The Life Sciences Salary Survey

Compensation soars as demand for highly-skilled professionals heats up.

By Karen Pallarito

The quest for top talent, especially in red-hot specializations like molecular and cell biology, pharmacology and drug discovery, drove compensation for US life scientists to loftier levels in 2006.

Salaries leapt 7.2% over the prior year to a median of $74,000, according to The Scientist's latest salary survey. That compares with a 3.8% rise in the consumer price index for the 12 months ended August 2006.

Why the big jump? It's possible that this year's survey reflects a more favorable mix of specialties,...

Life science is not the only science profession to enjoy pay hikes above typical cost-of-living adjustments. According to the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), base salaries for all engineers in 2006 climbed 5.2% to $71,716. Median total annual income, including fees, bonuses and commissions, advanced 6% to $75,000.

Because the industry is under significant pressure to bring drug candidates to market more quickly and cost-effectively, companies are willing to pay a premium for investigators who possess strong technical skills and the ability to work as part of a team.

Today, the typical life scientist with a PhD can expect to earn $73,751 after 10 to 14 years of professional experience. PhDs who work in consulting, production/quality control, administration, marketing/sales or patents/trademarks can bring home six figures. While salaries for scientists in industry continue to eclipse those of their colleagues in academia and government, the pace of growth in academic salaries, at 12.6% in 2006, outpaced increases in industry, up 9.6%, and government, up 8.1%.

There's also good news for young scientists coming into the market at entry-level wages. The median for those with under a year of experience rose 8.3% to $39,000. Veteran scientists, with more than 30 years of experience, saw no change in median salary, by contrast. And despite a glut of life science PhDs on the market, salaries of postdoc researchers in academia held steady, within a median range of $36,998 to $45,000.

Diversity is not even a major recruitment issue at some companies - they're not necessarily looking for a female or a minority to fill a gap in the management team, just the most talented person.

"From my perspective and the people we recruit, what's really driving salaries up is the competition for the very best people," says Alan Lambowitz, director of the Institute for Cellular and Molecular Biology at the University of Texas at Austin. "Everybody wants the same 10 or 15 people, and those are the people who are driving the salaries up."

"The fact that we have to offer higher salaries to compete for new faculty also has the overall effect of driving up overall salary scales for existing faculty, in order to maintain pay equity," he adds. "Otherwise, you get into a situation where new assistant professors are paid as much or more than more senior associate professors."


With a median salary of $144,550, radiation ranked as the top-paying specialization in 2006, followed by drug discovery/development/delivery at $99,500 and toxicology at $99,000. Remuneration for PhD scientists in certain specializations has risen sharply since 2001, led by molecular biology, up 42.3%, and cell biology, up 41.1%.

Salaries in immunology, pharmacology, and drug discovery have swelled by more than one-third over the same five-year period. "The competition for star recruits in cell and molecular biology tends to drive up salaries ? all across biology," Lambowitz observes.

Still, salaries in microbiology have not fared as well. Median pay for PhDs in this specialization rose just 9.8% from 2001 to 2005. Chris Jock, vice president and general manager of Kelly Scientific Resources, a Troy, Mich.-based staffing firm, sees "a flood" of microbiologists on the market. "I just think demand for them is not as great as it is for the cell or molecular biologist."

There is huge demand, though, for investigators who possess strong technical skills, a deeper understanding of the biology of systems and the ability to work as part of a team, Jock points out. Because the industry is under significant pressure to bring drug candidates to market more quickly and cost-effectively, companies are willing to pay a premium for this particular blend of experience, he says. They want to recruit scientists who are able to hit the ground running. Unfortunately," Jock adds, "there are not as many people out there with all these diverse new skills as the market needs."

The upshot is a scramble for talent at many levels, including the c-suites of many biotech and pharmaceutical companies. "I'm just swamped with requests to do major searches for chief medical officers," reports Neil M. Solomon, founder of the Neil Michael Group, an executive life sciences service firm based in Great Neck, NY. He says that he finds companies desperately want to get their lead drug candidate approved - or at least moved up through clinical trials - and that is igniting CMO demand. "You need a very savvy, experienced, strategic chief medical officer to run your programs," Solomon says, "and that's where the money is right now."

The rare individual who is both a real scientist and a great manager is in serious demand. If you've got the know-how and a dash of business, a higher pay-day is bound to follow.

Higher salaries are chasing key talent "across all levels and functions in the biotech industry," adds Brandon Cherry, a principal and consultant at Presidio Pay Advisors, a compensation consulting firm specializing in the biotech field.


Still, not every life scientist is enjoying the wealth of demand. In many jobs and specialties, pay merely reflects cost-of-living increases. In some specialties, salaries struggle to keep pace with inflation. In mycobacteriology, for example, the median is $52,000, off 3.8% from the prior-year survey.

Leonid Heifets, director of the mycobacteriology reference library at National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, Colo., isn't surprised by the relatively low salaries these jobs command. He believes the role of the laboratory in controlling tuberculosis is underappreciated due to historical factors. Long turn-around times on sputum tests conducted amid a resurgence of TB in the 1980s forced clinicians to make treatment decisions without the aid of lab results, he explains, and they began to think they could treat the disease without the lab.

"This traditional thought is still stuck in the mind of many [physicians and administrators] who make decisions about salaries. So they don't consider us as important people," insists Heifets. "And that has a reflection in research, also. When you do research in molecular biology, then you're much better off, because you have more grants, and that increases your salary."

An ethnicity and gender divide also persists. Median salaries for black and Hispanic PhDs trail their white counterparts by 9.2% and 18.7%, respectively. Across all degree levels, female scientists make one-fourth less than their male counterparts, based on 2006 medians.

The gender gap is somewhat less pronounced in engineering, which has made significant strides in recruiting and compensating women engineers. A salary survey by the NSPE shows great parity among engineers with four years or less of experience. "However, I don't think anyone can deny the need to attract more females into the profession and get more girls interested in math and science in early education," said Stacey A. Ober, a spokeswoman for the 50,000-member organization. "In this way, I think the life sciences and engineering have the same goals in wanting to improve math and science education - and participation - from an early age."

Still, diversity is not even a major recruitment issue at some companies, recruiters acknowledge. So they're not necessarily looking for a female or a minority to fill a gap in the management team. The marching orders are typically something like this: "Just get me the most talented person on the planet," Solomon says.

At present, scientists with specialized knowledge in, say, protein folding and subspecialty physicians with extensive experience in drug development are among the most highly sought professionals, observers say. Hot areas on the horizon include clinical risk management and pharmacovigilance of marketed drugs, offers Zeb Horowitz, senior vice president and chief medical officer of Savient Pharmaceuticals Inc. in East Brunswick, NJ.
If you've got the know-how and a dash of business, a higher pay-day is bound to follow. "The rare individual who is both a real scientist and a great manager is in serious demand," Horowitz observes.

With senior-level experience in both academia and Big Pharma, even Horowitz finds himself prey to eager headhunters ferreting out potential candidates. "I get unsolicited recruiter calls weekly, on average, where I am the intended target," he says.

Interested in reading more?

Magaizne Cover

Become a Member of

Receive full access to digital editions of The Scientist, as well as TS Digest, feature stories, more than 35 years of archives, and much more!
Already a member?