The results of The Scientist’s 2016 Life Science Salary Survey are in. On average, the U.S. is the highest-paying country for life scientists this year, with compensation clocking in at an average of $100,400 across all US respondents. US academics average notably higher salaries than their counterparts in Europe and Asia, as well as in Latin America, where salaries still trail the rest of the world.
In addition to inquiring about their compensation, we asked our readers a number of new questions this year about how satisfied they felt with their jobs and their income, whether they found their workplaces welcoming to women and other traditionally under-represented groups, and whether they negotiated their salaries. Their answers reveal regional differences in the research environment that may influence income variation around the world.
LIFE IN ACADEMIA
Among academic scientists in the U.S., average salaries for different positions vary by a few thousand dollars from those in the 2015 salary survey, with a few exceptions. College or university department heads, for example, report the highest salaries at an average of $186,727—about $27,000 more than last year’s reported average salary of just $159,022.
Comparing academic salaries in the U.S. and Canada with those in Europe—the two regions with the most responses—reveals that the disparity between regions increases as researchers move higher up the academic ladder. While graduate students have comparable salaries of around $29,000 on both continents, and postdocs in Europe actually earn an average of a few thousand more than postdocs in the U.S. and Canada, full professors in the U.S. and Canada make nearly twice as much as European professors, according to The Scientist’s data.
Academic salaries across Europe are set at the national level, creating an environment where institutions have less individual leeway in determining compensation. “The ways in which salaries are done in Europe are just so much different,” says Paula Stephan, a labor economist at Georgia State University who studies the scientific workforce. “The local campus has virtually no ability to bargain with you or anything.”
Gender gap in US academia
While female graduate students who responded to The Scientist’s 2016 survey make several thousand dollars more on average than their male counterparts, the tables turn among researchers further along in their careers. The largest gap is among full professors; females earn an average of $13,000 less than their male counterparts.
Economists have proposed a number of contributing factors to explain the gender gap in academia, including area of specialization and the nature of salary and start-up package negotiations. A study published earlier this year also suggests that marital status and the presence of children contribute significantly to the divide between men and women in both academia and industry (American Econ Rev, 106:333-38, 2016). Women in STEM careers surveyed for the study make 31 percent less than males a year after receiving their PhDs, and while much of the gap is attributable to their chosen research specialty, 11 percent is explained by marriage and kids.
It could be that women tend to work fewer hours or take time off when juggling family commitments, which can severely impact early-career wages. “You could say, ‘Well, women are choosing to spend more time with their families and children, and that’s a voluntary decision to scale back their hours,’ but you could also say to yourself, ‘Why is it that women make those decisions whereas men don’t?’” asks Bruce Weinberg, an economist at Ohio State University and a coauthor on the study. “There’s some indication that these jobs, these career tracks, are not fully family-friendly.”
Postdocs in the U.S.
US postdocs responding to the 2016 salary survey earn an average of $48,907—notably more than the national average for federally funded postdoc salaries, which typically falls in the low $40,000 range, says Stephan. For example, in fiscal year 2016, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Research Service Award stipend for new postdocs was set at $43,692. “It makes me think either very senior postdocs have replied to [The Scientist’s] survey or there’s something a little odd about the postdoc salary,” Stephan adds. “It definitely does not reflect first- or second-year postdocs.”
The national salary average is set to increase, however. Earlier this year, the NIH issued new guidelines regarding postdoc pay, requiring institutions to either raise the base salary for postdoctoral researchers to $47,476 across the board or start tracking hours to pay postdocs for overtime work. The new guidelines go into effect on December 1. “If you don’t adopt it, you’re going to have to be monitoring overtime work all the time, and that’s a very costly thing to do,” says Stephan. As a result, she suggests, universities may end up with fewer postdocs overall to avoid raising their budgets. Stay tuned for next year’s salary survey to gauge the impact of the NIH’s new program.
SALARY BY SPECIALIZATION
As in previous years, The Scientist’s 2016 salary survey documents notable differences in wages across fields of specialization. And the income variation by field may be skewed by a subject area’s popularity among industry scientists.
Of the fields with the most responses this year, biotechnology continues to lead the pack in the U.S., though by a smaller margin than in 2015. In 2014, the average biotech salary was $114,084, but in 2015’s salary survey, that number skyrocketed to $140,091. This year, it’s a bit closer to 2014 levels, at $124,197. Other fields, such as genetics, continue to grow; the average geneticist salary increased by more than $15,000 this year over 2015.
The 2016 survey responses also highlight variation in the gender ratios among scientists in different specialties. Only 23 percent of respondents studying bioinformatics are female, for example, and in the fields of biochemistry, chemistry, drug discovery and development, and environmental science, women account for only about a third of respondents. Cell biology, genetics, microbiology, and virology trend in the opposite direction, with females making up more than 55 percent of respondents.
In Weinberg’s study of US women in STEM careers, his team found that two-thirds of the wage gap was explained by field of study. “You could say that’s a choice,” Weinberg says. “But you can also ask, ‘Why is it that women choose one set of fields and men choose another set of fields that are generally better compensated?’ I think there are a variety of explanations, some more benign and some less benign.”
The world over, more than 80 percent of scientists say they feel stimulated by their work. However, fewer respondents feel that their job allows for a good work/life balance, and fewer than half of surveyed scientists in any given region are happy with their salary and benefits. Correspondingly, nearly half of respondents from most regions report having looked for new jobs within the past year.
Researchers in Latin America appear to be the least happy, with respondents reporting the lowest rates of feeling stimulated, having adequate work/life balance, and being satisfied with how much they make. This may stem in part from the region’s low average salaries, which rank significantly below those in other parts of the world. In addition, “working conditions are far from ideal in the entire region,” Natalia Muñoz Barreda, national coordinator for the Chilean scientist advocacy group Ciencia Con Contrato, wrote in an email to The Scientist.
In Chile, for example, the vast majority of salaries are funded by short-term grants, which have severely impacted the availability and shelf life of staff scientist positions at universities. “Research assistants and lab managers have been especially hit by our grant programs, not only with low salaries and nonexistent job security, but also with the lack of basic labor rights, such as maternity leave, the ability to unionize, [and] access to health insurance and pension plans,” Muñoz Barreda wrote.
At the other end of the spectrum, respondents from the U.S. and Canada have the highest or second-highest scores in each of these job-satisfaction categories. Nearly 85 percent of US and Canadian researchers report being stimulated by their work. But Stephan is skeptical that the responses truly reflect the state of North American academia, especially in the overworked realm of post-graduation research positions. “I was astonished that two-thirds of people in the U.S. and Canada said ‘yes’ [to having a good work/life balance] given that one of the big concerns seems to be that postdocs, at least, are spending 2,500 or 2,600 hours a year working in these jobs,” she says.
TOWARD AN INCLUSIVE ENVIRONMENT
Despite the wage gaps, representation of women and other traditionally under-represented groups in the life sciences is reaching higher levels in many areas of the world. When asked if women and minorities were adequately represented at their organization, most respondents answered yes. Oceania had the highest score, with 77 percent of scientists believing that these groups were represented adequately, and Africa had the lowest at 57 percent. Women in Africa face unique challenges to entering the sciences, says Unoma Okorafor, founder of the nonprofit Working to Advance STEM Education for African Women. “In many African communities still, almost 100 percent of the burden of caring for the home falls on women,” she explains. “That’s a big barrier for a lot of women to pursue professional careers.” Moreover, across much of the continent “the sciences are seen as professions mostly reserved for men,” Okorafor adds. “There is a huge lack of role models for other women to look up to.”
Among respondents from the U.S. and Canada and from Europe, breaking down these data by gender reveals that men were more likely to answer positively; approximately 75 percent of male respondents feel that women and minorities are adequately represented at their workplaces, while only 60 percent of women agree. But, even if women and minorities are not well represented, that might not mean they aren’t welcome. When asked if their organizations were a safe and welcoming place for women and minorities, a greater percentage of respondents responded positively. A whopping 95 percent of respondents from Oceania feel their workplaces are welcoming to women and minorities, for example, and more than 86 percent of respondents from the U.S. and Canada, from Europe, and from Asia agree. Africa again had the lowest scores, with 67 percent of scientists agreeing. “We’re making slow progress when it comes to helping communities understand the benefit of educating girls, and that is also filtering into the scientific realm,” says Okorafor.
The Scientist’s 2016 results suggest that scientists in Europe and Asia are the most mobile, with nearly 30 percent of researchers holding citizenship in a country other than where they work. In contrast, only 17 percent of respondents from the U.S. say that they are noncitizens. Stephan notes that this value seems quite low, however; for example, in a 2011 survey of biology, chemistry, materials, and earth and environmental sciences researchers, she and her colleagues found that 38 percent of researchers in the U.S. had a different country of origin (Nat Biotechnol, 30:1250-53, 2012). The U.S. is a global leader in educating foreign-born researchers, says Stephan, and when it comes to attracting scientists to the nation for training, the “research opportunities and the prestige of what the country has to offer are terribly important.”
A SUCCESSFUL INDUSTRY
Of all the life scientists surveyed this year, directors in US industry have the highest average earnings at $204,016, a leap from last year’s reported $178,457. Averaging across industry positions reveals that salaries in the sector maintain their dominant lead over academic salaries, with life scientists working in US industry earning an average of $132,121, compared with just $89,284 for those in academia.
These sector-based income differences may contribute heavily to the salary gender gap when life scientists are grouped together across the board, says Shulamit Kahn, an economist at Boston University currently working on a study of the pay gap for women in STEM fields. “The single biggest contributing factor when you put everyone together is that way more men work in industry, with the industry pay scale,” she says. Comparable numbers of men (890) and women (804) in US academia answered this year’s survey, but 60 percent more male respondents (334) than female (213) work at for-profit companies in the U.S.
The higher wages could be explained by the fact that “industry simply has more resources because they’re selling products,” says Henry Sauermann, a business professor at Georgia Tech who studies the career paths of scientists. But there are other factors at play, he adds. Life-science companies vary widely in how much research freedom they offer their scientists, for example, and employees may have to seek permission to publish findings or collaborate with outside parties. “If it’s true that industry gives you less freedom, and might require you to study something that you find less interesting, then they may have to pay more to make up for that,” he says.
In Europe and in the U.S. and Canada, academics responding to this year’s salary survey do have a slight edge over industry scientists when it comes to feeling stimulated by their work. However, a greater percentage of industry researchers report satisfaction with their work/life balance and salaries compared to those in academia.
Of course, salary is only one factor on the table when graduate students and postdocs make career choices. “People go on to a PhD because of their passion for doing research and because of their interest in science, not because of the expectation of making a high salary,” says Michael Roach, an economist at Cornell University and a frequent collaborator of Sauermann. If income were a primary motivator, he adds, “I think there’d be more selection early on in undergrad [toward] careers that would lead into banking or consulting.
SALARY NEGOTIATION IN THE U.S.
One of the critical discussions when it comes to salary for early-career researchers is negotiation—how often it takes place, who does it, and how much difference it makes. This year, The Scientist collected data on salary negotiations for the first time to provide a more comprehensive picture of this aspect of a life scientist’s career. The results show that 32 percent of US respondents negotiated their salaries, but nearly half of those people said they were only able to raise their salary by less than 5 percent.
The data reveal differences in the propensity to negotiate salary across sector, rank, and specialty, as well as between men and women. Across fields, the percentage of respondents who negotiated varies widely, from just 14 percent in plant sciences to 50 percent in drug discovery and development.
See “Let’s Make a Deal”
Industry scientists were more likely to negotiate than academic researchers or scientists working for the government or nonprofit organizations were. And within academia, researchers in higher-ranking positions were more likely to have lobbied for better salaries. Among female respondents, 30 percent say they negotiated their salary, compared with 34 percent of men, suggesting that salary negotiation may indeed be a contributing factor to the gender gap in the life sciences—though Kahn says she expected this difference to be even larger. “There’s this literature that says women don’t ask,” she adds. “These women [responding to The Scientist’s survey] might be a little more proactive than I think you would see in general.”
Karen Zusi is a freelance science writer living in southern Connecticut.
The Scientist collected data via a Web-based survey, which was open from March 18 to July 19, 2016. Participation in the survey was promoted by email and advertising to readers of The Scientist and visitors to the-scientist.com. The responses were carefully filtered to eliminate duplicate or misleading answers, as well as to eliminate reported salaries greater than $1 million or less than $10,000. We received usable responses from 4,036 individuals from around the world.
The survey asked respondents to provide demographic data about themselves in 18 categories, and to report their base annual salary and other monetary compensation. All international salaries were converted to US dollars on July 30, 2016, and analyses were done using the US-equivalent amount. For year-over-year comparisons, data from previous surveys were first converted into USD using the conversion rates from July 30, 2016, to control for inflation. The data reported are averages of the total compensation reported for a given category. For average salaries, all categories reported received a minimum of 50 responses; for other questions, all categories reported received a minimum of 20 responses.
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