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.


  1. Thanks for these posts!

    I've had the "pleasure" of having two postdoc periods, in the US and in Israel (my home country). So I'll try to add some thoughts from my side:
    When I searched for a postdoc position in the US, I mentioned the payment issue already in the email that I sent to prospective PIs. Being married +2 kids, I was concerned of costs of living. So I made sure that they can pay *at least* the NIH minimum, if I do not come with a fellowship of my own.
    Out of 20 emails I sent I got only one answer saying it was inappropriate. When I got to the interview step (5 labs), I did not get the feeling of having a "negotiation" on my salary. I would either get a fellowship that pays higher, or I will get the NIH minimum. That was my feeling from 4/5 PIs i interviewed with. Only one said bluntly he can't even pay the NIH minimum - I can only come with "my own" money. This obviously disqualified that lab as a valid option for me.
    Eventually, I did get a fellowship that payed higher than NIH, although it took some involvement of my PI to get them to add the "fringe benefits (~8k)" to my salary.
    My PI added to that - he payed for my family's health insurance (another 500$/mo), and he even loaned me a car! Obviously, this cannot be the case for each lab member...
    However, I had to pay the visa costs & flight expenses. for a family of 4, that's a lot.
    So, at the end, even with a loan I took from my parents, the cost of living was too much for us. That, + problems of my family adjusting to life in the US, led to my return to Israel mid-postdoc.
    So now I continue as postdoc at Weizmann. Here, there is a fixed postdoc salary. the PI is NOT ALLOWED to pay more (nor less, obviously). As far as I know, Weizmann is unique in that. In other universities the postdoc salary is determined by the PI as he pleases. As far as I know, Weizmann pays the highest postdoc salary in Israel. It is still too low to sustain a family with kids (about 10% lower than the average salary in Israel, about 50% above the median). But at least here we can have help from family & friends, and we have benefits not available in the US.

    So to conclude - my advice to postdocs - don't be afraid to discuss the salary, cost of living, ask for help from the PI. They might think of creative ways to help you (if they want to keep you) as mine did. Also, I've heard of at least one more PI who regularly loans his car to lab members. There ARE some nice PIs out there. Really!

    As to your last point - I think discussing lab costs with senior lab members (PhDs a their last year or so, postdocs). Most labs have some rules or limits on ordering reagents. So lab members know at least something on the state of the lab. I've been in labs were you just got free hand to order almost anything you wanted, and labs were there is a prolongs discussion whether we really need that drug or that antibody b/c of costs.
    But I think the lab can benefit if senior members will know how much grant money the lab has (and how much of that is taken by the university!), how much of that goes to salaries (most) etc... Postdocs can help writing grants - I learned a lot from doing that and I got funding to the lab too, which is great and makes me proud and feel useful!

  2. From my perspective at Flyover U, stating that you pay postdocs well above NIH minimum AND your own institution's norms can be perceived as a humblebrag. That you are so well funded that you can afford to pay more than the starting salary for an Assistant Prof. at many other Flyover U's. And with that comes the implication that PIs at Flyover U's with "only" a single NSF or modular NIH are behaving unethically to even employ a postdoc at the NIH minimum, cost of living be damned.

    1. Agreed, that is definitely one of the points from my first post. Blanket short statements in tweets are not a good way to capture all the factors that go into these decisions.

  3. 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 have a yearly "State of the Lab Address" where among other things, I discuss the lab's current and projected funding, including which grants have been applied for, how they have fared, and my plans for new/resubmissions. I do broadly talk about how much funding we have on hand, how much we spend annually, and whether I have funds to take on new people. My goal here is to be transparent about how we are doing so there are no sudden surprises, and to also give my trainees an realistic idea about how many grants need to be written (by me at least) to obtain funding. I hadn't considered that this could be perceived as being passive aggressive though. I'll have to ask my trainees what they think about the practice.

    1. I mean, I think it's generally a good idea. My only wonder is whether people might not ask for raises they think they otherwise deserve if they feel like the finances are tight. Who knows, definitely makes sense to ask them! I'm guessing most trainees appreciate it.

  4. One thing that surprises me is that even though NIH dwarfs other funding agencies, postdocs in biomed seem to be among the worst paid of all fields.

    For what it's worth, I made 56 to 80K over 2 different postdoc in 4 years as a quantitative ecologist. I think higher paying postdocs are more common when you are affiliated with a federal agency (NOAA, EPA, USGS) as I was in my second postdoc. After getting paid well during a postdoc it is hard to consider taking other postdoc positions with significantly less pay even if the the advisor/project is interesting. Its not not just the money; working for ~40k just doesn't seem like your abilities are appreciated.

    One thing postdocs can do to improve their pay is to factor it into decisions. If PIs know that they need to pay more to attract a good postdoc, then paying more will become more common. Having a great vs. mediocre postdoc makes a huge difference in the success of a project, so to me it seems like a worthwhile investment to pay extra to attract top talent.

  5. I'm still not fully clear on all the hidden costs to my people and what benefits they get.

    As a grad student, one thing that has surprised me is how much funding source impacts after-tax income, given the same nominal salary. For example, on my GRFP and subsequent T32 appointment, my stipend was tax exempt (100% and 75% exempt, respectively). Now that I'm paid directly with my PI's funds, the stipend is fully taxable. As a result, my net income will be ~15% less during my final year than it was during my first year, even though the nominal amount of the stipend has increased over the same time period.

  6. Readers of Anonymous' post: Please note that GRFP stipends may not be reported to the IRS, but that does not mean they are tax-exempt. Please consult the IRS about your personal situation.

    1. Anonymous here - thank you for this very important correction! I made a mistake in my wording last night, but rest assured that I have indeed paid federal income tax on my various stipends. The general point of my post still holds however, because at least in my location, the fellowships were truly exempt from state and city taxes, as well as FICA. Indeed, the difficulty in ascertaining the tax status of trainee stipends is its own issue.