Postdoc salaries and reinforcer value

One issue I've heard raised is that some PIs like to use salary differentials to reward the "good postdocs" with bonus pay.

Given the behaviorist education that lurks in my background, I am theoretically* in support of this notion.

The new salary rules may minimize such flexibility in the future.

Are you aware of labs in which merit of postdocs as interpreted by the PI leads to salary differentials?

Is this a legitimate complaint about the overtime rules?

Will PIs use the permission to work overtime (and be paid for it) as a workaround for merit pay?
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*Given my distaste for workplace bias and desire to be a fair manager, I have never used merit to decide postdoc pay. I stick to NRSA schedules and to institutional adjustments as appropriate.

40 responses so far

  • MorganPhD says:

    Firsthand knowledge from my postdoc lab. PI absolutely changed salaries based on merit or circumstance. Merit could mean the PD got a grant and thus the PI went from $45K/yr on the books to $0/yr. It could also mean "I have another job offer and you know I'm the only person driving the project which would die without me". PI gave some extra cash or benefits, but only if asked directly.

    For example, I received a PD fellowship, negotiated my PI to pay $5K more AND pick up my wife's health insurance, which no one else had in the lab at the time. The uni still dictated a max salary range, so I couldn't ask for even more.

    Why shouldn't a critical (or free) postdoc be able to ask for more $$$? (I think this is a rhetorical question; the answer should be "there is no reason forbid negotiation based on real or perceived worth")

  • MorganPhD says:

    I don't see a logical reason to restrict postdoc "merit" pay while allowing PI's to have radically different salaries amongst each other. Or for that case, lab techs being hired at different salaries, but postdocs get the same.

  • Marina Picciotto says:

    We don't, and can't, do this at my institution. Postdoc salaries are set to NRSA scale and are centrally determined.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I think I'd be okay with a universal policy of bonusing for getting a fellowship....I think.

  • baltogirl says:

    I think the NRSA schedules were fair and until recently I always raised people on their anniversary to the appropriate salaries for their level. I never gave people bonuses. If they didn't perform up to expectations, their contracts were simply not renewed after the first year, with a three-month lead time to look elsewhere.

    I think a postdoc *should* get at least a little bonus if they bring in their own salary, but there didn't seem to be any mechanism to accomplish this with a past postdoc who obtained a prestigious award from another country, so he didn't get anything more than the external award (which as I recall was actually less than NRSA level). I wonder how this will be handled in the future.

    I can't imagine using overtime pay as "merit pay". What PI wants to keep track of overtime hours?

  • DJMH says:

    I think a fellowship-related bonus is very different from paying postdocs differentially based on Cell papers or what have you. In one case the PD is directly saving the PI a huge amount of grant money.

    I don't see a problem with differential pay from the standpoint of the market; however, given that labs are usually little fiefdoms with favorites and problematic power structures already, it seems more likely to lead to resentment among peers, so as a PI I wouldn't pursue it. The Cell paper is its own reward.

  • SidVic says:

    In my experience 1 out of 5 employees generates 80% of the output. If you get your hands on one of these you do everything to keep them happy. For instance, if someone get a fellowship i would very generous is supplementing their salary on top of the award.

  • dnadrinker says:

    @morganphd you negotiated for the PI to pick up your wife's health insurance? Isn't that mandatory? I had a postdoc who put his wife and two kids health insurance onto my grant. No one asked me to sign off on it. It just appeared as an extra charge each month.

    That raises another point. I thought way back there was a central benefits pool at universities. They charged everyone a flat rate for benefits, like 40% of the salary, then the actual benefits were charged from the pool. I'm not sure if it was just my university or a policy change, but now I pay directly for benefits. So, it costs more to hire a married postdoc with health insurance than a single postdoc with health insurance.

    Of course, when I submit the budget it just says 1 postdoc @ $45,000+ 22% benefits.

  • drugmonkey says:

    For consideration:

    I think I have mentioned this before but during my training I was informed about a just-prior-generation of scientists in which men got higher PD salaries "because they are supporting a family". This was in a context of resentful women peer postdocs. It had a lasting effect on my views on PIs deciding who merits what sort of salary level.

  • MorganPhD says:

    @dnadrinker,
    at my uni, only the PD health insurance was covered by the PI. Spouse/dependents could get on, but the PD had to pay out of pocket for it. Your mileage may vary.

    Very few PD's have the means or opportunity to quit if they want but don't get a raise. It often comes down the PI's desire to make the PD "happy" or show gratitude. Or frankly, to call the PD's bluff.

    I want to keep my good employees and if that requires me to pay more, I will (although, as discussed above, some uni's don't allow any change in pay for PDs.)

  • MorganPhD says:

    Drugmonkey,
    Yeah, that's some misguided macho crap that's hopefully not happening any more (of course it still does, but I'm an optimist).

    With that said, perceived value is very important in the market, especially for PI's. The high-end market for PI's is absolutely crazy at the moment. Just look at the insane proliferation of endowed chairs.

  • Grumble says:

    I give post-docs who get NRSA or other awards a couple of thousand dollars more per year. Everyone else gets the NIH minimum for their year (although the school policy is that unless the post-doc actually has a NRSA, I need only pay them the first year minimum). I think this is fair and AFAIK it doesn't engender resentment among those who are unable to get fellowships. Well, that's not quite true - the grad students are a bit resentful because I'm not allowed to give them a bonus if they get a fellowship.

    I most certainly do NOT decide pay based on productivity. If I had staff scientists who were with me for more than a few years, I would factor merit into their pay. But with post-docs, it's impossible to tell in advance which ones are going to be the most productive. And once they've shown themselves to be very productive, they are typically on their way out.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Permanent employees like tech and staff Sci (I assume) should be on Institutional promotion tracks. The ones I am aware of do include a sort of merit scale- by way of steps within the job description. It is certainly appropriate to use fair evaluation of performance as best one can to match salary to ability/productivity/responsibility.

  • PaleoGould says:

    at my place, PDs on grants are included in the uni wide performance based bonus system like all other employees.

  • sel says:

    at my uni, only the PD health insurance was covered by the PI. Spouse/dependents could get on, but the PD had to pay out of pocket for it. Your mileage may vary.

    Mine does vary. My university requires the PI to pay health insurance for the postdoc and for his/her spouse and children. Which makes it next to impossible to budget. How exactly am I supposed to predict how many kids a future postdoc will have? And it's illegal to advertise a position "for single person with no kids". So the safest option is to budget for someone who is probably married with one kid; so the budget will include health insurance for 3 people, plus the new raised minimum postdoctoral salary.

    At which point the NSF laughs at the resulting number, says "this is how much you're getting, if you're lucky" and tells me to modify the budget.
    At which point I remove the postdoctoral position. So much for job creation.

    You NIH'ers are lucky; you get to have much bigger budgets.

  • Adam says:

    "Given my distaste for workplace bias and desire to be a fair manager, I have never used merit to decide postdoc pay." -Drugmonkey

    I'm curious: what do you think the word "merit" means?

    "Merit" is explicitly the justification for what you are paid. To not pay people based on merit is unfair by definition.

  • DJMH says:

    @Adam: I believe the point is that "merit" is in the eye of the beholder, and therefore subject to all of the biases that humans exhibit.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I'm curious: what do you think the word "merit" means?

    In the employment parlance that I am most familiar with there is merit and there is "just doing your job". The latter entitles you to the paygrade you inhabit and probably normal CoL type of increases on an annual basis. So while by one definition you "merit" your pay just by doing your job, this is not what I mean.

    Merit compensation implies that you are going above and beyond for your job category. Sometimes this is rewarded with a slightly higher salary level within your classification. Sometimes this requires a reclassification such as from Tech to TurboTech. Sometimes there are one-off cash bonuses.

    In most places that I have been, a postdoc does not habitually get merit pay consideration. They have an annual bump based on the NRSA scale. It is possible under almost any system to provide bonuses of some sort but these are not a regular feature of postdoc employment in my experience. Obv, from this thread, YMMV.

    But if merit bumps are not a habitual part of the system and there are not guidelines to, well, guide the merit pay then I think this lets in an undue workplace bias that is to be avoided. By way of example, under the NRSA scale, if you have one year of postdoctoral work under your belt, then you merit the next higher salary level. This is a pretty clear guideline.

  • Adam says:

    The question is, is it more fair to pay people based on the number of revolutions the Earth makes around the Sun, or based on the value of their contributions? Imagine a world where we pay for things based on their value... crazy, right? What's next: dogs and cats living together?!

  • Eli Rabett says:

    There are all sorts of ways to reward good work, such as more travel, a new laptop, etc.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Adam- well the broader US employment picture insists that seniority is important. Whether I personally agree or disagree with that is irrelevant.

  • Draino says:

    Our HR department controls everything related to salary and benefits. There are no negotiations to recruit/retain people. They will also dictate how we handle the new exempt status, probably by raising the postdoc salary to make them exempt from the get-go. Around here that's enough to live rather comfortably.

  • aspiring riffraff says:

    Currently the "golden" postdoc in my lab. Have my own fellowship, no extra pay came my way as I was expected to get my own $$$. I did negotiate (easy negotiation- I asked and PI immediately said yes) to keep the portion of my fellowship that would normally go to providing health insurance and overhead, which PI now covers out of RO1. This gave me money to spend on supplies, such that I basically got a "free" computer and monitor one year, and travel to a fancy overseas conference the next year.

  • jmz4 says:

    I'd be very leery of any system where you're paying bonuses for producing science. That creates some nasty incentives to get the "right" results (and we have enough of that already).
    None of my two labs have provided bonuses for fellowships, and my current boss in particular is very big on equity in the pay among postdocs. He wouldn't even consider requesting a higher salary than NIH min on a fellowship, even though it was allowable and wouldn't come out of his pocket at all.
    I'd recommend you reward postdocs by giving them greater autonomy and flexibility with their experiments. Or in ways that enable them to do more science (e.g. buy her the shRNAs instead of having her clone them). If them getting a fellowship saves you 60k, maybe give them 25k to do their own experiments, or hire a part time tech to help them out. This creates an incentive structure that is more aligned with doing good science, versus lining one's own pockets, and which, for the right kind of person, will be just as motivating.

  • Busy says:

    To avoid unnecessary friction we generally give all our postdocs the same amount in my lab (~ $50K). However every so often there is some superstar passing through and those get all manner of top ups and additional fellowships.

  • L Kiswa says:

    At the place I did my postdoc, all the grad students/postdocs in the department had desks in a giant office. I was very fortunate to work for a PI who acknowledged the cost of living in our area, and compensated us at well above the NRSA rate. It was no fun knowing that others who sat next to me, but worked with other PIs, were getting paid ~$10-15k less/year.

    As PI of a fledgling lab, I pay all GS's the same (at the dept recommended rate), regardless of their productivity. The culture of paying some students more because they are married/have to support a family persists in my department.

  • JL says:

    jmz4, looks like we disagree again.

    "This creates an incentive structure that is more aligned with doing good science, versus lining one's own pockets, and for the right kind of person, will be just as motivating". And you blame PIs for the underpaid PDs? Geez.

  • jmz4 says:

    @JL I'm talking more about the quid-pro-quo arrangements of "You get a Cell paper, you get 10k more per year." That creates a pecuniary motive to get data that looks "right", which I think is a bad idea.
    I think generally all postdocs should be compensated more (and thus there need to be fewer of them).

  • Grumpy says:

    Lol, academics.

  • postdoc says:

    As a current postdoc, I think one point that isn't raised frequently enough in this whole unfolding discussion is the borderline ridiculous notion that the NRSA guidelines are somehow magically fair and equitable in all places. I work in the University of California, which sets postdoc salaries system-wide and ties them to the the NIH's recommendations. But $43,000 per year (or whatever it was) is borderline unlivable in San Francisco, while it can be reasonably comfortable in a place like Davis. People of course choose to go where they go, but there is a point at which the institution has to acknowledge reality.

    Regarding merit pay, I think there is a substantial component of luck to how well a project goes, and so it would be very demoralizing to people who were working on something that is going poorly to also be paid less than their peers. That said, in response to some comments above I will say that I think it is borderline unethical to pay someone who won a fellowship the same amount as someone who is paid by grants. Salaries are the largest line item in any grant application, and I think it is quite reasonable to recognize that postdocs who win fellowships have done a lot to help the lab as a whole by freeing up more funds for science. Similarly, I was given a small bump for doing substantial working writing a grant that helped fund the lab.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Postdoc- should the trainee who generates the key bit of preliminary data that secures the next R01 award be similarly bonused? What about the one that gets first author on the two papers that make productivity go from meh to excellent and smooth the competitive renewal?

    What is just doing the job and what is bonus level above-and-beyond work?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Postdoc- where is the point at which the postdoc has to "acknowledge reality"?

  • JL says:

    Postdoc, "I think there is a substantial component of luck to how well a project goes, and so it would be very demoralizing to people who were working on something that is going poorly to also be paid less than their peers."

    Here's the key mindset change needed from trainee to PI. Nobody cares how much work it was or what had to be sacrificed to get there. What matters are the results. No funding agency gives you a renewal because you worked hard at it. So, giving a bonus to those that get results is part of the training. It shows them how the world works, without starving them. So, as a trainee and/or postdoc, look ahead at your project(s) and make sure you have a good mix to guarantee that there will be success on something.

    Also, there is luck in getting grants and fellowships, increasingly so at low funding levels. How is it fair to reward one but not the other?

  • I am not a big believer in merit pay that is not tied to some sort of "objective" (or at least written down) scheme. Everything I have seen and heard about merit pay shows how political it is (in a big organization) or about favoritism (in places of all sizes). Merit pay at National Lab was ugly indeed. Ditto for all of ProdigalSpouse's companies.

    If I had postdocs, I would pay them all the same. I am open to the idea of giving postdocs with fellowships a bump, but I think it breeds resentment and ill will in a research group to pay some people at the same level more than others. And also bias. I know that I am not free from unconscious bias, so I am happier to limit the places where I can inadvertently do damage.

  • Busy says:

    I've been thinking about this, and indeed the way we do merit pay is by paying for conference attendance. A good student will have many more posters to present and hence gets to travel on my grant more often. This is relatively objective and certainly detached from any personal preferences I might have since the conference poster selection committee is independent.

  • Alfred Wallace says:

    "Here's the key mindset change needed from trainee to PI. Nobody cares how much work it was or what had to be sacrificed to get there. What matters are the results. No funding agency gives you a renewal because you worked hard at it. So, giving a bonus to those that get results is part of the training. It shows them how the world works, without starving them. So, as a trainee and/or postdoc, look ahead at your project(s) and make sure you have a good mix to guarantee that there will be success on something."

    This is BS. Yes, funding agencies, journal editors et. al. won't give a f about "hard work, but bad luck". This does not not mean at all that a supervisor should not acknowledge it.
    I have seen too many students/PDs that did excellent and hard work but got unlucky with their projects.
    A lot of what is wrong with science now can be attributed to judging people and projects by results and not the work itself. Unavoidable as it is to some degree, there is no need to for this to also determine PD salaries.
    Trainees learn it anyway very quickly that without getting results, you won't make it very far, and that also in science the Matthew effect rules (every one that hath shall be given...)

  • Pleb says:

    I'm the first and only PD in my lab, a little less than 1.5 yrs in. My PO just informed me that my NRSA application was successful, so coming off my PI's books in July. I've already been informed by my bawse that I won't be getting a bonus or a bump-up, as some of my PD friends in other labs did when they got external funding. Currently working up the nerve to go in her office and ask for my own set of pipettes, but I'll settle for a new P1000. I'll seriously be happy if I get them. I'm at UC San Diego, unmarried and without children, and with white house's new rule, I'll live comfortably at around 50K/year or so. I looked at labs at UCSF, but ultimately declined an offer because I couldn't imagine trying to live in that city. This decision was a luxury that not all PDs can make I'm sure, however I can't imagine a reality where the NIH will set different pay scales at different uni's depending on the city. If I'm lucky enough to get a TT job, I sure hope it's somewhere where I can afford to buy a modest house or condo. My two cents on the ongoing conversation about PD salary and compensation: I feel lucky to earn what I do, since the market value for a biomed PhD is not high (relative to a comp sci PhD, for example), and I make enough to be comfortable while doing what I like every day. It would be nice to earn a bump up for freeing 50K/yr off my PI's R01, but as someone mentioned earlier, I'll have some leverage when it comes time to ask for that fancy conference registration on the lab dime (2017 GRC dendrite meeting in Tuscany???). This is a reward enough, and again, if I'm LUCKY ENOUGH to get a TT job, I'll use the same incentives for my people.

  • JL says:

    A. Wallace, there is indeed a conflict where the demands of the funding agency/PI might not perfectly align with the needs of the trainee.

    Not all trainees learn very quickly that results matter. After years some still think that they work hard and the PI should support them whether productive or not because Science. See the comment by A. Wallace.

  • JL says:

    Pleb, an NRSA saves the lab a lot more than $50k/year. Remember F&B.

  • jmz4 says:

    " I can't imagine a reality where the NIH will set different pay scales at different uni's depending on the city."
    This is actually standard operating procedure for every federal agency. They have massive tables for locality pay they are required to use to modify their base rates for wages. However, since the NIH is disbursing grants to the university, which uses them to cover salary, they all neatly sidestep this issue.

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