Friday, October 26, 2012

Love, money, and employment

I started floating the idea for this post by my husband at the beginning of our evening walk, and for the entire rest of the two miles we had together, he commandeered the conversation to tell me why he dreads his job.   And why, you ask, does he dread his job?   He responds at great length:  There's the great length of the commute, for one thing; there are the time demands, for another; there are the aspects of striving for goal X only to be cut off at the knees and turned all-of-a-sudden to goal Y.  In general, the analysis is this: it is not much fun.

If his job is all that dreadful, then some people might wonder why in tarnation he stays there.  You probably know the answer, and the answer is a word that starts with the letter "S", and the "S" in question is crossed through with vertical lines.  It's a $alary.  And his $alary pays our mortgage.  And $o, he $tays.

The career I swim through seems so different to me.  I love what I do, and I claim I'd do it even if I didn't get paid to do it.  In fact, I am really looking forward to having the kids grow up and move out* so I can do MORE of my job.
(* I know, I know, we're still talking about adopting yet another kid.  But that's a temporary bump:  the rule in the Miser Mom household is that any kids who enter the home have to be born in a year that start with the number 1.  Teenagers or older, only!  We're not starting over.  When N-son graduates from high-school, we start the process of shoving all our little birdies out the nest and letting them fly, and we go solo.  Hah!)
Among the gazillion differences between the way my husband and I see our jobs, this question has been niggling around in my mind lately:  if you get paid to do what you love, do you love it more or do you love it less?

To me, it seems that the answer depends a lot on how you get "paid".  Now-well-known studies show that rewarding day-care kids to color with crayons by giving them stickers or treats makes them, in the long run, less likely to want to color pictures than kids who don't get the rewards.  But stickers and treats have nothing to do with coloring; they're compensation for lost time, at best.  If you reward kids for coloring by giving them direct feedback on their artwork and also by giving them more/better crayons, they'll color way more.

When N-son started drumming, his first snare drum was a long-awaited reward for a summer of good behavior.  And later, the hi-hat was a similarly long-awaited reward for practicing regularly with the snare drum.  As time went by, we kept "rewarding" his drum practice by eventually "letting" him have more and more pieces of his drum set.  Now we "reward" his practice by "letting" him perform in public occasionally.  We are totally messing with his mind, rewarding his music practice with even more music practice.  But if we'd gone the route of say, paying him for good practice by giving him extra allowance or extra dessert, I don't think he'd be the avid drummer he is today.

Salary:  it comes from the word "salt", because that's how Roman soldiers used to get paid for their military duty (or so I hear; I'm a mathematician, not a historian).

But a salary is not the best reward, because a salary has nothing to do with the job at hand (unless you work in the salt mines).  My husband gets paid with money: he uses this money to build a personal life, not to build his career.  But my own office gives me more than money.  It just bubbles over with opportunities to teach the way I want, to follow my mathematical passions, and to bring my family and my career together.  Instead of "salary", think about these words instead:
  • reward, comes from "regard", meaning to look at someone.
  • recognition, meaning to know (or even, to recognize) someone.
  • compensation, which comes from 'com' (together) and pensive (thinking) and really means to weigh one side against another.
The best rewards of all to get are the kind where you can say, "Look at me!  Look at what I did!", and the person rewarding you looks at you and says "Yes, I see," and then agrees "Yes, I understand."  And life is even better if the person rewarding you says, "Let's think together (com-pensate) on how to help you do this even better."  

That is, paying the right kind of attention is just as important as paying the right kind of salary.  Think about it.  


  1. I see my department paying me a competitive salary as part of them showing their appreciation for my value. They're signaling that they want to keep me!

    1. Agreed! -- but with a big caveat . . . salary is only part of it, right? Having a photocopier that actually works; having an office with enough space for my books, having access to a library with materials I need, having supportive colleagues -- those are other parts of recognizing the efforts of my job, and they can make-or-break the day-to-day aspects of the job. I have a former student who is making a great salary but quitting his job anyway, all because the working conditions stink. --MM

    2. Definitely. If the other conditions of my job sucked, they'd have to pay me a lot more than a competitive salary to keep me there. Here's #2's rant on paying women less just because they're doing something important (and therefore fulfilling):

      And, of course, the ability to be frugal means that your walk-away point if the job sucks can be so much earlier.

    3. agreed. I love my research, but I don't love my job. I have been thinking about this a lot lately (and wondering why, given my very generous salary). I think it comes down to the recognition (I feel very isolated in my current department) as well as the constant erosion of administrative support & the resulting "work creep".

      But at this point, gotta pay the bill$ AND despite all my frustrations, the flexibility and privilege of academia can't be beat! I just hope I can eventually end up in a department that ends up being a better fit.

    4. @ nicoleandmaggie. Rock on. I think we're in total agreement that women shouldn't be paid with hugs and praise while men get paid with money -- you said it better than I.

      @ Frugal Ecologist. I feel for you. I don't know if it's possible for you to find friends/colleagues/mentors at your institution but OUTSIDE of your department. I have found those contacts to be as helpful -- actually, in many ways, even MORE helpful -- to my career and to my personal sanity than my department colleagues. They give you a whole new perspective on administrative job creep. And, of course, don't stop taking advantage (==> being grateful for) all those benefits of an academic job, including the chance to travel and meet with colleagues at other places who can buck you up. --MM