Postdocs and student loan deferral policy

Dec 02 2015 Published by under Careerism

It emerged on the Twitts today that sometimes postdocs can defer student loans and sometimes they cannot.

The bottom line is that you should check into your lender requirements, and then see how your HR department defines you.

The readership may have additional tips in the comments?

95 responses so far

  • MorganPhD says:

    My uni (very large East Coast) didn't advertise it, but it was possible to get a deferral on student loans. I had to ask the Postdoctoral Affairs office (if you even have one) and they referred me to payroll, who gave me a form stating I was training. I never went through with it though, because I didn't want to defer loans for 10 total years.

    My uni has an incentive to advertise that postdocs are trainees as much possible, as it removes them from the responsibility of paying particular taxes.

  • Philapodia says:

    Only the riff-raff have to get loans to buy their education. If want to be a truly great scientist, you should have either gotten full ride scholarships from the family-friend BSD that is grooming you to replace them, or if that isn't an option just use your trust-fund to pay your way. Paying off "student loans" until you're 60 is for plebeians and is obviously a mark of inferior intellect.

    (I'll be 62 when mine are paid off...Sigh...)

  • jmz4gtu says:

    It is very difficult. My university wouldn't sign the form, but, for instance, Rutgers will. I'm not sure this had anything to do with classification, so much as department comfort level.
    Another point of interest is that there are actually student loan repayment grants offered by the NIH that are great if you qualify (you have to be doing certain types of research).
    https://www.lrp.nih.gov

    One proposal for reforming the training pipleine is to expand that program to cover all US schooled postdocs. This would address the financial pressure many postdocs are feeling right now, without taking out money from grants (it had dining stream designated by Congress). It would also help diversify the professoriate socioeconomically, since those with high student debt come from poorer families, and often feel the most pressure to go into industry.

  • Postdoc says:

    +1 on the LRP. The last I saw, the funding rates were somewhere on the order of 50% - so if your application is complete, your references write decent letters, and your research proposal isn't absolutely terrible, you're probably in. I would 100% support this being expanded to all postdocs - it really is a nice benefit, and they pay extra $ directly to the IRS to cover your additional tax bill, which doesn't happen for any other NIH fellowships.

    One note for postdocs curious about this program, too - once you sign the contract, it's EXTREMELY difficult to get out of if you want to take anything other than another position within academia. You can switch labs or even universities with very few issues as long as your research is still under the same larger umbrella program (i.e. extramural clinical research), but consider yourself locked into Postdoc-Land for the next 2 years. I didn't fully appreciate this at the time and was a much happier postdoc when I signed the contract than I am now. Think long and hard about your plans for the next 2 years and if there is any chance you might want to bail, don't do it.

  • Philapodia says:

    The LRP program is really only for those working in certain clinical research areas (pediatrics, etc) and is geared towards MDs rather than PhDs.

  • Kate says:

    Completely agree regarding the socioeconomic diversification, jmz4gtu.

    I'm not sure why more postdocs don't apply for the LRP (MDs and PhDs alike). According to their FY2014 extramural data book, the success rate is 51%. Of those awarded LRP grants in 2014 (new or renewal), 46% were PhDs. Since these awards are considered income, they also pay taxes for you directly on top of the amount paid to your lenders.

    I think people may be put off because they think their research doesn't "fit", but the definitions for the Programs are quite broad and are worth checking out.

    Anecdotally, I am a PhD "basic science" researcher, but as a postdoc started to get my hands on some patient samples via collaborations to see if my protein of interest was expressed in disease contexts. This counted as "Clinical Research". I was awarded an LRP and have already renewed it once, which has significantly reduced the financial burden of my undergraduate loans.

    Had I been required to pay these loans while on a postdoc salary, I'm certain I would have left for a better paying job once my kid was born and childcare costs were added into the mix.

  • Dave says:

    One of the great things about student loans in some other countries is that the monthly payment is calculated based on ones income, so during a post-doc the payment is very low and manageable. Add the fact that interest is inflationary only, and it's a much better deal overall.

    The US could really use some student loan reform I think.

  • Postdoc says:

    As a postdoctoral fellow (i.e. on a T32 stipend), I was able to defer some (but not all of my loans), as eligibility depends on your lender. . and also the willingness of your institution to sign the form.

    From my understanding, it is getting increasingly harder to receive a LRP. . from my own experiences and conversations with others.

    For example, on my first application, I wasn't trained enough and didn't have a 'strong' enough publication record even though I had four first author papers and many others in progress. On the second application, I had too 'much' training.

    Hopefully, third time is a charm.

  • David says:

    Call your lender. I know many people who said "I can't afford that payment, but I can give this amount." As long as there is an official agreement, you can have a loan in good standing.

    Also, for federal loans, there are options like deferment. When I finished grad school, but didn't have a job, I filled out a financial hardship form that deferred repayment for a set period of time (I think there was the possibility to renew it). Unfortunately interest accrued during this period, unlike when you defer because you are still in school. But at least it didn't ding my credit.

  • becca says:

    Carebear is on Income Based Repayment now and we're counting on Public Service Loan Forgiveness after 10 years post-PhD employment for a non-profit. I just don't see us paying off 300k otherwise.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Is that amount typical these days?

  • Ola says:

    If'n you haven't seen it, go read thus truly fucking depressing NYT piece on student loans...

    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/29/upshot/student-debt-in-america-lend-with-a-smile-collect-with-a-fist.html?_r=0

    Re: post-docs, I thought it was relatively simple, based on employment code. If you're paid off a PI's grant you're a postdoctoral employee, with some half decent benefits, and have to pay your loans. If you're a PD fellow, i.e., paid off a fellowship such as an NRSA, then you're a trainee so can defer (and you get crappy benefits to boot). At least that's how it was at my institution.

    Either way, compound interest is a bitch, so the sooner you start making minimum payments the better.

  • The institution has to be pretty helpful in order to get you an in-school deferral as a postdoc. Mine wasn't. This sucks, because from a close read of the criteria most postdocs should be eligible.

    NIH LRP is a great program. As with grant proposals, other people's successful LRP applications and LRP renewal applications can be extremely helpful. Ask around, people are generally very willing to share. Oh, and they don't appear in Reporter but LRP awards do appear in the NIHMS grant search tool at http://www.nihms.nih.gov/db/grants/suggest_grant.fcgi -- it's instructive to see the overlap between peoples LRP award titles and subsequent RPG titles. (This is also a nice way to see someone's entire NIH funding history at a glance)

    Other than LRP, the income contingent repayment and income based repayment plans are probably the best bets for federal student loans. The downside of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is that you have to maintain eligible employment for 10 years and also make payments for those 10 years.

  • former postdoc says:

    The advice here should read: Do not defer your loans unless you absolutely have no other choice. If you defer, you're just delaying the inevitable, and are probably compounding interest. I know this will be a controversial thing to say, but postdocs are not generally anywhere near the poverty line. If you can't afford a couple hundred bucks a month to pay your debts, then you should examine where your money is going. And if your loan bill is more than that, you made very bad life choices.

  • Dave says:

    I just don't see us paying off 300k otherwise.

    Fuck me!!! I feel for you.

    In comparison, my (non-US) loans were about $20K in total, for a 4-year degree (with placement year) and 3 year PhD, which actually I was paid quite well to do. Might as well just take $300K and invest it, or start a business. Probably a better investment, no?

  • Dave says:

    If you can't afford a couple hundred bucks a month to pay your debts, then you should examine where your money is going

    I think that is a bit harsh, especially for post-docs living in high cost areas where only vertically ascending research is done!!!

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    If you can't afford a couple hundred bucks a month to pay your debts, then you should examine where your money is going

    I completely agree. Income-based repayment is one of the biggest wealth killers there is. Also, how are people who are supposed to be smart enough to pursue a graduate degree not smart enough to know that *of course* you need to make sure your interest doesn't compound.

    $300K in loans that has to be paid back in income-based repayment is the definition of a bad investment.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    "Is that amount typical these days?"
    -As per the NYT piece Olga linked to (for those that can't be bothered to click out), no. The average is 30k; less than 2% owe 150k or more. Though, given this is an analysis of all 40+ million people currently holding student debt, it could be the leading edge of a trend going forward, if the amount of student debt has increased dramatically in the last decade or so.

    But yeah, DM, that is part of why postdocs are complaining (fairly or not) about the low pay. Average debt has gone up 35% (largely mirroring tuition cost increases) since 2005, and the postdoc salary remains flat.

    " I know this will be a controversial thing to say, but postdocs are not generally anywhere near the poverty line. If you can't afford a couple hundred bucks a month to pay your debts, then you should examine where your money is going. And if your loan bill is more than that, you made very bad life choices."
    -It really depends on the types of loans you took out. Mine are very low interest (2.2%), were interest free during my schooling, and so the monthly payments are manageable (bout 100 bucks a month, twice the minimum payment). However, I know people that ended up (because their parents aren't tax attorneys and didn't negotiate the loans for them properly in undergrad) with much higher interest rates. And God help you if you paid for a masters degree.

    Also, a pair of postdocs with a child are relatively close to the living wage minimum income in many high-cost areas where the majority of research is done (for an example MITs http://livingwage.mit.edu/).

    So no, it's not always easy to square a way a couple hundred bucks a month on a postdoc salary.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    "$300K in loans that has to be paid back in income-based repayment is the definition of a bad investment."
    -As far as I know, it's an option to pay it back that way. You can always choose to pay more.

  • dtm00 says:

    I had subsidized loans and the post-doc training deferral status resulted in the interest continuing to be paid by the government. So in my case it made perfect sense to defer and let someone else pay the interest.
    My institution did not want to sign the form. I found out that some other post-docs in different departments could get their office admin to sign, but my department admin wouldn't sign on behalf of the university. So I went to the post-doc office. The post-doc office wanted the university lawyer's opinion, and eventually after 2 months of debate agreed to sign it. At one point someone high up even had the balls to make the comment that "post-docs already get enough benefits." Was really dumb, because there is no cost to the university/institution.

  • drugmonkey says:

    My student loan debt when I entered grad school was about $10K in today's dollars.

    as of 2010, this is the top of what 58% of student loan debt holders had to pay back.
    http://fair.org/blog/2014/06/25/nyt-on-student-loan-crisis-what-crisis-is-that/

    My graduate program's stipend was about $16K in today's dollars, nice fellowships put you at about $24K in today's dollars. NRSA scale is $23k right now and elite neuroscience programs are pushing over $30K, way I hear it.

    So by my calculation that is $6-14K+ per year more than what graduate students in my day were earning (again, constant dollars) that grad students of today have to put towards that extra $20K in debt, if we use the (skewed) average of $30K referenced in Olga's link.

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    "Also, a pair of postdocs with a child are relatively close to the living wage minimum income in many high-cost areas where the majority of research is done.."

    No. As a single mother, making essentially the income of two postdocs, and with two children I do *not* make the minimum income. I make much more, which is put into context by the fact that I make more than double the family income I grew up on.But, I suspect the fact that I can find several hundred extra dollars a month is because I have the budget ninja skills needed to make that happen and I am willing to make particular sacrifices.

  • drugmonkey says:

    The idea that $100K is a living wage for a couple is..... interesting. $24/h. Municipalities are fighting over $15...as a phased target over the next several years.

  • Dave says:

    $300K in loans that has to be paid back in income-based repayment is the definition of a bad investment.

    Only because of the outrageous interest rates.

  • becca says:

    To be clear, 300k in loans was originally about 30k in undergrad (or about 50k, adjusted for inflation) and about 100k grad. 30k in undergrad is pretty typical now. That kind of interest is what happens when unsubsidized loans are deferred too long. Consider it a cautionary tale against assuming you'll be able to pay off your loans later.

    My savings during half a year of working (at $12/hour - a rate precisely enough to put minimum wage in my pocket after paying for private health insurance, and then NIH scale) and my first year in grad school was 32%. It's not that I can't budget, and the fixed expenses in my budget now make Dave Ramsey blush (it feels *good* to pay $93/ month for principle/interest/taxes/insurance housing! Especially with free college for Roo thrown in). But Carebear and I are very different people.
    And obviously IBR without loan forgiveness is a slippery road. But if you don't have an allergy to debt that makes you go into self righteous anaphylaxic shock, and you *want* to work for non-profits for 10 years, you could do worse.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    I've actually run the numbers for one of the most expensive and research intensive parts of the country for a postdoc survival guide I'm putting together.
    As we've noted before, the issue of postdoc/grad stipend sufficiency is largely region specific (and era specific, DM, urban living costs have rapidly outpaced inflation, so those calculators are a bit flawed).

    Per the MIT living wage calculator for Suffolk County, MA (Boston, Cambridge, Quincy, etc). Two parents, 1 child required income before tax: $62,651. NRSA base is 42.5 (before tax), and that's what the Unis pay.
    Let's start with this as a reasonable estimate, but then build in costs more specific to the area/job:

    So factor health care contributions and other deductions about 100/mo/person is 2400/year (mine is 96/mo)
    4000/year copay/family on health insurance (e.g. Harvard's MIT or BU), which you'll probably use if you have a child, but lets say 1/2, so 2000.
    Also, rental markets are skyrocketing so fast that their numbers are out of date. A 2 bedroom in the Boston/Cambridge area is ~2500/mo, about 800/mo greater than their estimate (per Zwillow Boston rental median price). So lets tack on a whopping 9600 to their estimate, with a grain of salt acknowledging this is probably a worse (not worst) case scenario. But if you're postdocs with spawn, you'll need home to be close to lab, so it'll probably be at least the average rental price.

    Add that up and you're at 13.4k, putting you at 76k in basic food, shelter and healthcare. So lets say you *both* have DM's adjusted debt to pay off (30k), since you deferred it through grad school, (for simplicity we'll assume the loans were subsidized so interest did not accrue in grad school). The average interest rates of the Stafford and PLUS loan programs are 5.6% (though they keep going up, so it's hard to pin them down for any given cohort). That translates to roughly 250$/mo/person on a 15 year repayment period, which translates to about 25% total payment over the principle in interest (about as high as I could stomach at least).

    So tack on 500 dollars a month for student loan repayment for you and your spouse, and you are at 86k/year.

    Just over the 85k a year that two first year postdocs are making with no money for travel, dining out, saving for retirement, etc.

    Which is why I now advise all my grad school friends to stay the hell away from Boston and San Fran and or negotiate with their future bosses using actual number to prove their point.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    Sorry, math mistake. It actually totals 82k/year, so just under the stipend.

  • Dave says:

    ^daycare?

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    You "ran the numbers" and then added housing costs on top of a number that presumably already included housing costs. Additionally, health care. Did you think folks at the minimum living costs don't fund housing and healthcare?

  • jmz4gtu says:

    That MIT calculator has that included, I think.

  • drugmonkey says:

    From http://livingwage.mit.edu/pages/about

    The living wage model is an alternative measure of basic needs. It is a market-based approach that draws upon geographically specific expenditure data related to a family’s likely minimum food, child care, health insurance, housing, transportation, and other basic necessities (e.g. clothing, personal care items, etc.) costs.

    also

    Food.ii The food component of the basic needs budget was compiled using the USDA’s low-cost food plan.iii The low-cost plan assumes that families select lower cost foods and that all meals (including snacks) are prepared in the home.

    Child Care.iv The child care component is constructed from a 2013 report published by the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (NACCRRA). This report provides state-level child care cost estimates for 2012.v We assume that low-income families will select the lowest cost child care option available; therefore we used the lowest cost option (family child care or child care center). Values were inflated to 2014 dollars using the Consumer Price Index inflation multiplier from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.vi

    Health. Typical health-related expenses are difficult to estimate due to the multitude of variables that potentially impact health care expenditures, such as the relative health of household members and the range of coverage and affiliated costs under alternative medical plans. The health component of the basic needs budget includes: (1) health insurance costs for employer sponsored plans, (3) medical services, (3) drugs, and (4) medical supplies.vii Values were inflated to 2014 dollars using the Consumer Price Index inflation multiplier from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.viii

    Housing.ix The housing component captures the likely cost of rental housing in a given area in 2014 using HUD Fair Market Rents (FMR) estimates. The FMR estimates are produced at the sub-county and county levels.x County FMRs were obtained by aggregating sub-county estimates (where sub-county estimates existed) using a population-weighted average. State and metropolitan area FMRs were also obtained by aggregating county FMRs using a population weighted average.

    Transportation.xi The transportation component is constructed using 2012 data by household size from the 2013 Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey including: (1) Cars and trucks (used), (2) gasoline and motor oil, (3) other vehicle expenses, and (4) public transportation. Values were inflated to 2014 dollars using the Consumer Price Index inflation multiplier from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.xii

    Other Necessities.xiii The basic needs budget includes cost estimates for items not otherwise included in the major budget components such as clothing, personal care items, and housekeeping supplies. Expenditures for other necessities are based on 2012 data by household size from the 2013 Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey including: (1) Apparel and services, (2) Housekeeping supplies, (3) Personal care products and services, (4) Reading, and (5) Miscellaneous. These costs were further adjusted for regional differences using annual expenditure shares reported by region.xiv Values were inflated to 2014 dollars using the Consumer Price Index inflation multiplier from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.xv

    Taxes.xvi Estimates for payroll taxes, state income tax, and federal income tax are included in the calculation of a living wage. Property taxes and sales taxes are already represented in the budget estimates through the cost of rent and other necessities. A flat payroll tax and state income tax rate is applied to the basic needs budget. Payroll tax is a nationally representative rate as specified in the Federal Insurance Contributions Act.xvii

  • drugmonkey says:

    with no money for travel, dining out, saving for retirement, etc.

    I want y'all disgruntled trainee types to look long and hard within yourselves for this statement right here. And think about it. Hard.

  • Dave says:

    Yes, think realllllllly hard. Do you realllllly want to retire?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Try harder Dave.

  • drugmonkey says:

    o fuck it. From Wikipedia: A living wage is defined as the wage that can meet the basic needs to maintain a safe, decent standard of living within the community
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Living_wage

    also

    These needs include shelter (housing) and other incidentals such as clothing and nutrition. In some nations such as the United Kingdom and Switzerland, this standard generally means that a person working forty hours a week, with no additional income, should be able to afford the basics for quality of life, food, utilities, transport, health care, minimal recreation, one course a year to upgrade their education, and childcare. However, in many cases education, saving for retirement, and less commonly legal fees and insurance, or taking care of a sick or elderly family member are not included. It also does not allow for debt repayment of any kind.

    This is not the "Upper Middle Class Expectancy Wage" that most postdocs on the internet seem to feel is the same as a "living wage".

  • Dave says:

    Child care values are extremely ambitious in that calculator, at least in my area. I would say approximately 50% lower than the reality. That is, of course, if you want your kid back at the end of each day.

  • Dave says:

    I consider a reasonable plan for retirement in the US as a minimum, personally, especially when one reaches their 30s. In many other countries, there is a little more of a safety net in older age. Not here.

  • DJMH says:

    I think that if postdocs generally received retirement contributions from their institutions, they would be far less disgruntled--and rightfully so. People in their 30s need to think about retirement, and the fact that most universities don't give them the same level of benefits that they give the secretaries down the hall *burns*.

    Agreed that it is poor form to claim that a postdoc is up against "living wage" issues, though. Better to phrase it that the best and brightest aren't going to stay in science for prolonged piss-poor treatment, including awful retirement / parental leave benefits, at the hands of administrators. (Kind of like how R-Congress pretended health insurance wasn't important to people, while they lived on the congressional health care plan.)

  • El Picador says:

    Am I the only person that has to make economic trade offs during their lifetimes? Who in hell expects to have it all?

  • El Picador says:

    You want kids? Something else has to give. Live in hipster urban locale? That may cut into retirement investing. Like to travel and eat out? That comes out of some other "need". I mean FFS academics (including DM), check your self.

  • Gary McDowell says:

    Looking at salaries and personal accounts in isolation isn't helpful, IMO. Yes living on a postdoc wage can be done of course, loads of people do it, I certainly have no trouble but I'm low-maintenance and I know plenty of others who are also fine.

    But I also know of postdocs who are not surviving on their wage. Two-thirds of postdocs are international. Often when you come here on a J-1 visa, your spouse is on a J-2, and can't work. You might have kids. There are postdocs supporting families on only their salary around. Quite a lot of them in my limited subjective experience.

    Suppose also there's an illness. Your healthcare coverage as a postdoc is probably terrible, and that's one of the cuts you might be making, is to take the cheap HMO option. A point was made above that there's no safety-net in the US, and that certainly adds into it. If anything should go wrong, you're in a lot of trouble.

    Besides all this, and who can and can't make it, this comes on top of everything else everyone is talking about in science right now, and there is a clear selective pressure based on finance in the academic system. Perhaps that's good, and all the people with unreasonable expectations leave. But who can persist? Those who are willing to sacrifice and get by on little, for the pursuit of science; and those who can afford it/have the privilege to carry them through without having to worry about trifling things like money or retirement.

    Whether one can/can't struggle through is immaterial to me, I think it's much more interesting to consider whether people leaving/not entering science because they think they can't afford to is a good selection bias for science to have.

  • neuromusic says:

    MIT: "We assume that low-income families will select the lowest cost child care option available"
    Dave: "I would say approximately 50% lower than the reality. That is, of course, if you want your kid back at the end of each day."

  • neuromusic says:

    Nothing.

    Nothing.

    Nothing.

  • neuromusic says:

    searches MIT living wage site for "retirement"

    Nothing.

    searches MIT living wage site for "savings"

    Nothing.

    searches MIT living wage site for "debt"

    Nothing.

    ponders what "living wage" means

  • jipkin says:

    There's nothing wrong with wanting an upper middle life is there?

    I accept that we trainees aren't entitled to that, but I don't accept that we can't want it or be upset about feeling like we aren't making progress towards it.

  • Kearney Gunsalus says:

    MIT: "We assume that low-income families will select the lowest cost child care option available"
    I don't know any postdocs who have been able to get their kids into "the lowest cost child care" -- it may exist, but the demand is so high, there aren't nearly enough spots.

    And why shouldn't PhD-trained adults in their 30s expect to make enough money to pay for decent childcare that's mass transit (or otherwise) accessible somewhere in the vicinity of their homes/work, student loan payments, and some retirement savings? That doesn't strike me as a ridiculously upper middle class expectation.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    "You "ran the numbers" and then added housing costs on top of a number that presumably already included housing costs."
    -Yes, because I'm familiar with the area and the current rental market. The calculator includes all of Suffolk county. Since very few people working in Boston live in Quincy or the North shore, I chose to present a more realistic assessment of housing costs. I said they allotted 1700 for housing costs, a number that is laughably low for Boston/Cambridge environs where rent prices are rising 5-10% per year. So I chose the Zwillow rate for 2015 for Boston, adding a not unreasonable 800/mo.
    Again, my point was not to whine about how postdocs need more money. In fact, I proved your point that even in one of the most expensive places in the country, you can still make a manageable student debt payment and be above the "living wage".

    But I did want to give an example of how high the region specific costs for those holier-than-thou types from cheaper locales, as well as warn any students considering labs in Boston.

    DM, you're right, it looks like they already include employee contributions to health care plans. So knock that 2k off my numbers. So you've got about 7k split between the two of you.

    @Isis and DM:
    "This is not the "Upper Middle Class Expectancy Wage" that most postdocs on the internet seem to feel is the same as a "living wage"."
    -No, and I disagree that "postdocs on the internet" expect even a middle class lifestyle in an expensive city(42.5k is middle class in much of the country). My general expectation of a "living wage" is that you can live on it without going into debt. I'm agnostic on whether postdocs deserve better than a "living wage", but I do think that, if that's all you're offering them, the quality of postdocs will suffer.

    Again, as I noted, this is largely a region specific problem, but given that 25% of all NIH funding goes to Boston, SF/Berkely/Stanford, and NYC, this is not a minor issue.

    "You want kids? Something else has to give."
    -Or you don't go into science. Which is the concern here. American educated students have stopped doing postdocs, to the point where the total postdoc population is greater than 50% foreigners.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    ^ugh, sorry, Mattapan, not Quincy, which is outside Suffolk.

  • El Picador says:

    You can't commute? Some people, you know, have to do that. To get cheaper housing.

  • Umvue says:

    I've never been a postdoc, though I do have a Ph.D. I left the academic track after grad school for a variety of reasons, some of them "it's not you, it's me," but others very much "it's not me, it's you." The fact that my best option for staying in academia was to uproot my family for a short-term, low-pay gig was among the latter set of reasons. Which is what moves me to delurk on this post.

    I mean, sure, postdocs aren't *entitled* to an upper middle class standard of living. But it isn't insane to prefer one! It definitely isn't insane to think, gee, I'm thirty, maybe I should start having a plan for retirement! And people who finish Ph.D.s are generally smart, skilled, persistent people who have options. (If you're a junior scientist reading this thread and you're certain you don't have options, I recommend you Google "versatile phd.")

    Employers who create shitty working conditions wind up selectively weeding out the employees and candidates who have options. In this situation, because not having retirement savings actually is a pretty stupid move, the subpopulation who know how to plan their way out of a paper bag will also be selectively weeded out. That's ... maybe not in our collective interest as a society? But sure, go ahead and mock the people you're trying to hire for asking for more money and better benefits. That's definitely more fun than thinking about whether you'd get smarter postdocs if you treated them better.

  • La Milagra says:

    It is cruel and unusual to expect a postdoc to commute 10 miles to work.

  • jipkin says:

    This debate should steer clear from the "is it a living wage" or not. It's perfectly acceptable for a postdoc to feel like they want to do the job (they like the science) but they don't like the job prospects or pay. Even billionaires have the right to complain.

  • mrl35 says:

    "Often when you come here on a J-1 visa, your spouse is on a J-2, and can't work."

    Wrong. J-2 visa holders can file for employment authorization by filling in form I-765, paying an application fee and writing an accompanying letter explaining how the money from their employment will not be required to support the family but rather that they want to work for the purposes of professional / personal development.

  • Jesse says:

    @El Picador - not an academic but I am from the Boston area. Commuting is dicey there. Unlike NYC where the subway is 24/7 and reaches quite far (the A train is 30 miles long(!)) the system in Boston doesn't support that without a car, not if you live on the North Shore (my hometowns) or even in large chunks of "Metrowest" as they call it now.

    If you live on the North Shore, for instance, and don't have a car, you're spending ~1hr or so to get into Cambridge, and that's if you happen to live on the Blue Line in Revere (which has cheaper housing). And if you're at work on a late night project at midnight, you're walking home. In Boston -- and many other cities -- the whole transit system effectively shuts down at 12 or so.

    Owning a car tacks on $1,000+ per year in insurance in Boston, at least, plus the maintenance and the gas. So it ain't a trivial expense. Double it for 2 cars. And living further out compounds the problem, especially if you have to get to and from childcare facilities.

    On the North Shore there are two ways into Boston: the Commuter Rail and the bus. I've used both and I can tell you, it's not easy if you work at MIT or BU or Harvard. My mother was a resident at Tufts NEMC, and it used to be an hour for her to get to and from, driving -- and Lynn isn't that far. (Pre Big Dig). The rail takes 20 minutes to get into downtown (good!) but the service is... sporadic. The bus is ok, but that is slow. Now imagine the whole thing in winter. The issue is the cheapest places in the environs of Boston have basically few good routes into the city. At least in NYC you can live in Queens and get to Columbia in a reasonable amount of time, or commute from Jersey City and not be in too bad shape.

    I bring all this up because the physical / rental / transit geography of one of the most university-heavy cities in the country works against people seeking housing in its cheaper environs. I loved Lynn in many ways; but commuting form there to the city was always a slog and if I worked at MIT I'd blow a huge chunk to live in Cambridge, Somerville or Newton, or even Everett, just because it would make my life less stressful by an order of magnitude.

    By the way as a non-academic I look at a lot of this as a labor issue. And from that perspective I see what happens to post-docs (at least as you all describe it) as a labor market failure, stemming from weird funding practices to an unwillingness to see oneself as a worker in the way that my factory-employed dad did. Or perhaps more accurately, an unwillingness of academic institutions to look at things that way. That seems to be creating a lot of problems right off the bat. But maybe I am just wrong.

  • Gary McDowell says:

    @mrl35 Thanks for the correction:

    ""Often when you come here on a J-1 visa, your spouse is on a J-2, and can't work."

    Wrong. J-2 visa holders can file for employment authorization by filling in form I-765, paying an application fee and writing an accompanying letter explaining how the money from their employment will not be required to support the family but rather that they want to work for the purposes of professional / personal development."

    It does still take 3-4 months to get authorization and you can only apply once you've arrived. But they can eventually work.

  • mrl35 says:

    @Gary McDowell: true, and the wait is frustrating!

  • drugmonkey says:

    This debate should steer clear from the "is it a living wage" or not.

    I agree with you entirely. I think this is a loser argument for postdocs because it is so easily pummeled for the entitled snobbery that it is.

    I also want to hear some better arguments about how academics and scientists are totes worth more money....for obvious reasons.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    "You can't commute? Some people, you know, have to do that. To get cheaper housing."
    -Good luck getting a parking spot. If you're talking the train, then you tack on about 100 bucks a month for a pass, and you have limited hours. Also, tacking on 1.5-2 hours for a commute that could be used spending time in lab or with your kid.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I'm sure none of the janitors or animal care staff have children.....

  • Krzysztof Sakrejda says:

    "Wrong. J-2 visa holders can file for employment authorization by filling in form I-765, paying an application fee and writing an accompanying letter explaining how the money from their employment will not be required to support the family but rather that they want to work for the purposes of professional / personal development."

    Ah yes, having your spouse lie on immigration paperwork, clearly the solution to the underpaid foreign scientist problem! I wonder if the HR department recommends that solution as well (since that's probably illegal). You know what else economic migrants worry about besides paying for food? Getting kicked out of the country for lying on paperwork.

  • El Picador says:

    So nobody else in Boaston makes less than $50K and has to commute or pay daycare?

  • Krzysztof Sakrejda says:

    "So nobody else in Boaston makes less than $50K and has to commute or pay daycare?"

    So that sounds like you're denying the difficulties of pulling off such an existence successfully?

  • mrl35 says:

    "Ah yes, having your spouse lie on immigration paperwork, clearly the solution to the underpaid foreign scientist problem!"

    Who said anything about lying on immigration paperwork?

  • qaz says:

    The problem with the "living wage" argument is that it inevitably leads to tearing the arguer down rather than trying to find ways to bring everyone up. We need daycare for all families, the postdoc's response should be "let's make sure the janitorial staff and the animal care staff have good wages, health care, and retirement benefits too", not to say "stop complaining, group X has it worse than you". This race to the bottom is going to lead to places none of us want to be.

  • Krzysztof Sakrjeda says:

    @mrl35: we are explicitly talking about how the spousal wages are critical to having a financially viable household.

  • Krzysztof Sakrjeda says:

    @qaz: I don't see how that's a problem with the argument. It just brings out aggression from the PI's who feel entitled to cheap labor. Same thing happens if you talk about raising the minimum wage or paying animal care staff living wages (yes, with enough money to live moderately near their work).

  • give better advice says:

    "So nobody else in Boaston makes less than $50K and has to commute or pay daycare?"

    Idea: let's find the Bostonian who makes the least amount of money while still commuting and paying daycare and we'll all live like him/her!

    Now that I'm thinking of it, there are a ton of people who sleep on the streets in Boston. No commute whatsoever! No childcare obviously, but what kind of bougie lifestyle do you expect? (You haven't heard of the 'feral' system of child-rearing? Let 'em graze!) Student loans? You know you can file for bankruptcy, right? Food? Easy: ramen for miles. Soup kitchen on Wednesdays for a change of pace. Retirement? LOL! Clothes? Got a barrel for you.

    This sense of entitlement needs to end. There are literally thousands of biomedical researchers from other countries, who are dying to read uncensored Google results, who would take your place in a second.

    What makes America great is our constant struggle for a worse tomorrow, a life our parents would be unsatisfied with. We can live that dream! Join me in this race to the bottom! Trump 2016!!

  • give better advice says:

    Just wanted to clarify one point regarding my earlier comment about ramen: you don't need to cook it. You can just eat it like a cracker. A little bit dehydrating but the body adjusts. Sprinkle the flavor on beforehand if you want to get fancy. Alternatively, I've learned from watching Orange Is the New Black that the flavor packets have an extremely high resale value on the street if you can go without.

  • jipkin says:

    I find it interesting that the PI class doesn't (seem to) whine as loudly about their pay, despite that pay not being that amazing afaik. And the job is more stressful? And you tend to have more family obligations? (I know I know, millenials are whiners and gen X is just so tough hyuk hyuk hyuk).

    But seriously, does something change? Does the pay get to be just good enough that you don't feel like you're not getting anywhere? Do the rewards of the job start to outweigh any life or compensation issues? All the anxiety gets funneled in to tenure and grants and away from considering career changes?

    Or is it just a sample size thing: fewer online PIs means fewer complaining about wages/lifestyle/etc?

  • gmp says:

    @jipkin: I find it interesting that the PI class doesn't (seem to) whine as loudly about their pay, despite that pay not being that amazing afaik.
    I am a prof in a physical science field where the industry options are very, very lucrative. And I am at a public R1, so even colleagues at private schools make more than I do, let alone industry. Yet, I thank my lucky stars that I don't have to work in industry because 1) the freedom to do what I want ("want"=what I can get federal funding for) and work with other smart people, many of whom are young and full of energy, 2) the flexibility with time (thus ability to organize work around care for kids),and 3) the job security of tenure far outweigh the much, MUCH heftier salaries in industry. Also, 4) I have been getting merit raises and other expressions of institutional love pretty regularly, which is perhaps as important as the actual salary level at any point in time. Many of my students go to industry after the PhD and are happy making the big bucks and being told what to do; in fact, some crave it and confess they would hate having to always come up with new ideas. In contrast, being told what to do would be the definition of hell for me, and I bet many PIs are the same. I know for a fact that plenty of parents at my kid's daycare with less education but with corporate America out-earn me; still I make a good salary overall, even if it's not actually great, and the job has other amazing perks (for the right kind of personality type).

  • drugmonkey says:

    jipkin- of course faculty complain about their under compensation. With many of the same arguments, as it happens. Just not as often, or with the same population frequency. Because gmp is spot on- lives are pretty decent. Could be better but sacrifices are balanced by other clear benefits.

    We shall have to see if this continues as more millennials become faculty of course.

  • drugmonkey says:

    KS- I don't feel entitled to cheap labor, am constantly on about labor exploitation in this business and still identify entitled whining for what it is. If you think about it long enough you will understand that these issues are related.

  • poke says:

    For the record. Animal care staff at my institute have a retirement plan. Postdocs do not.

  • becca says:

    Single parent postdocs making NIH scale are talking about living wage issues in most metro areas. The MIT living wage calculator suggests that type of family would need more than 0 year postdocs even in e.g. Ann Arbor (which I pick because it both actually gets a good chunk of NIH grant share and cuts through some of the "spoilt children who think NYC is the only place on earth" /"well of course it's pricy to live in San Diecgo, it's paradise! Taxpayers don't need to subsidize your surfing" arguments). You can't pull it off in Champbana, Madison, or even Lansing.

    Heck, you can't even technically make it in Kalamazoo. I think that's a pretty powerful argument against being a single parent in our society, but it really brings home how easy it is to talk past each other with base assumptions.

  • Umvue says:

    Re: why professors don't complain as much: this springs immediately to mind.
    http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2019628,00.html

  • DJMH says:

    I have to note with interest on the one hand, the complaints about not enough minority or impoverished-background faculty; and on the other, the assertion that people who can't pay back their college loans shouldn't be postdocs.

  • jmz4 says:

    "I'm sure none of the janitors or animal care staff have children....."
    -The janitors get parking, and so do a lot of the animal care staff (if they've been around long enough) and they get benefits (retirement contributions, help with mortgage financing and broker fees) that postdocs don't. Also, they don't have to work 14 hour days on occasion, and a predictable schedule makes commuting much easier.

    I think it's interesting PIs are so willing to pile on this "entitled postdoc" canard, even when that was not the point being made. For the record, my point, in bringing up the living wage calculator, was not to complain, but simply that it is f-ing annoying when people from cheaper regions/eras sanctimoniously talk about what someone should or shouldn't be able to afford in terms of loans and repayment.

    And we've hashed out the various arguments for and against raising postdocs salaries, so no need revisit that gridlock. But I do have a question.

    Why is there this knee-jerk response by PIs to shake their fists and tell us to get off their lawn? You can do what qaz did and just say, "yeah, it sucks, it sucks for everyone and there's no money and we should try to get more money." You could offer banal platitudes.

    But I don't understand the anger, smugness and sadistic self-righteousness that often meets postdoc complaints. Is it latent anger at their own postdoc experience? Genuine fear of having to pay more off of grants that keep getting smaller and smaller? Irritation that postdocs won't come to your lab cause it's in a cornfield? Just general crotchety-ness about millenials? Jealousy, because we're so smart and really, really ridiculously good-looking?

    Are there actually BMW driving, iPhone flashing postdocs instagramming their dinner? Sure, they probably have trust-funds. I know a lot of them, and they're becoming more common among the diminishing numbers of American PDs. And this attitude you have, where if a person isn't willing to live like a monk they shouldn't be a postdoc is just going to push us further to a place where only the crazies and the landed gentry are willing to pursue a career in academia and that lack of diversity would be *bad for science*.
    Not for me, not for Gary, but for the actual institution of academic research.

    This is a serious question, because we need workforce pipeline reform, and the PIs will be in charge of that, and so we need a way to get past this type of reaction so they will listen to our complaints, at least some of which are legitimate.

  • mrl35 says:

    "we are explicitly talking about how the spousal wages are critical to having a financially viable household."

    I wasn't - I was merely correcting an error of fact in an earlier post regarding J-2 work authorization.

    But since you asked, in the context of foreign postdocs on J-1 there is a minimum level of support that the hiring institution must demonstrate is in place for the full duration of your stay. I don't know how these values are calculated and a bit of Googling dug up different values quoted by Syracuse (http://international.syr.edu/su-departments/j1-exchange-visitors/j1-categories.html), U of Chicago (https://internationalaffairs.uchicago.edu/page/cost-living-j-1-scholars-university-chicago), and UCSF (https://isso.ucsf.edu/scholars/current-scholars/j-1-scholars/j-1-scholar-financial-support). This suggests at least a token effort to account for COL disparities between different areas. What is relevant to your discussion is that there is a bump to these numbers for each dependent accompanying the J-1 (spouse/children).

    There is of course a separate discussion about whether these numbers should be higher. Personally I think they should, but I guess they are legal bare minimums, and as a postdoc in a relatively low COL area in a "flyover" state I made considerably more than even the numbers quoted by UCSF in the link above.

  • Krzysztof Sakrejda says:

    "KS- I don't feel entitled to cheap labor, am constantly on about labor exploitation in this business and still identify entitled whining for what it is. If you think about it long enough you will understand that these issues are related."

    DM- I appreciate your overall approach to economic and diversity issues in academia is very positive. In this discussion what drove me to be more aggressive about responding to the smug and naive comments above was the idea that "living wage" is not an appropriate argument to bring up with regards to post-doc wages.

    Sure as a single adult with no special obligations you can manage to pay some absurd loans on a post-doc salary. The people who get burned are the ones with special obligations: people whose parents might need money to make the bills, people who get sick with crappy health insurance, people who got bad undergrad loan advice, people who get bad professional advice, people who need to do intercontinental travel to see family, people who can't just get a loan from their mom for a working car (or the move-in money for a convenient Boston apartment, whatever). All those things are correlated with immigration status, ESL status, poverty, first generation college student status, race, and generally having some life experience outside of private school.

    People with those sorts of special obligations often can't make it as post-docs on a post-doc salary, there are plenty of them, and they're the ones leaking out of the science pipeline. I'm afraid thinking about it for longer is not going to get me to see entitled whiners as a major issue. I refuse to have this conversation as though the entitled single childless implicitly male post-doc should be our reference point.

  • Krzysztof Sakrejda says:

    p.s.-don't defer paying for loans unless somebody else is paying interest, not good.

  • drugmonkey says:

    It's because "we are special flowers who *deserve* special treatment" is a crap argument.

  • becca says:

    The "actually, we're all the 99% and the fact that it is *this* hard to have nice things (college educations, meaningful careers, quality childcare, healthcare, funded grants) is not about overentitled special snowflakes so much as comparative sociologists who can see how other nations do things" argument is the one we're making DM. You should know this by now.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Nobody ever makes that one though becca. They talk about how postdocs deserve things with no mention whatsoever of the rest of the 99%. You should know this by now.

  • Ian says:

    I don't have any ready solutions, but if you think postdocs are entitled snowflakes now, just wait until being a postdoc is mostly attainable (or desirable!) only by trustfunders.

  • qaz says:

    Um... DM ... I thought that's what I was saying.

  • Umvue says:

    I can't speak for others, but I'm making the argument that by and large, postdocs actually are special snowflakes who can in fact have nice things like decent healthcare elsewhere, and probably should do that. It took leaving academia for me to understand that the degree of contempt that is commonly levied at junior scholars is actually not normal workplace behavior. Get out! Be happy! Or at least be insured!

  • Dave says:

    Nobody ever makes that one though becca

    Pretty sure that argument has been used in this thread.

    I think the post-doc pay/benefits issue has a lot to do with the old fashioned view that a post-doc is still a very temporary training role. Clearly these days it's a lot more than that to a lot more people, and I think newer post-docs see that and want to be compensated accordingly. It's a full time job, so why can't we have full-time job-like benefits? The older PI class still believe, hilariously, that it's a temporary position where a big pot of PI gold awaits their 'trainees' after a few years of sucking it up. I think these opposing views clouds the argument on both sides.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    " The older PI class still believe, hilariously, that it's a temporary position where a big pot of PI gold awaits their 'trainees' after a few years of sucking it up."
    -Probably not readers of this blog. But yeah, I can anecdole that my boss thought that most PDs landed PI jobs "if they wanted it". When I told him the number was down below 10% he said, "cause industry is expanding so much..."

  • jipkin says:

    It's never clear exactly to whom DM is referring when he gets going on his anti-entitlement spiels. It's a critique of attitude which may be technically correct but doesn't really get at anything more substantive.

  • Vma says:

    Can't help but troll here:

    Suppose every postdoc chooses their PI based solely on salary and PIs therefore bid on the top postdocs using their grant money (which we will assume is unrestricted).

    How much will the top postdocs earn? What fraction of postdocs will be unable to find a job?

  • Alfred Wallace says:

    "Suppose every postdoc chooses their PI based solely on salary and PIs therefore bid on the top postdocs using their grant money (which we will assume is unrestricted).

    How much will the top postdocs earn? What fraction of postdocs will be unable to find a job?"

    actually a very interesting thought experiment, although one should not assume unrestricted grant money (because then one could theoretically pay millions to the best postdoc in the world). We also don't need to assume that postdocs choose solely on salary, but only that salary would have an important impact on the choice.

  • drugmonkey says:

    It's never clear exactly to whom DM is referring when he gets going on his anti-entitlement spiels.

    then you are not paying attention. I am usually to be found referencing my triggers. sometimes the twitts, sometimes blog comments.

    What you more likely mean is that you disagree with me that the triggering comments reflect entitlement which is a different matter entirely.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    @VMA
    You're going to run into the tough and arbitrary process of credentialing in science.
    My guess is that demonstrated knowledge of a new flashy/useful technique would net the incipient postdoc about 5-10 grand over the going rate. Having a CNS paper=maybe half that?
    Sometimes practicality actually does trump glamour, and this is probably more true at the PD hiring stage than the faculty hiring level (though I've been told it is a strong consideration there as well).

  • jipkin says:

    Nah DM I meant what I said and nothing implied beyond that. I don't have any good evidence in hand to back up my claim about you not citing your triggers so maybe that's just my mistaken impression.

  • Vma says:

    I would pay probably 90k for certain postdocs (avg postdoc in my group makes 50k, grad students ~26k).

    It's tricky cuz you never know when they're gonna leave. But a really strong postdoc in just the right area is super hard to attract for a new PI

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