Why Can’t I Pay Academics to Do Things for Me?

A couple weeks back someone linked to this blog with a problem. A non-academic, he had done some mathematical work but didn’t feel it was ready to publish. He reached out to a nearby math department and asked what they would charge to help him clean up the work. If the price was reasonable, he’d do it, if not at least he’d know what it would cost.

Neither happened. He got no response, and got more and more frustrated.

For many of you, that result isn’t a big surprise. My academic readers are probably cringing at the thought of getting an email like that. But the guy’s instinct here isn’t too off-base. Certainly, in many industries that kind of email would get a response with an actual quote. Academia happens to be different, in a way that makes the general rule not really apply.

There’s a community called Effective Altruists that evaluate charities. They have a saying, “Money is the Unit of Caring”. The point of the saying isn’t that people with more money care more, or anything like that. Rather, it’s a reminder that, whatever a charity wants to accomplish, more money makes it easier. A lawyer could work an hour in a soup kitchen, but if they donated the proceeds of an hour’s work the soup kitchen could hire four workers instead. Food banks would rather receive money than food, because the money lets them buy whatever they need in bulk. As the Simpsons meme says, “money can be exchanged for goods and services”.

If you pay a charity, or a business, it helps them achieve what they want to do. If you pay an academic, it gets a bit more complicated.

The problem is that for academics, time matters a lot more than our bank accounts. If we want to settle down with a stable job, we need to spend our time doing things that look good on job applications: writing papers, teaching students, and so on. The rest of the time gets spent resting so we have the energy to do all of that.

(What about tenured professors? They don’t have to fight for their own jobs…but by that point, they’ve gotten to know their students and other young people in their sub-field. They want them to get jobs too!)

Money can certainly help with those goals, but not personal money: grant money. With grant money we can hire students and postdocs to do some of that work for us, or pay our own salary so we’re easier for a university to hire. We can buy equipment for those who need that sort of thing, and get to do more interesting science. Rather than “Money is the Unit of Caring”, for academics, “Grant Money is the Unit of Caring”.

Personal money, in contrast, just matters for our rest time. And unless we have expensive tastes, we usually get paid enough for that.

(The exception is for extremely underpaid academics, like PhD students and adjuncts. For some of them money can make a big difference to their quality of life. I had quite a few friends during my PhD who had side gigs, like tutoring, to live a bit more comfortably.)

This is not to say that it’s impossible to pay academics to do side jobs. People do. But when it works, it’s usually due to one of these reasons:

  1. It’s fun. Side work trades against rest time, but if it helps us rest up then it’s not really a tradeoff. Even if it’s a little more boring that what we’d rather do, if it’s not so bad the money can make up the difference.
  2. It looks good on a CV. This covers most of the things academics are sometimes paid to do, like writing articles for magazines. If we can spin something as useful to our teaching or research, or as good for the greater health of the field (or just for our “personal brand”), then we can justify doing it.
  3. It’s a door out of academia. I’ve seen the occasional academic take time off to work for a company. Usually that’s a matter of seeing what it’s like, and deciding whether it looks like a better life. It’s not really “about the money”, even in those cases.

So what if you need an academic’s help with something? You need to convince them it’s worth their time. Money could do it, but only if they’re living precariously, like some PhD students. Otherwise, you need to show that what you’re asking helps the academic do what they’re trying to do: that it is likely to move the field forward, or that it fulfills some responsibility tied to their personal brand. Without that, you’re not likely to hear back.

10 thoughts on “Why Can’t I Pay Academics to Do Things for Me?

  1. J Mark Morris

    This is interesting to me. I’ve offered to pay a quarterly grant various professors to a post-doc in order to gain a collaborator on my hobby project to solve nature. No takers in perhaps six attempts.

    I’m really curious what the average gross income range is typical for Ph.D students, post-docs, non-tenured profs, and tenured profs from all sources within their field. Any thoughts on that?

    I think there will be a sea change in the dynamics when we break through to the architecture of nature. Government and industry investment will skyrocket and there will be a brain drain from academia. At that point no physicist should accept anything less than $250K.


        1. 4gravitons Post author

          Again, depends on where! I’d start with glassdoor and try to filter.

          (But again, it’s really unlikely you’ll get someone to take a full-time job working on your hobby project unless you can convince them it’s a “safe bet” careerwise!)

          Liked by 1 person

  2. sfry2

    I seek a >physicist< to work on Greaves’s theory of similarity:
    (pdf:) https://bit.ly/GREavesAnpa2015
    and a mathematician to quantify degrees of similarity
    (video presenting this, 2015):

    Prof. of topology from Chicago, leading this meeting, suggested Pauli’s excl principle might be better fit tha Heis. U.P.
    I represented at 2016 ANPA, incorporating Pauli, again seeking a mathematician.

    Stephen Fry – sfrysfry@gmail.com whats +55 11 9 3346 4762


  3. Jake

    Sometimes people in departments such as Political Science take side gigs consulting, and I don’t know if she’s still doing it but there is / was Sabine Hossenfelder’s ‘Talk to a Scientist’ outreach program.

    CS and CS-adjacent departments are a little different; grad students in some subfields spend their summers in industry (when I worked at a startup we had a few come work with us, but we were very much competing with the big outfits). I don’t have hiring authority in my current job, but I’m confident that if we went to the local universities and told the departments ‘hey we’d like to hire a couple undergrads / grad students as paid summer interns’ they’d be glad to at least talk to us.

    There’s also, and there’s no good way to say this, the question of how the academic can be sure the would-be client will actually pay out if they don’t like what they hear or, worse, become hostile.


    1. 4gravitons Post author

      Hossenfelder’s “Talk to a Scientist” is kind of unique. But beyond that yeah, I downplayed the role of paid consulting, but I shouldn’t have: it’s a very big component of various fields.

      Paid consulting is almost always with established companies though. I think part of it is what you say, that it’s harder to trust a private individual to pay up if you say something they don’t like. But I think a bigger element is trusting that the work itself is going to “make sense” with the academic’s expertise. Essentially, this is some combination of 1) and 2) in my list in the post…if a job is tied to our expertise in a meaningful way, that makes it both more “fun” and more “justified” in terms of our “duties as a scientist”. If a job is going to be frustrating or tedious or not “real science” then I think academics will be a lot less likely to take it. That’s true of everyone for every job of course (subbing in “real science” for “real something else”), but I suspect academics charge a higher premium for that kind of thing, because our time is otherwise so constrained.


      1. JollyJoker

        I noticed Hossenfelder does YouTube videos too. Seems she’s exploring new ways to get funding?

        Guess I see YouTube as commercial and blogs as not; might not be a good way of looking at things.


        1. 4gravitons Post author

          Yeah, one can in principle make money from either, and I have no idea if she does in either case. If you’re making video content, YouTube is probably the right place to put it regardless of whether you’re trying to make money off it.



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