On Paying Postdocs Whatever for Whatevs

Sep 19 2014 Published by under NIH, Postdoctoral Training, Postgraduate Training

There was a discussion on Twitter regarding postdoctoral compensation that veered off into the assertion that it is "easy" for PIs to give a 20% bump to their postdocs if they wanted to. It eventually incorporated some allegation that particular subspecialties (like computer/informatics jockeys) required a bonus bit of pay above normal for postdocs. Eventually it became clear to me that there are both some postdocs and indeed junior faculty that basically think they are able to just pay their postdocs whatever they want if they happen to have sufficient grant or other money to do so.

In one case I tried gently to raise the spectre of unequal treatment, bias and discrimination in wage compensation. I do this not just because of the general observation that in far too many workplaces women just happen to get paid less. I do this also because I have been around training environments where the direct-experience pain of unequal postdoc pay ("because DewdDoc has a family to support and you, WomanDawk do not") was made clear to me. While I have not heard of anybody pulling that crap in my current department...let's just say I'm not the trusting type.

I have tried to adhere to postdoctoral compensation policies that were external to my own (inevitably biased) self in my actions as a lab head. In brief, I have stuck to the NRSA guidelines. At one point that meant that my postdocs were being paid better than the mean in my department. I think we are now all doing better but my sense is that my institution only requires the starting pay to be at NRSA minimum and doesn't enforce the yearly steps.

I tried the subtle way but it is not, apparently, working.

PhysioProf, growing tired of the shenanigans got shouty.


Head on over to the NIH Grants Policy Statement where it talks about Salaries. Emphasis added for the slower readers.

Allowable. Compensation for personal services covers all amounts, including fringe benefits, paid currently or accrued by the organization for employee services rendered to the grant-supported project. Compensation costs are allowable to the extent that they are reasonable, conform to the established policy of the organization consistently applied regardless of the source of funds, and reasonably reflect the percentage of time actually devoted to the NIH-funded project.

and on "bonuses", a mechanism used to supplement postdocs that I have heard of.

Allowable as part of a total compensation package, provided such payments are reasonable and are made according to a formally established policy of the grantee that is consistently applied regardless of the source of funds.

The grants policy has this to say about Fraud and Waste:

Examples of fraud, waste, and abuse that should be reported include, but are not limited to, embezzlement, misuse, or misappropriation of grant funds or property, and false statements, whether by organizations or individuals. Other examples include theft of grant funds for personal use; using funds for non-grant-related purposes; theft of federally owned property or property acquired or leased under a grant; charging the Federal government for the services of “ghost” individuals; charging inflated building rental fees for a building owned by the grantee; submitting false financial reports; and submitting false financial data in bids submitted to the grantee (for eventual payment under the grant).

The Federal government may pursue administrative, civil, or criminal action under a variety of statutes relating to fraud and making false statement or claims.

It doesn't precisely say that overpaying staff outside of what is "reasonable" and that "conform to the established policy of the organization" is the same as "theft for personal use" and they talk about "inflated...fees" only in the context of building rental. But c'mon.

It doesn't take a neurobrainrocketscientistsurgeon to deduce that an individual NIH-grant-holding PI has some obligation to pay their staff only what is consistent with institutional policies external to their own personal preferences.

I take no position whatever on what institutional postdoc compensation policies should be in various locations in this fair land. Ok, that's a lie, I think NRSA scale should be a minimum. But if there need to be local adjustments, no problem. If there needs to be institutional recognition that some job types (like a informatics / computational biology postdoc) require a consistent bonus to compete with the local killer-app startup, fine.

But it is VERY clear to me that individual PIs do not just get to willy-nilly decide what to pay their trainees without any reference to what is "reasonable" and what has been made "established policy of the organization".

72 responses so far

  • I'm one of the spendthrift PIs who believe that postdocs can and should be paid more than the NIH minimum - but this is not to say I believe their wage should be determined by me based on some personal calculation (nor, to be clear, did I ever imply this on Twitter).

    We have pretty strict equity policies in my (small) department - all postdocs start on a well-defined pay scale (which happens to be substantially over the NIH minimum) and go through established annual increases. If they get a fellowship that pays them more, they get more.

    We don't pay postdocs with families more, although we do allow extremely flexible hours, and have maternity and paternity leave policies that are more humane than the US academic standard.

    So it's not about individual PIs randomly deciding how much to pay their peeps. It's about deciding as a department to pay postdocs a wage that's slightly more commensurate with their training, skills, and the Bostonian cost of living than whatever the NIH mandates as a bare minimum.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Glad to hear it.

  • Science Grunt says:

    I am going to guess the debate was in the wake of the NPR story... I think academia, specially NIH type, has some funny incentive structures in that people that are sucked in early has no information on the outcomes and by the time they find out things aren't as great they thought it would be, their are quasi-unemployable in any other sector and have a horrible entitled attitude about it.

    It also has the anomaly that most of its workforce are in training peeps who assume that their salaries will eventually receive a 20% bump when they get the tenure track position, so it's OK to be paid less now because you are a snowflake that will beat the 20:1 odds. I think this is the scam-like part. Scientists are the smartest and the dumbest people in the world. My modest proposal would be forbidding paying trainee salaries from grants and expanding trainee grants programs a bit. Want to hire someone to work on grant? That person is now a research scientist and that is his job, not a in training position. It's just changing names, but it will hopefully make it clear for everyone that science has a lot of people in permanent positions whose payscale go from 42 to 60k. And these aren't lab techs but people with fancy phds. But of course that will never happen because the powers like the assimetry of information and the exploited labor.

    NIH, and as consequence the taxpayer, are the ones "exploiting" the workforce. But odds are that they also paid for the grad school education to begin with, right? So is that really exploitation? I guess we should start seeing joining gov funded research like army jobs. They invest in you and they use you later and if you like science you are probably happy that way.

    You also shouldn't hope to be a member of the upper middle class unless you are particularly good at saving or at your job, just like in any other profession.

  • jipkin says:

    So if the departmental/field average is $45k but you've got a candidate that you really need because they developed some new technique for counting bunny hops or whatever and so you offer them $48k, is the federal government really going to A) notice? B) care? C) actually sue you for misappropriation of funds?

    (and next, what about 49? 50? 53? 60?)

  • Dave says:

    NIH sue for misappropriation? You are joking? You would have to buy nukes from Iran using NIH dollars, and then drop them on the White House for them to even think about it.

  • Andrew Su says:

    I agree that standardization at some level is a very good idea to avoid the implicit (or explicit) biases of PIs. However, I'd argue that at least in my case standardization could only be reasonably done at the level of individual labs, not departments and certainly not institutions. Within larger groups of labs, there are undoubtedly a diversity of situations that would reasonably justify different pay levels, including special-skill areas like bioinformatics and differing funding constraints.

    And as someone on the Twitters mentioned, I have no idea how PIs of labs with both computational and experimental postdocs manage this.

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    My former MRU was notorious for the starting pay, but no steps. At the time I left I was being paid $9500/year under the going NIH rate for my experience.

    However, I wasn't getting the brunt of it. When I left they had just released a graph of the postdoc pay distribution. There were 6+ year postdocs making 36k a year and "surprisingly" all of them were on H1Bs. Supposedly the institution is going to set a new salary minimum, but from the rumors the administration is discussing issuing salary exemptions for labs where this will cause "undue budgetary stress."

  • rxnm says:

    "Undue budgetary stress" sucks, but I guess that's not something a greedy postdoc would understand.

    I don't know why comp postdocs would be paid more. I'm a straight-up bench biologist, but was offered an industry job that would've doubled my salary and halved my hours overnight. I turned it down to try a year on the TT job search, because I'm an idiot and obviously we are all smart people and no one's doing it for the fuckin' money. Is there really a shortage of mountain dew monkeys around willing to move their figurine collections?

  • rxnm says:

    Oh no, wait, I've got it...this is one of those "snowflake" situations...like the fields that just publish lists with 37 authors and we're supposed to be wowed by their "data viz" or whatever.

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    "Undue budgetary stress" sucks, but I guess that's not something a greedy postdoc would understand.

    I wrote a ranty response then realized that this was possibly intended to be sarcastic and it is far too late in the evening for me to accurately make that judgement. I will just leave this one tidbit here for your consideration.

    The average McDonald's manager makes $41,000 a year.

  • Busy says:

    We pay uniformly $56K to all postdocs in my group.

  • @raxnm
    Computational people are paid more because we actually have skills that are useful to society beyond science. Even if we are taking an insane pay cut to stay in science as it is. Just like MDs do. As for bench work people and high paying industry jobs -- the 1990s are calling. Seriously. I work down the street from the West Coast Pfizer campus -- it's basically empty at this point.

  • Random PI says:

    While I see the value of equity policies, the fact is that not all post-docs (like faculty) offer equal skills. In that context, I think its more than legitimate to offer better pay as one incentive to get the best person in place - it can help the science and it can help ensure the work promised in the grant is carried out at the highest possible level. I am not talking huge ranges here but 5-7K or so can help convince a high-quality PD to come to my lab. In my experience. this ends up not being a huge issue as the high-quality PDs get awards and thus gets the better pay anyway, but this may not be known at the moment of hiring.

  • Odyssey says:

    I think academia, specially NIH type, has some funny incentive structures in that people that are sucked in early has no information on the outcomes...

    Google is your friend.

  • anonymous postdoc (shrewshrew) says:

    Is a postdoc a commodity, or is a postdoc an individual with unique and desirable skills?

    I'm not sure the answer to that question is clear. If a postdoc is a commodity, where any average postdoc is supposed to be comparable to another, then a flat rate of pay is unquestionably the only ethical system. If a postdoc is a unique scientist that will enrich a laboratory in a specific way that not just every person with a PhD can, then she is in a negotiating position.

    Speaking for myself, I was way closer to a commodity than a specific unique scientist when I started my current position - one which made only glancing use of the specific neuroscience subfield I focused my PhD on. I have since developed something (in my opinion) cool and uncommon during this postdoc, and my faculty applications reflect this. Faculty positions don't get filled by undifferentiated people. So now, if I were looking for a second postdoc position, I would be in a negotiating position, but it doesn't make sense for me to go for that when I can attempt to shoot the moon.

    The bioinformaticians on whom I am reliant are friggin geniuses. The faculty members, the people who only just earned their PhDs a month ago, the person who just has her masters and is a 9-5 bioinformatics tech - all of them. They are absolutely in a negotiating position. Frankly, my husband is interested in bioinformatics work, having a computer science background - but we can't afford to have this become a two-academics family, compared with what he can get paid (even by the IT wing of an academic department to maintain the website) for being able to code.

    I think the confusion comes in when we think about people being able to negotiate when they are allegedly at a career point where people are treated as interchangeable. Negotiations are for tenure-track faculty. Accepting what you are offered is for everyone else.

    (And tenure-track faculty are also often paid primarily for grants. If I negotiate an extra $10K to my salary from what the school initially offers, am I being a poor steward of federal funds?)

    Face it, we have a vital wing of biological science now that needs to compete for people with really unique skills, not just a PhD, and by the way, the NIH knows it and bats zero eyes that they are paid accordingly (that is, more than me).

  • rxnm says:

    "Computational people are paid more because we actually have skills that are useful to society beyond science."

    JB - The unemployment rate for biomedical PhDs is basically zero. The distinction here is employability, but working an academic research environment or not. I don't see how that is fundamentally different for computational people. I made more money in my mid-20s than I made during the subsequent 12 years of academic training. That's the deal...you take a pay hit to work toward an academic career, whether you are at the bench or at a keyboard. Many people choose not to and make more money doing something else. More power to them.

    And if comp bio trainees can convince people of their snowflake status, more power to them as well. But this is negotiated, not principled. Honestly, I'm all for trainees extracting whatever they can from a system that treats them like shit.

    Yes, industry has shrunk, but what I am describing was in 2012.

  • rxnm says:

    "the issue here is NOT employability"

  • claustrum says:

    I'm not sure what you're actually arguing here, DM. If your point is that PIs can't literally decide on a whim to pay their postdocs whatever they like, then you're right of course. Postdoc hires at universities go through the HR department, and if I try to pay my postdoc $150k/year, HR is almost certainly going to have some problems with that, regardless of whether or not I have the money to allocate. But if that's your point, then you're effectively conceding that so long as HR doesn't have any problem with a hire, it must be within the guidelines of the institution, and therefore it should not be objectionable to either the university or the NIH in any way. Which, in point of fact, it isn't.

    In practice, as several commenters have noted, it would be ludicrous to pretend that you should--or even can--pay every postdoc the same wage. Postdocs are not commodities; they have very specific skills that may or may not fit with the nature of the project(s) they are working on. In my line of work, for instance, good software development skills are essential. Despite what many PIs will biomedical or social science backgrounds would like to believe, you cannot take a PhD who has never written a line of code in their life and turn them into a competent (or even a mediocre) programmer in 6 months. You need people who have spent years honing those skills--skills that are very much in demand right now. On several occasions in the past few years, I've made postdoc offers to very good people--at 60k or 70k, not at 40!--only to see those people walk into tech jobs that pay double that. The idea that those people should take a pay cut of $60k/year or more for the love of science--when there is no longer any good reason to think they will have faculty positions to show for their sacrifice after 2 or 3 years--is completely absurd. The fact of the matter is that I cannot reliably hire someone at 42k/year to do the job that NIH has given me grant money to do. I mean, I might get lucky once in a blue moon, but buying postdoc lottery tickets like that seems like a pretty bad way to run a lab.

    Now, this isn't to deny that there are still many areas of science where many postdocs appear to be willing to work for $40k/year. Whether this means they should therefore be paid that much is a matter of debate. Personally I feel pretty strongly that unless you really don't care who's doing the work in your lab (which is hard to believe), you should pay people what you think they're worth (or, in high cost of living areas, what you think the deserve in order to be able to live reasonably). If you have the opportunity to use grant money hire someone who is more productive than two average postdocs, I see nothing wrong with paying them $60k/year. The idea that NIH is going to complain about this is flatly ridiculous. (And it's really jumping the shark for you to intimate that paying someone more than the NRSA minimum might constitute "theft of funds" from grants. You think if my HR department has no problem at all with me paying a postdoc $60k because of their qualifications and the fact that they have industry offers for double that, the NIH is going to bat an eye?).

    You are, of course, correct that there is a potential for abuse here, in the sense that PIs who are not careful and/or sensitive to their own biases can potentially end up paying men more than equally qualified women, or white dudes more than equally qualified black dudes. But the way to deal with this is for HR to institute policies that minimize gender and race gaps, including periodic evaluations of employee salaries. I have absolutely no problem having to explain to someone in HR why it's impossible for me to find someone willing to write scientific software for $40k/year. I do have a big problem explaining to NIH in my progress report that I was unable to get any work done in the past 12 months because DrugMonkey and his friends feel that it's unfair for me to pay my postdocs something vaguely approaching market rate.

  • rxnm says:

    My sister took a six figure pay cut to be a law prof instead of a lawyer. My grandfather took lord knows how much to work for a government hospital instead of private practice. I quit a job that basically assured wealth with minimal effort to do this biology nonsense.

    I am not sure what makes a software person special compared to any of these examples. Every day people make career decisions (or any kind of decision) that aren't about maximizing income. What is different is that it is not a traditional academic field, which means administrators can be more easily convinced that they are pixie dust angels that have to be treated like nerd royalty. Whatever.

  • claustrum says:

    With all due respect, rxnm, I think you're attacking a straw man. I don't think anyone in this comment thread (certainly not me) is making a moral argument that postdocs with good technical skills deserve to be paid more because they're special snowflakes and we need to nurture their desire to stay in academia. I'm making a completely pragmatic observation that it is impossible for me to hire someone to do the work I need done at $42k/year--and that I have a hard time finding someone suitable even at $60k/year. In effect, your response to this observation seems to be "if they're not willing to take a pay cut to stay in academia, they don't have to stay in academia". Well, that's 100% true, but it's also completely unhelpful. The fact of the matter is that I have work that needs to be done, and I have grant money from NIH with which to fund that work. That money is, fortunately, sufficient for me to pay enough to hire someone who is both highly qualified and interested in the work. But that requires that I pay my personnel more than someone else in my department who may have dozens of applications for a wet lab position.

    If this offends your moral sensibilities, then perhaps you would care to offer a practical solution to my problem. What would you propose I do, pray tell? Should I hire a PhD without previous software development expertise and hope for the best? Should I not fill the position for years, in the hopes that the perfect candidate eventually comes along? Should I go back to NIH and say, "sorry, rxnm won't let me hire someone for this position at $70k, so I can't do any work"? Please enlighten me.

    Note that it may well be that this is particular to my own situation (though I doubt it, having talked to many other PIs who do similar work). I don't doubt that there are some labs out there run by very famous people doing very famous work who can probably get really exceptional, technically skilled postdocs to come on board for NRSA scale. And if someone wants to take a postdoc position for a fraction of what they could make in industry because they love the work and think it's worth it to them, I'm all for that. But that doesn't change the fact that the number of people who are willing to do that is currently very small relative to the number of funded science projects that depend on technically skilled people. The inevitable result is that the market rate for these people is going to increase.

    If you're generally unhappy with this state of affairs, you're welcome to petition NIH to reduce the number of computationally-intensive grant awards being made. Perhaps you would like to make an argument that that money would be better spent on traditional experimental work, where salaries are lower and there seems to be no shortage of willing postdoc applicants. Personally, I would disagree strongly with that view, but I have no problem with you fighting that fight. But to suggest that I'm somehow at fault for paying someone $70k/year for a technically demanding position--when my R01 budget, which has been vetted by NIH administrators, explicitly includes money for that, and when I haven't been able to hire suitable people for less than that--is frankly just laughable. If you can show me where this magical pool of potential candidates willing to work in my lab for $42k/year is, I'm happy to have a serious conversation.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    I'm not sure if anyone has asked this on your blog before, but why is it that postdoc PhDs who are supported by NIH $ don't get paid salaries equivalent to those of other Federal employees (and benefits like retirement matching and complete coverage of health insurance)? Is there some bit of history that I'm missing?

    PhD's working in a government position would normally be considered GS-11 or GS-12, and here are the 2014 General Schedule Locality Pay Tables:


  • What you are missing is that post-docs paid with NIH funds--either from RPG budgets, training grants, or fellowships--are not federal employees.

  • klm says:


    I was told that those G11-G12 PhDs positions are, in most part, for very well connected people (friends of friends), regardless of whether they have a PhD or not. Most of them have it.

  • becca says:

    Really DM? You really think the total amount people pay postdocs above NRSA scales exceeds the amounts faculty negotiate for their own very special salaries that are clearly the exact market rate for their unique special snowflake selves in an environment where there are hundreds of well qualified PI candidates for every faculty opening?

  • rxnm says:

    If you want to hire a software developer, hire one. Universities have all kinds of employees. Labs hire staff scientists and technicians and pay them salaries that have nothing to do with postdoctoral scales.

    And in fact, I think this is the right way to go. We should have far fewer trainees and more staff scientists. But as long as you are "mentoring" a "postdoctoral" "trainee" then I think the NIH pay scale obtains. I do think we should all be lobbying for all postdocs to have a guaranteed, progressive pay scale that includes benefits.

    Should students getting computational degrees pay less tuition? Get higher stipends? Lower interest rates on their loans? Maybe, I dunno. Maybe the entire academic, publicly funded research agenda should be determined by market forces. We can all start working on more efficient ways of delivering glucose and getting people to lease cars.

  • Jessica Tollkuhn says:


    "If you want to hire a software developer, hire one"

    I think you are being a bit flippant about the salary concerns for hiring programmers. My non-PhD, software developer husband has worked in three academic labs as a staff programmer/analyst/whatever. All of these labs have been big, either core facilities or running multi-institutional projects, and employed multiple developers. It would be very expensive for a "regular" lab to hire a software developer, particularly considering that as staff, developers get actual benefits. But more and more of basic science will require them. Do you really think things like Ensembl or Galaxy should just be run by companies?

  • Lady Scientist says:

    @ CPP - my question was not about whether or not postdocs count as Federal employees.

    My question was: why don't postdocs get equivalent pay on a pay scale that is Federally determined and which takes into account locality cost of living? Why, in NIH funding-land (and the NIH is Federally funded), are postdocs valued less for their degrees?

  • Lady Scientist says:

    And, don't give me anything about "trainee" status, etc. because a lot of postdocs I knew (and still know) are hired simply to fulfill the basic obligations of research technicians in labs, except that they aren't paid an hourly wage like techs. I have witnessed numerous cases where it appears that there is no intent, on the part of the PI, to actually mentor these scientists for future careers of any kind. In fact, many of these postdocs are hired specifically *for* their skill sets, and there is no intent on the part of many PIs to really train these postdocs in other methods. So, in essence, the "trainee" title is a misnomer that allows a lot of people to take advantage of people with PhDs (the most advanced degree one can get at a university) - pay them crap wages and barely any benefits for long hours and pressure to publish for the PI.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    And, don't forget that research techs get full benefits (at least at my institution) - salary matching for retirement, paid vacation, paid sick days, health insurance coverage, etc.

    So, not only are their hours regulated, but they get about the same pay as many postdocs, but they also get full benefits, with less qualifications.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    Why, in NIH funding-land (and the NIH is Federally funded), are postdocs valued less for their degrees?

    You've got this completely backwards. Post-docs receive the compensation that they do because they have decided that the total benefits of their financial compensation plus training plus the opportunity to pursue their scientific interests with the expenses of such pursuit paid for by someone else plus potential future career opportunities outweigh the costs of their time and effort and other forgone opportunities.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    Although I agree that postdocs make a choice to pursue that career path, "the expenses of such pursuit paid for by someone else" statement that you made makes it sound as if the same wouldn't happen for any other government or private industry position, which is absolutely NOT the case. Same with the "training" (if they receive it, that is), as well as the potential future career opportunities.

    And, where is there ANY guarantee that they will receive training, the opportunity to purse their scientific interests during their postdoc, or potential future career opportunities? At my institution, they are simply another kind of exempt employee that the PI hires, minus the benefits. I even knew postdocs who were paying for reagents out of their own pockets, in one lab lab in which I worked, because the PI was skimping on research funds for the project (which was the PI's project).

  • There are no guarantees in any professional career trajectory, and there is always the possibility of finding oneself answering to someone who is an unsupportive asshole, whether it's in science, business, law, medicine, sports, engineering, or any other profession. I'm not sure what that has to do with post-doc compensation.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    It doesn't have anything to do with postdoc compensation, except for the fact that you brought it into your argument in support of your idea that the postdoc makes a choice in accepting low pay and no benefits in exchange for other things.

    What if the PI does not really give anything in return? Who guarantees that even NIH-funded trainees are given adequate training, etc.?

    You may think that this is some rare exception, but it is most definitely NOT at my institution (which sounds a LOT like Crytal Voodoo's former institution, BTW).

  • Lady Scientist says:

    Even technicians get "the expenses of such pursuit paid for by someone else." They also usually get training for their jobs.

  • rxnm says:

    Jessica, I think my point is that universities/departments solve this problem all the time. There are many skill sets needed in the context of scientific research that don't fall under the category of "postdoc" in terms of salary expectations, job stability, and "training" status/need. If this means departments/centers have to find a way to pool funds/services (e.g. for sequencing or EM...or administration for that matter) for whatever, why not? It works. If it is for a large computational project, it's the same thing. There is no need to define everyone--or really anyone--as a trainee.

    My point is these people *should* be getting professional salaries/benefits if they are essentially a fully-functioning software developer who could be working anywhere without additional academic training/credentialing. And that's my point about many bench postdocs too. They aren't trainees, and the positions and salaries should reflect that.

    If they *are* trainees who are undertaking a defined project to demonstrate their independence and prepare to look for a PI-type position...then that's a postdoc. This might seem like hair-splitting, but I think these distinction matter, because the PI track should't be the only one in academic science.

    It will make it more expensive to do science to employ professional scientists (or engineers or software developers) instead of perpetuating the exploitative fiction that everyone with a PhD who is not a PI is a "trainee." Almost all of us will be doing less with less anyway, except for the BSDs, given the inexorable concentration of diminishing resources. (I mean, look around, that's the story of everything in the U.S....it's a country that has stopped investing in itself in nearly every respect.) My bet is that, in most ways, professionalizing publicly-funded research would vastly improve it, *especially* as it continues to shrink.

    Maybe the boomers will retire and the crazy metastasis of medical school Centers for Innovation in Systems Bunny Hopping will retract and congress will get stable, increasing funding back on track. If public biomed funding in the US undergoes expansion longer than an election cycle ever again, maybe we can revisit "training" more people.

    OK, I ended up going pretty wide here.

  • It's certainly possible that your institution is particularly shitty. At my institution, all post-docs are guaranteed at a minimum the NIH NRSA compensation scale and full health benefits, and as PIs we have no ability to go below this.

    While there are obviously some exceptions, in most labs--and certainly in mine--technicians and lab managers do not "pursue their scientific interests": they provide technical and organizational support to the efforts of graduate students and post-docs in the pursuit of *their* interests.

    Again, and maybe this is because your institution is particularly shitty, but the training that technicians and lab managers receive is generally very, very different from the training that post-docs receive. The former receive specific technical training that enables them perform particular experimental tasks. Only post-docs and graduate students receive training in how to design a research project or program, how to write effective manuscripts and grants, how to deliver effective scientific presentations, how to effectively apply for next-stage positions--post-doctoral and faculty--how to get one's own lab running, how to peer-review manuscripts, how to respond to reviewer concerns with manuscript revisions, how to respond to reviewer concerns in a grant resubmission, etc.

    I agree completely that graduate students and post-docs who are not receiving this kind of training--and who are expected to perform purely technical roles at the bench generating data--are being unfairly exploited. Again, I'm not sure what this has to do with post-doc compensation.

    There are exploitative assholes in every profession. Go visit some law blogges and listen to the complaining of junior associates making six figure salaries about the exploitative senior associates and the complaining of senior associates making two or three times that about the exploitative law firm partners.

  • drugmonkey says:

    First, we kill all the lawyers.

  • Cashmoney says:

    I love how MacArthur was trying to act like a great guy on the Twitters for something he admits is an obligation imposed on him by his department.

    That's pretty rich.

  • chall says:

    "Eventually it became clear to me that there are both some postdocs and indeed junior faculty that basically think they are able to just pay their postdocs whatever they want if they happen to have sufficient grant or other money to do so."

    HA, I had this exact conversation with new faculty the other week. They wanted to hire this person and "were willing to pay them quite a lot more than their previous job" to which I asked "have you checked with HR what the limit is for them comparing to others in the same job level/experience". THe junior faculty stared at me, told me that "that wasn't a concern 'coz they had money". Two days later same faculty comes to me and mumbles "apparently I can't pay what I want for this person" ..... 'tis a learning curve indeed.

    As for general postdocs, I think it would be resonable to view them (us) as similar group when starting based on 'years in science' since I do think a postdoc with 3 years should get paid more than a post doc who is new. That said, it will most likely never be fair - too many snowflakes for that.

  • hpmcmf says:

    @Lady Scientist.

    IMO, your questions are valid ones. And it seems that virtually nobody has the answer or the adequate one. The discussion about postdocs has been going on, as I can remember, for the past 25 years with very little change, if any, in positions and arguments. Things have appeared to change for the better transiently to only get worse later on. Public investment efforts up and down and totally dependent on political “waves”/interests and economy cycles. Authentic leadership at the institutional level (academia, NIH, etc) is a very rare specie. Change might be too difficult without a positive combination of those factors.

  • ex postdoc says:

    Those who have spent their adult lives in academia at various levels of training might not realize that training is a thing that exists in all professions. In fact, every employed person who has any hope of upward mobility can consider themselves in training for the job above what they currently have. Having been a postdoc and now living in the non-academic professional world, I can tell you there is absolutely no difference between the "training" of a postdoc and the "training" of a comparable entry level professional position anywhere. The only difference is the low salary and insufficient benefits. Coming now from the other side I can say with clarity that the role of the postdoc constitutes a job, no different than any other.

  • rxnm says:

    And what NIH needs is leadership that will raise hell that at current levels, NIH can not recruit, develop or maintain the talent or perform the research needed to meet its mandate. Not leadership that throws all in its energy to marketing and pleading for BSD vanity projects.

  • Cashmoney says:


  • E-roock says:

    Rxnm - NIH cannot lobby Congress for funds.

  • rxnm says:

    haha yeah whatever. the same way PACs can't "coordinate" with campaigns.

    the nih is constantly in pr/marketing mode, and the audience--directly or indirectly--is congress. it's just francis is a milquetoast bureaucrat who is afraid to even acknowledge systematic problems for fear of being responsible for them.

  • @Cashmoney, I work in a tiny unit - I'm one of only three faculty. We decide on payscales as a group and then apply them uniformly across all of our staff to maintain equity. This isn't something that's imposed on me from above.

    It's fortunate that all three of us share a core belief in paying postdocs something approaching a living wage.

  • rs says:

    "While there are obviously some exceptions, in most labs--and certainly in mine--technicians and lab managers do not "pursue their scientific interests": they provide technical and organizational support to the efforts of graduate students and post-docs in the pursuit of *their* interests."

    CPP: Isn't graduate school suppose to provide this training in 5-6 years? Why don't we make graduate school 7 years with the norm that student rotate every 2 years to a new lab to get their "TRAINING" complete, so when they come out they are professional scientist getting professional salary and respect.

  • Cashmoney says:

    Ah. Thanks for the correction, DMac. So your group gives a 20% bonus over other similar groups of labs around you, in your University and field?

  • Cashmoney says:

    4 years, rs. What's this 5-6 year mission creep apologist business?

  • theLaplaceDemon says:


    In the USA anyway, schools usually present 5 years as the "target" graduation time, with most students taking somewhere between 5 ad 6.

  • Cashmoney says:

    Funny, it was 4 a generation ago

  • E-roock says:

    I finished in 4. It was too fast, I don't recommend it. It takes longer to hone a variety of skills, (not casting gels, but writing papers and learning what the JOB is that you'll be going into, in my case academic science, but varies) cultivate relationships, and make / test solid plans for the future. Results may vary.

  • dsks says:

    rxnm said "My sister took a six figure pay cut to be a law prof instead of a lawyer."

    That must have been a while ago, or she was a particularly high-calibre lawyer, because these days there's a major problem with institutions markedly overpaying their law faculty relative to the private sector market rate for their professional skills. Hell, if a postdoc wants to feel better about their lot in academic science they should consider the horrendous situation faced by the vast majority of law grads suckered into thinking there's still a strong market for their profession. Those guys have even worse employments prospects, shitty compensation (unless they land one of the few top drawer jobs), and on top of it all a whole goddamn galaxy of debt to pay off.

  • rs says:

    The idea behind my proposal is to increase the cost of attending grad school and get whatever training is needed for academia so essentially removing the post-doc title. Most of the industry jobs don't need a PhD. A master degree is sufficient. People will think 3 times before joining the grad school for PhD with increased duration and those who get their degree will be qualified for professional salary within academia after they finish.

    The another dimension of this thought is which other profession rely on professional answers to big questions about climate, humans and nature based on the work done by trainees? So many publications have unreliable data probably because of training status of the first author. Have you heard the phrase that "oh, the paper we published in PNAS/Nature or whatever" had mistakes, we later figured it out and fixed it. I have recently heard this phrase from three different authors of different high profile articles.

    And finally just for the sake of the discussion:


  • Drugmonkey says:

    Four years of graduate training works if the first year isn't burned doing rotations. In the rotation type of program, that would only be three years so.....

  • I consider myself a pretty fucken intelligent and savvy person, and it is clear to me that I was absolutely not prepared to run my own research program after my five years of grad school. Only through the additional five years of post-doc training did I develop the higher-level skills required to be a successful PI. Now maybe I would have done just fine if I was given a lab and start-up budget right after graduate school, so who knows? But it sure looks to me in hindsight like my post-doctoral training was absolutely indispensible.

  • rs says:

    CPP: There is no control in your experiment. You don't know how you would have done if you had given a lab and a start-up budget right after your grad school. You also don't realize that you might have given a professional salary and benefit for doing the same job as post-doc, had you not been considered a trainee.

    The first year I started teaching in college just after finishing my master, I was a terrible teacher, but by second or third year, I was proficient and considered a great teacher by my students. It was on the job training but with a good salary and benefit. Even if you start your industry career after grad school, it will be training for the first year, but you will be paid a professional salary.

    DM: You need to remove the argument for additional training for post-docs to be able to get better scientific and job satisfaction for this group. Increasing graduate training is one such way. There may be more ways, but unless this training nonsense gets removed and universities takes some responsibilities for this group, post-docs will be treated like a crap.

  • rs says:

    Also, on the job training makes sense because you are getting trained for the job you are working. Most of the post-docs will not be PI in academia, so why this unnecessary training is given to the thousands of people wasting time, money and human capital. If they are contributing with their expertise/skills to provide answers to important scientific questions, they should be paid and treated like that.

    PS: Just a disclaimer that I am not a post-doc but a PI.

  • rxnm says:

    How did science even ever happen before everyone did postdocs?

    (You would've figured it out. Maybe fucked up a little more. So what?)

  • How did science ever happen before Ph.D.'s? That wasn't around forever either. Newton didn't have one. Even Darwin didn't.

  • Joe says:

    Was Newton working on his A1 when the apple hit him on the head? Did Darwin answer all five questions on the vertebrate animal use form for his finches? Doing science has different requirements now.

  • anonymous postdoc (shrewshrew) says:

    I dunno, I'm with RS. Graduate training at current standards is probably not a high enough bar to clear. If you pass your prelim, you are going to get a PhD, sooner or later. Because no one wants to offend the PI by refusing to pass their defending student.

    And as a consequence we have one bajillion postdocs of extremely variable quality, all being paid the same wage because we don't know how to distinguish who is who...except for the actually skilled developers.

    FULL CIRCLE!!!11eleventy

  • New PI says:

    I'm in computational biology. My dream hire, rather than being my postdoc, is my part-time research programmer. He writes great code fast, trains the underlings, pushes projects along intellectually, and does everything a dream full-time postdoc would do in addition to working on his startup half the time. He earns at the top end of a full-time postdoc's salary. I encourage other current or potential postdocs to do the same.

    Also, I tell all postdocs to negotiate salaries. They don't have as much room as they should to negotiate, but they should not think of themselves as commodities.

  • Jonathan says:

    "And what NIH needs is leadership that will raise hell that at current levels, NIH can not recruit, develop or maintain the talent or perform the research needed to meet its mandate."

    Except this isn't true, as long as you can keep importing FOTB postdocs from countries they desperately want to escape from, where two years of $35k/yr and an H1-B is seen as a good investment.

  • Mike says:

    How about the postdoc that works harder and smarter than the other postdocs? The postdoc that gets his experiments to work, the postdoc that publishes more often, and writes beautiful fellowships that get funded? I would argue of course he/she should should get paid more than others.

    Especially in the context of fellowship awards, I believe postdocs should get an additional stipend from their PI, pending the PI isn't on the verge of laying off the lab due to lack of funding. From a postdoc's perspective, the PI needs the position filled in the first place, and because of the fellowship, the PI is getting it filled for free at least in the context of labor costs. In this instance the postdoc worked extra hard, late nights/weekends to come up with a project, apply and receive an extramural fellowship, and what do they get for it? A line on their CV..? No raise in pay. The postdoc pretty much is a slave. I "love science", but this is work after all.

    I think a fair solution in this case is a compromise in pay such that the PI pays 25% of salary on top of the fellowship. If the postdoc hadn't been awarded the fellowship the PI would be paying a 100% of the salary, so this is a great deal for the PI: a 75% discount. It's also at least some incentive for the postdoc: $44,000 fellowship + $11,000 from PI, totaling $55,000 for the postdoc. Almost livable, I could almost start saving up for a new car or whatever. Such a solution would increase postdoc productivity across the board, and award merit based scholarship. I understand a postdoc is temporary training position, but its absolute bull shit how the culture treats us.

    Last, some of us postdocs could run circles around you PI's applying for RO1's. We are smart, and hunger, and creative, we don't take vacations and we don't have to be home at 5pm, but we're not even eligible. Instead we write the RO1s for our PI's and get zero credit. Zero pay raise. Worse, even if the PI wanted to give the postdoc an additional stipend or pay raise, the institution won't allow it. I guess the only thing is to get bumped up to assistant adjunct professor, but that's a big interview process with department heads ect., a total reappointment that's overkill. The academia machine needs to allow for more flexibility in PI to postdoc pay.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Then what pays for you when you were brought into the lab pre-fellowship? Isn't that the payment that rewards you for your future fellowship-getting?

  • Dr24 says:

    "The postdoc is pretty much a slave." AAAAAAAAaaannd credibility gone.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Any discussion of postdoctoral compensation on the internet eventually turns up someone alleging enslavement.

  • Pippso says:

    That institutions do not allow PIs to raise PDs salaries is BS. In my experience it is one of the top excuses used by PIs.

  • Pippso says:

    For instance I know a couple of people paid less than NIH standards which are routinely told that. BS.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I am not trying to suggest that institutional rules do not vary. They do. Nor would I claim that there is no such thing as a PI lying about the reasons for not raising a postdoc's salary (or the reasons for doing so, for that matter). Some undoubtedly do.

    What I am trying to get across is that there are institutional rules that constrain PI behavior. And just because one PI has X, Y or Z freedom, it doesn't mean another PI has that freedom at another institution.

    Second, I am trying to get across that arbitrary decision making on the part of the PI to raise one postdoc's salary (yes, even for supposedly objective and earned 'merit' reasons) leads to a minefield of bias and unfair work practices. Consequently it is better to just stick to some of the more common pay principles- such as the NRSA scale.

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