Increasing transparency around postdoctoral salaries in the United States

Increasing transparency around postdoctoral salaries in the United States

 

There is very little information available on how much postdocs are actually paid in the U.S. It is generally assumed that biomedical postdocs in particular are paid roughly in accordance with the NIH NRSA scale and indeed the National Postdoctoral Association’s Institutional Policy Report and Database show that most institutions have a policy to pay postdocs in accordance with the NRSA scale. This scale is a guideline, however, and the absolute legal minimum for postdoc salaries is largely determined by the Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA.

 

In 2016, we tracked how institutions were changing policies for salaries in response to updates to the FLSA, which would in effect have brought the legal salary threshold from $23,660 to $47,476. The tracking effort is documented in our FLSA and postdocs resource and published in our paper, Monitoring the compliance of the academic enterprise with the Fair Labor Standards Act.

 

The updates never came to pass, and so the mandate to raise salaries was removed. Many institutions committed to continuing to raise salaries, as did the NIH; but a very small number of institutions chose to cancel plans to change salary policies. This led us to consider the question of what the salary landscape for postdocs looks like in the U.S. – and whether it would be possible to determine salaries easily, given that we are already involved in efforts to harmonize postdoc titles, and have pointed to the difficulties in even counting postdocs caused by the administration of postdocs. We are also gathering information on differences in compensation and benefits for postdocs on research grants, vs postdocs on fellowships or training mechanisms in the U.S. At some institutions, it is possible that an institution may choose not to give postdocs the same salaries or benefits as postdocs on research grants, whereas other institutions take steps to ensure equal treatment. There are even institutions who reward those who apply for and receive fellowships – see more here in our graduate and postdoctoral fellowships resource under construction.

 

We are now releasing our new Investigating Postdoc Salaries resource (http://futureofresearch.org/investigating-postdoc-salaries/), which includes the results of a data collection effort, to determine the state of postdoctoral salaries on December 1st 2016. The data are preliminary and not of a standard that allows for detailed comparison of institutions, although we are able to see some interesting broad trends which we are investigating further. The data are described in more detail in the resource, but we have the following broad observations:

 

  • the ability of institutions to report out postdoc salary data is highly variable; in particular there are institutions who are able to report out data of a high standard, which may indicate institutional commitments to supporting postdoctoral offices and officers, and in ensuring postdoctoral administration is prioritized;
  • the proposed FLSA threshold salary and NIH NRSA Year 0 stipend appear to be important benchmarks – 22% of postdocs in our dataset were on salaries in the range of $47,475 to $47,500; 5.5% were on exactly $47,484 (the new NRSA minimum) and 10.1% were on exactly $47,476 (the proposed FLSA minimum).
  • the floor for the lowest postdoc salaries is hard to determine, due to ambiguities in how many institutions report salaries (particularly in the case of postdocs paid on fellowships who are not paid through the institution). Some institutions however do report salaries combining all sources of compensation, demonstrating that this is possible.

 

We invite you to explore the data with us, as we continue to analyze it. We will publish a blog post each day in November discussing data from each university system or institution, pointing out nuances and the results of discussions we have had with people at these institutions that illustrate why comparing data between institutions is challenging. We hope that through this public refinement process, we can gather more information and clarify some issues that could be beneficial for all involved. Feel free to comment on the posts and join the discussion, as we start on a journey to increase transparency about postdoctoral salaries!

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