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US law could increase postdoc pay — and shake up research system

Labour law will change how many postdocs — long a troubled segment of the US research hierarchy — are paid.

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A change in US labour regulations will render many postdocs eligible for overtime pay — and create an incentive to raise their wages. The law may ultimately mean fewer postdocs. But some say that the policy could spark much-needed changes to a research system that relies heavily on postdocs yet offers them few opportunities for career advancement.

The new rule, finalized on 18 May by the US Department of Labor, will make overtime pay mandatory for many postdoctoral researchers who make less than US$47,476 per year. Overtime, which is paid at 1.5 times the normal hourly wage, kicks in once workers exceed 40 hours on the job in one week.

But rather than pay the overtime, funders and universities are expected to raise minimum postdoc salaries to meet that threshold. On 17 May, Francis Collins, head of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, said that he would do so for some NIH-funded postdocs.

“It’s a win for postdocs,” says Benjamin Corb, director of public affairs at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) in Rockville, Maryland. “And I think it’s the right move for the community.”

The average salary for a postdoc in the United States is currently around $45,000, with many making substantially less. Even so, employers will probably balk at paying overtime, says Kate Sleeth, chair of the board of the National Postdoctoral Association in Washington DC.

“Postdocs work very, very hard,” she says. “I assume nobody would want to count the number of hours a postdoc would work and pay them overtime — it would be easier to raise their salary.” Doing so could be cheaper and easier to administer than tallying up excess hours.

Approach with caution

But not all postdocs will reap those benefits: the new regulations will not apply to postdocs in the humanities whose primary duty is teaching, for instance.

And Corb says that he was disappointed to learn that the new rules must be implemented by 1 December. The ASBMB had argued for them to be rolled out over the course of three years, to allow investigators with multiyear grants enough time to budget for the change. “It’s going to be a bumpy road to implement,” Corb says.

As postdoctoral researchers become more expensive, laboratories may begin to cut back on the number that they hire. “You can’t just say everybody’s going to get more money,” says Paula Stephan, who studies the economics of scientific research at Georgia State University in Atlanta. “There will be fewer postdocs.”

But that, she argues, may be what the system needs. In December 2014, the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published a report1 arguing that postdoc salaries should be raised to $50,000 a year, and that many postdocs should be reclassified — and better paid — as staff scientists. In 2015, a poll of 20,000 Nature readers found that scientists are eager to see more permanent staff-scientist positions created.

That change has been difficult to implement while postdoc salaries remain low. “If postdoc salaries were raised it would make the relative costs of postdocs more expensive and make staff scientists relatively cheaper,” says Stephan. “Postdocs have been seen as a cheap substitute.”

Corb agrees that the short-term pain of cutting back on postdocs could yield a healthier research system: “To increase postdoc pay and thin out the pool of postdocs may end up, in the long run, being a net positive for the enterprise.”

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  1. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited (National Academies Press, 2014).

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