Friday, December 30, 2016

Last post ever on postdoc pay

Original post, first follow up, this post

Short intro: wrote a post about how I didn't like how some folks were (seemingly) bragging about how high they pay their postdocs on the internet, got a lot of responses, wrote a post with some ideas about how postdocs and PIs could approach the subject of pay. That was meant to deal with short term practical consequences. Here, I wanted to highlight some of the responses I got about aspects of postdoc pay that have to do with policy, likely with no surprises to anyone who's thought about this for more than a few minutes. Again, no answers here, just mostly reporting what I heard. So sorry, first part of the post is probably kind of boring. At the end, I'll talk about some things I learned about discussing this sort of thing on the internet.

First off, though, again, for the record, I support paying postdocs well and support the increased minimum. I think a minimum starting salary of $48K (however inadvertently that number was reached) seems to be a reasonable minimum to enforce across the US. Based on what, I dunno, honestly. I just think we need a flat national minimum: it would be hard/weird for NIH to do it by cost of living across the US, but at the same time, relying on institutions to set their own wage scales is ripe for abuse. More on that later.

Anyway, it is clear that one of the top concerns about postdoc pay was child care. No surprise there, postdoc time often coincides with baby time, and having kids is expensive, period. One can get into debates about whether one's personal life choices should figure into how much pay someone "deserves", but considering that the future of the human race requires kids, I personally think it's a thing we absolutely must be considering. There are no easy answers here, though. Igor Ulitsky summed it up nicely:

I think Igor is absolutely right, an institutional child care subsidy is really the only way to do it. The problem otherwise is that the costs are so high for childcare that just paying everyone enough for childcare regardless of family status would quickly bankrupt most PIs' grants. But just paying more based on "need" has a lot of flaws. I think it was telling that at least some trainees said that they wouldn't begrudge their coworker with a kid if the PI paid them more. Well, what if your coworker had parents who lived with them? Or parents who could live with them? Or a spouse who earned a lot of money? Or was home from work often because of the kid? And how much extra should they be paid? Enough for "cadillac" child care? Bare minimum child care? I just don't think it's reasonable or wise for PIs to be making these decisions. If, on the other hand, the institution stepped in to make this a priority (as both my postdocs have argued), then this would solve a lot of problems. They could either provide a voucher applicable to local daycares or provide daycare itself at a heavily subsidized rate (I think Penn does provide a subsidy, but it's not much). This is, of course, a huge expense for institutions to take on, and I'm sure they won't do it willingly, but perhaps it's time to have that discussion. Anecdotally, I think there really has been a change—before, many academics would wait until getting a faculty position (maybe even tenure) before having kids, whereas now, many academics come into the faculty position with kids. I think this is good and important especially for women, and I think it's pushing this particular issue for postdocs into the foreground.

The other big issue folks brought up was diversity. Low wages mean that those without means face a pretty steep price for staying in science, potentially forcing them out, as this commenter points out from personal experience. I think this is a real problem, and again, no real answer here. I'm not convinced, however, that the postdoc level is where that gap typically emerges—I'm guessing that it's mostly at the decision to go to graduate school in the first place. (The many confounders likely make such analyses difficult to interpret, though I don't know much about it.) Which is in some ways perhaps a bit surprising, since unlikely medical/law/business school, you actually get paid to do a PhD (although I believe most analyses still suggest that you could earn more overall by just getting a job straight away, maybe depending on the field). Also, higher pay would mean fewer postdoc positions, making the top ones more competitive, thus potentially further hurting the chances for those facing bias, although my guess is that this latter concern would not outweigh the former on diversity.

Along these lines is the notion of opportunity cost, with at least a few people (typically computational) noting that the postdocs they want to hire can earn so much on the open market that if they didn't pay them a lot, it would be hard to get them. At the same time, interestingly, a couple trainees invoked the ideals of the free market, saying that people should be paid whatever they can earn. Hmm. Well, I think this gets into the question of what the cost of doing science is. All stages of scientist (from trainees to PIs) probably on average earn less than we could in private industry, with that differential varying by field and circumstance—that is the price for doing what we love. The obvious question is whether this sets up a system primed for abuse. There are some who are willing to work like a dog for next to nothing for the chance to keep doing science. For this reason, there has to be a reasonable minimum to ensure at least some degree of diversity in the talent pool. Beyond that, I personally have no problem with people paying above the minimum if they so choose (and institutional policies that prevent that strike me as pretty unfair and something to fight against). If this helps keep talented people in science, great!

The notion of a free-market approach to pay is an interesting one, one that led me to the following question about the cost of doing science. Let's say that I had a ton of money. Is there some amount of money I could pay to get a postdoc that I otherwise would lose to some big name PI? Like, let's say I paid my postdoc $1M per year. Well, I'd probably be getting a lot of top quality postdoc applications (although still probably not even close to all). But what about $100K? How much would that factor into someone's decision to do a postdoc with me? I venture to say that the answer is not much. How little would someone be willing to accept for the opportunity to work with a big name who could greatly aid their quest for a faculty job? All I can say is I'm glad there's a minimum. :)

I also learned a bit about online discussions on this topic. As I said in my first post, I was super reluctant to discuss this topic at all online, given the opportunity for misunderstanding and so forth. And sure enough, I got some of what I thought were unfairly accusatory responses. Which, of course, is something that I was guilty of myself (and I apologize to MacArthur for that). Hmm. I still stand by, sort of, my point that the original tweet from MacArthur came across in a way that was perceived by many as boastful, even if that was not his intent, and that that may not be the most productive way to start a discussion. That said, I also have to acknowledge that waiting for the "perfect" way to discuss the issue means waiting forever, and in the meantime, just saying something, anything, publicly can have an effect. Clearly the collective tweets, posts and responses on the topic (most are imperfect, though I particularly like this one from Titus Brown) are having the desired effect of engendering a discussion, which is good. And, as a practical matter, I'm hopeful that airing some of the institutional differences in postdoc pay may help both trainees and mentors (see some examples in my second post). It is clear that there's a lot of mystery shrouding the topic, both for trainees and PIs alike, and a little sunlight is a good thing.

All that said, I still think that in addition to online rants of various kinds, with an issue this complex, it's pretty important for us all to talk with each other face to face as well. After all, we're all on the same team here. Academia is a small world, and while it's important to disagree, personal attacks generally serve nobody… and might as well be transparent about who you're disagreeing with so they can disagree back:

(In my defense, the only reason I "subtweeted" is that I really didn't want to call MacArthur out personally because his was just the latest tweet out of many of this kind I had seen. And I suppose it worked in that many people I know who read the post indeed had no idea who I was referring to. But giving him the chance to respond is probably on balance the right thing to do.)

Anyway, while I have not met MacArthur in person, I'm guessing we'll probably cross paths at some point, at which point my main concern is that we'll discover we agree on many things and so I won't have anything else to write about… :)

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Some less reluctant(ish) follow up thoughts on postdoc pay

(Original post, this post, second follow up)

Well, looks like that last post incited some discussion! tl;dr from that post: I wrote that I found tweeting about how high you pay your postdocs above what most other labs pay to be off-putting. There are many factors that go into pay, and I personally don't think talking about how much you yourself pay is a productive way to discuss the important issue of postdoc pay in general. Even if the intent is not to boast, it certainly comes across as boastful to a number of people, which turns them off from the conversation. To be clear, I also said that I support paying postdocs well and support the increased minimum. It's the perceived boast, not the intent, that I have issue with.

So I learned a LOT from the feedback! Lots of comments, fair number of tweets (and these things called "subtweets"; yay internet!) and several personal e-mails and messages—more on all that in a later post; suffice it to say there's a "diversity of opinion". Anyway, okay, I said that I didn't like this particular way of bringing about discussion about postdoc pay. But at the same time, I do think it's a good thing to discuss, and discuss openly. Alright, so it's easy for me to criticize others about their tweets or whatever, but what, then, do I think is a good way to discuss things? Something I've been thinking about, and so I want to write a couple posts with some ideas and thoughts.

Overall, I think there are two somewhat separate issues at play. One is the immediate, practical issue of how to increase awareness of the problems people have and bring about some better outcomes in the near-term. The other is long-term policy goals and values that I will bring up in a later post (with relatively few ideas on what specifically to do, sorry).

So, to the first point, one of the things I learned is how surprisingly mysterious the subject of postdoc pay is, both to prospective postdocs and to PIs alike. Morals and high-minded policy discussions aside, seems like many just don't know some basic practical matters that can have a real impact. Anyway, here's a few relatively off the cuff suggestions of things to think about based on what I've heard, and feel free to add to the list.

First, for potential postdocs, the main thing to do is to remember that while science should in my opinion be the primary factor in choosing a postdoc, pay is another important factor and one you should definitely not shy away from, awkward though it may seem. I think advocacy begins here, on a practical level, by advocating for yourself. Keeping in mind that I haven't hired that many postdocs and I'm not sure how some of these ideas might hold up in practice, here is some information and some ideas for trainees on how to approach pay:
  • Ask about pay relatively early on, perhaps once there's real interest on both sides, during or maybe better after a visit (dunno on that). It may be uncomfortable, but at least make sure that it's clear that it's on your radar as a thing to discuss. Doesn't mean that you have to come to a hard number right away, but signal that it's worth talking about.
  • Before having such a discussion, it's worth thinking about what number seems fair to you. There is the NIH minimum, and then there's your life situation and location and so forth. You are an adult with a PhD, so take stock of what you think you need to be happy and productive, and don't be afraid of saying so. What can help with this is to think about what you might otherwise make outside of academia, or what the average cost of living is in your area, our your particular personal situation, or whatever other factors, and come up with a number. Having some rationalization for your number, whatever it may be, is important to help you maintain fortitude when you do discuss pay and not feel like you're being impudent. Remember that the PI probably finds this awkward as well, and so having guidance can actually help both parties! And if you're a decent candidate, you may have a surprising amount of bargaining power. At the same time, remember that the PI may have their own expectations for the discussion (which may include not having the conversation!), and so you may catch them a bit off guard, depending.
  • Some basic orientation about pay: the major national guideline comes from the NIH. The NIH sets a *minimum for fellowship* pay. This used to be ~$42K a year for a starting postdoc, and then there was some labor ruling that caused that to increase to ~$48K a year. Institutions often follow this NIH guidance to set up their pay guidelines. This ruling got overturned recently, and so now some institutions have gone back to $42K starting, while some others have not. These are the national guidelines for a baseline. Clearly, some places in the country are going to be more expensive than others.
  • This is the NIH guidance on the minimum. At some places, yes, you can definitely be paid more than the minimum (apparently, many trainees didn't know that). At some places, there are institutional rules that prevent PIs from paying more than the minimum or some other defined number or range. At some places, there are institutional rules that require PIs to pay above the minimum. If the PI has flexibility, they may have their own internal lab policy on pay, including a "performance raise" if you get a fellowship. And it's also possible that the PI just doesn't have any clue about any of this and just goes along with what HR tells them. At the same time, keep in mind that the PI does manage a team with existing players, and they must manage issues of fairness as well. Anyway, point is ask, do not ever assume.
  • Some points of reference. Many (most?) postdocs work for the NIH minimum (which of course does not mean you should or should not, necessarily). Stanford institutionally starts at $50K. As mentioned last time, some folks pay $60K (Tweet was from Daniel MacArthur, who has asked that I not subtweet, sorry). Right or wrong, clearly some PIs take issue with this. I've heard of some fellowships that went up north of $80K. I think that $80K is probably considered by most to be a pretty eye-poppingly high salary for a postdoc, but dunno, I'm old now. Computational work often pays more than straight biology because a lot of those folks could make so much in industry that it's harder to attract them for less (maybe $10K+ premium?). Math often pays higher than biology because postdocs are considered sort of like junior faculty. Physics often pays better as well, perhaps dependent on whether you have some named fellowship. Anyway, you have an advanced degree, do some homework. I think it makes sense to be sure your number reflects your self-assessed worth but is within reasonable norms, however you choose to define "reasonable".
  • As in any negotiation, there may be back and forth. As this happens, you may have areas in which you are flexible, and maybe the PI is flexible. It is also possible that the PI is unable or unwilling to bend on pay. At that point, it is up to you to make the decision about whether that sacrifice is worth it for you. There are of course further policy discussions that must happen in this regard, but for now, this is what you are faced with, and it's your decision to make.
  • It is possible that PIs may not even know all the options for pay. Sometimes, there is some institutional inertia on "how they do things" that everyone just goes along with. This can be hard to find out until you get there and find out who to ask, though.
  • There are often some hidden costs, and it's worth considering what those may be in your case. These can include things like out of pocket payments for health insurance (including family), gym memberships, and various other benefits. Note that sometimes these costs can vary depending on your official position at the institution, which in turn can change depending on whether you have a fellowship or whatever (sometimes, a fellowship reduces your status, thus costing you more for many things, ironically). There may be some sort of child care benefit or something, or at least access to the university daycare. And there may be some commuting benefits, in case that's relevant. Some places are able to cover moving costs if the PI wishes.
  • There are a host of issues for foreign postdocs, and someone more knowledgeable than I should probably write about them, but some costs I've seen are visa costs (sometimes paid by institution, sometimes not, very confusing), and also travel costs associated with yearly return visits to the home country for visa purposes. These return visits, by the way, may be avoidable with longer contracts, which may or may not be available, which was something I just learned recently myself.
  • For a lot of the above hidden costs, the PI may not even realize that these sorts of things are going on, and they may be willing to help. There is a possibility that they can cover some of these costs, depending on institutional rules, or maybe it can be a rationale to negotiate a higher salary.
Here are some thoughts for PIs, probably mostly for junior people (which I still consider myself, but I'm probably just kidding myself). Most of these I'm just kind of making up on the spot, being a relatively inexperienced postdoc-hirer myself:
  • It took me a while to learn all the intricacies of what constitutes pay. What are the pay scales? What can I pay for? Moving costs? Commuting costs? Benefits? I still don't think I fully understand all of this, but I wish I had a better understanding when I started. When I started, it was like "you can hire a postdoc, here you go."
  • I'm still not fully clear on all the hidden costs to my people and what benefits they get, and I should really brush up on that, potentially making a plain English document for new lab members.
  • At the institutional level, it took me a while to disentangle what is actual policy on things like pay vs. what is just "the way we have always done it". Breaking these unofficial rules gave me some flexibility to do good things for my people.
  • I am thinking of developing a coherent lab policy on pay, explicitly stating what I will and will consider when figuring out overall pay level, relative pay between people, etc. I haven't really worried about it so far, and that's been fine, but having something like that would really help. I guess that's sort of obvious, so maybe I'm just sort of late to this bit of common sense. Am I alone in that?
  • I think in the course of coming up with such a policy on pay, I'll probably think about exactly what my values are, what these kids' opportunity costs are, and how much I think is reasonable to live on in Philly. I mean, I kinda do this already, but haven't really thought about it very seriously, and periodic reexamination seems appropriate.
  • I'm not entirely sure I would share this policy within the lab, though. Thing is, everyone's circumstances are different, and exceptions are frankly pretty much the rule. I think the point is just to have some sort of internal guidance so that at least you won't forget about anything when deliberating.
  • I'm wondering whether and to what extent it's worth discussing lab cost management with the people in your lab so that they see how the sausage gets made. I had one trainee who was surprised to find out (not from me, but rather from Penn HR) exactly how much their pay actually counted against a grant once all the benefits and so forth were added in. There is an argument to be made (that I've mostly subscribed to) that postdocs should just focus on their work and not worry about the lab bills. There's another argument to be made that sharing such information gives people a sense of the true costs of running a lab for training purposes. Then again, it's a fine line between being informative and passive-aggressive. Dunno on this one.
Anyway, who knows if this will help anything, but consider this my contribution to the discussion for now. While it certainly won't solve all the problems out there, given the surprising lack of knowledge out there, perhaps this information will be of some use. More in another post later on policy things that came up, as well as how to talk about these things on the internet.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Some (reluctant) thoughts on postdoc pay

Update 12/7/2016: (first follow up here, second follow up here)

I have generally steered well clear of the issue of postdoc pay, which engenders pretty heated conversations that I'm SO not interested in getting into publicly, but one thing I'm seeing is really bugging me these days: people bragging on Twitter about how much they pay their postdocs above the NIH minimum. Like this:

I don't mean to single these folks out—it just happened that I saw these tweets most recently—but I've seen a few such statements over the last year or so since the announcement that the mimimum for salaried workers would be increased to ~$48K or so (which was just recently reversed).

Why is this irritating? Well, first of all, in this funding climate, and given many labs that have to make many tough choices, it does strike me as a bit arrogant to talk about how much more you can afford to pay than many, many other very well-intentioned scientists. The implication is that people who don't pay as much as you do are paying an abusively low amount, which is I think an unfair charge. For these reasons (and maybe a few others), I just don't think it's really appropriate to publicly talk about how much you pay your people. For the record, I support paying postdocs well, and I think the increase is overall a good idea. My point here will be that there is not an obvious default "right" position on the issue of postdoc pay, and I think it is far more complex than just saying "We should pay postdocs a decent wage."

Indeed, I think the key difficulty is pinning down exactly what we mean by the notion of "decent wage". For instance, in the first tweet above, the PI is from Cambridge/Boston, and the second is from NYC. Now, the proposed federal regulation for starting postdocs is (was) $47,484, and that would apply everywhere. Including, say, Ann Arbor, Michigan (which I choose for no particular reason other than it's home to a major, world-class research institution, but in a relatively affordable location). Now, comparing the cost of living of any two places is tricky, but I found this estimate that Boston is roughly 1.4x as pricey as Ann Arbor (which sounds probably about right). Bragging about paying $60K? Well, shouldn't that be $66K? Live in Cambridge MA instead? No better, $76K. So let's stop crowing about how "decently" the Broad Institute pays, okay?

So, is $60K "fair"? Hmm. From the PI perspective: a Boston PI could say, well my dollars don't go as far, so in a way, doesn't the Michigan PI have an unfair advantage? Then again, the Michigan PI could say hey, why do I have to pay more (relatively speaking) for my postdocs? Why does the Boston PI not have to pay the same effective wages I do? Why should they not have an enforced effective minimum standard pay and have the freedom to pay effectively less?

The motivation of PIs may also matter here as well. The focus in the discussion has been on PIs taking advantage of cheap labor, and that definitely happens. But some PIs may define their mission as training as many scientists as possible, which certainly seems reasonable to me, at least from one point of view. (And I do wonder how often those who brag about paying so much above the minimum have actually had to make the tough choice of turning away a talented postdoc candidate due to constrained funding.)

From the NIH perspective: what is the goal? To get as much science as "efficiently" as possible? To train people? To create a stable scientific workforce? Or to better human health? Should the NIH even allow people in high cost of living areas to pay their postdocs more? Would it be fair to consider this pay scale in grant review, just as other areas of budgets are scrutinized? Does increasing the minimum penalize those who pay the minimum in non-Boston/SF locations unfairly, thus increasing inequity? Or does it provide a general boost for those places, now making them more attractive because their NIH minimum dollars go further? Should the NIH scale the size of grant by cost of living in the area of the host institution? To what extent should the NIH support diversity of locations, anyway?

From the trainee perspective: It's pretty easy for trainees to say that whatever they're paid right now is not fair (though you might be surprised how little many assistant professors make). So for trainees reading this post, let me ask: what would be fair? Okay, maybe now you have a number in your head. Where does that number come from? Is it based on need? Consider: should a postdoc who has a family be paid more? Wait a minute, what about the postdoc without a family? What about immigrants with expensive visa costs? Or potentially families to support in their home country? Moving costs? Commuting costs? Should postdocs be paid more when the institution is in an expensive city? Should postdocs be forced to live further away from the institute to seek more affordable housing? My point is that there is no clear line between necessity and luxury, and wherever that blurry line does get drawn will be highly dependent on a trainee's circumstances and choices.

Or should that number be based on performance? Should the postdoc entering the lab with a flashy paper or two be paid more than the one without? Should a postdoc get a raise every time they publish a paper, scaled by how important the paper is? How many grants it generates? I think it's reasonable to assume that such an environment would be toxic within a lab, but wouldn't the same be true of pay based on personal circumstance, as just discussed above? And isn't such performance-based pay already what's sort of happening at a more global level in flush institutes where PIs can get enough grants to pay well above the minimum?

As you have probably noticed, this post has way more question marks than periods, and I don't claim to know the answers to any of these questions. I have thoughts, like everyone else, and I'm happy to talk about them in person, where nuance and human connection tend to breed more consensus than discord. My point is that reducing all this to a single number is sort of ridiculous, but that's how it works, and so that's what we all have to start from, along with various institutional prerogatives. In the meantime, given how simplistic it is to reduce this discussion to a single number, can we please stop with the public postdoc pay-shaming?