The summer before your first tenure-track job: A few words on money

Author’s note: I found this forgotten blog post on my computer halfway through my second semester on the tenure track. It’s extremely valuable information, so I’m posting it now even though it’s some nine months old. I hope you find it useful.

The prospect of a professorial salary (a pauper’s pension, maybe, but not compared to a grad student’s income) left me blind to the financial trap that lay in wait for me this summer before my teaching contract formally begins.

My family is all moved to our new home in Beaumont, Texas, and I’m working full time getting classes planned and research started for my first semester on the tenure track. The move brought many challenges, but none so significant as the dearth of cash flowing in. It’s short of a full-blown crisis, but not by much, and it’s a trap that new tenure-track folks should be mindful of in the year before starting their first faculty positions.

The complications are many:

  • There’s the usual summer cash drought. As many grad students know well, you have to save cash like a camel during the fall and spring so you can survive through the summer. Nothing new about that.

  • But you’ll face moving costs at some point during the summer. Mine came early—we moved in May—but the exact timing isn’t relevant in the big picture. My new university was generous in that it covered almost all of my moving expenses. But they were covered through reimbursement, requiring me to pay up front and then wait while my documentation was processed and a check cut. In all, that process took about a month and a half. Considering our move cost about $5k (and other families could face similar expenses), that was a big expense to float.

  • Teaching a course of the summer can help, but if you’re like me, it’ll be at an adjunct’s rate (I’m not officially a faculty member until fall). Further complicating matters was that my employee filings couldn’t be completed until I was settled in Beaumont, and becoming an employee on the books required the same drawn-out paperwork process as reimbursement, delaying payment.

  • My wife and I chose a house to rent based on my upcoming faculty salary. That means rent at a few hundred dollars a month more than we’re used to paying. That won’t be a problem in December. But it sure is during the summer before.

  • There are summer and fall conferences to book travel for—again requiring you to float the cost and be reimbursed later.

  • Here’s the real kicker—the drought may extend into fall. Here, our semester starts at the end of August. Faculty are paid monthly. That means the first pay period, which covers the end of August and most of September, is paid in early October. The first paycheck doesn’t come in August. It comes much later.  

We’ve survived and are continuing to cope with the crunch. I can offer a few tips that we’ve found useful.

  • Make doomsday plans. In the absence of money flowing in, I made spreadsheets accounting for every essential cost and forecast that out into October. That way we knew precisely when we’d run out of money in the absence of reimbursements and paychecks. It didn’t help our situation, but it reduced our uncertainty about how bad things were, easing our stress.

  • Communicate openly about those who owe you money about your situation. I was able to grease the wheels by emailing regularly with the departments responsible for paying my expenses. Especially important was my department’s office administrator, who was able to whisper in the other ear of those responsible for reimbursement.

  • Save. You can’t save too much during the year before your big move. If we would have realized I wouldn’t start getting paychecks until October, my family would have instated austerity measures throughout the spring, leaving us with an extra grand or two to tide us over. In tight years past, my wife and I had a trick of accepting student loans, just in case we had a crisis, and then paying all the money back in full at the end of the semester, before they went into repayment. It’s not something everyone would find effective in all situations, but it might have been a good idea my last semester as a grad student.

I don’t have a solution to this dilemma, one that I expect many new to the tenure track will face. Instead, this is more of a warning. The glare of that faculty salary in the future is blinding. Don’t let it blind you from the financial snare that is the summer before.

Ken Ward