TheScientist 2008 Life Science Salary Survey

Are you making too much money, or too little? Could you make more? Our US salary data in the life sciences can help.

By Edyta Zielinska

For additional salary data by job title, location and gender, visit http://www.the-scientist.com

When Pfizer announced it was closing its Ann Arbor, Michigan, facility in January of last year, Alla Karnovsky, one of more than 2,000 employees affected, shuddered. For the second time in nine years, she was faced with the decision of whether to relocate her family or find new employment.

Karnovsky, a...

In terms of salary, "it was clear that I wouldn't find an equivalent" to what she was making at Pfizer, she says. She asked her close friends and colleagues about current salaries in academia for computational biologists, and felt that the University of Michigan gave her their best offer. Although she took a 40% pay cut with the new job, the instability of yet another industry job was "not worth the money," says Karnovsky, who declined to provide her present salary.

Karnovsky is one of many scientists who, for various reasons, will re-evaluate their careers - and salaries. "Most people don't know if they're making an average salary or are underpaid. Some people are overpaid," says Bettina Seidman of Seidbet Associates, a career counseling company based in New York City. A change in career is "an opportunity to do some research," says Seidman. That's where The Scientist's 2008 Salary Survey - our fifth - can come in handy.

Dollars and sense

This year, the median total compensation for surveyed life scientists in the United States was $85,000, a 13% increase from $74,000 in 2006. The median industry salary ($107,000) continues to trump salaries in academia and other privately-held institutions, which dole out a median of $77,900. At a median of $100,000, start-up companies continue to offer salaries that compete with industry.

Our survey found that median salary was influenced less by the size of an organization, and more by factors such as promotion and management level. In academia, there is almost no difference in salary relative to years of experience. On the other hand, the difference in salary between an assistant professor in science and a full professor can be $60,000 ($90,000-150,000 median salary). Gregory Amidon, a former pharmaceutical scientist at Pfizer, now a professor at the University of Michigan, says the biggest bump in his salary came when he was promoted from a mid-level scientist to a senior scientist. His year-end bonuses got significantly bigger, as well - from approximately 10% to 25% of his year-end salary.

Ken Abosch, leader of Hewitt Associates' Compensation Consulting business, based in Lincolnshire, Ill., says that he is seeing an unprecedented number of companies using bonuses and other "variable pay" incentive plans to attract and retain employees. "Ninety percent of US corporations now offer some sort of bonus arrangement," he says. In 2007, companies spent 11.8% of payroll on variable pay awards, up from only 3.8% in 1991. Even academic and government employers, which offer significantly lower salaries than industry, have started to offer some sort of bonus plan, says Abosch.

Survey respondents who supervised between three and four employees earned a median salary of $97,505 (total cash compensation), a sum that grew to $220,000 when they supervised 50-99 employees. The big bucks came for those who supervised 1,000 employees or more, earning a median base salary of $330,000, and a total cash compensation of $510,000.

Other spotted salary trends included:

Gender: Many experts note that, at lower levels, women appear roughly on par with men (see our January 2008 article, "Fixing the leaky pipeline"). There was no exception here, where there was little difference between salaries for men and women with junior job titles and with few years of professional experience. However, at higher job titles, the gap widens. Female professors, for example, have a starting median salary of $126,000 at 15-19 years experience, while men with the same experience start at a median of $164,000, or 23% higher.

Specialties: The specialties that earn the highest incomes this year include endocrinology at $159,000, pharmacology and oncology at $140,000, and general immunology at $130,600. Similar to 2006, molecular biologists in 2008 are still earning less than their colleagues in other specialties, with compensation for a tenured position at $101,000.

Citizenship: Throughout the years, our surveys have shown salary differs with citizenship status. For example, native-born Americans consistently earn less than naturalized citizens, but more than permanent residents. This year, US natives received a median salary of $97,000, versus $112,500 for naturalized citizens and $80,500 for permanent residents.

Location: California is among several states giving out salaries over $150,000 for tenured faculty. On the East coast, salaries are competitive for younger scientists - in Massachusetts, for example, even scientists at the assistant professor level are receiving well over $100,000 in total compensation.

Type of institution: Since 2004, salaries have grown more slowly in privately-held institutions, including academia, which showed a 17.8% change. In contrast, salaries at publicly-held organizations, such as pharma and some biotech, have grown 25% since 2004.

Then again, as the saying goes, money isn't everything. To keep her current salary at Pfizer, Karnovksy would have had to reshape her life and uproot her family. While there are things she misses about industry - the group work with scientists from every field, her colleagues - "You have to consider the complexity of the circumstances," she says. "At the end of the day you really have to enjoy what you're doing."

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