Headlines on biosecurity, stem cell research, and drug development suggest that the life sciences are expanding rapidly, but this is not reflected in salary growth for US life scientists, which has remained relatively stagnant. The consumer price index has risen 3.0% since July 2003, but salaries for life scientists have marked only a 2.3% increase, according to The Scientist's 2004 salary survey.

Some cities, sectors, and specializations in the life sciences posted slight increases in income this past year, but most researchers saw no significant changes in their salaries. "It's not surprising that, with the general US economy, healthcare costs, and reduced NIH budgets, there isn't a large increase or even a substantial increase in salaries at the PhD level," says Jeremy M. Boss, director of the genetics and molecular biology graduate program at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

When this year's salary numbers are compared with...


The survey, "Compensation of Life Scientists in the USA," was conducted by Abbott, Langer & Associates and sponsored by The Scientist, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) and the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). E-mail invitations to participate in the survey were sent to subscribers to the print edition of The Scientist, to registrants on The Scientist Web site who identified themselves as professional life scientists residing in the United States, and to members of ASBMB and ASM. Data were collected through a Web-based form from June 15 through July 19, 2004. Usable responses were received from 14,068 participants. For a response to be considered usable, all the information requested had to be provided. Significant overlap between the various lists used for sending the invitations precluded calculation of an accurate response rate.


The national median for senior researchers' salaries has increased by 18% since 2001 according to this year's survey, but some metropolitan areas have experienced greater growth than others. San Francisco still boasts the highest median salary for senior researchers, at $90,000 a year, while postdocs fare best in Philadelphia or the Baltimore-Washington, DC, area.

Since 2001, some fields of study also have seen more growth than others. Paychecks for clinical researchers and immunologists increased 34% and 27%, respectively, but geneticists and neuroscientists saw less than 3% increases in their incomes.

Gender and ethnic disparities continue to be substantial, but according to Jeremy Boss at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, it's difficult to determine the factors responsible for the ongoing gap. "For example, if you wanted to teach undergraduates with your PhD, then the salary range you are going to be looking at is going to be smaller than if you are going to want to integrate it with a competitive research program," says Boss. "Depending on what the position is, it's going to determine what the salary is. So while I found the numbers initially surprising, we may be comparing apples and oranges," he says.

Minority groups are still underrepresented in the sciences, says Boss. "It goes all the way from undergraduate to postdoctoral fellows to faculty positions."

- Maria W. Anderson

If you are toiling away in the trenches of science, expect your PhD to earn you an annual salary of $72,500 after about 10–14 years of professional experience, according to The Scientist's annual salary survey. However, the field of specialization greatly influences median salaries, and income tends to rest heavily on the degree earned and the degree of responsibility within an organization.

Indeed, median salaries for life scientists with PhDs who say they work in research ranged from $60,000 (for laboratory research) to $125,000 (for research administrators). Scientists with PhDs working in any type of administration, consulting, production/quality control, sales/marketing or in patents/licensing had median salaries of $100,000 or higher.

"Certainly as one gets more and more into an administrative position, salaries go up," says Jeremy M. Boss, coauthor of Academic Scientists at Work: Navigating the Biomedical Research Career.

And for those following a common job progression in the sciences, the survey results suggest that a PhD degree doesn't pay off until a scientist is in his or her late 30s or early 40s. At that age, PhD salaries start to pull away from the pack. Scientists in their 20s and early 30s earn similar median salaries regardless of their degrees. But by their late 50s, scientists who have a PhD earn a median salary of $100,500, while their colleagues with an MS or BS plateau at roughly $60,000–$70,000.

"The difference between the [Ms and BS] degrees disappears completely, while the PhD opens up a different set of ranges," says Boss. "If you look at the 45 to 49 age bracket, this is probably the group of people who are now associate professors on the way to professors, and the professor group has no end in the range. You can make as much as you can demand to stay at [your] university."

In general, PhDs in the science earn less than their peers who become medical doctors. They earn $120,800 after about 10–14 years of professional experience. But a job is about more than just money, notes Boss.

"I would make the statement that people who graduate with PhDs are underpaid across the board," he says. However, "It's one of the few jobs where you get to discover things and know something at some point in your day or your week or your month that no one else knows." Add in the intellectual challenge of a science career and Boss says that it often confers jobs satisfaction that is "hard to beat." I would say people are willing to sacrifice other things for the discovery and intellectual challenge."

- Theresa Tamkins

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