Getting Meaningful Raises in Academia: A Guide

If you have your spending reasonably under control, have eliminated high-interest debt and have a decent credit score, have cash saved for anticipatable large expenses and emergencies, and are already taking advantage of tax-protected retirement accounts, often the best next step to improve your financial well-being is to get a raise. Unfortunately, a lot of the advice you can find online to help you get a raise at your job isn’t super helpful for academics. These authors will tell you to go to your boss with a full breakdown of your accomplishments and the value you’ve added to the business’s bottom line. If that doesn’t work, they’ll tell you to ask for what performance benchmarks would be deserving of a raise, then go out and meet them.

You can try to do that in academia, but it often won’t get you anywhere. Everyone (except Dr. Deadwood) in your department has published articles, mentored students, gotten grants, taught great classes, shirked service work as much as they could and left it for the junior colleagues to deal with (to be fair to Dr. Deadwood, they definitely did this one!), or whatever the currency of the realm is where you work. You can go over your badass contributions to the Unified Theory of Taco Deliciousness all you want, but it may not move the needle without leverage.

Within this pretty depressing context, below I list every way I can think of that you can get a raise in academia. If I missed one, let me know in the comments. But first, let’s talk about the reasons you’ll have to fight so hard to get one.

(Note: Most of this post applies to non-unionized tenure-track professors in the U.S. Grad student and postdoc stipend negotiations need their own post, as would negotiating within unionized or step promotion structures. And higher power of choice help you if you’re an adjunct, because I sure as hell don’t know how to.)

Context: Why You May Have to Fight Like Hell to Get a Decent Raise

You Are Replaceable

The dirty secret of sub-elite academia is that often the administration doesn’t particularly care who their professors are within the universe of attainable options. It’s like running back salaries in the NFL — like team general managers, your university’s leadership would rather have the best or at least the very good, but they’ll often balk if they have to pay top dollar to have them. Really, you’re lucky they haven’t replaced you entirely with teaching faculty or adjuncts yet! They care much more about balancing their budget and making sure they have funds to give the Associate Vice Deanlet for Institutional Ass Covering (AVDIAC) a 25% annual raise and three more executive assistants who never pick up the phone when you call.

Even if you threaten to walk, chances are they’ll find someone pretty good to take your place (again, if they don’t replace you with an adjunct), and they know it. Due to the overproduction of PhDs over the past decades, the pool of people who would like your job and could probably get tenure there is pretty big. Tenure standards do seem to have increased with time, but not as much as the competition for each tenure-track job has. The result is that from the applicant’s perspective, it’s harder to get a tenure-track job than it is to get tenure. From the university’s perspective, it’s a buyer’s market.

Salary Compression

The other important context here is that often it’s harder to leave once you have tenure. This is the case for several reasons:
1) Most job ads are for assistant professors.
2) The bar for other schools to want to hire you is higher than the bar for tenure for their assistant professors. In other words, you can be tenureable without being poachable.
3) Life stuff: you may have kids in school, a spouse settled in a job, and your ultimate frisbee team is totally going to go all the way to the championship this year. (Just kidding, I know you don’t have hobbies!) It’s harder to leave in terms of social/family life for many established faculty.

Your university knows all of this, too. They’re usually much more willing to bid for you to come than they are to give you a raise once you’re there, unless you have the leverage of an outside offer. Even if you do, depending on how plausible it is for you to go, they may even call your bluff. The result is that starting assistant professor salaries often increase more rapidly than those of associate and full professors. This is known as salary compression. If you work at a university subject to sunshine laws, look up your colleagues’ salaries — chances are, some of your full professor colleagues will be making good money, and some of them make less than some associates.

You fight being a victim of salary compression by fighting for a real raise. Below are all the ways I know of to make that happen, roughly in order of how easy they are to accomplish.

Ways to Tread Water

Cost of Living Raises

Hopefully your university offers regular cost of living raises. Don’t expect these to be lucrative or even keep up with the inflation rate — the university is more than happy to let inflation work for them and against you by oh-so-generously handing out 1.5% “raises” during 5% inflation while never acknowledging that they’re cutting your pay and know it. Still, as infuriatingly insulting as that is, something is better than nothing.

Merit Raises

These may or may not be separate from the cost of living raises. At my university, they’re essentially the same: There’s a pool of money to be distributed which is sorta-kinda set by the inflation rate, and the department head is supposed to allocate the funds proportional to faculty annual evaluations. Again, don’t expect to get rich this way, but it does help you tread water under more typical inflationary environments than we’ve been experiencing lately.

Promotion Raises

So you made associate or full — congratulations! With this change in title often comes a change in paycheck. Often these raises are more meaningful than the merit raises, but probably not by as much as you think. For instance, at my university they are 8%. While nice, that’s not exactly life changing money. Worse, you only get these twice at best.

At Least You’re Not Drowning

To summarize the first three sections, don’t count on annual cost of living / merit or promotion raises to make you bank. These will probably just help you keep a teensy bit ahead of inflation normally and fall progressively behind your more junior, whippersnapper colleagues over time. Now, maybe you don’t care about the money — in which case, what the hell are you doing on this blog? — but assuming you do, let’s talk about the ways you can actually get ahead.

Ways You Might Actually Be Able to Get Ahead

Service-Related Raises

One of the beauties of faculty governance is that no one wants to actually do it. I figure that’s one reason why administrator salaries keep going up and up while faculty salaries increase just a little faster than inflation. The good news is that, if you’re one of the relatively few academics who would actually like to be department head or director of graduate studies or some other heavy service role, you can use the fact that there are so few others like you to plausibly feign reluctance to fill the role. This feigned reluctance gives you leverage for a raise along with other perks that likely come with the gig, like course buyouts. What’s especially nice here is that although the course buyouts that often come with these roles are temporary, the salary increases are often permanent! Milk it for all you can when your number is up.

A related pathway to a better salary is to look to move up the institutional food chain — just think, with a few years’ work, YOU could be the AVDIAC getting that fat raise every year! Sure, you’d have to give up your groundbreaking research program on those sweet, sweet tacos, but unlike most of your academic colleagues you’ll be well compensated by sweet, sweet increases in salary.

Retention Raises

For those who neither wish to work in administration nor leave, threatening to leave and then gratefully accepting whatever counter-offer your administration begrudgingly offers you (perhaps after a couple rounds of back-and-forth) is probably the best way to get ahead on salary. There are three flavors of this game depending on when you want to try to cash in your leverage (and, relatedly, how interested you are in leaving and how likely you think you are to get the offer):

  1. Negotiate when you’re invited to apply. In this approach, someone invites you to apply for their position, preferably in writing. At this time, you forward this email to your department head and ask if they’d be willing to offer some inducement not to apply. Expect a modest raise (if anything) unless it’s an especially compelling or high-probability opportunity. This will be conditional on graciously declining to apply.
  2. Negotiate when you’re invited for an interview. In this approach, as soon as you get the invitation to interview for a position, you reach out to your department head and let them know. The hope is that they’ll offer you a small to moderate raise not to go on the interview at all. This is your best option either when you think you’re unlikely to get the offer in the end or when you’re not interested in playing I-might-leave chicken with your colleagues. This will be conditional on you not going on the interview (which is the right thing to do both for the interviewing department and any initially non-interviewed, shortlisted applicants).
  3. Negotiate when you get the outside offer. This is your highest-risk, highest-reward option. Your goal here is to get a maximally compelling offer from the poaching department, in the hopes that your current department will match it, or come close.

Move Out to Move Up

The trouble with threatening to leave in hopes of a retention offer is that sometimes your department head or dean will wish you well in your new position, laugh in your face about your counteroffer demands, suggest you not let the door hit you on the way out, dance a merry jig as soon as you’ve left their office while the door is still open for you to see, or all four at once. In this case, you have very few options. Obviously, you could take the new job offer. Or you could tuck your tail between your legs and accept that you’re not a priority to your administration even as you continue to work there. Maybe you could enlist allies’ support to advocate that you get at least something out of this situation, but don’t expect it to be much. My advice is that you not go down the retention offer road unless you’re willing to confront these possible outcomes. Remember: You’re replaceable.

Of course, you may have preferred the outside offer all along. In this case, you should continue to negotiate with your current university in hopes of prompting the outside offer institution to sweeten their offer, at least within the bounds of reason and collegiality. In the ‘get lost’ scenario just outlined, though, it’s pretty much take it or leave it.

It’s hard to find firm data, but my guess is that most professors who make the highest incomes in their fields have moved at least once, or at least credibly threatened to do so. There’s probably no other way to get your full market value. Except…

Rage Quitting Academia

If you want to receive your full market value salary, you should probably seriously consider leaving academia. That deserves its own post and I hope to get to it soon. But suffice to say that even well-paid academics (for academia) are likely underpaid compared to the private sector by 25% or more.

How Often Should You Go for a Raise?

Theoretically, it would be ideal to try for a raise every single year, right? That way you would leave nothing on the table. Well, if this were a one-shot prisoner’s dilemma game, that’s absolutely the answer, but it’s not. Your opponent (your department head / dean) remembers what happened last time, and the time before that. And each negotiation takes multiple meetings, several emails, and dozens of hours of busy people’s time. Further, there’s a delicate balance between advocating for your self-interest and being viewed as a good colleague. After a certain number of hardball negotiations in a short period of time, your colleagues will start to wonder whether all this is even worth it. Finally, going on the market takes a lot of time and effort for you, for your potential colleagues’ hiring committees, and your letter writers. Spend all this effort wisely.

To balance these considerations, I suggest the following approach. As an assistant professor, you should probably go full on the market around your 3rd year on the tenure track and then again the year you go up for tenure. Then do so again the year you go up for full or after 5-8 years have passed, whichever comes first. After you make full, go on the market about every 5-8 years. Two exceptions come to mind: First, if you have just hit a home run in terms of publications/grants in ways that are visible to hiring committees, go ahead and strike while the iron is hot. Second, if you’re invited to apply to a job you would consider working for, go ahead and apply (or else ask your current employer to pay you not to). This way, you’re regularly dipping your toe in the market, taking advantage of promising opportunities, but also not overly exasperating your current colleagues.

Final Thoughts

You can optimize your investments, trim down your spending, and even keep living like a grad student, but you’ll still be on a worse financial trajectory that you could be if you don’t periodically do your damnedest to get a decent raise. The chances that your college will look at your salary and come to you saying, “Oh goodness! I can’t believe we’ve been underpaying you for years! Here’s $150,000!” …is very small. You’ll need to push for it. Hopefully this post gives you a better idea of what’s possible and how to go about it.

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