
3.) GMU/things have changed: Yes, absolutely. Things have changed since the good old days. The old timers at my university published maybe one article every 5 years. Things have gotten much more competitive. Is this true for every field and every university? I have no idea. But I seriously doubt that today's young humanities scholars at GMU or elsewhere spend their summers relaxing.

and that can't be fired.

If professors are so poorly paid, why is tuition so high?

Hoards of administrators.

The top level is very well paid, every public university president in Ohio makes at least 400,000 a year in base salary [except for Tressel at Youngstown who made many millions as a football coach]

Ohio Sate has over 40 vice presidents. Now add the Assistant VPs etc. Its president gets 800,000 base salary with a $200,000 bonus

Every major school at Ohio State has a Dean of Diversity. Just saying.

Minnie McGee is a notorious Columbus near east side slumlord. These people are total trash.


Feel free to do a search here:

And then look at Google Streetview for the properties.

Because parents are willing to pay so much for their kids' education. And kids are willing to borrow so much for their education. Add those together and you get the amount outsiders will pay. Add to that all the billions that taxpayers are forced to throw into the pot. Divide the sum into the number of classes offered and you get a tuition payment.

at least the actual article cited had the good sense to put "poorly paid" in quotation marks

"although their total workweeks are equally long": maybe. When I moved from being a youngish academic to working in industry my new colleagues were astounded by the hours I had been used to putting in, and by the amount of work I could get through in a week. When I eventually said that I was thinking of going back to academic life, my boss said he'd pay me twice my academic salary to stay. Then a thought occurred to him: how much was the university going to pay me? I told him. "Twice will never do: I'll pay you thrice that."

Mind you, that was in Britain where academic salaries were notoriously low.

I agree the title is tongue-in-cheek: labor economists have known forever that jobs have different 'compensating differentials' (perks defined large). Moreover, if professors were poorly paid, we'd have labor shortages. But in most fields there are gluts (some exceptions I think are computer science, finance and accounting).

So a better title (accurate, not sexy) for the paper might be: "What are professors' compensating differentials?" This tells us that job characteristics beyond salary and benefits matter.

I agree that the surprise of the article, if there is one, is that the pay gap is only 15% lower for an academic than for a similar non-academic. One should double-check the methodology and computations of this article. The reasons for the existence of a gap are of course well-known and many -- the choice of how you manage your time, the choice of what to do research on, and, to a large extent, what to teach, etc.

Why is the pay gap between a German professor teaching a single class with four students and a business school professor teaching two sections of 80 MBAs each not at least a factor of 40x?
Why do tenured professors have such a low productivity (per calendar time, not necessary per effort)?
Why do mid-level to top-level university administrators get paid so much?
Why do universities have so much low-level administrative staff?
Why is the compliance overhead cost at universities so large?
Why do professors think they can beat professional investors by divesting from fossil fuel investments for expected return reasons?

There are a lot of questions there...


Jokes aside, I'd agree with MAS above, "Because as an academic I get to work on the problems that I choose, instead of the problems that my boss chooses."

No kidding, right? And that bastard would probably ask you to SOLVE those problems, as opposed to just "working on" them ... for years on end.

Worse, you just know he'd pick problems that it would be productive to solve, because that's the kind of cruel capitalist bastard that he is. You can't just sit around and wonder about clergy ratios in DC vs NYC, in an entirely pointless exercise of self-pleasuring gratification.

And then, if/when you solve them, you can't publish them (proprietary information). So you have nothing to show your mother. :)

It's the administrators, stupid. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/05/opinion/sunday/the-real-reason-college-tuition-costs-so-much.html While it's true that appropriations per student at public universities is somewhat lower today than in the so-called golden years of college education (because of the enormous increase in the number of students), the inflation-adjusted salaries of professors has hardly budged. So what's the reason for such steep increases in tuition? Administrators. It's not just the football coach who is rewarded with a huge salary. I've noticed that Cowen often mentions signaling as the motivation for getting a college degree. Is he discouraging young people from going to college? If the number of students drops but the appropriations remain the same, then there's more money to be spent for professors' salaries. As for the administrators, Shakespeare got it right when he said "Let's kill all the college administrators".

Using Current Population Survey data, I demonstrate a 15-percentage point wage disadvantage among academics compared to all other doctorate-holders with the same demographics.

This the primary reason why I assume college professors are over-whelming Democrats because potential conservative professors are in the private sector earning more.


You beat me to this.

As a professor at a large medical school I make 200k, see patients for 30 hrs a week, and teach medical students, do research for 10 hrs a week, and I have lots of autonomy. Every week I get job offers for 300-350k a month to see patients for 50hrs a week and have zero autonomy. Law/medical schools are different, but the decision making is similar.

Has no one seen Ghostbusters?

Tuition is also high because students who pay it are subsidizing a lot more poor kids who can't pay it than they used to.

So tuition is high because a. usufruct administrators and b. socialized tuition.

The pig dog parasite administrators are clever enough to justify themselves with (b).

"some people enjoy being less accountable to their superiors than do others"

Also why some people like to own their own business, even if they make less money.

Professors get paid less because the academic culture has convinced them that what they are doing is "meaningful" in contrast to what the hoi polloi are doing everyday.

It's similar to the exploitation of post-docs in the sciences who do highly skilled and valuable work, but make a pittance compared to what they would make in industry.

Why are poor people

So poorly paid?

1. They're not poorly paid if they have f/t positions (which a slight majority of academics do). NB, many adjuncts are working professionals with other sources of income. Annual mean cash salary for post-secondary teachers is now about $82,000 per year. That doesn't include fringes. There are 1.53 million post-secondary teachers and the average course load is roughly 70% time.

We're at a blog dedicated to economics and no one's drawn a parallel Adam Smith's reasoning on why the clergy are so poorly paid?

"...the piety of private founders have established many pensions, scholarships, exhibitions, bursaries, etc., for this purpose, which draw many more people into those trades than could otherwise pretend to follow them. In all Christian countries, I believe, the education of the greater part of churchmen is paid for in this manner. Very few of them are educated altogether at their own expense. The long, tedious, and expensive education, therefore, of those who are, will not always procure them a suitable reward, the church being crowded with people who, in order to get employment, are willing to accept of a much smaller recompense than what such an education would otherwise have entitled them to..."

Academics are still treated as professionals at least for now - i.e. autonomy.

I asked my doctor why she chose to go through all that medical school stuff when it would be easier to become a nurse and still get to help the sick, easier hours.
She said physicians are the type pf people who don't want a boss telling them what to do.

Yep, I have a friend who's a doctor and went back to school to get an MBA. He was told that doctors do okay when supervising others or working with peers, but make lousy subordinates. The same can probably be said of professors.

RIP Ursula Le Guin

I am a pro-bono professor working through a foundation (Retired from the Company) that pays the school for to cover overhead I create. I decided to patent the information versus present it for my PhD. It was at times similar to working on the Death Star. However, I lived and now have total freedom. If you make it through the first part you can experience both lives.

Sitting in a classroom has costs.

For economists and lots of the sciences immigration is a huge factor. Yes, I like the evenly distributed hours and flexibility a lot. But still, if we didn't have all of the Indians and Chinese there would be much more wage pressure.

this link says two thirds Of economics PhD's are not American. Just think what my pay would be like without importing your helot class academics.. discussing the issue without this factor is simply just not discussing the issue.

+1. I didn't think of it, but it must be a big part of the explanation of any pay gap.

Universities can get easily H1B (or J1) visas for their non-American temporary faculty, and green cards
for their tenure-track or tenured ones. There is no quota limiting the number of such visas attributed at the demand of academic institutions. While of course, even the most powerful private enterprises have difficulties to get visas for all their potential workers.

Why are professors paid poorly?

Because the near-substitutes for professors -- teaching adjuncts and research postdocs -- are paid miserably. The option to hire adjuncts and postdocs serves as downward pressure on professors' wages.

It would have been my dream job, after professional basketball player of course, but not smart and diligent enough.

Go to my office on Tuesday. Teach from 9:30 am to 10:45 am. Hold office hour from 11 to noon. Teach 2nd class from 12:30 to 1:45 pm. Home and in the gym by 3:00.

Repeat on Thursday.

Why are college professors over paid?

from a libertarian viewpoint, is there any sense in talking about someone being "poorly paid" ?

"namely that some people enjoy being less accountable to their superiors"


One of the big untaxed perks, having affairs/marrying your grad students, no longer seems to be available. So at least some of them have taken a pay cut recently.

After the first year, the job is pretty uneventful. Living in an ivory tower is hardly stimulating. The really smart ones write books and blogs and make lots of money.

Many professors are professors because they deem it to be a better quality of life than say working in an office keying in numbers on Excel and are therefore willing to accept less pay. Their enhanced quality of life *is a payment* on its own. A rather obvious general rule is that jobs that pay more are less fun to do than jobs that pay less.

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