Question: How do I prioritize summer salary?

I’m working on another grant proposal, this one about an order of magnitude larger than the last. But still I am running into the same problem: the cost of doing the science I want to do pushes right up against the limit of the funding.

In the case of this particular grant, I have three main objectives: (1) Answer a cool science question that has intrigued me for a while; (2) fund a grad student; and (3) purchase some equipment that my inadequate startup money couldn’t cover.

Objectives 2 and 3 obviously have some significant (and fixed) costs associated with them. The cost associated with Objective 1 is a little more squishy, but there are certain things that I am going to need if I am going to answer my question. I’ve got to get to my field location and pay for the analyses, for example.

And this research, if funded, is also going to take a significant amount of time next summer. Which brings me to my question.

How do I prioritize my own summer salary when I am making out a budget for a grant proposal?

For those who aren’t clear what I’m talking about when I say summer salary, here’s how it works. My contract with the university is a 9 month contract (although my paychecks get spread out over 12 months), but in order to get tenure I’m going to have to produce some research. And the most uninterrupted time to do research is the summer, when I am technically not getting paid. Thus, when faculty write grant proposals, they often include some amount of “summer salary” to compensate them for their time. At least in my experience, the amount of summer salary requested is some small fraction of the amount of time actually spent on the project.

I have several contradictory feelings about summer salary, but I could really use some advice from those wiser and more experienced than I.

I think that I am too close to the whole impoverished grad student, doing science for the pure love of it thing to have a mature perspective. I see my paycheck now and realize that I make 2x what I made as a post-doc and it doesn’t seem so bad. But then again, people with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and 3 years experience are making 2x what I do. So it won’t make or break our family budget if I do or don’t get summer salary.

But then again, it doesn’t seem fair that I spend a month working on the project this summer and not get compensated for it at all. That’s a month that I could be playing with Minnow or enjoying some good books (or, hey, even prepping my fall classes), that I will instead be going into the field and doing some strenuous physical and mental work. And Minnow will be in daycare.

But, on the third hand, I don’t want to sacrifice the quality of the science, just so I feel like I am getting paid for my efforts. I don’t want to discover that I need some critical piece of equipment or that field costs were greater than expected and not have room in my budget to handle those things because I took summer salary.

What are the norms in your field? What do you do? What do I do? And, how do I explain my three hands?


  1. #1 Mommyprof
    September 28, 2007

    I work for free in the summer, both on research and the little bits of service that drip over into the summer (advising slacker students, keeping up web sites, answering e-mails) and takes 2-3 hours per week. I figure the research benefits me by keeping my career moving forward. However, Spouse is also on a 10-month contract, so we keep the kids at home over the summer and trade off supervision and working times. And if we want to take an afternoon off to go hiking, we do and don’t feel guilty about it.

  2. #2 Mommy Scientist
    September 28, 2007

    I usually put 1 mo of summer salary in each grant I write. Eventually, maybe I can afford a full summer.

    Do you have release time? That is becoming more common. My department now expects me to come up with 1/2 mo of release time from my 9 mo contract, which is ridiculous because NSF won’t pay release time so where am I supposed to come up with this? Watch out for release time.

  3. #3 anonymous
    September 28, 2007

    ScienceWoman: Did you really say “But then again, it doesn’t seem fair that I spend a month working on the project this summer and not get compensated for it at all. That’s a month that I could be playing with Minnow or enjoying some good books” I’m amazed. I’ve been a faculty member for almost 18 years and I never considered not getting a paycheck in the summer reason to not do science in the summer. And I have never taken summer salary off a research grant either. Maybe I’m a bit extreme?

  4. #4 ScienceMama
    September 28, 2007

    ScienceWoman, I think the anonymous poster is ridiculous. Obviously you’re planning to do your research in the summer. That’s why you’re writing the grant! But I think the fact that the universities only pay a 9 month salary and expect you to either fund yourself during the summer or work for free (as tenure depends on you being productive during the summer) is just one more example of how messed up the system is. It’s more of this ridiculous “If you have other priorities (like paying your mortgage or taking care of your child), you aren’t dedicated to science” attitude. You SHOULD take a summer salary. Every PI I have ever worked for takes a summer salary. MU calculates what an appropriate salary is for your position and then pays you 75% of that. You SHOULD be getting the rest of your salary from your grants. Your time away from Minnow should be compensated.

  5. #5 DRD
    September 28, 2007

    Not in science, but I have written 4 grants for with 2 different faculty members in each grant in the past year. One faculty member is very senior, the other quite junior. Both put 0.05 or 0.1 FTE for the school year and .25 to .4 FTE for the summer. I believe they are on 9 month contracts and only get paid what FTE they can come up with via grants for the summer.

    I think for them, part of the balance is the expectation of how much grant FTE is required during the regular school year for the positions. That has to be balanced against the summer FTE and the total cost of the project.

    Not sure if that was a help, but there you go.

  6. #6 Jennie
    September 28, 2007

    Hi, I don’t really have an answer to your question but wanted to make a comment. I’m still a PhD student but my husband recently received a Post Doc position at a national laboratory. I wanted to just comment on ScienceMama and anonymous.
    My husband is paid for 40 hours a week, yet he gets to work around 7am and leaves around 6pm, taking a minimal lunch break. He also works most saturdays and sundays, although if I have something fun, or a chore we need done he’ll do that first. The other post docs and working members in his group give him a hard time for working so much.
    He put it this way, “some people work to make money and others work because they want to.”
    I know this isn’t always true, for example, I like my work but work isn’t my life.
    I think anonymous is like my husband, where work is their life, their passion, ect. While I think most of us try to balance family, work and other responsibilities.
    In short, I think you should put your salary into the budget (as others suggested) because while getting tenure is very important being there for your daughter is top priority.

  7. #7 ScienceWoman
    September 29, 2007

    Thanks everyone for your advice. I’m not surprised to hear anonymous’s opinion. For me, yes, science is a passion, but it’s not my only one. I’m happy to do research in the summer, but the expectation that I should do so, unpaid, just because, well, because it’s science, seems silly to me. I think for me, for now, the best compromise is to put some summer salary into each grant, even if it represents a fraction of the time it will take me to get the research done.

  8. #8 Kim
    September 29, 2007

    One other point about summer salary: putting summer salary into the budget tells the reviewers that you are committing the time necessary to work on the project. So it may send a message to reviewers: this PI is serious and is going to put time into the project herself. (On the other hand, you don’t want to ask for inadequate funds to do the research itself. If you don’t ask for travel expenses, or don’t ask for enough analyses, the reviewers will also wonder if the project is feasible.)

    I’ve mostly gotten funding from sources that won’t pay faculty salary. And the choice has been to do research for free, or not to do research… so I have done the research for free. (The one time I could have gotten salary was when I was co-PI on an equipment grant that was funded the summer I had my son. I didn’t ask for salary on that one, because I didn’t want the grant to become my number one priority while I was on maternity leave… I wanted the PI to have the responsibility to get the equipment working. But in retrospect, it was a mistake: I’ve put in the same time since then, and if I had been paid, more people would have been aware that I was part of the grant.)

  9. #9 ScienceWoman
    September 30, 2007

    Kim: I like your point that it shows reviewers that you are serious about putting time into the project. But obviously there are cases where we can’t ask for summer salary – as you mentioned, there are RFPs that don’t allow it. That wouldn’t stop me from applying or working hard on the grant. I think much depends on where you are working, where your money is coming from, and whether you pursue science as an all-consuming religion or something really interesting and cool that you get paid to do, but not the only thing that makes you happy.

  10. #10 ecogeofemme
    October 1, 2007

    ScienceWoman, you yourself have pointed out that I am usually very positive. So this comment should be interpreted with the rest of my comments over time. I am so freaking sick of people saying that we should just work on science because we love it. Yes, we love it but it’s still our JOB. We’re extremely lucky to have a job about which we are passionate but for most of us, it’s not our whole life. You should get your summer salary if you can.

    It sucks that funding is so tight. Otherwise, more faculty could be hired and then all of them could work reasonable hours with reasonable stress levels, rather than having these jobs be so damn competetive that people contemplate working for free.

    And anyway, I know some funding agencies will only give you part of what you request, so sometimes you should ask for more than you need.

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