Tanya Golash-Boza

Professor at University of California at Merced

Speaking as an Academic

Full fscheff demonstrating magnavox 1895


Image: Fritzi Scheff demonstrating Magnavox public address system, c. 1919 / via Powerhouse Museum, in Sydney, Australia

One of the joys of academic life is inviting speakers to your campus — and getting invited to other campuses to share your own work. Much of the joy is intellectual and collegial but, if you’re lucky, some of it is also financial.

So how much can you make in speaking fees?

Don’t expect vast riches. Across academe, there is a lot of variation in the amount academics are compensated to speak — depending on the prestige of the speaker, the nature of the invitation, the type of institution, and the size of the audience. Some academics earn speaking fees of $1,000 or more. Some have never received more than $500 as an honorarium. And still others have given plenty of talks yet never been paid. (Based on a nonscientific Twitter poll I conducted, very few academics have ever received more than $2,000 as an honorarium, and many have never been compensated.)

I have given more than 50 talks (with honoraria ranging from $0 to $2,500) and invited just as many people to my own campuses (with honoraria ranging from $0 to $4,000). Here I offer some guidelines regarding those visits aimed at both invitees and inviters.

Seminars and colloquiums. An invitation to share your work in a seminar or colloquium will look great on your CV if you are on the tenure track, or desire to be. External letters for tenure often will say something along the lines of: “She has been invited to give 11 talks at other campuses, an indication of her visibility and prestige in the field.” These invitations — especially at prestigious institutions — continue to be important for promotion to full professor, too.

The audience is your peers — graduate students and faculty members from the host campus or the region. One of the benefits is that your conversations with other scholars can help move your thinking forward. Or, if you are presenting published work, giving a talk is a great way to get the word out about your book and continue the conversation.

The intellectual rewards are why many faculty members do not expect a generous honorarium for a seminar talk, although reimbursement for travel expenses is expected. Still, if you are planning to invite a guest speaker to a colloquium or seminar series, I suggest not only paying travel expenses but also trying to find room in the budget for an honorarium. Invitees often use the honorarium to pay for child care and other nonreimbursable costs associated with traveling to your campus.

Fees for this type of talk can run anywhere from zero to $500, depending on the discipline. Honorariums are simply not the norm in some fields.

However much we all appreciate money, it shouldn’t be the primary factor in deciding whether or not to accept this kind of invitation. Even if the fee is $500, that doesn’t cover all the time and effort it takes to prepare a talk, get on a plane, spend a day on another campus, and get back home exhausted. So make sure the trip will offer you other nonpecuniary benefits.

Campus conferences. When you are invited to speak on a panel at a campus conference, travel expenses are often (but not always) reimbursed. In some cases, speakers are paid a small honorarium. You are expected to participate in the full conference — sharing your work as well as listening to other people talk about their scholarship.

When the conference is large enough to have breakout sessions, there may be plenary speakers who present — alone or on a panel — before the entire audience. If there is room in the conference budget, plenary speakers are often paid a fee.

Many campus-based conferences will also include a keynote speaker. This is the well-known scholar whose name gets advertised prominently on the program and who usually delivers a longer lecture (45 to 60 minutes) to the entire conference audience.

Keynote speakers often get an honorarium. Its size will depend on the resources of the host, the connection of the host to the campus, and the prestige of the keynote speaker. Usually the fee is larger than that paid to conference panelists or colloquia/seminar speakers. Honoraria for keynotes usually start at $1,000 and go up from there. Nevertheless, academics rarely accept keynote invitations just for the money. Instead, they do it for the opportunity to exchange ideas with people in their subfield and to add a prestigious line to their CV.

If you’re the one planning the conference, keep in mind: Inviting someone who is popular on the guest-speaker circuit will probably mean you have to offer a large honorarium. (If you receive more invitations to speak than you can accept, the amount of the honoraria can often help you decide which ones to give.)

The expectation is that the conference, plenary, and keynote speakers will be involved in all conference activities. People will be disappointed if the keynote speaker just drops in to give a lecture and leaves. A good keynote or plenary speaker will give an engaging talk that relates closely to the conference theme and will interact with other participants for the duration of the meeting, including meals and receptions. The large honorarium is in part in recognition of the fact that the keynote speaker often has to write a talk tailored to the conference theme.

Public lectures. A relatively small subset of academics give public lectures because these lectures require a specific skill set. You are expected to speak for about an hour to a large audience, and then take questions. It takes a certain amount of charisma and a timely topic to be effective. Students are more likely to come out for a talk on extinction, climate change, human trafficking, or racial justice than on the nuances of Shakespeare or Beethoven.

At a public lecture, the audience won’t be limited to professors and graduate students. In many cases, undergraduates will make up the majority of attendees. Sometimes your talk will attract local residents. Thus, your work (and presentation style) must appeal to a broad audience.

The bigger the audience, the bigger the honorarium. If you are asked to give a public lecture with an audience of more than 100 people, it is reasonable to expect a fee of $1,000 or more. And if the audience grows past 500 people, the honorarium should reflect that.

Distinguished lectures. They often come with a large honorarium and generally include a day-long (or even a multi-day) visit including the lecture, meals with colleagues, classroom visits, Q&A sessions, and other opportunities to interact with people on the campus.

Distinguished lecturers tend to be prestigious and well-known scholars. One example would be an annual prize given out by a university to someone who has made groundbreaking achievements in a particular field. Another example would be an annual lecture named for a donor or major figure from the institution’s history. In short, few academics get this kind of gig.

The audience will vary depending on the nature of the invitation, but you can generally expect a larger percentage of the audience to be faculty members for a distinguished lecture than for a public lecture.

Hiring speakers from an agency. This is a whole different ballgame. According to this website, for example, speaking fees for Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates begin at $40,000, while the fees paid to Marc Lamont Hill, a journalist and professor at Morehouse College, seem like a bargain at $10,000 to $20,000.

The reason some academics can charge that much is because they are in demand. Their lectures will take place in one of the largest rooms on campus and tickets are likely to sell out. These professors are widely known outside their discipline and even outside academia. For example, both Gates and Hill regularly appear on television and have broad name recognition, which enhances their ability to draw a large crowd. There is often a relationship between the size of the audience and the size of the honorarium.

Workshop talks. In addition to public speakers, there are some academics and organizations who do workshops designed to attend to an institutional need. Here, the audience will be smaller, but the speakers serve as paid consultants and often charge substantial fees. A full-day workshop by a speaker from the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity will cost $9,500. Other academics do workshops on teaching and publishing that cost several thousand dollars. And organizations such as the OpEd project contract with campuses to deliver workshop at similar prices.

What is your experience with guest speakers — whether as the scholar being invited or as the one doing the inviting? What are some best practices you recommend? I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments.

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