Valuation of Personal Lives

Postdoc pay is a perennial discussion. Last week, the topic popped into my Twitter feed once again with a question related to using family costs to justify a higher stipend.

It should be noted that there were a couple of bad (and IMO bad faith) takes in replies to this and/or an earlier related tweet. (PSA: If you find yourself about to dictate the incompatibility of being a good postdoc and a good parent, you should probably step away from Twitter.)

There’s a clear point about the tension between postdoc pay standards and what it costs to raise a family, especially in high cost-of-living locales. This is a longstanding discussion in the research community. This was emphasized in many of the replies. Even those who suggested that a one-off salary bump wasn’t the way to solve the issue acknowledged the very real challenges that postdocs with families face.

I am not faculty and have no plans to be, but from my perspective, the precedent is problematic. First it could disrupt trust and satisfaction among other didn’t try to negotiate a higher salary or did but with no effect. Second it creates an environment where, maybe even subconsciously, a PI is factoring in a postdoc’s family status into costs when they hire in the future.

But there was another thing simmering in the back of my mind, which someone else brought up:

Pay should be based on the job you’re hired to do and (at least to a degree) prior experience and qualifications. (At least that’s the aim, even though that’s not how it plays out entirely today.)

But the issue for me isn’t just about establishing different pay scales for different work. It’s about the reason for doing so.

There’s this embedded expectation that single or married but childless postdocs can “get by” on less than those with kids. Perhaps for the majorities in each category that’s true. But as Liz Wayne pointed out, postdocs can have significant care/family or related costs beyond kids. Some may have chronic illnesses with associated healthcare costs. They might be helping to care for a spouse or parent with an illness or disability. They might be trying to provide financial support for other family members. And circumstances change over time too.

I’m deeply uncomfortable with the idea that anyone should have to disclose information from their personal lives to justify their pay. (Note: No one suggested this specifically, but in my view, it’s an extension of the premise. Also this is not a criticism of the hypothetical candidate.)

Can you imagine needing to tell a prospective boss, “Sorry, I’m going to need a higher stipend I can afford medical care for <condition x>”? Or going to a current boss and saying, “Um I need a raise so I can afford to leave my abusive partner”? First of all, no one should have to disclose that sort of information to their supervisor unless they want to. Second, who wants to be making those valuations of what life events and circumstances “justify” more money—and which don’t?

No doubt the struggle for postdocs with children is real. But they’re not the only ones facing financial challenges. Creating a two-tiered system based on familial status isn’t the way to solve those issues though.

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