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Low pay, exclusivity requirements and lack of support plague postdocs across Europe

Survey uncovers annual salaries as low as €5,000 in some Eastern European nations.
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.

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Salaries and contract restrictions can create barriers for researchers.Credit: Helen Ashford/Getty

A survey of nearly 900 postdoctoral researchers from across Europe reveals that low pay, long hours and contractual barriers to obtaining outside work could jeopardize or hamper scientists’ future employability.

The study, conducted by the European Network of Postdoctoral Associations in Coimbra, Portugal, also showed wide regional disparities in compensation and institutional support. The results were published as a preprint on the bioRxiv server1 on 23 January.

The survey found that postdocs’ annual pay ranged from about €5,000 (US$5,668) to more than €70,000, with a median of €32,000. The results echo those of a survey published last November of postdocs who work in the United States, where pay also varies greatly by region and is clustered around a slightly higher median of about US$47,500.

The European report finds that the lowest postdoc salaries are largely in Eastern European countries, such as the Czech Republic and Poland; in this region, the annual median salary is €15,600. The median salary of postdocs in southern European countries, such as Spain, Portugal and Italy, is €18,000 — far below the median of nearly €40,500 for Western countries, such as France, the United Kingdom and Germany. “Europe is a very diverse place,” says Maria Ribeiro, a neuroscientist at the University of Coimbra and lead author of the report. “I hope our survey will shine some light on the very different working conditions for postdocs across Europe.”

Only 36 responses (4% of the total) came from Eastern Europe, but the limited data were enough to raise alarms, Ribeiro says. “I was very surprised by the very low salaries.” At first, she thought that some of the reported salaries might have been mistakes or misunderstandings, but she was able to confirm that some full-time postdocs in Eastern Europe do in fact earn only a few hundred euros a month. She hopes that future surveys will provide a fuller picture of salaries in the region.

Scant support

In another major disparity, more than half of all respondents from Western Europe said that their institution has an office that supports postdoctoral researchers, whereas fewer than 20% of respondents from southern Europe and fewer than 3% from Eastern Europe reported having that benefit. The relative lack of career support in southern Europe makes it hard for early-career researchers to escape the postdoc cycle and move on to permanent careers, Ribeiro says. The average southern European postdoc in the survey had been in the job for 48 months — a full year longer than had the average Western European.

The survey results underscore the need for more career guidance for postdocs, says Berit Hyllseth, an adviser for the Research Council of Norway, a government funding agency in Lysaker. “Research institutions should be responsible for developing a career system, including a career-development plan,” she says. “Funding institutions can also require such plans in the projects they fund.” Hyllseth co-coordinated an October 2016 report2 by Science Europe — an association of European funding agencies based in Brussels — that called for greater funding and support for postdocs across the continent.

The findings also revealed that postdocs on both full- and part-time schemes reported working longer than the hours stipulated by their contracts. Nearly 40% of those on full-time contracts said that they work 50 or more hours per week, and 11% reported working 60 or more hours weekly.

Contracts also ban 60% of postdocs across Europe from taking extra jobs. In southern Europe, 83% of postdocs’ contracts contain the restriction. The report’s authors warn that this requirement could shrink junior scientists’ career options, because it bars them from amassing work experience beyond academia. “They will be less attractive for prospective employers,” the report says.

To level the playing field, institutions in southern and Eastern Europe must rethink their treatment of postdoctoral researchers, Ribeiro says. “We don’t really need new rules so much as a change in culture,” she says. “Postdoctoral researchers are not represented in the decision-making organs of their institutions. If they were, a lot of these issues would be tackled.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00688-8

References

  1. 1.

    Ribeiro, M. J. et al. Preprint at bioRxiv https://doi.org/10.1101/523621 (2019).

  2. 2.

    Science Europe Working Group on Research Careers. Postdoctoral Funding Schemes in Europe (Science Europe, 2016).

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