CAREER NEWS

Huge variations in US postdoc salaries point to undervalued workforce

Rare effort to track wages reveals inconsistencies and a gender pay gap.
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.

Search for this author in:

A woman displays an empty wallet

Female postdocs earn less than their male counterparts across much of the United States.Credit: Emilija Manevska/Getty

A peer-reviewed report on the salaries of nearly 14,000 postdoctoral researchers working at 52 US institutions has revealed wide disparities.

Salaries ranged from US$23,660 — the minimum wage set by the US Fair Labor Standards Act — to well over $100,000. The figures, which refer to salaries on 1 December 2016, were obtained through US Freedom of Information Act requests by members of the Future of Research, a science-advocacy group in Boston, Massachusetts.

The study represents one of few such efforts to quantify postdoc compensation in a meaningful way. Historically, it has been difficult to track postdoc wages, because individuals might be paid through their principal investigator’s grant, through their own fellowship award or directly by the university where they work. Furthermore, postdocs can be classified variously as postdoctoral scientists, research fellows, research associates or other titles, even within a single institution or organization.

The inconsistency of compensation suggests that some institutions haven’t been paying close attention to the postdocs on their campuses, says Gary McDowell, executive director of the Future of Research and co-author of the report, which was published last November1. “We’ve found that a lot of institutions can’t count their postdocs well,” he says. “It’s fair to assume that they aren’t really checking up on things like salary.”

Between the extremes, many salaries clustered around the median of about $47,500. That’s close to the starting salary set by the US National Institutes of Health for postdocs receiving National Research Service Awards (NRSA). Although the NRSA salary guideline applies to only about 15% of NIH-funded postdocs, many institutions clearly use it as a benchmark, McDowell says.

The data also suggest that female postdocs are relatively underpaid, at least in some parts of the country. The authors collected the first names of more than 7,200 postdocs and used an algorithm to estimate gender, further breaking down the data by US geographical region (northeast, south, Midwest and west). The results suggest that female postdocs in the south were paid about $1,940 less per year than were male postdocs, on average. In the northeast, home to some of the largest and most prestigious universities in the country, female postdocs received, on average, about $1,710 less than their male equivalents. In the west and Midwest, salaries were roughly equal between male and female researchers.

The cause of that gender gap is unclear. Anecdotally, McDowell says, many postdocs in recent years have told him that they have successfully negotiated for higher salaries. In his experience, those negotiators tend to be male and originate from the United States or Europe — factors that seem to give them an advantage over female researchers from other parts of the world (see also ref. 2).

Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta, who has served on several committees of the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, applauds the release of the data and the work that went into it. “It’s important for everyone to know what postdocs are getting paid,” she says. Still, she notes, many gaps remain. The report has data from only one private university, and some of the 51 public universities in the study provided salaries for only a handful of their postdocs. “It’s not a complete picture at all,” she says.

McDowell hopes that increased transparency over postdoc salaries will give more researchers the knowledge and motivation to seek salaries that reflect their worth. He notes that the National Academies recommended a minimum postdoctoral salary of $50,000 in a 2018 report3 on the next generation of researchers — a suggestion that he supports as a good starting point. He would also like to see salaries adjusted to cover the cost of living in expensive areas. “It’s still too low, considering what postdocs are expected to do and the hours they are expected to put in,” he says. “These are essentially cheap staff scientists.”

Stephan, who contributed to the 2018 National Academies report, says that she has known for many years that some postdocs around the country are severely underpaid. “At most universities, postdoc pay isn’t very well centrally controlled,” she says. “You can get a faculty member who thinks they can hire people for a low salary.”

If more institutions started paying attention to their postdocs and if more postdocs advocated for their worth, wages would probably rise and many inequities would shrink, McDowell says. “There’s basically no impetus to change,” he says. “This study should provide some impetus. We’re paying attention.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00587-y

References

  1. 1.

    Athanasiadou, R. et al. Stud. Grad. Postdr. Educ. 9, 213–242 (2018).

  2. 2.

    Leibbrandt, A. & List, J. A. Mgmt Sci. 61, 2016–2024 (2015).

  3. 3.

    National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The Next Generation of Biomedical and Behavioral Sciences Researchers: Breaking Through (National Academies Press, 2018).

Download references

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the daily Nature Briefing email newsletter

Stay up to date with what matters in science and why, handpicked from Nature and other publications worldwide.

Sign Up