Working for the Yankee dollar

July 30, 1999

In the third of a series on academic opportunities around the world, philosopher Simon Blackburn and physicist Michael Duff explain why they quit British universities to try their luck in the land of the free. Julia Hinde, right, offers a guide to the best US jobs

Living it up on an academic's salary - does the pay pay?

For university academics, the United States is still the land of opportunity - in dollar terms at least. Young academics can expect starting salaries ranging from $35,000 (Pounds 22,000) to $90,000 (Pounds 55,000), says Eugene Allen, executive director of international programmes at the University of Minnesota. He adds that the top salaries are paid at the major private, land grant and research universities in subjects such as law, medicine, business and engineering, where there is strong financial competition from the professions.

"If a university really wants someone, it will pay whatever it can afford," explains Jaleh Daie who, until last month, was professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

According to Daie, now director of science programmes at the Packard Foundation near Palo Alto, most of the best paying institutions are on the east coast. "For professors on the coast at top universities, US$120,000 (Pounds 75,000) is not uncommon," she says. "Big names can negotiate outside this. Take, for example, Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They are competing for the same quality of people in the same area, so they do not want to be outdone by each other."

Many academics augment their salaries with lucrative consultancy work. This in a country where the average cost of living is lower than in the UK. According to one index, an academic earning $100,000 (Pounds 62,000) in London, would need to earn around $58,000 (Pounds 36,000) in Madison or $74,000 (Pounds 46,000) in Seattle to maintain the same standard of living.

Once on the faculty ladder, academics can usually expect annual pay increases, Allen says, although these are normally based on performance. He estimates that, on average, universities have this year increased salaries by 3 per cent.

Many young academics, once they have their PhDs, will spend between one and three years doing postdoctoral work before securing a tenure-track position. "But people can spend years as postdocs without getting a tenure-track post," Allen admits. He suggests that in the most competitive job fields, such as some of the social sciences, humanities and some of the life sciences, universities could have dozens of applicants when it comes to appointing to tenure-track posts.

Once on faculty, academics spend six years researching and teaching before they are eligible for tenure. "Then it is make or break," Allen says. "I would say probably about 90 per cent of them get tenure."

What's hot and what's not?

"The greatest opportunities in science at the moment are in the life sciences," says Jaleh Daie. "That is where I see a lot of new hirings." Other expanding areas, she says, include IT, engineering, business and environmental science. She holds out less hope for those seeking jobs in the humanities, English, linguistics or literature.

However, according to Eugene Allen, those seeking work in the liberal arts may find an improved market in the next few years. "Across the US, we are coming to a time of fairly high turnover in the social sciences and the liberal arts. Those hired in the 1960s are retiring so there will be more jobs in those fields in the next few years."

Teaching and research: balanced scales?

Across America's 3,500 higher education institutions, there is huge variety. Some colleges predominantly teach, while others top the international tables of research excellence. The Association of American Universities, which dates back to 1900, is a group of 60 research-oriented universities, about half public, half private. At AAU institutions, Jaleh Daie says, people are recruited "to do first-rate research", although they will have to do some teaching too. Promotion is unlikely on teaching ability alone. Rather, faculty have teaching assistants to help with marking and preparation, and non-faculty staff are brought in to cover some teaching.

"In the major research universities you cannot be promoted only as a teacher. However, compared with the past, when individuals may have been promoted primarily because of their research accomplishments, more research universities are now looking to a combination of teaching and research excellence," Eugene Allen says.

How to get there

UK academics can work in the US either through exchange programmes or by securing a university post. For academics coming for specific jobs, universities have to demonstrate there is no one locally able to fill the position. "It can be a long-winded process and take up to three months," says a US immigration officer. "But if they have the qualifications and the university can show it has looked elsewhere, these people can get in."

Initially academics can work in the US for three years. This can then be extended for another three. After that the university can apply for permanent status on the academic's behalf. In the fiscal year 1998-99, starting October 1998, the US admitted 115,000 professionals in all areas of employment. That cap was reached in June, so no more visas can be granted until the next fiscal year.

A 1987 Royal Society/Fellowship of Engineering report noted that almost 60 per cent of academics who left the UK between 1975 and 1985 went to North America. It put the proportion of Royal Society fellows living in the US at 8 per cent in 1986.

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