More money, fewer postdocs

Proposed salary increases have many postdocs waiting eagerly for a bigger check, but in the current economic environment, others are concerned about the potential consequences. 

Megan Scudellari
Apr 25, 2010

Proposed salary increases have many postdocs waiting eagerly for a bigger check, but in the current economic environment, others are concerned about the potential consequences. Currently, postdocs receiving federal awards make between $37,740 to $52,068 a year, depending on a fellow's level of experience.

Now, U.S. President Barack Obama's proposed 2011 budget includes a six percent funding increase for these government-funded stipends, or National Research Service Awards (NRSAs), which support more than 17,000 postdoctoral fellows. And since many private institutions use the NRSA stipend scale to determine their own postdoc compensation, the salary bump is likely to have wide-reaching effects.

For years, the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) has advocated for a hike in postdoc funding, arguing that NRSA stipends do not cover the basic costs of living for those required to live in expensive cities like Boston, New York City, and San Francisco. A 6 percent increase would average only...

The small increase, however, means that 92 fellowships would be cut nationwide. For some, the loss is negligible. "It's a small percentage compared to thousands of positions," says Cathee Phillips, director of the NPA. Some say the cut is even beneficial. "In my personal opinion, there are too many postdocs," says Gelhaus. "A lot of postdocs are just working as hired hands and aren't really being trained."

The proposed increase has incited heated debates on many websites, especially at the DrugMonkey blog at scienceblogs.com. Some suggest that senior postdocs, in their fourth or fifth year of a fellowship, could easily pick of the slack for any fall-off in production due to the loss of first-year trainees. Others worry about consequences for young faculty, who might only be able to afford one postdoc instead of two.

Overarching the debate is the discussion of why postdocs should get a bump at a time when the salaries of other positions, including Principal Investigators, lab technicians, and graduate students, are flat-lining. Many scientists are struggling, but it's important to remember that postdocs have not shared regular salary bumps in the past, says Steven Wendell, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, where he was previously assistant director of postdoctoral development in the School of Health Sciences. "I do caution that we have to be sensitive to the current landscape, that there are a lot of faculty, staff, and graduate students that are not getting cost of living increases," he says, "but we shouldn't pass up the opportunity because it's not the ideal time. You have to run with it when it's available."

On average, NIH postdoc stipends do lag behind other science funding organizations. At the NSF, for example, postdoctoral stipends range from $45,000 (biology) to $58,000 (earth science) to $75,000 (chemistry). See our recent review of top-paid postdoc positions for more. "I agree it's a training period and we shouldn't be making $85,000 per year," says Gelhaus. But compared to the pay scale of other government jobs, "we're the cheapest labor with the highest terminal degree," she says.

But is a salary increase the best solution for a postdoc's woes? Sigma Xi's 2005 postdoc survey, "Doctors without Orders," found that structured oversight and formal training had more influence on overall fellowship satisfaction than salary. It would take a $20,000 increase in salary to have the equivalent impact on job satisfaction and productivity as an individual development plan and annual review process, the study found. And those are relatively cost free options, says Wendell. "If you're talking about bang for your buck, stipend increases are not a panacea," he says. Are salaries on your mind?

Clarification (April 27): When originally posted, the article used the word 'lobby' in reference to the NPA. However, the organization is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, for which there are restrictions regarding lobbying. The word choice was the author's.

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