Saturday, May 24, 2014

It is Again That Time of the Year

Spring in Ames, Iowa (May 4, 2014)

It is again that time of the year.

"Which time?" you may ask. The moment when the tall grass of the prairie turns green? The season when the trees in the orchards bloom? The time when the fledgling leave their nest to venture into the world? Actually... no, this is really not the time I am referring to. 

Tulip
The time I am going to write about is the time when classes end, and the fledging of the human-kind (undergraduate students) are leaving campus to get back to their nests (or summer jobs). This is the time we don't have to teach. This is also the time when, inevitably, I go to the supermarket and the well-meaning cashier asks if the professor can finally start his well-earned three-months-long paid vacation. Vacation, yes, because that's what most people assume university professors do after the end of the spring semester. The truth is, well, this is not really the case. First of all, university professors are not paid during the summer. That's correct, when we don't teach, we don't get paid. The way to get a salary during the summer (and somehow we are generally allowed to do so for at most two of the three summer months) is to get external funding for research. For us astronomers this means NASA or NSF (the National Science Foundation). Of this funding the university gets an a sizable cut (which in our case is as much as 50%), just for the privilege of handling the money and let us use our office and the restroom at the end of the corridor. Getting this funding is very competitive, but essential for an healthy research program, not just for our summer salary but for the whole ecosystem that lives out of our grants, including paying for our graduate students salaries and tuition (somehow they insist in eating during the summer months ;-) ).

This, is the time of the year I am referring to: far from the fabled three-months paid-vacation that many people assume we do, it is the time when we finally do research and in the process we pay the university out of our grants for the privilege of keep working, against all odds, to advance the progress of science.

Spring in Ames, Iowa (May 11, 2014)

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