The financial prognosis is healthy for physiology faculty members, according to a salary survey released last month. The study was prepared by the 153-member Association of Chairmen of Departments of Physiology (ACDP) on behalf of an affiliated organization, the 7,000- member American Physiological Society (APS), based in Bethesda, Md.
The study revealed that salaries for all academic physiology positions - from department chairperson down to instructor - are rising at medical schools, both public and private. Pay is also climbing for physiologists at dental, veterinary, and podiatric schools. In most cases, the increases are outpacing inflation.
To obtain the results of its salary survey for fiscal year 1989-90, ACDP researchers based at the University of Arizona in Tucson last year queried 153 university departments nationwide. Of these, 103 (67.3 percent) responded, representing more than 2,800 physiology administrators and professors, not all of whom are members of ACDP or APS.
There are several explanations for the increase in mean salaries, the association claims. For one thing, larger endowments and higher tuition payments at private universities led to more generous salaries, while some state-funded programs benefited from what some faculty members say were overdue increases in education budgets.
In addition, some departments began competing for experienced molecular biologists - an emerging core group of scientists in the field of physiology. Others sought to blunt the so-called graying effect by filling slots with young postdoctoral researchers. According to several department chairmen, competition from biotech and pharmaceutical companies was comparatively modest.
The reason for the increase most commonly cited, however, was the desire by many universities, especially public schools, to play inflationary catch-up - to compensate for negligible pay hikes in the mid-1980s.
"The average raise was 10 percent at my school this year, versus 2 percent to 4 percent in the past six years," says Donald Frazier, chairman of the department of physiology and biophysics at the University of Kentucky's College of Medicine. "We're chained to the state budget, and when the economy drags, so do raises," says Frazier, who is a past president of ACDP.
Overall, the survey found that some of the biggest gains in mean salary were made by faculty at private medical schools. Full professors got a healthy 11.2 percent jump, to $80,600, in 1989. Associate professors received a 7.5 percent pay hike, to $54,900, and those at the assistant professor level notched an extra 6.2 percent, to $42,000 (see table on page 27).
That's not to say that public medical schools lagged. Assistant professors were given a 7.7 percent hike, to $42,100. Similarly, nonmedical schools - defined for purposes of the ACDP survey as veterinary, dental, and podiatric schools - registered impressive gains. For example, a full professor at one of these schools saw 9.5 percent added to last year's annual pay, which totaled nearly $69,400.
The results were mixed for women when their salaries were tabulated separately. At the assistant professor level, women fared well, receiving an additional 10.2 percent, to $42,300. But among female instructors, pay rose less than 1 percent, while women working as associate professors got an extra 4 percent. The survey found no chairwomen to compare, largely because there were few women entering the field 30 to 40 years ago - the ranks from which department chairs are generally selected.
By and large, however, assistant professors at all schools showed the biggest increases in mean salaries, reflecting the trend to replace aging faculty nearing retirement with younger people at lower pay than full professors.
"The number of graduates is falling, which means the pipeline has diminished," says the University of Kentucky's Frazier. "By the mid-1990s, this graying effect will be tremendous." He adds that competition for postdoctoral research fellows is increasing.
That's because many of the most desirable postdocs, as they're known, have more than the minimum three years of research work preferred by universities. As hiring slowed several years ago, postdocs remained in research longer. So those now interested in applying for university teaching positions are believed to have more job opportunities.
Douglas McMahon may be typical. Since graduating with a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Virginia four years ago, the 31-year-old has worked as a research fellow at Harvard University studying retinal nerves. Two years ago, he had difficulty finding a teaching position. This year, he didn't have any problem.
"I think I was a more competitive candidate with an extra year or two of research under my belt," says McMahon, who next fall joins Frazier at the University of Kentucky as an assistant professor. "If you're going to grad school now, you can look forward to relatively better job prospects."
However, the predilection toward hiring younger faculty can also have a down side. In one case, a newly hired assistant professor at a public medical school is earning more than experienced colleagues at the associate level.
"It's frustrating," says Stephen Wright, a 40-year-old associate professor at the University of Arizona's College of Medicine. "And the cost-of-living increase has lagged between 1 and 3 percent for a number of years."
Nonetheless, the overall salary rise reflects a growing need for physiologists who possess some expertise in molecular biology.
"It's becoming clear that research techniques in genetics are sorely needed," says Donald Marsh, chairman of the physiology and biophysics department at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
"All deans understand that they have to hire people capable of applying molecular biology techniques to physiology," the USC department head says. "There's a lot of important, common ground between these two areas, and the competition for people capable of filling that gap has increased. There's a shortage of people who can do both."
Edward R. Silverman is a staff reporter at New York Newsday.