Postdoc salaries and benefits are something of a perennial topic in the scientific community. It’s no secret that postdocs would like to make more money and get better benefits, whether in the form of better health insurance or actually starting a retirement fund. I don’t think it’s something for which we should be faulted; after all, who wouldn’t like more cash or high quality healthcare at low out-of-pocket expenses.
In June*, Slate Hive was crowdsourcing ideas the United States could recruit and retain more** scientists. “Someone with a PhD currently serving my sentence as a postdoc for an undetermined amount of time” suggests that, to maintain and advance American scientific innovation, we need to clear the logjam of postdocs. To demonstrate the problem, the postdoc writes:
… we have more PhDs than ever before, and in an arms race to be the most competitive faculty candidate, there’s a new postdoc slave labor where appointments last upwards of another DECADE after the PhD (which are taking longer and longer as well) before applying for faculty appointments… we have a record number of PhDs in the sciences and engineering, but the jobs are not waiting for them to fill! Too many times have I seen 35 or 40 AMAZING postdocs compete for one faculty position, at a local state university!
prisoner postdoc proposes:
Double the NIH funding budget, double post-doc salary, invest money to create formal training programs for an interdisciplinary PhD of science and politics/education/journalism, and provide enough funding to break the publish-or-perish mentality that stifles scientific growth and instead caters to whatever grant is written on the “hot topic” of the day.
tl;dr - So many postdocs, so few faculty positions. The system is broken. What to do? Throw more money at it!
Everyone, from the humble grad student to the PI on high, has contrived some great idea to fix the system. But they all require cash, generated either by miraculous influx of funds or by major cuts to the current workforce. This is the reality of what we are asking. Trainees want to create more jobs for PhDs, so the latter approach is counterproductive. Yet the former is highly improbable… at best. Closer to truth, it’s a fairytale dream in this era. To pretend otherwise shows inherent disregard for and/or ignorance of the system and climate in which we operate today.
The postdoc workforce has expanded substantially over the past 3 decades (see graph below from Sally Rockey’s post on the postdoc workforce). At the same time, the cost to support a trainee continues to creep up – annual salary increases based on experience, plus annual cost-of-living increases, and some universities increasing the fringe benefit rates for postdocs. I have worked in medical school-affiliated organizations that at the very least recommend and sometimes essentially mandate paying postdocs according to the NRSA scale, which currently ranges ranges from $39,264 for a new PhD to $54,180 for a very senior postdoc (7+ years). I don’t know how common this is, but for the sake of argument, we’ll say that this is not out of the ordinary and that the average salary is $45,000. Based on a brief survey of the top search hits for ‘postdoc fringe benefit rate’, 25 to 30% of salary seems to be a typical rate, though they can run much higher. If we assume a fringe rate of 27%, then that’s about $57,000 to support one postdoc. Doubling postdoc salaries, even without increasing fringe benefits, would push that value over $100,000 a year.
Meanwhile, the purchasing power of the research grant dollar has declined, yet the modular budget cap (currently $250,000) hasn’t changed. Since the end of the NIH budget doubling, budget appropriations for NIH haven’t even kept pace with inflation. Just how far behind inflation is the NIH budget? I clipped the graph below from a Congressional Research Service report [PDF download], which shows previous budgets in terms of 2012 dollars. I made a few annotations to illustrate my point. The graph includes the FY2012 budget request; the final budget settled at $30.6B. If we track back, we find a comparable budget in … 2002. That’s right – a decade ago, in the latter half of the NIH doubling phase.
Across NIH, the success rate for the primary research funding mechanism (R01) is 15% for new submissions, just over 30% for renewals. Already many labs are struggling to stay afloat. Some labs are scaling down, whereas some PIs are cutting their own salaries so they can support their personnel and research. Considering plans for the next fiscal year, the budget will be essentially flat - at best. That’s provided Congress can come to an agreement on deficit reduction in the next few months. If they fail (and with the most polarized Congress in a century, it’s quite possible they will), the Budget Control Act will invoke automatic sequestration of federal budgets, effective Jan. 2, 2013. Most non-defense budgets, including NIH, could be cut by nearly 8%. That would slide us back to about the middle of the doubling era and could mean 20 to 25% fewer awards.
And yet… we still continue to campaign for larger salaries for postdocs, a position that is supposed to be a short-term, training appointment. I think, by and large, these arguments are born out of frustration with the system and without consideration for the broader consequences of such demands. I know that there are bad experiences and exploitative PIs, but I also think this is the exception not the norm. We cannot live extravagantly, but I wager that most of us are making a living wage (by which I mean we can pay the bills and eat). That’s not to say there are no challenges, especially for those who are starting families during at this career stage. There are ways that institutions and individual PIs can improve the postdoc experience; some require more money than others. If we want to have a serious conversation about the state of biomedical research training and potential solutions to improve it, if we don’t want the people supporting our training to dismiss our concerns and ideas out of hand, then we need look beyond ourselves and think about the impact of the changes we’re advocating through the lens of the funding reality.
* I know this is forever in internet time, but I’ve been otherwise occupied.
** This has been discussed in several forums lately, but here is Derek Lowe’s takedown of the assertion that more scientists are needed.