Fiction More Fun Than Reality

Dan Drezner explains, at great length, that life as a college professor is actually much more dull than it’s made out to be in the movies. More staring at the computer, less sex with co-eds, and so forth.

Then again, that’s true of any walk of life, no? The real-life day-to-day reality of cowboys, doctors, lawyers, cops, firefighters, spies, private investigators, and desperate housewives is much more mundane than their fictionalized portrayals.

UPDATE: Professor Chaos reports that academics have crappy cars, too. Alas, it’s largely true, although I could certainly have afforded his dream of an F-150 back in my teaching days, despite lack of a rich spouse or outside income. He’s right, though, that the popular conception of professors as upper middle class professionals is largely mistaken.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. carpeicthus says:

    There are far easier ways to sleep with co-eds than earning a PH.D., trust me.

  2. DC Loser says:

    Now you tell me!!!

  3. Brian J. says:

    Software Quality Assurance is actually much more glamorous than its portrayal in popular culture.

  4. William d'Inger says:

    It’s kind of subjective. Daily existence was relatively mundane during my 20+ years on campus (staff, not faculty), but what I remember most was the sex with co-eds. Do the math! Just once or twice a month for a couple decades would add up to one hell of a TV show.

  5. M1EK says:

    That professor is crazy – large swaths of the nicest real estate in our city are inhabited by UT professors, and said real estate ain’t remotely cheap. Like many, his idea of what “middle-class” is is substantially broken. Start by looking up what median full-time income actually is – and noting how much higher the average professors’ salary is.

  6. DC Loser says:

    I know from a friend who’s a tenured prof at George Mason Univ. that his salary is way below the average federal employee’s in this neck of the woods.

  7. James Joyner says:

    That professor is crazy – large swaths of the nicest real estate in our city are inhabited by UT professors, and said real estate ain’t remotely cheap.

    and

    I know from a friend who’s a tenured prof at George Mason Univ. that his salary is way below the average federal employee’s in this neck of the woods.

    You’re both right. As a prof in the South, I was doing quite well economically even though my salary was only in the $30,000’s. So, a UT prof making $45,000 a year in Knoxville is able to afford a house, a decent car, and a middle class lifestyle.

    Professors who live in or near big cities (Chaos is in DC), by contrast, only make slightly more money than their rural counterparts but face radically higher costs of living. $50,000 in DC or Chicago or New York or L.A. is simply not a lot of money, not when housing starts at about $3000 a month.

  8. Based on past experience with job searches, I would note that salaries for professors don’t vary all that much across regions. As such, an Assistant Professor in Alabama being paid a salary below industry standards could buy a house and a car, but an Assistant Professor in SoCal making a little more than average would struggle making a condo payment and driving a used car. And the actual real dollar differential between the two would not be that great.

    Unlike some professions, universities function in a buyer’s market, and don’t have to pay a premium to get faculty to work in expensive markets.

    This is not to say that professors are the only ones who have to deal with expensive cities, just that the variation in the level of salary from inexpensive to expensive markets do not vary very much in that profession.

    Medical doctors, for example, tend to be amongst the most highly paid relative to the market in which they live.

  9. DA says:

    FYI, academic salary data is freely available at
    http://chronicle.com/stats/aaup/

    To back up what James just said:
    For example, you could see that the average asst. prof. at George Mason made 64,900 in the 06-07 academic year (of course, this is the average over all disciplines, so many faculty would make much less). The average asst. prof at Indiana University, Bloomington made 66,000 — basically the same money, with a very different cost of living.

  10. M1EK says:

    The UT to which I was referring was the one in Austin, Texas; which is no longer a cheap place to live (not the neighborhoods I’m talking about, anyways). Professors are doing just fine.

    Once again, if you think they aren’t being paid a professional salary, you have little understanding of what most professionals actually earn. And in hourly rate, it’s no friggin’ contest – despite the popular misconception of dozens of hours spent grading papers, professors work fewer hours than the professionals with whom they want to be compared.

    Disclaimer: I’m one of those professionals; I have 2 close relatives and 3 or 4 less close relatives who are part-time or full-time professors and have been well-acquainted with a few others here from time to time.

  11. M1EK says:

    $64,900 for an assistant professor puts it pretty much right in the middle of comparable professional positions. Unless you’re only comparing to doctors and lawyers – but, if you are, you’re insane – the investment and the workload are different by orders of magnitude. When you consider the fringe benefits (fewer working hours; perks at campus; eventual tenure), many of us in non-doctor non-lawyer professional positions would switch compensation packages in a second.

  12. James Joyner says:

    The UT to which I was referring was the one in Austin, Texas; which is no longer a cheap place to live (not the neighborhoods I’m talking about, anyways). Professors are doing just fine.

    Austin’s still cheap compared to the big cities but, yes, much more so than Knoxville. Chaos is not tenured and, indeed, isn’t on tenure track, so his salary is likely low compared to some assistant profs. Still, my understanding was that assistants in the social sciences at, say, Georgetown were starting in the mid-to-low 50k range. That’s GS-11 money.

    Unless you’re only comparing to doctors and lawyers – but, if you are, you’re insane – the investment and the workload are different by orders of magnitude.

    The time spent earning a PhD well exceeds that spent getting a JD, MBA, or other professional degree aside from an MD. And the workload varies from school to school. Research institutions like UT have very low teaching loads, teaching assistants to grade papers, and so forth. That’s not true at “teaching institutions,” which have at least double the load and few of the resources.

    It’s true, though, that few profs put in the 60- and 70-hour work weeks typical of those at the entry level in law firms or hospitals. I’m not sure what other professionals you’re comparing professors to, though.

  13. M1EK says:

    “I’m not sure what other professionals you’re comparing professors to, though.”

    Any level of professor works fewer hours than the average high-tech worker, in my experience. Some FAR fewer. Some grad students work as much or more; but that’s a short window.

    I’d compare the cumulative education/work investment of a tenured professor favorably to a lawyer but not to a doctor – but I’d also disagree with your implication that even the lower-level (assistant/associate) professors have somehow paid more dues than have lawyers.

    Relatively few people are confident enough in themselves to admit they have it easier than a non-trivial number of others, but professors are among the worst; I see teachers/professors whining about workloads constantly, but yet have not seen a substantial number of them abandon their field for the supposedly easier life in the private sector. I have seen plenty of people make the migration in the other direction, of course.

  14. James Joyner says:

    I’d compare the cumulative education/work investment of a tenured professor favorably to a lawyer but not to a doctor – but I’d also disagree with your implication that even the lower-level (assistant/associate) professors have somehow paid more dues than have lawyers.

    I’m just talking about terms of years of schooling that come at the sacrifice of earning a living. A law degree is three years full time or four years at night. Most PhD programs take something like seven years. There’s nobody outside medical doctors who have anything approaching that.

    It’s true that junior partner-track folks in many law firms suffer abusive treatment and work ridiculous hours, though. That’s seldom true in the academy, although the lab schedule in some of the sciences can be rather brutal.

    I’m not sure in what sense a job that doesn’t require a postgraduate degree is a “profession.” But, sure, there are jobs that require ridiculous amounts of hours.

  15. M1EK suffers from several common confusions, some of which you’ve cleared up James. But to chime in:

    The average time to get a social science Ph.D. is 8 years; five years longer than lawyers and four longer than MDs. It’s true that most MDs will spend additional time training in their specialties, but they get paid for that (coincidentally, the amount is about what a starting assistant professor gets after his/her additional four years of schooling). At that point physicians claim that all their schooling entitles them to a minimum six-figure salary, but no one makes the same argument for those responsible for the health of our minds.

    Second, I think M1EK and others likely only consider in-class time, and perhaps throw in a few office hours and preparation time. This is a myth; preparation is extremely intensive, as is grading. I’d say I worked at least 60 hours a week during my first 2-3 years just on my teaching responsibilities.

    Which brings me to research: my guess is that M1EK would not consider spending X-number of hours each day reading as work, perhaps because it’s done at a time and place of our choosing (at least during our summers “off”).

    All this for, as James rightly notes, for GS-11 money (where many of my undergrads start upon graduation).

    None of this is to complain about the position or pay, I’m just tired of the overblown and uninformed notions of professors’ lavish lifestyles and leisure time.

  16. One point worth noting is that pay differs radically across fields at virtually all institutions. Law and business pay very well, as do some “traditional” arts and sciences fields like the hard sciences and economics. Social sciences tend to pay just below the AAUP averages (psych probably pays best, followed by pol sci, sociology, and anthro.). Humanities, fine arts, and languages pay significantly lower. Largely this differential is driven by the non-academic marketability of the degree.

    You can even see these differences within disciplines; quantitatively-oriented political scientists get more money on average than qualitative and normative scholars, because quants have the ability go work in market research, data analysis jobs, and polling; by contrast, not many non-academic employers are interested in folks who can tease out what Machiavelli meant by “virtu” in The Prince.

  17. … quants have the ability go work in market research, data analysis jobs, and polling …

    And think of how much more marketable they’d be if they could actually explain anything!

    Oh snap.

  18. M1EK says:

    “I’d say I worked at least 60 hours a week during my first 2-3 years just on my teaching responsibilities”

    I’ve heard this argument many times from people in essentially every profession. Everybody exaggerates how much they work. If you’re truly spending 60 hours/week on your classroom responsibilities, your productivity is very very poor.

  19. M1EK says:

    As for “grad degree = ‘profession'”, I’m using roughly the same definition that US law does: substantial control over your daily work. If you want to argue that the guys who build the networks that allow you to post here aren’t ‘professionals’, go ahead; but like the claim that you’re not “upper-middle-class”, it betrays a substantial lack of perception.

  20. James Joyner says:

    As for “grad degree = ‘profession'”, I’m using roughly the same definition that US law does: substantial control over your daily work. If you want to argue that the guys who build the networks that allow you to post here aren’t ‘professionals’, go ahead;

    Using that definition, though, almost all white collar workers are “professionals.” I’m using a more classic definition:

    A profession is defined as a vocation in which skill, based on theoretical knowledge acquired through higher education, is applied to the affairs of others in order to meet their needs. A profession is regulated by a professional body which sets examinations of competence, acts as licencing authority for practioners, and enforces adherence to an ethical code. Regulation enforced by statute distinguishes a profession from other occupations represented by trade groups who aspire to professional status for their members. – Perks, R.W.(1993): Accountancy and Society. Chapman & Hall (London) via Wikipedia

    I wouldn’t claim IT people aren’t skilled laborers — my wife is an IT manager — just that they aren’t members of a profession. “Professionals” in the sense that, say, one is a professional athlete, yes.

    but like the claim that you’re not “upper-middle-class”, it betrays a substantial lack of perception.

    I don’t claim that I’m not UMC now; I am. But I wasn’t as a college professor making $38k.

  21. M1EK says:

    “I wouldn’t claim IT people aren’t skilled laborers — my wife is an IT manager — just that they aren’t members of a profession.”

    I wasn’t talking about people who run other folks’ computers. If you mean that Microsoft’s software developers aren’t “professionals”, then you’ve got a serious definition problem.

  22. Yes, my productivity must be very, very poor — as my blog notes I’m only able to read about one academic book per day (lazy me). It couldn’t possibly be that I work in a very, very difficult and competitive profession in which you’re supposed to be everything to all people, and in which after 14 years of college there are blog commenters who begrudge you even a middle-class salary (and a freaking new pick-up truck).

  23. Will Hunting says:

    And to think for a buck eighty in late charges at the public library………