Friday, April 19, 2013


Vimala Pasupathi's recent post about her decision to take an unpaid research leave hit a nerve with me. Vim isn't the first person I've known to do such a thing, but she lays out with candor and clarity the ways that "doing more with less" at the institutional level can force faculty to do the same thing on the individual level: the more our institutions demand of us, the harder it is to carve out space for our own life and work.

Those I know who have taken or are considering taking unpaid leave--or who have sacrificed a chunk of their usual income by foregoing summer teaching or additional advisement or administrative duties--have done so not just in order to finish a scholarly project they were excited about, but also to recover from a toxic workplace, to be with a long-distance spouse, or to compensate for a nonexistent maternity leave. And I am, after a fashion, doing the same thing myself: I'm taking a year-long sabbatical, at half-pay, both to kickstart my next book project and to live with my spouse full-time for fifteen months.

This is a genuine financial sacrifice, but not the world's biggest one: among other things, I've got tenure, so I'm returning to secure employment, a stable income, and a basically healthy, happy institution that hasn't suffered much in the recent financial downtown (in fact, there's now more money available for research than when I started).

But if my sabbatical sits at the cushier end of the self-financing spectrum, it's worth recognizing that it's not entirely distinct from the kind I did when my professional position was far less stable. Indeed, self-financing may be the skill those who go through graduate school in the humanities learn best.

Here's one example: in the last two years of my PhD program, I presented at five national conferences and I paid for them almost entirely out of pocket: I believe I got $500, total, for five conferences, all of which included plane flights and hotel rooms. I remember struggling to find the money--and I shared hotel rooms and economized in various other ways--but it never occurred to me not to do it. I was almost done with my dissertation, and I needed the lines on my vita and the public exposure.

When I started a tenure-track job, I merely scaled up my sense of what I could afford to self-finance: so I got less than $1000/year for research travel? No biggie. I had a real salary! So I went to two or three conferences in one year, or spent two weeks in England working at an archive, and I regarded it as a necessary expense: I wasn't going to let being at a regional state school limit the work I could do, or restrict my opportunities.

Over the years, to eke out an extra conference or a research trip overseas, I've used frequent-flier miles, spent two weeks living in a dorm, eaten sandwiches for every meal, split hotel rooms with friends--but, above all: I've spent my own money. I never even kept track of how much I spent until I got married and got an accountant and realized, holy shit: that's thousands of dollars, every year, to finance my scholarly life. Next year, I'm "spending" more than $30,000.

I'm lucky to be able to do it, all of it. But I wonder what the breaking point is, for me or for the profession as a whole. I've always regarded my self-financing as essential, as an investment, and my position rewards that kind of thinking: all that grad school debt and lost income did in fact result in a tenure-track job; the work I've self-financed since then has been directly responsible for merit raises and indirectly responsible for my getting tenure and promotion and receiving scheduled raises along the way. But I guess it's a fucked-up system that expects--that takes it for granted--that its members will sacrifice and pay out of pocket for the work that the profession requires in order to consider them full members.

Or to put it another way, when is self-financing an investment, and when is it a scam?

This isn't a matter I'd adjudicate for anyone else; I know independent scholars and adjuncts whose work is wholly self-financed, a real contribution to their fields, and done (I presume) out of love and dedication; they can't not do the work they do. But for me, it's worth it because the profession has committed to me. If I left the profession or it left me, I would not keep doing my research.

I love my work. It provides me with a profound source of meaning and much of my current identity. It's taken years to become the scholar I am, and to be as happy as I am, and it would surely take me years to find something equally meaningful. But if someone weren't willing to pay me for it--or for some percentage of it!--I doubt I'd do it.

What's my breaking point? I really don't know. But since next year I'm getting paid half of what my institution normally thinks I'm worth, maybe that's as good a line in the sand as any: I need the profession to meet me halfway.


Anonymous said...

"I love my work. It provides me with a profound source of meaning and much of my current identity. It's taken years to become the scholar I am, and to be as happy as I am, and it would surely take me years to find something equally meaningful. But if someone weren't willing to pay me for it--or for some percentage of it!--I doubt I'd do it."

This is exactly the problem - there's a tacit expectation abroad (that we happily acquiesce into) that liking our work is compensation enough. Administrators are more than happy to leave such a belief unexamined and leave individuals to bear the cost of the scholarly enterprise. This leaves me to wonder: how extensively do other disciplines "self-finance"? I would be surprised if the same tacit understanding about "self financing" existed in economics and in the sciences.

FWIW, I've definitely said no to conferences before because they cost too damn much. As a discipline we need to be more aware of the limits of self financing, and perhaps even judge vitas slim on conference going with a more sympathetic eye. At the very least, we need to stop accepting "self-financing" as part of professional development.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

This post really moved me. The profession is so tough.

I hope your sabbatical is fruitful and totally awesome. Good luck with it!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. Too many of my friends are in the position of self-financing research and-- this is something that especially hits art historians, when we have to pay reproduction and use fees for images in our articles-- publishing.

My research only marginally touches on the field of my paid job (with a museum), so I end up bearing the brunt of costs, which are becoming substantial. At this point, I can't imagine not doing my research, but at the same time, my retirement account is pathetic, etc etc. I really don't know: when is it too much? In my case it's somewhat understandable, but it's crazy when a tenured professor is also spending so much to do her job. What hope do I have?

Anonymous said...

I'm not in humanities, and I've self-financed before. I am also looking at self-financing a year-long sabbatical, like you are. Like all grad students, I ate a significant amount of conference fees, and continued to do so in my first few years on the tenure track, until I really got it through my head how little the school was actually going to give me. After that, I spent several years just not going to conferences, and telling everybody why. I just can't afford it and there is no merit pay to reward it.

There are lots of opportunities that I have to tell people, "I have no funding for that, so I can't go." I could afford to do some on my own dime, but my dime isn't that big.

I hate this.

Shane in Utah said...

Great post. I've also subsidized my own research (in postcolonial literature) to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars over the years. In particular, I've self-financed most of the trips to Africa that have been essential to my research and to establishing myself as a specialist in African literature. My university is more generous with sabbatical pay (100% pay for 1 semester, 80% pay for 2 semesters), but five years of budget cuts have hit us hard otherwise, with no raises in several years and minimal support for conferences and research. I have started to wonder why I exert myself so much and pay for so many job-related expenses out of pocket when there are so few material rewards for it any more. Post-tenure I attend only one conference per year, as that's all that my departmental travel budget can cover. I don't get enough out of conferences to pay for them myself, unless they're in some awesome location or at a place with archives I can consult while I'm there.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this post, Flavia. As a grad student, I remember when I was an RA and a tenured prof told me that ze couldn't cover all my expenses (that prior ze said ze would) b/c "maybe I didn't realize how much of hir own money ze spent when ze did research trips."
My reaction was, that is crap, since you know, I'm a grad and have a very small stipend to begin with.

I find it utterly ridiculous, as do my friends in "real" corporate jobs, that we are expected to may hundreds if not thousands to go to conferences and whatnot, which are a required part of our "job." We are paying to work. And there is something messed up about that,

scr said...

I have heard people in IT jobs discuss paying for their own training and certifications as well, though I don't think it's nearly as common.

I'm curious what the major objection is here with regard to academia.
* Is it the relative frequency with which it occurs in academic jobs versus non-academic?
* Is it the sense that it's *yet another* expense that's not covered, or *yet another* form of compensation that is being further whittled away, year after year?
* Is it the fact that you don't know if the 'investment' will ever pay off? (where in my technical industry you can reasonably expect that it'll improve your marketability and earning potential in the very near future)
* Is it something that *no* job should require/expect (I've seen this attitude in certain corners of the tech world, though I've never seen it reconciled with the overall acceptance of paying for one's own 'initial' education).

I imagine everyone has a somewhat different answer to the question, but I'm trying to gauge the primary gripe.

Flavia said...

Thanks, all! I'm sorry this is something that resonates so much with other people, but it's useful to know that it's as wide of a problem as I'd suspected.

Anon 11:07:

Yes, that's right. I don't think it's wrong to self-finance in order to keep doing something one loves (that is, I'm not criticizing anyone who does it!), but it is wrong that the profession more or less demands it, and that the demands hit hardest those who have the least status in the profession.

nicoleandmaggie and Shane:

Yes, I need to start being more deliberative about my self-financing. Obviously the sabbatical makes sense, as there's virtually no other way to get that kind of time and it only comes around every seven years. But the conferences are another story. (Says the woman who has committed to go to ALL THE CONFERENCES next year, since her book will be out...)

Historiann said...

Thanks for this post, Flavia. It's very timely, as the fellowships I applied for once again have turned me down. I am now coming to terms with the fact that the book I'm writing now will be almost entirely self-financed. Although I should probably feel ashamed or embarassed, I've decided to be proud of this: no one wanted to take a chance on this but me, and dammit I'm going to write this book and get it published anyway. So there!

I'm pretty much where Shane is, as he writes: "I have started to wonder why I exert myself so much and pay for so many job-related expenses out of pocket when there are so few material rewards for it any more." And yet: traveling to conferences, having enriching conversations, and seeing old friends in the profession are really good brain food as well as things that make me happy, so I will probably continue to pay for stuff out of pocket when my (meager!) travel $$ runs out. (And it runs out pretty fast, when you only have $900-1200/yr. to begin with.)

I have found that a few invited talks a year, or conferences that include some expenses, are really helpful in terms of financing the rest of my conference & research travel. That might be something you could explore to help ease the financial and moral pinch.

Flavia said...


Maybe my responses above clarified this somewhat, but yes--most of your bullets get at some portion of the problem.

The problem is that research and travel are necessary, expected parts of the job (albeit to different degrees depending on the institution): we are required to do it for retention and promotion, and we become more valuable to our institutions the more research we produce and the higher-profile our work is. But there's a decreasing amount of funding for these activities--often they're almost entirely unfunded by our institutions. Moreover, the amount of funding available is radically unequal.

In the humanities, some faculty get annual research budgets in the (mid to high) thousands of dollars. Others can count on maybe a thousand. Many don't even have not even that, and those who are *trying* to get tenure-track jobs are the worst off. And those inequities can mean that those on the lower tiers (adjuncts, non-tenure-track faculty, or those at resource-poor institutions) can never catch up, or never have the careers they were trained for and otherwise could have.

(To be sure, this varies depending on field. Even within literary studies, some scholars really just need access to a decent library, to interlibrary loan, and to a few basic databases. But others need to spend a month or two abroad every summer doing archival research, or they need the time/money to work up reading competency in a new foreign language, etc.)

undine said...

Thanks for posting this, Flavia. I've self-financed travel for years with summer teaching but have finally decided to cut back on conferences, at least.

Canuck Down South said...

I have a question is a bit tangential to the main discussion here--which is fascinating, as a grad student, I didn't actually know professors were *supposed* to get research and travel funds yearly--but it's hovering around a number of the comments: how many conferences a year would you suggest people should attend, at different points in their careers? Both Flavia and a lot of the commenters are suggesting numbers much higher than have been recommended to me: I've been told to stick to one or two a year max, as a grad student. What that means is that I'm actually on track to graduate next year without having used up my allotted conference-going money, and the grad students in my department actually aren't allotted all that many trips. What would you recommend as the ideal number or percentage of conferences: all the big ones in your field, just one, something in the middle, etc.? It sounds like many of you would like to go to many more--is that a function of the point in your career?

Flavia said...


That's a great question. I think 1-2 a year is exactly the right number, unless there's some reason to do more. In my case, well. . . in grad school, I didn't present at any conferences, at all, for four years. So I went to five in 13 months. This is a course of action that I recommend to nobody, though it worked for me: I was pretty slow out of the gate as a grad student, and radically unsure of myself. Then all of a sudden, I felt ready: I'd written three chapters, felt that I knew what I was about, and with the job market looming I got my act together and went to everything in sight. (It was insane, but it had upsides: I was presenting polished work, and I kept running into the same people just months apart, so they remembered who I was.)

But on average, I go to 2 conferences a year: 1 some years, 3 others, but basically 2. Like Historiann, though, I find going to conferences really invigorating, even when I'm not presenting. (And since my spouse is in more or less my field, sometimes I tag along just to see friends and learn what's going on even when I don't have work to present.)

For grad students, I'd recommend a mix of conferences, absolutely including some smaller/more specialized ones, or those that have a format (seminars, workshops, or meals eaten together) that facilitate meeting people. Just going to MLA or the equivalent is going to be hard and lonely as a grad student: even if you go with a buddy or two, it's hard to meet people.

Readers, your advice?

Historiann said...

I think Flavia's advice is right on. Some years you will be busier/see more opportunities for networking/have more to say, but on average 2 is a good number to shoot for. Most conferences offer discounted registration to grad students, and some even try to hook up visiting grad students with cheap housing (in dorm rooms in summertime conferences, for example), or homestays with other grad students, so be on the lookout for those opportunities. Or, you could look out for opportunities to go to conferences in cities where you can crash with a friend or relative!

(I used to travel much more inexpensively, but have become lazy in my old age.)

Susan said...

My sense of the profession is that there are a lot more conferences now, and people expect to go to more. But back when I was a grad student, I don't think faculty expected to be reimbursed for conferences, unless they were interviewing at the AHA. So they didn't go to many. Until my current job, I've largely self-financed my career - travel to the UK for archives, most conference travel, etc. I have had a few research travel grants, and at my former institution they raised the annual conference amount from $500 to $750 if you presented.

I've always thought that I go to conferences or to do research rather than going on vacations the way most people do. It's for myself - and it emphasizes that my research, and the collegiality of conferences, serves my needs, not anyone else's.

There are a few conferences I go to regularly, a few others occasionally. It is mostly to see friends, as I find the format of most conferences frustrating. When trying to make yourself visible, 2 a year is good. The key is to go to conferences where there is a good concentration of people who understand what you are doing, (I think grad students go too far afield, and it's not as useful.). Most of us have one which we think of as our home conference.

But I wonder, as I see ever more CFPs cross my email, whether we are doing conferences for the right reason - when are there too many? Which is to say, conferences should be fun and interesting, not another duty.

EngLitProf said...

Flavia, your post and Historiann’s first comment raise a difficult question: at what stage of one’s career are sacrifices no longer worth it? You are taking a full-year sabbatical on half pay, yet, as you have mentioned on your blog, making progress on your second book has a good chance of helping you professionally and personally. I will be on sabbatical next year on less than my full salary, and I’m pushing things: I am fifty years old and twenty-one years past my Ph.D., and arguably it is a little late for me to go into debt for my career. I chose taking the full year at reduced salary because I think that ultimately the total professional, personal, and financial benefits will be greater than the burden, but I can’t imagine I would make the same decision eight years from now (when I am next eligible)—unless, of course, my salary has risen so much and my expenses stayed steady enough that getting by on two-thirds of my salary would not be a problem.

Contingent Cassandra said...

Another wrinkle for those who are full-time but off the tenure track: even if one could get a fellowship (and my sense is that that's getting more and more difficult), most fellowship stipends are designed to serve as a supplement to sabbatical reduced pay, not to serve as a full replacement salary, even for a salary considerably lower than a TT one (in fact, a few specify that the recipient can't receive more than half of his/her regular salary). Part-time contingents would face the same problem (except that, if there were no explicit limitation to 1/2 of "regular" salary, a $30,00-$40,000 yearly stipend would probably constitute a raise over their usual pay. The problem would be worrying over whether there would be adjunct work to return to).

I'm very lucky, in that, as a full-time non-TT faculty member, I get about the same amount of travel/conference money as my TT colleagues (the amount available varies by year, but usually turns out to be in the $500-$800 range: so, basically, 1-2 cheap/local conferences, or most of one that's farther away and/or requires lodging in a major city).

I do benefit from another form of privilege: because I was able to use an inheritance to put a down payment on a very small apartment, my housing cost consists of a mortgage payment which includes more interest in a year than the standard deduction, which makes pretty much any charitable donation or professional expense (over a certain percentage of my income, but I always exceed it) less costly than it would be if I didn't itemize.

As the above implies, I do self-finance a good deal of conference and research travel (usually 2-4 conferences a year, with the higher number occurring only in years when 1-2 are very near by; also, I'm trying to move toward less presenting and more publishing. However, to enable that, self-financed research travel has increased over the last few years. I'm lucky in that such travel isn't too expensive -- we're talking Amtrak, not planes -- but still, I basically take vacations at home, and spend travel money on research trips). I can't self-finance a sabbatical; in fact, at this point, I can't self-finance a full summer off (but/and am concerned that, at some point, summer teaching, which isn't guaranteed, might not be available).

It's hard out there at pretty much every level (save, perhaps the elite extremes), I fear.

Anonymous said...

The problem with self financing is that a certain point you have to stop, since credit can only go so far. At my institution we use all disposable income and savings and also all open credit. Eventually people have to stop doing research and start consulting or go into administration to pay down their debt. I am looking at slinging hash this summer if I can get a job that pays into social security because I am not vested in it, have always worked for state institutions that do not pay into it. So, noble though self financing may be, it has its limits.

Flavia said...

Susan, you raise a good point. When I was a grad student/very junior junior faculty, I went to some random conferences. Not bad ones--but I think I felt that I needed exposure more than I'd spent time thinking about the optimal venues to present my work. Now, I really have my stand-bys, the places where I know (a) I'll get good feedback, and/or (b) I'll hear work relevant to my interests, and/or (c) see the people I want to see.

ELP, Historiann, and others: I'm not sure whether there's a definite trajectory that one's career can be expected to take, in terms of when it does and doesn't make sense to self-finance--but I think it's true that at different stages in a career (or in one's financial life) self-financing can make more or less sense. Unless one is at or gets to a very well-funded institution in one's mid- or late career, I imagine there will always be occasions when a given project or opportunity comes along and self-financing makes sense. Sometimes you just have to get to that archive, or take a leave, or whatever. At other points, it simply isn't that urgent.

Susan said...

It might be about what it's worth to self- finance, and why. That is, early in your career, you self-finance to become visible. Later, you self-finance the things that matter to you, whether it is seeing friends, doing research, etc.