Living in the Void: How much is a postdoc worth?

A couple of months ago, I wrote what I intended to be the first post in a series about issues concerning postdoc pay, benefits, protections… We tend to fall into this amorphous, ambiguous state. We’re not students anymore, but we’re not always classified as employees. We’re neither here nor there. Being a postdoc is like being stuck in The Void between realities—hence the title of this series. Here we (re-)tackle a topic that is near and dear to all postdocs and that always sparks off debate: postdoc salaries in academia. This is an expanded, updated, and revised version of a post I wrote at the beginning of the year.

Late last year, Professor in Training initiated a discussion about the realities of the tenure track. A subplot emerged about paying postdocs “what they’re worth”. PhysioProf suggested that the NIH/NRSA payscale is a reasonable approximation of what a postdoc is worth. PiT asked:

What is a postdoc really ‘worth’? Is $40K/yr sufficient renumeration for someone who has >10 years of college education behind them?

As of 2010, the NIH set the pre-tax NRSA stipend*  of a first year postdoc at $37,740. The pay level increases with each year of completed experience; the increase averages out to approximately $2,000 per year, ranging from about $1,600 to $2,800 (evidently the NIH feels that postdocs gain the most worth during their second year). This marks an improvement over where things stood 10 years ago. In 2000, the National Academies of Sciences released a Congressionally-mandated report on the training of biomedical and behavioral researchers, the 11th such report since 1975. The report included this figure that compared the actual stipend levels from 1975 to 1999 with the 1975 stipend adjusted for inflation.

Notice how the lines for postdoc stipends do not converge. There was general consensus that the 1999 stipend levels were not commensurate with the education and experience of trainees. A statement from the NIH regarding the report stated:

The NIH concurs with the committee’s observation that NRSA stipends are unduly low in view of the high level of education and professional skills involved in biomedical research.

The NIH set targets of $25K for grad student stipends and $45K for entry-level postdoc stipends, planning budget increase requests of of 10 to 12% per year until those target were reached. Once the targets were reached, they planned annual increases on the basis cost-of-living.

So what happened? At the time the report was published, stipends for entry-level postdocs were around $28K. FY02 and FY03 brought the proposed 10 to 12% increases, bumping that level to $34,200. The next six years went: FY04, 4%; FY05, 0; FY06, 4%; FY07, 0; FY08, 0; FY09, 1%.** I doubt I have to remind you why federal budget increases took a dive between FY03 and FY04… or why they stagnated in FY07. Earlier this year, President Obama called for a 6% increase in funds allocated for training stipends.

Depending on your field, you might be wondering why I’m spending so much time discussing the NRSA payscale. Many institutions with substantial biomedical research programs use the NIH payscale to set their internal postdoc salary levels. This provides some advantage to postdocs by setting a minimum expectation. Now before any grad student gets too excited about that $10K raise between grad school and postdoc, consider a couple of things. A salary of $37K pushes you into the next federal tax bracket, so more money goes to the government. I also had the misfortune of moving from a state with nonexistent income tax to one with a moderate tax rate. Furthermore, my grad institution—and I suspect, many others—paid for health insurance separately. Postdocs generally have to pay at least a portion of their health insurance premiums. And not all institutions adhere to annual increases. All told, for almost 2 years as a postdoc, my take-home pay was virtually the same as it was in grad school (admittedly, my graduate stipend was pretty generous compared to some places).

Compounding the issue, institutes generally take the NIH pay scale as absolute truth and do not consider for cost-of-living. Many of the prestigious universities and medical schools in the U.S. are located in cities with much higher than average cost-of-living. Cost-of-living in my current city is about 30% higher than the national average (and my previous city). Some postdocs end up having to take out loans or use credit cards to supplement their living expenses because of the mismatch between salary and cost-of-living. Some people argue that we shouldn’t bring up the cost-of-living issue in these debates, because we chose to live in cities with exorbitant rent. But the flip side is, pedigree is important in science, especially for those striving for tenure-track positions (or at least, that’s what we’re told), and often the prodigeous labs are found in expensive cities.

The blame does not rest with the PI. When a PI is applying for a grant, s/he can only request up to the NIH/NRSA pay scale to cover a postdoc’s salary (Note: DrugMonkey suggests that this is actually not accurate). Anything over that pay scale must come (I assume) from discretionary funds that then, of course, cannot be used for other costs like supplies, equipment, or travel. As PhysioProf pointed out, the increases in postdoc stipends have been accompanied by administrative cuts and no change in the modular budgets of R01 grants, leaving PIs with less money for the lab. And, as far as I can tell, most research institutions expect PIs to cover postdoc stipends and benefits and make little or no institutional commitment or contribution to this large portion of their workforce.

The whole package might not be so hard to swallow if we were only in these positions for two or three years. Instead, to compete in the job market, we stick around to get more and/or higher profile publications, moving on four to eight years later. We emerge from our postdocs in our early 30s, still not breaking the $50K mark. Many of us as U.S.-born postdocs are still paying for our undergraduate education. Saving for retirement or kids’ college funds probably has not even crossed our minds, except to find the idea laughable. To add insult to injury, our friends and family who aren’t scientists assume that since we’re PhDs working for SnootyU, we must be approaching or making six-figure salaries. I made the choice to do a postdoc. I made the choice to move to an expensive city. These choices were made with my future career in mind. I think there are a couple of questions that myself and many other postdocs keep coming back to: Will I always be choosing between money and love (of career)? Is there any way to break the cycle?

* NRSA=National Research Service Award, a funding mechanism that specifically targets training of graduate students and postdocs. There are two forms: the institutional training grant and the individual fellowship, but both carry the same guidelines for salary and benefits.

** Postdoc stipends for FY02 to FY09

This entry was posted in biomedical research, money, postdoc life, things they don't tell you in grad school, troubles of science and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Living in the Void: How much is a postdoc worth?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Living in the Void: How much is a postdoc worth? | There and (hopefully) back again --

  2. Spiny Norman says:

    If PhysioProf is right that NIH scale is what a postdoc is worth, then I hope he agrees that faculty members (especially medical school faculty) are grossly overpaid. If he thinks that med. school faculty are fairly compensated, than he should be arguing for higher postdoc wages. In either case, the wage disparity is outrageously too large, and PhysioProf is completely full of shit.

    (And I yes, I am a tenured prof. in a hard money position on a medical school faculty.)

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