Why scientists have to work for free

Scientists are one of the only highly respected professions which society expects to work for free.  Not completely for free, of course, but any research scientist can tell you all about the work they do for no pay at all.

Take me for example.  I have a full-time, 9-month tenure track appointment at a research university.  This is pretty much the best case scenario for a 30-year-old scientist such as myself.  The 9-month part means that my university pays me a full time salary 9 months out of every year (the academic year).  I am not paid for the summer months.  This does not, however, mean I can just not work during the summer.  In order to get tenure, I need to obtain grants and publish papers.  The summer, during which I am not teaching, is my main block of time during which I can conduct research, develop grant proposals, and write and publish scientific papers.  If I was to not work over the summer, there is no way I would be able to earn tenure.  If I don’t earn tenure within 5 years, then I’m fired.

I can earn pay for some of the summer months, by obtaining research grants that include some summer salary.  But grant proposals are the most egregious example of how scientists are expected to work for free.  To put together a good grant proposal, with a reasonable chance of success, can take 2-4 weeks of full time work.  It usually takes much longer because I can’t dedicate 2-4 weeks to just writing a grant proposal.  A successful grant proposal requires a well thought out, well researched, novel and interesting idea.  It also generally requires some “preliminary results” to prove that the idea works.  So I have to do a large part of the science I’m proposing to do just to try to obtain the money to do it.  And grant proposals have a success rate of roughly 25%, so 75% of the time all that free work I did amounts to nothing.  Even if I do get that grant, a typical NSF grant pays for 1 month of summer pay for each of 3 summers, after which it ends.  So that means scientists are constantly writing grant proposals, usually 2-4 per year.

I know of many scientists who do not have the benefit of 9-month appointments like I do.  Some researchers are responsible for obtaining anywhere from 50-100% of their pay from grants.  That’s right, some scientists are hired into “jobs” that come with no pay whatsoever, and they then have to constantly apply for money to pay themselves.  These are called “soft money” positions.

I understand the importance of the grant proposal system.  It is a mechanism to direct limited public science funding to the projects deemed most promising by panels of experts, and it prevents scientists from becoming lazy and no longer pursuing new and promising ideas.  But we would be incentivized to participate in the grant proposal system even if we were paid year-round.  That’s because grants are also used to pay graduate student researchers, to purchase equipment, to pay for scientific conference travel, and to pay for publication fees and other research expenditures, in addition to being required for promotion and tenure.

Another example of how scientists are expected to work for free is peer review.  Every scientific paper and proposal goes through peer review, meaning it is critically read and evaluated by 2-5 other scientists.  Those peer reviewers typically spend anywhere from 2-8 hours reviewing a paper or proposal, completely for free.  In fact, in the case of a paper, the author pays the journal fees in the range of $2,000-$5,000, not one penny of which goes to the peer reviewers for their work.  And we can’t even take credit for peer review, because it’s meant to be anonymous and confidential.  So this is work we’re expected to do for free, out of professional ethical obligation, for no pay or recognition whatsoever.  If one refuses to participate in peer review, that person obtains a strongly negative reputation with journal editors and grant program managers, which can be professionally very damaging.

There is a saying in research science that no one chose this career for the pay.  And it’s true, the vast majority of researchers could make more money by applying their skills in a more lucrative industry.  Our salaries aren’t enormous, especially considering the number of years of education it requires to become a research scientist.  We’re here because we believe our work is important and valuable to society.  And I believe our time and work should be valued enough that we are paid for it.  For all of it, not just during the academic year.

Keeping it all going

No one expects that being a professor and a mom to an autistic toddler is easy.  It really isn’t, but not always in the ways people might expect.

Caring for the autistic kid is actually probably easier than most people think, at least in our case.  Our daughter is very high functioning, and other than some sensory related meltdowns, is a fairly happy kid.  She gets frustrated when she can’t communicate something she wants, but so does every toddler.  In fact, every weekday evening from 5:30-7:00 PM we have our ABA implementers around to help out.  Lately kiddo has wanted to do her ABA therapy in her basement playroom – which is wonderful.  She and the implementer stay down there and husband and I can make dinner and eat together in peace.  This is a recent development, it used to be that kiddo was constantly running away from therapy to me and demanding to be picked up.  So things on that front have gotten easier.

On the work front, it’s summer, so that means no teaching at the moment.  But stress levels are still very high.  As my mother keeps reminding me, I have a proposal deadline coming up. Seriously, when do parents stop nagging you about homework?  Apparently not when you become a professor, at least in my case.  Note to other profs: Do not tell your parents about impending proposal deadlines.  I don’t know why I ever did.

Of course I also have to prep my fall class, get a paper out, advise a student, and a few other things.  Oh, and I’ve recently had my own health scare that is most likely nothing, but has resulted in me having a TON of doctor’s appointments and tests.  Last week I had a cardiologist appointment, a kidney ultrasound, and a cardiac MRI, all of which showed me to be perfectly healthy.  But it’s an extra drain on my time and stress levels, and the docs want me to do more tests, ugh.

So with all this, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that some things slip through the cracks occasionally.  This week, I managed to annoy the front office staff of my department because I was supposed to sign a form by a specific date and I went to sign it the day after the deadline.  The deadline was pretty much the same day we got the forms because of the end of the fiscal year.  Apparently they were looking for me on Tuesday to get this signature, but I had some other stuff to take care of on Tuesday and wasn’t around.  So when I talked to them on Wednesday I got comments like “No one ever knows where you are, you’re not around.”  And other annoyed comments.  At first I was embarrassed but then I realized a few things: 1) I’m a professor.  I don’t work for or report to the office staff.  and 2) It’s summer, which means the university isn’t paying me for my time.  Many people may not know this, but professors actually aren’t paid for the summer months unless we find our own money through grants.  So I feel like they can’t really fault me for not being around for a day, after all, I’m still working for the university over the summer without pay from them.  (I did have 1 month of pay from a grant, but 2 months are completely unpaid for me).

Perhaps part of the problem is imposter syndrome, and I certainly have some of that.  It probably doesn’t help that I am female and younger than both of our front office employees, by a decent margin.  In fact I’m younger than some of the graduate students, which can make it a bit awkward if I try to exercise my professorial authority.  Also, I am someone who is very easily embarrassed and I suffer from a high level of anxiety, for which I take medication but it’s still a problem for me.  So for now, as silly as it is, I’m avoiding the front office completely.


First Summer as Faculty!

I’ve been making mostly Autism related posts at this blog, so it’s time for an academia oriented post.

The academic year ended officially about two week ago.  That’s when I turned in final grades for my class, and the summer finally began.  I took off a few days to decompress and switch gears.  My final exam was given at the end of finals week, leaving me not much time to grade all 47 exams by hand, including a few math problems and short answer questions.  It was brutal and I needed a break afterward!

Now I’m trying to pivot into “summer mode.”  The first thing on my summer docket was a proposal deadline, and now that’s done.  Next I have a paper draft from my postdoc work that I need to revise, add some figures to, and send to co-authors so we can hopefully submit it.  I also need to conduct some new research and prep for next fall, when I’ll be teaching a more advanced class I have never taught before.  So I have a lot to do, but so far, I’m having trouble being motivated to do it.  Partially the lack of a set schedule revolving around teaching is weird getting used to again, and also partially just being in my office all day alone is lonely!

Despite those complaints, I am happy summer is here.  Stress levels are lower, parking on campus is easier, the weather is warmer, and I can concentrate on more interesting science.  And, I am lucky in that I actually have a funded grant which will give me 1 month of summer pay.  That does mean that officially, I’m “unpaid” for two months this summer, although obviously I will still need to work during that time.  I have chosen to take my 9-month salary over 12 months, so getting that 1 month of summer pay feels like a “bonus.”  It also means that at least in theory, for the designated month I am supposed to work on nothing but that project.  In practice, I suspect I will need to work on other things a bit during that time, and I suspect I will work on the paid project during other summer months.

Having just submitted one grant proposal, I am now debating with myself whether to try to submit another for an early July deadline.  That isn’t a ton of time, and the program I am thinking of (NSF’s CAREER program) has a low probability of funding me on my first round, but a high payoff it I am funded (roughly $500,000 over 5 years).  Ordinarily I would tell myself to do it and not expect to get the money, on the argument that I could use the feedback to make my application better next time.  But as far as I know, this year is the last year for the CAREER program, meaning there won’t be a second shot.  So I’m debating whether the effort is worth it or not.  Any advice welcome.