I work in academia. The way contracts work (in most of the USA) is that you are on a 9 month contract and have the summer free with no salary. This means that you officially have not duties in the summer (but in practice it may be different), but you receive no salary for those months. In theory you are expected to fund your summer by teaching or getting someone to pay for your research (NSF, NIH, NASA, etc). In practice, there are so many professors and so little summer funding that most do the research for free.

How can I briefly explain that I am not working in the summer because I am not paid? For example, say that I decide to just do without the money and not work (and instead take a vacation or do volunteer work). Is it misleading to say even though I am a professor I am not working in the summer because I am not paid? Some colleagues reply that they are being paid, since you can request your 9 month salary to be spread in 12 months, but that is misleading (what would you say if you are paid 3/4 of your annual salary and told you have summer free?). Other colleagues reply that you are in essence unemployed in the summer.

NOTE: If I were to take a 12-month job, I would earn more than I am making now (roughly 3 months more of salary).

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    Why do you need to specify that you aren't getting paid, not just that you aren't working? Can't you just say "I'm taking the summer off"? I'm not sure what you're having difficulty with here. – David K Jun 29 '17 at 19:17
  • I tried something like that, but people assumed I was still being paid. It gets more confusing when other people are paid exactly the same, but are not taking the summer off (so they work for free). I don't want my answer to contribute to the mistaken idea that professors get paid summer vacations. – carl Jun 29 '17 at 19:20
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    @carl Since this question is specifically about how to explain to non-academics how pay schedules work in academia, I am going to recommend that this question be moved to the Academia SE site. – David K Jun 29 '17 at 19:44
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    @DavidK As I state in my answer, primary and secondary teacher often face the same issue. Seasonal workers (fishman in particularly in Eastern Canada) also sometimes face this. I don't think it is a workplace question (because this is talking to people outside of your workplace) but putting it in Academia seems equally dubious. – Lan Jun 29 '17 at 20:32
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    @Lan I disagree. This is a question about social interaction outside of the workplace. The OP isn't explaining this to co-workers, management, clients, or prospective new employers but in casual conversation. VTC as this is not about navigating any workplace. – Myles Jun 29 '17 at 20:36

This can be a very contentious topic. I've heard many people vocally and viciously berate primary & secondary teachers for getting paid all year round despite having a three month vacation. This is a quite similar misconception to what you are describing.

The best advice I can give is this: don't bring this up yourself ever.

If someone else though is stating this misconception or similar, I think your response has to be tailored to the people you are responding to. Many people don't understand fractions; so be wary trying to explain this with algebra.

The simplest explanation is to phrase yourself as a seasonal worker. A person can understand that an apple picker or fisherman only gets paid for the season they work; a teacher (in your case, a professor) only gets paid for the seasons they work. (Perhaps add on that some teachers or professors do work in the summer thus get a much higher pay as a result.)

Keep this conversation topic brief. If possible non-existent.


The option to get paid for your 9 months over work over a 12 month period is there so you can better manage your expenses. I worked as the Director of Technology for a few small school districts and I was given the same option. I don't think you are considered unemployed unless your contract states otherwise. For me I was considered employed as my contract was from June to June and I just didn't come into work for the summer.

In casual conversation I always said I worked for (insert school district here). If anyone ever asked me why I was not there (this didn't happen often) I would just say its the summer and I am not contracted to work through the summer break.

  • I understand my contract completely. My question was about how to explain it in a single phrase and avoid giving the impression that professors have paid (3-month) vacations. I know that I am employed, but if I say that, then people think that I am being paid in the summer without having to work. "I am not contracted to work through the summer break." I like that phrase, thanks. – carl Jun 29 '17 at 19:56
  • It was never a point of confusion from the people I spoke with. Mostly because I spent time with people who worked in or have work in the California school system and they already understood. – Sierra Mountain Tech Jun 29 '17 at 20:43

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