We are Paid

In, my most rant-like post yet, I would just like to begin by saying: We are paid.

This rant stems from my utter despise for when people academics say: “I don’t get paid to do that.”1

There are, of course, plenty of reasons why academics should not take on tasks or responsibilities we are not paid to do. Those prone to answer “yes”- like myself- should definitely feel the freedom and authority of saying “no” when approached with some ‘thing’ that is “not in my job description”. But the phase, “I don’t get paid to do that” really grinds my gears.

I’m sure history plays a role in my level of irritation with the phrase. Because, historically there has always been, and there continues to be, an underclass of folks who get paid absolutely nothing for the work they do. Who? Well, the enslaved Africans that build this nation serve as an archetypal example. Women and children trapped in the global sex trade today stand as another stark example. But we don’t even have to go *there*. Those who become family caregivers because of obligation or will (mothers, fathers, children of the elderly, etc.) are examples that I am sure everyone can empathize with. And then, on top of that, there are the whole host of fields that are underpaid for the work they do – work that is often not in their job description – but is expected or demanded. For instance, health care aides who have to manage both patients’ emotions and random requests, social workers who spend more time writing summary reports than interacting with clients, or fast food workers who are definitely not paid to smile when taking irate costumers’ orders.

So when tenure-track academics2, who make decent salaries and have high personal authority of their jobs, throw out the phrase, “I don’t get paid to do that” it kind of pisses me off.

Think about this, the median salary for U.S. workers is just under $52k. This means half of all U.S. workers make less than 52 thousand and the other half makes more. Growing up, my family fell into the bottom half (or bottom quarter really). So looking up from the other side, I can unequivocally say, we are paid well. While our many years of schooling and extra credentials makes us believe we should be highly compensated, the facts suggest that the majority of us earn a salary that starts out between five and fifteen thousand dollars more than the median wage, and to me, that is not too shabby.

Of course, this post is not about our pay. I’d likely support initiatives for us to make more, and I am definitely a proponent of increasing pay equity in the academy across race, gender, and discipline. I, however, did not get into this profession solely for pay. In fact, very few academics I know would rate pay as the motivating factor in their choice of career. More often than not, the motivation stems from some transformative moment we had as a student that sparked something in us – a pressing question we wanted to find the answer to or a topic we were so drawn to that we couldn’t phantom boring from studying it. Some of us even felt a deep motivation to change the world.

We tiptoe into the job and before long we are knee deep. We begin to learn that we can do interesting work, and teach others about our work. We can watch as our students have their own light bulb moments. And we can build even deeper relationships with some students, those who become our mentees and we can celebrate as they grow and advance to independent scholars. And we can learn from these students. We can work with smart people and collaborate on even larger projects. We can also travel to share our work in all parts of the globe. Pros of our chosen career also include job security (post-tenure), job autonomy, flexible hours and the opportunity to reinvent ourselves often. Most of us decide that academia is far from perfect, but that it comes with many perks. Some of us savor these jobs.

Pirtle_Whitney_candid teach

(^Me, in a candid moment, caught smiling while teaching stats)


However, once we become an academic we are often confronted with the realization that there are a lot of parts of the job that do not align with our motivation to take the job. These tasks can be viewed as tangential, unimportant, menial, or even “beneath us”. Hence, the phrase: “I don’t get paid to do that.” The problem isn’t pay, on the other hand, it’s that once we get into our positions we almost forget about the reasons that brought us here and focus instead on pay and/or the tasks that seem beneath our pay.

Rather than focusing on the particulars of some dreaded tasks, I think many of us would be much happier with our job as a whole if we approach those ‘things’ that “are not in our job description” as a part of a bigger picture.

Here are some examples of the ways we might reframe these menial or frustrating tasks that we think we are not paid for:

  • We are not paid to make copies, but we are paid to provide resources, material and otherwise, to students to help them learn
  • We are not paid to counsel students, but we are paid to mentor and advise them, which might include moments of consolation or emotional support
  • We are not paid to sit through seemingly unimportant departmental or university meetings, but we are paid to provide service to our university, and can give valuable insight that might even better its organizational structure
  • We are not paid to deal with unfriendly colleagues and administration, but we are paid to work together as faculty and staff to help the university run and provide a welcoming atmosphere for our students


I believe we have a lot to give as academics and want us to be appropriately compensated for our work, but I also believe it is helpful to remember that it is a privilege to be paid well, doing a job that we mostly enjoy.




1Disclosure: I am one of those academics who does, in fact, enjoy her job.

2I think contingent faculty are part of the underpaid and have every right to mutter “I don’t get paid to do this.” I also believe TT academics should help alleviate extra tasks that burden contingent faculty.





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