US Postdocs Grapple with Salary Changes

Postdocs nationwide were set to have an increased minimum salary or become eligible for overtime pay until a court injunction halted new Department of Labor regulations.

Dec 16, 2016
Karen Zusi

US Department of Labor headquartersWIKIMEDIA, AGNOSTICPREACHERSKIDPostdocs across the country have been on a financial rollercoaster since the end of November. In order to be compliant with new federal regulations from the US Department of Labor under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), universities and institutions nationwide were required to raise postdoctoral researchers’ salaries to a $47,476 minimum, or start paying overtime wages to those working more than 40 hours per week. The regulations were set to be required on the first of this month. But a court injunction, granted after 21 states filed against the regulations, halted the process on November 22.

Many universities had already announced salary updates for postdocs. Some institutions, such as Miami University in Ohio, elected to start tracking hours. Administrations sent out new contracts and offered principal investigators (PIs) temporary “bridge” funding to support the salary increases. But when news of the injunction broke, many of these offices put their plans on hold. “A lot of us felt like we were being told we didn't matter,” said Jennifer Riehl, a postdoc in the entomology department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison). “It makes you ask, ‘Why am I doing this? What is the benefit, especially with the [poor] outlook for being able to continue in academia?’”

“It’s very easy for postdocs to fall through the cracks,” said Gary McDowell, executive director of Future of Research, an advocacy group for junior scientists that has been tracking institutional responses to the injunction. McDowell has also been contacting universities where salary-increase plans are still on hold, and filing Freedom of Information Act requests to compile a database of postdoc pay.

Many institutions ultimately chose to raise salary requirements, honoring the statements they made to campus staff and asking PIs to adjust their budgets, but not all did. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) increased its pay scale, meaning postdocs paid through its grants—or at institutions or departments following the NIH as a matter of policy—will earn at least $47,484 per year going forward.

Postdocs at the University of Maryland received letters revoking their updated contracts. A public notice from the university read “the Maryland Attorney General’s Office has advised University System of Maryland institutions to wait until further notice before implementing any compliance changes to meet FLSA requirements. Accordingly, UMD will continue to operate under the existing FLSA guidelines and will not be implementing the salary adjustments and other changes that would have been required.”

“I was pretty furious,” said Kristin Hook, a behavioral ecology postdoc at Maryland. “It’s really crummy all around.” University officials did not respond to The Scientist’s request for comment by press time.

The range of institutional responses has renewed debates about attracting postdocs to—and retaining them in—academic research programs. “There’s a concern that some universities, if they’re not raising their pay, will be at a slight disadvantage for drawing postdocs to their research program,” said Chris Pickett, director of the advocacy group Rescuing Biomedical Research.

At UW-Madison, the administration eventually moved forward with planned salary raises, but only for postdocs, citing those same concerns. “This is being done to align the salaries of our postdoctoral employees with the stipend rates proposed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and to ensure our campus remains market competitive with our peers,” the university said in a statement.

“The era of the cheap postdoc is over, at least on our campus,” said Jonathan Lenz, a microbiology postdoc and president of the UW-Madison postdoctoral association.

Some individual labs or departments have also opted to raise postdoctoral salaries, even if their universities rescinded or rolled back announced FLSA plans. In May, when the updated Department of Labor regulations were first announced, Patrick Schloss at the University of Michigan Medical School prospectively hiked his postdocs’ salaries to meet the new minimum and maintained the raises after the university halted its plans.

“The field that I’m in is very competitive, and if I can’t pay what other people are paying, [postdocs are] going to leave or they’re not as quick to join my lab,” said Schloss. “The real practical reality is that if you want talented people, you have to pay them what talented people deserve.”

For postdocs who did receive raises from their institutions, it came at a welcome time. “It’s sort of a transitional period, career-wise and life-wise, and having a stable financial situation makes it just that much easier,” said Kyle Bender, a postdoc in plant biology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where salary raises were initially suspended but later granted. Bender and his fiancée are planning for a wedding next spring, while gearing up for a career move.

The opaqueness of university communications has spurred dismay among postdocs across the country. Many are left to wonder how institutions regard their work. At Maryland, “it’s like it’s been swept under the rug,” Hook said about the salary raises being revoked. Because she had all the required signatures on her updated contract, Hook said she plans to pursue channels asking her institution to honor it. “I feel valued by my lab,” she told The Scientist. “I don’t feel valued by the university.”