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  • Writer's pictureMohit Verma

Are professors rich?

So, how much do you earn?

This question is more taboo in the American/Canadian culture than it is in the Indian culture. Thus, although I do not encounter it often, listening to NPR's Hidden Brain podcast “Why no one feels rich” made me think about it. I started wondering about how the salaries of professors compared to other professionals. Given that we just survived the tax season (both in America and Canada) in the month of April, I figured income was a timely topic for this month’s blog post.

Generally, academics are underpaid at all stages of their career (when compared to an equivalent position in the industry): whether you are a graduate student, postdoctoral fellow, or faculty. For most of us, independence is worth it.

Salaries of professors are publicly available

Public institutions (like my own) in the United States release the salaries of their non-student employees on an annual basis. In Canada, the provincial governments require disclosure of employees earning over $100,000 (higher in some provinces) at universities. So, if you like you can look up most professors’ salaries. For example, you can find mine and that of my colleagues’ available here.

Figure 1: This plot shows a histogram of the salary distribution of professors (the bars) and a fit of a normal curve (solid blue line). The histogram is generated by creating bins of salaries at every $50,000 level (as seen in the horizontal x-axis) and then counting how many salaries fall in the bin. Then, we calculate the total number of salaries in a bin compared to total number of data points (n = 1738) to obtain percentage values for each bin.

Locally, professors earn more than average

Since the salary data are publicly available, I scraped the information for my institution to generate Figures 1 and 2. Figure 1 shows that most professors earn in the range of $100-150k annually. Note that these numbers include faculty at all ranks (Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Full Professor). Compared to other professionals (administrative and management), the mean value of faculty is higher (Figure 2), but a large fraction of management professionals can lie outside the distribution. In fact, in order to make the plot legible, one person’s salary (over $4 million) had to be excluded from the data. Overall though, the salaries of assistant professors are comparable to the report provided by Glassdoor for the national average of $80,667. Some regions such as the east and west coast will have a slight premium to account for the cost of living.

Figure 2: This plot shows the distribution of salaries for different job categories within a public institution. Many people might not have seen these types of plots before and so, I would like to provide some explanation. The small empty square is the mean, which is the ‘average’ that most people are familiar with, but as you can see simply looking at the average value provides a limited perspective of the entire data set. The horizontal line (close to the mean) is the median value, which is the middle value of a sorted data set (i.e. first, the data set is sorted in increasing order and then whichever value lies in the middle is the median). When the median is close to the mean, the data are evenly distributed and if the mean is away from the median the data are skewed in one direction. Next, the box represents the ‘interquartile range’ (IQR) or the difference between the 25% median and the 75% median. The interquartile range is useful because it highlights where 50% of the data falls. A narrower box indicates smaller variability and a larger box indicates a larger variability. The whiskers around the box are 1.5 times the interquartile range. These whiskers cover 99% of the data and thus, any data points lying outside these whiskers are considered outliers. Thus, this type of plot is called a box-and-whisker plot (which is shown on the left side for each category). On the right side, I have plotted the binned data along with a distribution curve (similar to Figure 1). Here the data within each bin are also shown to highlight how each bin is increasing. These data points are useful to visualize that although faculty salaries are higher and more variable in general (because the box is wider), there are some individuals in the administrative and management categories that are extreme outliers and could be affecting the distribution. *In fact, for the management category, one data point had to be excluded (>$4 million) so that the plots would be legible.

Compared to other doctors, professors earn way less

Professors and physicians both have the title of “Dr.” Becoming a professor requires a similar training in terms of obtaining a Ph.D. (vs. M.D.) and postdoctoral experience (vs. residency). Yet, if you compare the salaries of a starting professor (assistant professor) to a starting primary care physician, professors earn less than half on average nationally. ($80,677 for assistant professor versus $201,860 for physicians). (Physicians will generally have a much higher debt from medical school to pay off though and thus can take years to catch up in net worth).

Another career route for postdoctoral fellows is to pursue jobs in industry. Although I could not find a reliable way of searching for salaries in the private sector, it is understood that salaries in industry can be 1.5 to 2x higher in industry (see another great blog post detailing experience in industry vs. academia here). If you start comparing hourly wages, these differences can get magnified. While industries generally have fixed (and rigid) working hours, professors have complete freedom (and flexibility). This freedom generally leads faculty to work much longer hours (50 to 60 hours per week) to achieve the required productivity to be successful.

It's not all about money

If you listen to the podcast from the intro of this article, it concludes that feeling rich is all about comparisons. One person's “rich” might be another person's “getting by.” We can use social comparisons for our benefit: by comparing to those earning less, we can feel grateful for what we have and express our generosity towards others; by comparing to those earning more, we can motivate ourselves to move up the income ladder.

Personally, I feel comfortable with my finances. In the end, to me, the independence of my job is especially important. As long as there's enough money for living expenses and fun trips, I am happy!

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