Dirty Little Secret

I am ashamed that I don't make more money.

Not that I and my family don't live very comfortably, we do. But I know that colleagues of mine--in my department, not just in the sciences or business or law--must make vastly more than I do simply on the basis of what they are able to afford: houses, more than one child, vacations in Europe, second houses, new clothes. Not all of them, but many, some only my age. I don't know what to do with this. I feel slighted, of course, because I work very hard at what I do, but somehow I have never managed to do whatever it is that it takes to get a raise that would enable me and my family to do certain things that I see others doing, and I really don't know how to respond. Work even harder? But it doesn't seem to make any difference; prizes, publications, my family and I still have to watch every time we want to do something more extravagant than go out to eat.

It's possible, of course, that I am misjudging my colleagues: perhaps they eat more frugally than my family and I do, although since we eat nothing but sandwiches for lunch and rice and vegetables for dinner, I'm not really clear how, except without eating organic, which I refuse to do. Perhaps, which is not unrealistic to expect, they have family money so their standard of living does not accurately reflect what they make, but I've had a great deal of help from my mother over the years, so, strictly speaking, neither does mine. I fence, which has its expenses, but even as expensive as it is going to the national tournaments, it is nowhere near as expensive as sending a second child to the school my son attends, and several of my colleagues manage to afford that. Which leaves me only with the frustrating conclusion that, yes, they are paid more than I am. Suck it up.

Our adult formation class at church had a discussion this morning about how we think about money. Somehow we never got onto this level of experience; the discussion stayed more abstract and global--comfortably, since, as everyone knows, most middle-class Americans are more uncomfortable talking about money than sex, and we're pretty uncomfortable talking about sex. I don't actually know how much my colleagues make; I've never asked them. It would be like asking whether they came last night, if not worse. How they spend their money; where it comes from: both subjects equally taboo. We'd have to get pretty drunk to start talking about that and I've never been drunk with any of my colleagues, certainly not in that confessional-tell-all way that one enjoys with one's friends after tournaments. So we judge each other on the external markers of money: whether one lives north or south of 55th Street; how many children we have attending school; whether we go to Europe every summer or not.

Which, of course, is really what it's all about: status. I'm not that interested in getting rich; not, of course, that I would refuse, say, $500,000 as a grant to do whatever I wanted to for five years. But I would not be in the profession that I am if what I were interested in was money. I am, however, terribly interested in status and spend much of my life judging other people's on theirs. It's the stuff academia is built on: hirings, promotions, awards, every little expression of status counts and gets listed on our c.v.'s (how does one punctuate that?). But, of course, not every expression of status translates into money. Those colleagues that I've mentioned who seem to be making more than I am have not necessarily won as many awards as I have or even published more than I. Some of them have simply managed to attract the attention of other universities and had offers of employment elsewhere, which, thanks to the logic of the market, makes them "worth" more than others. Which, again, only makes it worse: nobody wants me other than my present institution, because if they did, I would make more money, perhaps even here.

It seems churlish to complain. My job has many excellent perks: I have a great office; I can live in the same neighborhood where I work and bicycle to campus every day (when there isn't snow); my son gets to attend the school that he does; my students are the absolute best (no, really, they are; it is an incredible privilege to be able to teach them). I don't actually want to work anywhere else; this is home. But why then does that translate into lower status than I would have if I were constantly trying to court other colleagues for a job?

What is it, really, that makes me so upset? Is it the money? Perhaps, if I did not know how much some of my non-academic (and, indeed, some of my academic) friends struggle to make ends meet. I'm one of the rich ones in some contexts. Nor is it that I and my family don't, in the end, usually get to do most of the things that we want to, like going to NAC's or summer camp. Rather, it's that nagging sense of difference between myself and those most like me, i.e. my colleagues, that I just can't shake (which, in large part, explains why I've never gotten drunk with them; I can't let myself lower my status even a little when I am with them). What to do? I've been struggling with this feeling for years now, and there seems little chance of an end being in sight, even with the book that I'm working on right now. Is the feeling simply endemic to academia? Do my colleagues feel it around me, too? I wouldn't know; I've never asked. I would be too ashamed to hear what they think.


  1. One of the more surreal parts of working at a nonprofit (and there are plenty of strange bits) is having your salary publicly accessible via the web. (If you are sufficiently high in the food chain, which, at various times, I have been.) It make me very self-conscious, working every day, of whether I am pulling my weight, earning my keep, proving my worth, etc., knowing that my (lesser paid) colleagues could be casting a critical eye on my salary and wondering whether I am worth it.

    For that reason alone, posting all salary data might be a good idea. Besides, anybody clever and snoopy enough can suss out colleagues' salaries by examining grant applications, etc. As an employer (or as a friend used to say, "if I were head dilly-dilly") posting salaries would force me to be very, very careful to justify what people get paid.

    Because often, Bear, the salary difference is due to the confidence (and its close cousin, arrogance) of the employee negotiating the salary. And since confidence has been shown, via credible research, to co-vary with incompetence...well, you see where this is going.

    So, if you really want the $$$, swagger, bluff, and threaten (feint offense) to go elsewhere. Leave current resumes casually lying around. Take mysterious phone calls that require closing the door. Take a day or two off for a mysterious "trip" that has you leaving in your best business clothes for an undisclosed location.

    Or, decline the gambit, and measure yourself by your true worth which as we all know, Bear (and I say this ignorant of your salary) is far more than you are paid.

  2. Bless you, Badger, how well you understand! Yes, you're right, it's all about confidence and swagger. One of my colleagues regularly tells me that I don't ask for as much as I should, not so much in terms of salary, but simply in local prestige. I sense a curious correlation here between my sense of self on campus and my sense of self on strip: if only I could take the offense more confidently, just think where I might be.

  3. You really don't discuss the previous evening's orgasmic activity at work? Man, you academicians are cerebral. Loosen up a little, will ya?

    Just to corroborate Badger's point, when my business partner and I were trying to set our consulting rates many years ago (a very visible proxy for what others believed we were worth), we discovered a study indicating that even amongst the most successful consultants, the #1 reason they didn't charge more was lack of confidence. It's endemic to fallen humanity, evidently, not just academia.

    So, yes, a little more swagger (which is not something that, in your case, should require artificial conjuring up) may be in order. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, most thoughtful people live with an uneasy tension of feeling like they are not truly worth what they are paid, on the one hand, but feeling resentful that other clods are perceived as more valuable on the other. This is why we have duodenal ulcers.

    And yes, since you ask: I did have one last night, although my doctor said it was the wrong kind (snort).

  4. Very good point about the tension many of us live with. Not worth the ulcers, I'm sure!

    Glad to hear you're having fun!


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