Saturday, January 2, 2010

How much am I worth?

Professor in Training recently initiated a discussion about the realities of the tenure track. One of the subplots of the discussion regarded paying postdocs "what they're worth". PhysioProf suggests that the NIH/NRSA payscale is a reasonable approximation of what a postdoc is worth. PiT asks, "What is a postdoc really 'worth'? Is $40K/yr sufficient renumeration for someone who has >10 years of college education behind them?"

As of 2009, the NIH set the pre-tax salary of a first year postdoc at $37,368. The pay level increases with each year of completed experience; the increase, which averages out to approximately $2,000 per year, ranges from about $1,600 to $2,800 (evidently the NIH feels that postdocs gain the most worth during their second year). The NIH periodically re-evaluate and increase paylines for "cost of living", usually on the order of $500/yr.

Many institutions use the NIH payscale to set their own postdoc salaries. (At some point, I was under the impression that any institute receiving NIH funds was more or less required to pay the NIH/NRSA salary as a minimum, but I may be wrong; feel free to enlighten me in the comments.) This provides some advantage to postdocs by setting a minimum expectation. Some institutes, however, take the NIH payline as absolute truth and do not consider for cost-of-living or taxation rates (my own institute falls into this category). Many of the prestigious universities and medical schools in the U.S. are located in cities with much higher than average cost-of-living. Cost-of-living in my current city is about 30% higher than the national average (and my previous city), and the state income tax rate jumped substantially upon my move to BRI. By the time I pay out taxes and benefits, my net income is only marginally higher than a grad student at PSU. Some postdocs end up having to take out loans or use credit cards to supplement their living expenses because of the mismatch between salary and cost-of-living. Of course, when a PI is applying for a grant, s/he can only request up to the NIH/NRSA payline to cover a postdoc's salary. Anything over that payline must come (I assume) from discretionary funds that then, of course, cannot be used for other costs like supplies or travel.

I really don't know what, if any, solution there is. But in wage debates, sometimes we neglect to mention or lose sight of the fact that $40k in one state is not the same in another. This was a consideration that influenced my choice of graduate schools. It is also going to play a big role in our next move. I can't help but wonder if some institutions are missing out on some talented postdocs and grad students for this reason.