For some reason that I don’t really understand, I get the sense that it’s often considered crass to openly discuss academic salaries. Certainly there are crass ways of talking about salaries. Even though most of us enter academe for reasons other than money, I hope, there is nothing untoward about looking after your own and your family’s financial well-being. On the contrary, it would be irresponsible not to.
It’s astounding to me, though, how little most graduate students are taught about the nature of academic compensation, and how little even some advanced graduate students know about academic salaries. Consider this my effort to demystify things.
If you are fortunate enough to land a job after securing your degree (not something that can be taken for granted in today’s academic job market), there are two primary factors that will determine the salary available to you when you receive that first job offer: 1) your discipline; 2) the nature of the institution where you are eventually employed. These two factors, more than anything else, will set the upper and lower bounds of what salaries are possible. (A third factor will affect salaries as well, which is whether or not the teaching job is tenure-track. While the bulk of my discussion here is devoted to tenure-track positions, the long and short of it is that non-tenure-track teaching jobs carry with them significantly lower salaries than tenure-track teaching jobs, but the salaries are still affected by discipline and institution type.)
Starting salaries for assistant professors vary dramatically from discipline to discipline. A beginning assistant professor of English (my field) makes a very different salary than a beginning assistant professor of business administration, even at the same institution. The disparities between salaries in different disciplines may not seem rational or fair in some cases, but they are what they are. If your discipline is a particular strength at a given university, in which the institution is committed to maintaining excellence, or, inversely, if the university offering you a job has a desperate need to shore up a weakness in your discipline, you may be able to get a somewhat higher salary than is typical for your discipline, but in neither case would the salary be substantially higher than the norm. No matter the institution, salaries in humanities disciplines will substantially lag behind the salaries of faculty in the sciences, business, and other fields.
There isn’t space here to go into the salary norms of every discipline, but you should inquire among faculty mentors and more advanced graduate students in your field as to what the norms for your own discipline are, and keep the number in mind. Salary surveys, like the one that CUPA-HR conducts, can give you a very rough estimate of salaries by faculty rank and discipline,  and can further help you to triangulate an idea of a reasonable salary expectation. Research and gossip will be the primary avenues to your knowledge.
Graduate students who have recently been on the job market or have recently landed a job typically have the most current, reliable information on salaries, as do the faculty advisers and dissertation directors who help to place successful applicants. Additionally, salaries for faculty members at public institutions are usually a matter of public record, which means that with a little internet digging, you can often find out what faculty members employed at state institutions are making. States vary widely in terms of how easy they make it to access such information, but for public universities, it’s out there. The American Association of University Professors’ annual report on institutional salaries,  especially when combined with other data, like the CUPA-HR reports, provides additional perspective, and can help you to understand the differences between different types of academic institutions. More than likely, your research into salaries won’t lead you to a single number that represents a typical starting salary in your field, but instead will lead to a range of numbers.
You’ll learn of a range of salaries because the next biggest variable that drives faculty salaries is the nature of the employing institution. So-called “state flagship” universities, for example, tend to offer the highest salaries in each discipline, when it comes to public universities. As a general rule, there is an inverse relationship between the number of classes you will have to teach and the salary you will make. Universities that emphasize research the most, and thus require less teaching, offer the highest salaries. Universities that prioritize teaching more, and expect less in terms of research, tend to offer lower salaries. There may be a cynical observation in there about what academic compensation says, literally, about the relative values placed on teaching versus research. But these are the ways of our world, at least for now.
With public universities, you can more or less count on this inverse relationship to hold true, but it is less consistently applicable when the employer is a private college or university. Private colleges and universities are more of a wild card when it comes to salaries. Some may routinely pay at the high end of what is typical for a discipline, and others at the low end. And, if you’re fortunate enough to receive a job offer from a private college, your negotiations may be somewhat more opaque or less informed since the salaries of your colleagues will not be a matter of public record, as they usually are at public universities.
In some states, the professorial ranks are unionized. I have never worked in such a state, but my understanding is that unionized states have stricter upper and lower salary bounds. While information on academic salaries may be easier to discover in such states, deans may have less negotiating room due to restrictions imposed by collective bargaining agreements. Whether or not you are going to work at a unionized institution will affect not only your initial salary, but also the nature and timing of raises. It is one more angle for you to research as you seek to inform yourself about a given institution.
One reason (of many) that academic salaries may seem low in many disciplines, relative to a faculty member’s high level of education and the sacrifices required to obtain that education, is that compensation for faculty members is usually based on what’s called a 9-month contract, meaning that a faculty member is paid for three-fourths of a year’s worth of labor. You won’t be paid, essentially, for the summer (unless you contract to engage in summer teaching, more on which in a moment), even though you will likely have to spend your summer months conducting research and writing on your own time if you hope to win tenure. In terms of logistics, pay for a 9-month contract may be distributed to a faculty member over the actual 9 months of the appointment, or spread out over 12 months, depending upon the university and the relevant state laws.
One of the most important things to realize about academic salaries is how few opportunities there are for raises. There are only a few mechanisms by which academic salaries increase:
1. Cost of living raises — incremental raises given each year or every couple of years to faculty and staff across the board to account for inflation. These raises are typically reduced or even eliminated during bad economic times, like our current ones. The percentages are usually set at the state level (for public universities) or university level (for private universities). Equity raises intended to correct salary inversion (a common phenomenon wherein junior faculty come in at higher salaries than some of their more senior colleagues) also falls into this category. Merit raises, which are increasing rare in the current economy, also typically come out of these same allocations, and are usually quite modest.
2) Promotion — promotion raises are the increases in salary that are pegged to promotions in rank from assistant professor to associate professor or from associate professor to professor. These raises are typically much more modest than most graduate students realize. Even at large, relatively affluent universities the raise between ranks may only be a few thousand dollars, which isn’t much considering how hard a faculty member has to work for the promotion. In advancing from assistant to associate professor the real reward is the security of tenure, not the increase in salary.
3) Administration — sometimes a faculty member, usually only associate professors and “full” professors, will take on a new academic position with administrative responsibilities. Often this means moving from a 9-month appointment to a 12-month appointment, with a commensurate raise in salary. If the faculty member eventually transitions back to a 9-month appointment (remember, the standard for teaching faculty), then they typically are allowed to keep some, but not all, of the increase. Administrative positions, while they can be relatively lucrative, entail a serious change in both job responsibilities and lifestyle, and are generally not available to or even appropriate for junior faculty.
4) Summer Teaching — faculty can increase their salaries by taking on summer teaching. Of course, this means more work, and less time for research, as well. Many tenured faculty members recommend resisting the lure of summer teaching until after achieving tenure. Better to get your publishing done during the summer months. Adjuncts and other term faculty frequently take on summer teaching because their salaries are so criminally low to begin with that they need the income (one of many unfortunate institutional mechanisms that can trap faculty in the adjunct ranks, virtually assuring that even adjuncts with terminal degrees will not be able to publish their way into a tenure-track position).
5) Grants — many grants allow faculty to pay themselves a summer salary while they are actively pursuing research in the summer months, essentially filling out the remaining 3 months of their salary that is not contracted through their employing institution with grant funds. The corporation, government agency, or foundation awarding the grant typically regulates the rules and rates for such compensation, in tandem with university rules or state law.
6) Competing Offers — many faculty members, especially junior faculty members, will at some point seek out a competing job offer, in hopes of either leveraging a raise from their current employer or landing a more lucrative new position. The game is simple: having a higher offer from another institution is a way to say to your university, essentially, “The discipline values me — do you?” In many ways, using a competing offer from another institution to negotiate a higher salary is a game of chicken between you and your dean (or several deans, depending on how many offers you have). The drawback of using a competing offer to try to drag a higher salary out of your current employer is that your university may not be able or willing to match or outbid the offer. Your choice then is to remain at your current employer as a bit of a lame duck, or take the other job. So, you have to be willing on some level to take the other job in order to play this game.
Unlike the private sector, good or even excellent job performance will not by itself raise your salary in the academic world, except perhaps under the rarest of circumstances. You will never be able to go into your department chair or dean’s office and ask for a raise without some sort of leverage. But trying to use the leverage you have to pry more money out of your university, no matter how much you may deserve the increase, always entails a certain degree of risk. And it isn’t the sort of thing you’ll be able to do very often. Because there are so few opportunities, typically, to increase one’s salary, your initial salary will be one of the most important of your career. The higher your initial salary, the higher your lifetime earnings, and the stronger your position will be in later career negotiations, which is why it is important to be as informed as possible about salaries when you first enter the job market.
And while the subject probably merits its own column, I’ll just say that when you’re offered a job, always negotiate. Always. Always. Always. They’ve made an offer. They want you. You won’t sour the deal by asking for more, so long as what you ask for is within reason. The worst that can happen is that you get nothing additional, but you still have the original job offer.
Salary is not the whole story when it comes to your compensation package. What, for example, is the university going to pay into your retirement account? How long does it take to become vested in the university’s or state’s retirement system? Is the retirement account portable if you take another job down the road? And then there’s insurance. How high are premiums? How much will it cost you to buy coverage for any dependents? What about ancillary fees or expenses, like transportation and parking costs? How much will state and local taxes cut into your take-home pay? Finally, if you have children, or plan to have children, you might be interested to know whether or not your future employer offers tuition discounts for the children of faculty. Some institutions offer extremely generous tuition breaks, up to 50 percent, while other institutions offer no discounts at all. When comparing compensation packages, don’t just look at the numbers in the salary, but try to gauge the big-picture of total compensation.
In my experience, finalists who are invited to campus for the final round of interviews for an academic position will receive information about benefits and compensation. Usually, salary numbers are not specified unless or until a formal offer of employment is made. But at some point during the campus visit a finalist for a job is likely to have a glossy folder of benefits information thrust into their hand by an all-too-cheery and fast-talking human resources officer. While you are on your campus visit this information will likely seem overwhelming. And it is, because you have even bigger things to worry about during a campus visit -- like getting a job offer. So, the nitty-gritty benefits information is not for you to digest immediately, but when you return home, while you wait anxiously for a job offer or contemplate the offer that has already been made to you.
Often those job candidates who are fortunate enough to have multiple job offers will receive offers from institutions in different states. Regardless of whether the institutions are public or private, one difference in the take-home of the salaries will be state taxes. Some states, like Texas and Florida, have no state income taxes (but, in compensation, relatively higher property taxes, which makes owning a home potentially more difficult than in other states). A simple tax calculator can give you a back-of-the-envelope estimate of state income taxes and help you to compare offers across state lines. Cost-of-living differences should be considered as well — the same salary that can buy you a house in the Midwest may only afford you an efficiency apartment in some cities. Similarly, it is difficult to compare offers from different types of institutions. A regional-comprehensive university, where teaching loads are higher and research expectations are lower, will generally not be able to match the numbers offered by a state flagship. But the jobs, and the lifestyles associated with each, are quite different.
When it comes to non-tenure-track jobs, there is even less negotiating leverage available to job candidates than there is for tenure-tracks candidates. Adjunct and other fixed-term teaching positions typically are yoked to rigid, essentially non-negotiable pay rates. They tend to be take-it-or-leave it sorts of gigs. However, the benefits packages for non-tenure track positions tend to vary dramatically between institutions, and so, again, money may not tell the whole compensation story. People accepting term positions should look very closely at indirect compensation benefits like health insurance and retirement benefits when deciding whether or not to accept a position.
It would be a grave mistake to only consider the salaries when deciding between multiple job offers. However, well before even applying for jobs, graduate students need to understand the realities of earnings in their own discipline. Once a candidate is in the happy position of weighing job offers, information becomes power.