Older data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) revealed that industry and academic salaries in the life sciences tend to grow at a relatively slow pace. Comparing salary information gathered in May 2008 to the most recent BLS data collected in May 2013, Saranna Thornton, an economist at Hampden–Sydney College in Virginia and chair of the committee on the Economic Status of the Profession at the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), found that while positions in chemistry, physics, and computer science received pay increases of 8.3 percent to 10.6 percent over the five-year period, the life sciences saw the smallest increases. Industry biochemists and biophysicists received just a 3.6 percent increase over the same time and those in the academic biological sciences a mere 4.6 percent.
Of course, money isn’t everything. Across sectors, other benefits—ranging from intellectual freedom to stock options—continue to remain important factors in individual choices of professions. “Salary is a very important component, of course, but it’s only one of the elements that most companies [consider] when determining compensation,” says David Knopping of the compensation consulting firm Radford.
Such increases may reflect the high demand for people trained in key areas of genetics and genomics, such as genetic counseling, bioanalytics, and data analysis, says Knopping. “Outside of clinical fields, biostatistics tends to be another hot area,” he adds.
Industry Versus Academia
Whether in the U.S., Canada, or Europe, academic scientists responding to our survey earned approximately 30 percent less than their peers in industry. A comparison of academics’ purchasing power—what they could afford on their income in a given country—revealed a similar trend. “Through the world, in no country at all among the 28 we studied do academics get paid on a similar scale to people with similar qualifications who are in other sectors of society,” says Boston College’s Philip Altbach, who studies trends in higher-education incomes.
Because academic incomes don’t typically measure up to other sectors, those aspiring to remain within the ivory tower often move to countries with less of a pay gap. As a result, “countries with especially poor academic salaries are going to suffer a brain drain from universities,” says Altbach. “This will eventually affect other sectors within the economy.”
Age and Experience
Five years of professional experience can also make a big difference. In both 2013 and 2014, people in the U.S. with 5 to 9 years of experience reported the biggest jumps in pay. In 2014, their income increased by $18,593, to more than $70,000, compared with individuals who have just 3 to 4 years of experience.
These data seem “totally consistent” with other reports, says Thornton. “If someone gets a PhD in economics or finance and goes into academia, they go directly from their degree into an assistant professor job,” she explained, “whereas in life sciences it’s normal to go from a PhD to a postdoc position first. It’s delayed, but they ultimately reach the higher salaries.”
The Persistent Gap
“On the face of it, earnings are higher in the U.S.,” says Ariane Hegewisch of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a US nonprofit think tank, “and the wage gap is higher”—likely as a result of a lack of transparency about expected salaries for specific positions, and because women are less likely to work in the highest-earning positions. “That makes sense to me,” Hegewisch says, “but [the results from] Latin America and Asia are a little more surprising.”
While women and men at early- and mid-career stages in the U.S. received nearly equal pay, women professors only received 88 percent of the income male professors did.
Looking more closely at the data for US academics, however, reveals that this gender gap is only found in high-ranking positions. (See graphs at far right.) While women and men at early- and mid-career stages—from graduate student to associate professor—received nearly equal pay, women professors only received 88 percent of the income male professors did. And because more men hold these high-ranking positions, the overall pay gap in the U.S. is magnified.
Thornton notes that better enforcement of the Title IX amendment, which ensures that federally funded education programs’ pay scales do not discriminate based on gender, is a growing resource that women in academia can use. “Colleges and universities are ramping up to make sure that Title IX is properly enforced on their campuses,” she says. “Federal funding agencies including NASA, NSF, and the NIH are all taking the lead in auditing the institutions they give grants to.”
The Scientist 2014 Survey of Compensation of Life Scientists
We asked respondents to provide demographic data about themselves in 18 categories, and to report their base annual salary and other cash compensation. All international salaries were converted to US dollars on August 19, 2014, and analyses were done using the US-equivalent amount. The responses were carefully filtered to eliminate duplicate or misleading answers. Not every participant provided all of the information requested. If the participant provided income data plus information concerning at least one demographic characteristic, the response was included in the study.