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biochem belle

Research-and careers therein-rarely follows a linear path. Instead, it is often a long and winding road. These are stories about science and my personal experiences on this road.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

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.

stipends vs. 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

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Blog Comments

Prabodh Kandala
Texas Tech University Health Science Center
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Good post BB. My friends, post docs and my faculty believe that people who want to make money move to Industry and those who love science stick in Academia. At least at present, I want to traverse my career in Academia. I am not married yet and very well satisfied with the stipend that I get. I may be in completely different world when I get married and join as a post doc.

Different stipends for post docs living in different parts of country may not be supported by all. But NIH should consider some tax redemptions and extra benefit for the post docs residing in cities with high cost of living.


27 and a PhD
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Great Post BB. Taxes in Canada are 13%, so because I make less than 40K a year, this is what applies to me. If I made more than 40K it would of couse be a higher % (I think 15 or so %). Rough numbers say that I'm basically making 3K more than I did when I was in school. So ... it really does not pay to do a postdoc. I do not want to be in my 30s or 40s still making a meagre salary. I do not need a fortune, but I do believe I am worth more than what I'm being paid. If you want so see a very non-scientific/typical (I'm guessing here) you can read what I read here: http://tinyurl.com/297c3eq. Love this post! Can't wait to read more. I do have to say that there's good maternal leave here .. but I'm not planning on getting preggo any time soon. Esp. with my salary.


biochem belle
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Prabodh, I think it would be difficult to impossible for the NIH to provide tax exemptions (those would have to be Congressionally-mandated) or extra benefit or pay for postdocs in cities w/ high cost-of-living because it would lead to complicated formulas that likely would cause more trouble than good. I do think that at some point, perhaps, <i>institutions</i> should to step up to the plate and provide some sort of added benefit, instead of putting it fully on PIs to raise the funds to pay their postdocs. The problem with this approach is that it's much more feasible for private than public institutions, given that state-funded schools keep getting their budgets cut; thus it might hurt public universities.

I should point out that, based on anecdatum from the first time I posted this, at institutions not following the NIH pay scale, postdoc salaries run a wide gamut, from (as memory serves) $24K up.

leigh

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Another consideration- my graduate school stipend was not considered subject to medicare/social security tax because it was a fellowship and not dollars paid for work put in. For my non-fellowship postdoc position, I got slapped with all those extra taxes that my grad stipend was not subject to, combined with the student loan payments: ooooof. And I had the fun task of supporting two people with two student loan payments (because the jobs market was awful and the second person was unable to land a decent job) in that particular area on that particular salary. Financially it was worse than grad school, by leaps and bounds.Re: the bump in income taxes, as a grad student I was paid the tuition/fees and then payroll deducted them back to the university, so that added a big phantom chunk to my taxable income. I am of the understanding this is not common, but my taxable income as a grad was pretty high. I did lose the big tax credit benefit transitioning to postdoc. The cross-tax-bracket bump isn't usually all that much, though, since you only pay the extra bump on the salary above the tax bracket line.Things got a little better when I earned a fellowship to support my second postdoc position and we landed a second income. But not everyone is fortunate enough to do that, especially in this funding climate. Unfortunately, we moved to one of the most expensive areas in the country to get here. Trade-offs? You know it. At every turn.


Alyssa
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Great post, BB. I think another point worth mentioning is that these low salaries are expected/accepted in academia. Those who want to "make money" should go in to industry, and those who "love science" should just suck it up beccause that's what everyone who came before them has done. Not only do the miminum guidelines need to change, but the culture of science needs to change as well. Of course, the same can be said about many things about academia (family leave, sexism, publish-or-perish, TT track requirements, etc.), and perhaps those of us who are not thick-skinned enough to put up with it (I'm talking about myself here!) should go elsewhere.


biochem belle
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leigh, excellent points. My graduate fellowship, likewise, was not subject to the extra federal taxes, which is one reason why there was so little difference b/t grad school and postdoc take-home pays. And you're right about the bump into another tax bracket. Even if technically in the 25% tax bracket, it really ends up being ~15% of your income b/c you only pay 25% on a couple of grand. And now that I think about it, though, since most benefits are taken out pre-tax, a first year postdoc might remain in the 15% bracket.

And yes, there are trade-offs at every turn. Where's my freakin' utopia? Tongue out


biochem belle
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Not only do the miminum guidelines need to change, but the culture of science needs to change as well.

Yes, this!

 

Of course, the same can be said about many things about academia (family leave, sexism, publish-or-perish, TT track requirements, etc.), and perhaps those of us who are not thick-skinned enough to put up with it (I'm talking about myself here!) should go elsewhere.

I imagine there are people who think this way... but I would say they're not thinking about what's lost with this mentality. I think there are some things in academia we should work to change... but the tough question is how best to do it.


Professor in Training
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As I said in one of the previous arguments, there is more to it than just the salary. There is also the issue of benefits. For PIs that pay postdocs from grants, the total cost to the grant is the salary PLUS benefits which can run to $50-60K or more. Postdocs on an NRSA don't get benefits as the PI isn't allowed to pay them. Paying postdocs off grants is a very expensive option for PIs but NRSAs screw the postdoc over.

 

The bottom line is that the funding situation sucks and the costs of consumables continue to rise at a ridiculous rate, yet salaries are what consume the majority of a grant. I'm running out of startup funds and can no longer continue to pay my postdoc's salary. The grants I'm chasing will keep us afloat for a couple of years but I'm going to have to choose whether to pay a salary or buy supplies - should I buy the things I need or pay someone to do the work? The stupid thing is that I can't do both.

 

I'm not say it's right and I agree that it needs to change. But, for the moment at least, that's the reality.


biochem belle
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PiT, as I said, this isn't on the PIs. You make a good point that a postdoc costs more than salary. And yes, the funding situation does indeed suck right now.

As you said, things need to change. The thing about change is it's never going to be immediate, particularly in the current economy. But I think it's still important to discuss now. Those considering postdoc positions should know what they're really getting into, how that number on paper comes out in reality. Those outside of science should know something about the reality of academic science. Postdocs should hear about the exacerbating factors, such as the ones you highlight, on the situation. And we should start discussing possible solutions and ways to push change. For instance, I'm not convinced that increases in NIH pay scales and grants is the way to solve the problem.

Re: benefits for NRSA recipients, I'm curious about your statement that the PI isn't allowed to pay benefits. I was under the impression that the PI could pay for additional benefits, provided that they aligned with the standard benefits of others at the same level. Perhaps I imagined or misinterpreted this.


Nash
Max Planck Institute for Molecular Physiology
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I live in Germany and I have to say the post-doc salaries are not entirely as depressing as the US from what I glean from the comments. Still, post-doc salaries are only about half as much what industry would pay. And I do take objection to the proposition that "If you want to make money, you go to the Industry, if you love science , you stay in academia". As someone who is about to start is post-doc in Jan 2011 - I realise that very little is done to make the job of a researcher lucrative. One of the reasons I do not want to stay in academia , is that society in general is sending me a message that it doesn't see any value in what I do as an academic researcher.I shudder to think what life 40-yr post-docs that haven't managed to get an "Assistant Professorship" are living.

If you really love science, I don't beleive one is biased towards any particular kind of research or field (for the love, not the expertise). We are not scientists because of encyclopedic knowledge, that is a by-product. We are scientists because we are trained to discover and solve problems. If industry is willing to pay for those skills , while allowing me to do science - why should I not go there? There are very few arguments against, especially since many industries run their own R&D centres which are usually much better financed.

Fine, the most important issue with industry is that you don't have the complete freedom to research what you want. I think that's a small price to pay, and if your attitude is : "Industry has this problem because it is a major bottleneck today, solving this will have implications in practice in my lifetime" , then the loss of freedom is merely a challenge. I mean, we don't usually choose what problems to solve, they are chosen for us by circumstances anyway.


biochem belle
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Nash, just to clarify I certainly don't agree with the 'academia for love/industry for money' mentality. But a common argument in these debates goes something like: "You chose to go into science. blah blah higher calling blah blah... You should do it because you love it, not for the money. If you don't like the money (or the hours), then quit and go somewhere else." There is nothing wrong with going into industry or following any other career track, IMO. And I think that love/money arguments come up in other sectors as well.


biochem belle
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Going back to my point about solutions...

IMO, a key problem here is that institutions have become so dependent on the NIH for the money. In addition to the direct costs (i.e. the budget for lab personnel and expenses on a grant), the institution receives an additional percentage in indirect (administrative) costs. Most of the indirect cost rates I've heard (for R1 univ/med schoo or research hospital) are in the range of 75 to 80%. So a $500K grant actually costs NIH closer to $900K.

What would happen if the NIH either cut indirect cost rates and funneled that money back into grants to cover salaries? Or if the NIH required institutions to funnel a certain percentage of their indirect costs into compensation/benefits for students/postdocs/other personnel? I mean, other than rioting.

Comrade PhysioProf

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You are using the technical term "payline" incorrectly in your post.


Geeka
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I was totally astounded to find out that after I graduated my after-taxes and loans put me $200 below what I was making as a student. i was also some sort of weird employee where I didn't get any vacation or sick days (there was NOTHING spelled out in my contract), luckily, I had a great boss who let me take some time off when I needed it.

I do like science, and one of the major reasons why I went to industry was the money. I'm not making anything ridiculous, but I feel like my salary is in line with my experience. Plus, I get paid time off and a matched 401K. Let me repeat that: I like science. I'm not in science for the money. I know that 90% of the people I talk to don't understand what I do. But at the end of the day, I'm still doing research, and while I might not directly be doing cancer research, what I do is develop the products to make cancer research easier and more effective.

 

I had a friend who was living in a high cost of living area for a post doc, she had to get another job. When her boss found out, he forbid her from having it. She explained to him that everyone else in the lab was married, and thus had another income, and that when it came down to it, she needed to eat the last 10 days of the month. She has also left for industry.


biochem belle
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Thanks for catching that. Of course, I meant 'pay scale' and have corrected it in the post.


Professor in Training
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Re: benefits for NRSA recipients, I'm curious about your statement that the PI isn't allowed to pay benefits. I was under the impression that the PI could pay for additional benefits, provided that they aligned with the standard benefits of others at the same level. Perhaps I imagined or misinterpreted this.

 

NRSA policy statement(11.2.9.2): "A stipend is provided as a subsistence allowance for Kirschstein-NRSA fellows to help defray living expenses during the research training experience. It is not provided as a condition of employment with either the Federal government or the sponsoring institution."

The last sentence is the kicker - NRSA recipients are not employees. My school refuses to pay any benefits to NRSA fellows for this reason. I can pay postdocs off grants and pay their benefits but I cannot contribute to benefits if any of my trainees gets an NRSA because technically they are not university employees. It's a catch-22 situation ... I need my trainees to be funded by their own fellowships but by doing so they screw themselves financially and there's nothing i can do to help. However ...

 

NIH institutional allowance info: "For Individual Fellowships, health insurance will remain as part of the institutional allowance, which will continue to be awarded at $4,200 for predoctoral fellowships and $7,850 for postdoctoral fellowships."

Still not a lot of money if you're supporting a family or if you have chronic health issues. Better than a kick in the head, though.


Jason Goldman
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Great post! Still trying to wrap my head around everything. Lots to think about as I start to think about postdocs in the next couple years.


JaySeeDub
Dub C Med School
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...between this and Resident horror stories, I don't think I want to graduate anymore.


Gerty-Z
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great post! I agree with you that this is an important, but hard question. I think that there really does need to be a better buy-in from Instititions that employ postdocs. After all, they are benefiting from the overhead that comes from grants written based on the work of the postdocs. I was lucky, the private research inst. where I was a postdoc was very good about benefits (including contributing to retirement, etc.). The idea there was, if you want the best people you have to treat them well and give them the opportunity to focus on research (instead of worrying about financial crap). I thought it worked, for the most part. BUT, if you went on an NRSA or other fellowship you still got medical benefits, but lost the rest. I think that the NRSA rules should very much be changed to allow PI to pay for benefits in line with what other postdocs get. I found it a little ridiculous that by getting a fellowship, which was important for my career, I had to essentially take a pay cut.


JanedeLartigue
UC Davis
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Great post BB, something I've been thinking about a lot recently as the UC system has just established a well publicized postdocs union, fighting for better postdoc conditions.  There has been a lot of controversy amongst those in academia about the suitability of unions for postdocs, but you can't argue with the fact that my pay is now closer to where it should be according to the NIH pay scale, we just felt the benefits of a pay rise applied to our latest pay checks.  Sorry for the blatant self promotion but I wrote an article addressing some of these issues recently also, which outlines some of my thoughts about where academia is heading (http://www.science20.com/wanderingwondering_scientist/down_and_out_academia).

I definitely feel that something needs to change, or we are going to end up driving the best minds out of academia or away from research altogether.  I think the story about the postdoc who had to get a second job just says it all.


Dr. O
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The situation for postdocs with fellowships varies quite a bit between institutions. At my MRU, you still receive benefits through the university after receiving a fellowship, and your pay can get compensated to the level it was at if the fellowship doesn't provide as high of a stipend. Of course, the PIs are on the hook for these benefits and salary compensation.

This has more to do with the institution making a commitment to its postdocs, which I think is what BB is getting at as a possible solution. The fact is, postdocs are still considered trainees and get paid a lower salary because of it. If we are trainees, then maybe universities should be more "on the hook" for us. With PDAs and postdoc offices popping up around the country, this will hopefully continue to change. But, as BB said, it's going to take a while to do it "right" and make sure that PIs aren't getting slammed every time we get a leg up.

Comrade PhysioProf

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Of course, the PIs are on the hook for these benefits and salary compensation.

If they are, it has to come from non-federal funding sources, as federal law prohibits the use of federal research project grant funds to pay any benefits or salary supplements to NRSA fellows.


JanedeLartigue
UC Davis
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We also experience the same issue with grad school to postdoc conversion in the UK.  I was very well funded for my PhD on a Wellcome Trust stipend, that was also tax free.  Apart from staying on in the university I was at to do a postdoc I would have taken a pay cut anywhere else.


Dr Becca, Ph.D.
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BB, very nice. Everything in your final paragraph has me thinking Yes, exactly. And where are we when we "emerge" from our post-doc? If we have a TT job, OK, but otherwise.....?

Everyone should go read Jane's piece, too--it's very thorough and does a great job fleshing out some of the causes for the current post-doc climate, as well as looking forward to possible solutions.

That it ever occurred to any of the powers that be that post-docs shouldn't be considered employees is such a gigante load of horse doody, it makes me want to put the entire NIH board of directors in a George McFly headlock. Just because we are still in "training" doesn't make what we do any less of a livelihood, and thus, we're without question deserving of standard benefits. I was very lucky when I got my NRSA that my PI made the benefits happen without even a second thought, but it's maddening that some of the most talented scientists out there are screwed by this inane rule.


JanedeLartigue
UC Davis
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Thanks Becca for the plug of my piece, that's very kind.  Again apologies for using the comments section of your blog to promote my own piece BB, but this piece is pretty close to what I was writing about there so it's all relevant I promise!

"George McFly headlock" - I love it!


biochem belle
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Janede, no apologies necessary. As far as I'm concerned, linking to relevant posts is one of the great parts of blogging--even if it is blatant self-promotion ;)


Namnezia
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biochem belle said:

Re: benefits for NRSA recipients, I'm curious about your statement that the PI isn't allowed to pay benefits. I was under the impression that the PI could pay for additional benefits, provided that they aligned with the standard benefits of others at the same level. Perhaps I imagined or misinterpreted this.

When my postdoc received and NRSA I had to supplement her benefits so that she was at the same level where she was before getting the fellowship. So you CAN pay their benefits, even with a grant.


dagreatantidote
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Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure the situation is worse outside of the US.  Like... a lot worse... Like in order to be able to live you HAVE to take advantage of reduced housing offers from the university.

I only realized recently that the majority of the money for scientific research actually comes from tax payers.   For some reason this makes me feel weird...   There is obviously not much of an alternative for where to get money from... not everyone can be HHMI.  I guess it just makes me feel extremely vulnerable to be at the mercy of politicians and budget crises.  And at the same time, there are a lot of other areas that government isn't spending correctly that I'm sure we each have our own opinions on.  It just seems like such a complex problem that I'm happy researchers in the US get what they do.


biochem belle
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dagreatantidote, I've known several people from Europe and Australia who have come to the U.S. to do postdocs, and the vast majority have commented on how poorly paid U.S. postdocs are. Even with higher tax rates, they generally would have come out better, financially speaking, doing a postdoc elsewhere. Of course, that might not be true across the whole of Europe, but it is for many places. And they also have the added benefit of not incurring debt to pay for undergraduate education. Canadian postdocs are, I gather, are in a similar situation as U.S. postdocs, in terms of stipends, but their health benefits typically leave much to be desired, as noted in the comments on a previous post.

As I mentioned in a previous comment, the situation described for those of us being paid by the NIH pay scale is not the worst in the U.S. Some postdocs get paid significantly less. Others, even if they are making a similar salary, don't get benefits. As you say, it's a very complex issue. It's also one that needs to be discussed as the length of postdocs continues to expand.

SS

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I would say people with PhDs who get $27k should just quit and move to something else. I don't know if you have noticed, but people in academia are among the most disgusting and obnoxious bigots I have met. There is no reason to spend 4-5 years after PhD, grovelling at their feet for $27k a year for a shot in the dark chance at a tenure track position at Podunk U.

In mathematics, postdocs are paid at least a minimally respectable $50k+ and benefits. I think I deserve at least this much, asshole professors or no asshole professors. And I am in it for 3 years. That doesn't work out...I am glad to pack my bags and go home to India. If nothing else, I can drive a taxi around New Delhi. I don't mind. One thing graduate school and postdoc have taught me is how to live on an extremely low income, suffering daily humiliation and loss of self respect, something I never new when I was in my so called poor home country.

The assholes will of course replace me with another of the monkeys they can find. Good for them. The established assholes own research isn't worth a flying fuck anyway... wonder where they get their big egos from. They can keep smelling their own farts for all I care.


Namnezia
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SS said:

I don't know if you have noticed, but people in academia are among the most disgusting and obnoxious bigots I have met.

I guess I learn something new about myself every day...


Nikkilina
Washington University School of Medicine
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Great post! I tried to avoid having to do a postdoc, but ended up in one anyway. I'm extremely fortunate because my husband has a well paying job that gives us much more financial flexibility. Aside from the raw pay situation, I've been surprised at the lack of maternity leave here. Although we are able to take the time off as required by FMLA, it's not paid. We have to use our sick and vacation days first, and then any additional time we want is unpaid. That's a pretty awful situation to try and figure out.


biochem belle
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I was momentarily tempted to delete the comment from SS, because it's not really in keeping with the spirit of the discussion here... but I'm also not a fan of censorship. Instead, I will respond with this:

There are no doubt arrogant, obnoxious, bigoted people in academia... just like there are the same in industry and in any sector of society. Some sectors, departments, or institutions have the tendency to create environments where such behavior is considered acceptable, maybe even implicitly encouraged. But thankfully, they represent a very small minority of the whole. Most of the people I have encountered are actually decent individuals, who care about their work and the people they work wiht.


Nikkilina
Washington University School of Medicine
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Who peed in your Cheerios this morning, SS?


biochem belle
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Nikkilina, coming back to your 1st comment, maternity leave, sick leave, and vacation days are a whole other ball of wax. Maternity leave, especially, is dependent on whether a postdoc is an employee or some other entity.

DrugMonkey

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<em>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. 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.</em>

 

To my understanding this is false from the NIH perspective. First, with a modular grant (up to $250,000 per year in direct costs) the salary amount is not specified anywhere. So how could anyone know? Second, even with an itemized budget proposal I am not aware of any rules other than that salaries proposed are actually the institutional salaries permitted. And even that my just be a local thing.

 

So if you have a PI telling you that they cannot request over the NRSA payscale in a proposal they are likely uninformed or blowing smoke.


Nikkilina
Washington University School of Medicine
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@BB It doesn't make a difference here. Even the techs, who are considered employees, are in the same situation here. It can make things very difficult because if you use up all your paid time off when the baby's born, you have none left for when the baby actually gets sick, as is bound to happen.


Nikkilina
Washington University School of Medicine
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@DrugMonkey I wasn't aware of these conditions. I had always heard that the limitations were truly there. I'm going to have to do a little more research I suppose.


biochem belle
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So if you have a PI telling you that they cannot request over the NRSA payscale in a proposal they are likely uninformed or blowing smoke.

That's probably just me being uninformed. I think I was equating restrictions for NRSAs (F32, T32) that only award at the NIH payscale.

So, I guess the real issue is, does a PI pay a little more to their researchers? Or have money to pay for supplies so their researchers can work? Because as PiT has highlighted, many don't really have the option to do both.


becca
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@DrugMonkey @CPP- can either of you clarify CPP's comment about violating federal law? I tried my googlefu on the question and came to the conclusion that 1) you can definitely spend the supplement on NRSA fellows healthcare 2) you can definitely spend your grants on the supplies and travel stuff and 3) bumping up the fellow's pay might be complicated. I seem to remember something from NIH about predoc fellowships that it's ok to bump up the pay *to the level that is what all other trainees at that institution are paid*, but I might be imagining this, I can't remember where I read it.

In addition, even if there is a legal interpretation that indicates using federal monies to pay NRSA fellows more is not Kosher, has it ever been tried in court? Or would an IRS audit of the university be enough discouragement that it would never have to go to court (I did read about that happening, though without details)?


Tideliar
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"I don't know if you have noticed, but people in academia are among the most disgusting and obnoxious bigots I have met"

 

Have we met? Fucking douchebag troll.

DrugMonkey

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I should modify my comment to reflect that *local* institutional policies may limit what a PI can put in a grant wrt salaries for postdocs.


27 and a PhD
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dagreatantidote said:

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure the situation is worse outside of the US.  Like... a lot worse... Like in order to be able to live you HAVE to take advantage of reduced housing offers from the university.

I only realized recently that the majority of the money for scientific research actually comes from tax payers.   For some reason this makes me feel weird...   There is obviously not much of an alternative for where to get money from... not everyone can be HHMI.  I guess it just makes me feel extremely vulnerable to be at the mercy of politicians and budget crises.  And at the same time, there are a lot of other areas that government isn't spending correctly that I'm sure we each have our own opinions on.  It just seems like such a complex problem that I'm happy researchers in the US get what they do.

I'm currently doing a postdoc in Canada. I am a US citizen, and while I do not like making slightly above what I made for my PhD neither the BF (who's a grad student) nor I need assistance from school for reduced housing. We live very close to campus, in an apartment community, much like I did while I was in grad school. I have provincial care, which is way better than what I had school, though I do not have drug plan, or extended healthcare like university employees would have. Even as an international I can opt into worker's/job insurance, in case I lose my job or my contract is terminated. Granted, I do not like in a huge city, but even in Toronto, it is not worse than where I am working. And they usually pay better to offset the expense of living in a big city. Those are my two cents. I do not have it worse than I would in the US. My main complaints are about the group I work with, and that could happen anywhere.


JanedeLartigue
UC Davis
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@dagreatantidote I don't think it's necessarily true that the situation is way worse outside the US.  I can only comment on the UK so perhaps other places in the world are in fact much worse, but it was about the same in the UK, and in fact the funding situation is currently probably a little better over there.  You also don't have to worry about issues with health insurance in the UK as you do in the US.  There are pros and cons to postdocs in every country I'm sure.


Nikkilina
Washington University School of Medicine
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I was just chatting with my PI, and he said that if he writes in a 3% pay increase in an NIH grant and receives it, our institution won't let him accept it.


dagreatantidote
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@biochem_belle, @28_and_a_PhD, and @JanedeLartigue  Thanks for the info!  Now a feel a little more educated.  I guess I was going off my knowledge of grad stipends and assistant professor salaries in the UK.  From what I've heard even Wellcome Trust or Gates Fellow graduate students make significantly less than most US grad students.  Additionally a former boss moved to the states cause he claimed the professor salaries in the UK were unlivable. I guess I was just extrapolating to post-docs being a similar sort of situation...


biochem belle
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Nikkilina said:

I was just chatting with my PI, and he said that if he writes in a 3% pay increase in an NIH grant and receives it, our institution won't let him accept it.

What? Can an institution actually do that? I mean, I suppose they can... but that just seems bizarre. Any indication why?

Comrade Physioprof

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Many institutions have instituted salary freezes due to the current economic situation.


Namnezia
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biochem belle said:

What? Can an institution actually do that? I mean, I suppose they can... but that just seems bizarre. Any indication why?

 

I've found that with most institutional policies, if you make enough noise they can usually find a way around it. It just requires more paperwork and a department administrator that is willing to help you navigate the bureaucracy.


biochem belle
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Comrade Physioprof said:

Many institutions have instituted salary freezes due to the current economic situation.

Ah. Yes, that makes sense. I have heard about situations where, even though the salary increase between first and second year of an award was already budgeted, the institution would not allow the increase to be given, even though the money was there.


Nikkilina
Washington University School of Medicine
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I think Comrade is right. My take on it was that if he accepts that pay rate, it becomes his new payrate, so when the grant expires, the school is on the hook for that money. If it happens to expire before a standard pay raise would have reached that level, then the school loses.


Gerty-Z
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CPP is right. Even if I write a salary increase into my budget (for myself, even!) I am not allowed to take it. I am at a state school, and that is just NOT allowed.

americanbiotech

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I can't understand why people with so much education get paid so little. It is near impossible to raise a family or save for a house purchase with the meager salary of academia. But I'm not so sure that the choice is between money or love. There's a lot of good that can be done in industry (albeit with less autonomy) and it's often nice to know that the work we're doing may actually have a practical use one day.

But if anyone's starting a petition asking for a more equitable salary for academics (with more academic credentials than most people out there) please sign me up!


microbiologist xx
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I wasn't making much more as a post-doc (compared to my graduate stipend) until I secured my own funding. The funding agency itself didn't increase my pay more than @ 1K/year. However, my PI supplemented my income significantly. It was a win/win he was "paying" me less than my full salary and I got a hefty raise. Unfortunately due to institutional policies it took over 6 months to get the complete raise b/c the guidelines only allow for a certain percentage of pay increase. So, I got a raise and then 6 months later, got another raise.

Also, my post-doc institution forces you to contribute to a retirement plan (which is fine with me), but that added monthly pay check deduction was another part of the reason I was barely making more than my graduate stipend.


biochem belle
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Going back to stipend supplementation and CPP's comment on legality of using federal funds, here's a quote from the PA for F31 (predoc individual NRSA), and there's similar wording in postdoc and career transition PAs.

Stipend Supplementation: Supplementation, or additional support to offset the cost of living, may be provided by the sponsoring institution. Supplementation does not require additional effort from the fellow. DHHS funds may not be used for supplementation under any circumstances. Additionally, no funds from other Federal agencies may be used for supplementation unless specifically authorized by the NIH and the other Federal agency.

Which means, as far as I can tell, that federal funds cannot be used to supplement a stipend in the absence of additional service obligations unless it's from outside DHHS and there's agreement between funding agencies. But then they throw in this extra bit:

Compensation: The sponsoring institution may provide additional funds to a fellow in the form of compensation (as salary and/or tuition remission) for services such as teaching or serving as a research assistant. A fellow may receive compensation for services as a research assistant or in some other position on a Federal research grant, including a DHHS research grant. However, compensated services should occur on a limited, part-time basis apart from the normal research training activities, which require a minimum of 40 hours per week. In addition, compensation may not be paid from a research grant supporting the fellow's research training experience.

Which I interpret to mean, a trainee can be paid from federal funds for a different service or project, provided s/he is still working 40 hrs on hir NRSA project. There's a little more on it in the NIH Grants Policy Statement.


biochem belle
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americanbiotech said:

I can't understand why people with so much education get paid so little. It is near impossible to raise a family or save for a house purchase with the meager salary of academia. But I'm not so sure that the choice is between money or love. There's a lot of good that can be done in industry (albeit with less autonomy) and it's often nice to know that the work we're doing may actually have a practical use one day.

I have no doubt that one can find satisfaction and do a great deal of good in industry. But some of us truly enjoy the environment in (certain sectors of) academia. It's not that it's a more noble calling or any such nonsense--after all, academic institutions are in reasearch for the money too; it's just most of it comes from grants instead of patents/products. Is the salary in academia a reflection of the rank of science in society's view, or more the product of an odd and overloaded system? Frankly, I have no idea, but I suspect there are many contributing factors.

Indonesian

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Hi. I am living in Indonesia.

Perhaps, scientist  would be a little bit suprise to know the truth, but yes this is the truth.

Having giving a lecture for 3 years at the private university in Jakarta [some says this is the best and a number 1 of private university in Indonesia], and after some conversation with my previous lecture who has been around for 30 years, and talking constanly with so many colleagues.

This is the conclusion:

1. All University in Indonesia is a printing shop of certificates and diploma. Yes, this is valid for undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral studies.

2. Because of the above reason. Indonesian academie tends to act and think that a University is a place to teach, that is a place to teach and get some cash from teaching activities.

3. Based on no.2, the main job description for lectures, assistant professor, and full professor inIndonesia is to do some teaching in order to get some cash for university.

Research is considered as a not-normal-activity carried out by lectures or by professor. There are no research skills requirement is needed in order to be a Chairman of Depart or even a Chairman / Rector of University. No scholary published paper is needed to become a Chairman of Depart.

I think that the research capabilities of Indonesian University is at the bottom compare with EU or American University.

4. The salary pay scale is very-very lowest compare with industry.

The monthly salary for a lecture [with MBA's without doctoral degree] who have been teaching more than 20 years is not more than a taxi driver can earn in a month !, around US$ 600 a month.

A fresh-american Phd's salary is same with the fresh-local undergraduate who enter the job for the first time [22 - 23 year old], around US$ 300 a month.

Yes, it is true that some Indonesian university professor can earn US$ 10,000 to US$ 30,000 a month. But not so many professor have that luxury, maybe around 100 to 200 men [not women !],

5. I recommend for any PhD's holder to stop working and teaching at the university. Working at the industry is the best things that someone can get, or you can establish your own company and do the business for yourself.

6. The final questions then:
What about the passion to science and knowledge ?

Yes, with the help of the internet, and Google, we can do it at home, studying,researching and producing some good paper to publish.
This is what Dr Stephen Wolfram do.

7. Dr Stephen Wolfram owns company who can generate enough cash to support his scientific interest and passion.

8. To university lecture and professor in Indonesia. First, Get some cash as much you can and then you can do whatever you want to.

9. .....

LisaLi

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Nashsaid:

Fine, the most important issue with industry is that you don't have the complete freedom to research what you want. I think that's a small price to pay, and if your attitude is : "Industry has this problem because it is a major bottleneck today, solving this will have implications in practice in my lifetime" , then the loss of freedom is merely a challenge. I mean, we don't usually choose what problems to solve, they are chosen for us by circumstances anyway.

In theory I agree wholeheartedly.  Unfortunately, in certain commercial organisations (more numerous than you may think), if you find things the industry doesn't like, or suggest that a different approach is required, they ignore you, criticise your methods without comprehension of what you're doing, and shout you down with something along the lines of 'we need X to work by Y date, so you will make it work'.  If you don't promise that you can deliver the stars you're out / demoted / on constant performance reviews by clueless HR bods; for many, in a desperate bid to save their livelihoods in this difficult climate, integrity goes out of the window and here begins the slippery descent to deceit,  shoddy patch-up jobs and, ultimately, middle management, leaving the researcher feeling cheapened and yearning for the days of academia.  The alternative is the researcher leaves, dignity intact, to a relatively lowly-paid but satisfying academic career, or, sadly, leaves science altogether.  

 

Maybe I've just been unlucky, though! And maybe that's just here in the UK where the active scientist (n.b. not someone with a science qualification who has gone into management, or a job in which in the job description demands scientific expertise, but really any semi-literate could do) ranks slightly below a prostitute in terms of value to society! ;-)  Golly, I sound bitter, don't I?!

Normalman

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I just got the American heart association postdoctoral fellowship, in which I'll be receiving my salary from AHA (not much, just 39K). I do think that I have been under-valued, and my institution indeed freeze our salary, so although I am a 2nd year postdoc, i only received 38K from my lab's grant. That's the motivation why I went to apply for AHA fellowship.

While I am reading this post, I am glad that a lot of our fellow postdocs feel that same way. So i think I will try to go to ask my P.I to add more stipend on my salary once my fellowship starts. But I don't know how much should I ask for. Any opinion please?


Brian Krueger, PhD
Duke University
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A good start is to look at the NIH's recommended guidelines.  I'm in the same boat as you.  I've been working here for almost 3 years with no pay raise and that's really only because money is so tight.

http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-12-033.html

Normalman

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Before I get the AHA grant, they definitely have been using that excuse (money is tight) to reject me. But now I have the AHA grant, which means they will have extra money once the fellowship starts, I am wondering what kind of excuse they'll be giving me! 

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