Select Academics Based on Merit, Not Money

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Postdocs are critical to the biomedical research enterprise, yet are often the forgotten population in academia. The scarcity of data on the postdoc population hinders our ability to improve the academic system, as well as shed light onto the reality of the postdoc experience.

For academia to operate as a meritocracy, academics should be selected based on curiosity and intellectual ability. Increasingly, however, academic talent is selected instead by irrelevant factors, such as the ability to persist in long periods of training on salaries that fall below recommended national levels. For example, there are numerous anecdotal reports of postdocs (particularly women) leaving academia due to the inability to pay for childcare on a postdoc salary.

Using Institutional Websites & HR Departments to Monitor Postdoc Salary Policies

Comprehensive analyses of postdoc pay at a national scale have not previously been conducted. In recent years, Future of Research has increased transparency on postdoc salaries through data collection and analysis.

In 2016, we monitored institutional salary policies, specifically how institutions were complying with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA establishes standards such as minimum wage and overtime pay for employees in both the public and private sectors in the United States. On December 1, 2016, the FLSA was due to be updated by the U.S. Department of Labor. One change proposed was to increase the annual salary threshold for exemption from overtime pay from $23,660 to $47,476 annually. We examined how this change would affect postdoc salaries by checking university websites and contacting HR departments at institutions for information on their compliance with the FLSA ruling. We made this data publicly available in real time through an online resource (Figure 1) and later published our findings in F1000Research.

Figure 1. Excerpt from Future of Research online resource containing responses from institutions with regards to FLSA compliance.

This initial work increased transparency around postdoc salary policies by comparing institutional FLSA compliance side by side. These data also enabled staff and early career researchers to successfully advocate for salary raises by demonstrating the need to match their peer institutions. For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison increased postdoc salaries to match the salaries which the University of Michigan provided their postdocs.

Obtaining Postdoc Salaries Using the Freedom of Information Act

We then set out to expand this effort into obtaining individual postdoc salary amounts, rather than simply looking at institutional policies dictating pay. While institutions may point to their policies as evidence of high postdoc salaries, our work with Rescuing Biomedical Research (RBR) demonstrated that many institutions don’t truly know who their postdocs are, and are unable to accurately and consistently count them. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that implementing a postdoc salary policy may be inconsistent and at the discretion of individual departments or PIs employing postdocs. Thus, institutions can overlook individual postdocs.

We obtained postdoc salaries through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allowing us to be consistent in our methodology. We submitted FOIA requests to all US public institutions reporting 300 or more science and engineering postdocs (the 2015 National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering (GSS) was used to obtain postdoc numbers).

This showed how much individual postdocs salaries on a national scale. We made these data available both through our online resource (Figure 2) and a recent publication.

Figure 2. Postdoc salaries obtained through the FOIA and posted on Future of Research website.

Using Freedom of Information Act to Request Individual Postdoc Salaries Amounts

We requested both postdoc salaries and job titles through the FOIA. For a fraction of the cases, we also received postdoc names and department affiliations.

The data also showed a large variation in the ability of institutions to provide the titles and salaries of their postdocs. Some provided exactly what we asked; while for others, the data were of such a standard that upon public release, institutional administrators contacted us with updates.

It may have been less combative to ask individual institutions for salary data through postdoc offices and administrators directly overseeing postdoctoral populations, as opposed to requesting them through the FOIA. This was impossible due to limited resources for this effort. However, our standard methodology allowed us to answer an interesting question: “How well do different branches of university administration understand the postdoc population?” This is particularly relevant as 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of “The Invisible University,” which was the first major national study of postdocs that highlighted their lack of visibility and agency within institutions.

There were also some problems interpreting the data. For example, some salaries received below the legal federal minimum annual salary ($23,660); we discovered that many of these were supplements to fellowships passing through payroll. We, therefore, set a lower limit at $23,660 and analyzed only salaries above this threshold (the lowest salary in this dataset was at $23,660, which appeared in one instance, a number so precisely tied to the legal minimum that it is probably deliberate).

Willingness from institutions to provide the data was also variable, there was only one university system that refused to provide the data.

The work in this publication wouldn’t have been possible without a great team of people dedicated to postdoc advocacy. Each brought a different type of expertise to the table. Our tireless Executive Director, Gary McDowell, collected the data; our data scientist, Niki Athanasiadou, analyzed the data; one of our board members, Carrie Niziolek, contributed to institutional data collection; and another board member, McKenzie Carlisle, provided invaluable social science expertise. We all wrote and edited the paper as a group.

Advocating for Broader Changes in Postdoc Salaries Using Data

The data showed a wide range of postdoc salaries within a single institution, indicating that institutions did not typically factor in the cost of living. Providing these data openly on our website allowed others to not only advocate within their institutions for postdoc raises, but also perform independent analyses, such as by graduate student Drew Doering (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Plot by Drew Doering, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, comparing postdoc salaries from FOIA requests. 

An interesting finding from our publication was how postdoc titles influenced salaries, which explains in part the large variability observed. There are currently 37 titles for postdocs in universities making it difficult to count postdocs and determine their pay. The 2012 Biomedical Workforce Working Group Report indicates that the number of postdocs funded from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awards (e.g., R01s) alone could be twice as many as estimated.

Writing publications around postdoc salaries has proved impactful for effecting change in academia, and we plan to continue data collection towards this effort into 2019.

Future Directions in Advocating for Increased Postdoc Pay

Obtaining national postdoc salary data allowed members of our organization to advocate for changes in postdoc pay on a larger scale, such as through the Next Generation Researchers Initiative. This initiative promotes the growth, stability, and diversity of the biomedical research workforce. We have successfully advocated for these changes in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) and the NIH report, Breaking Through (Figure 4). Both our Executive Director Gary McDowell and President Jessica Polka co-authored the report.

Figure 4. ‘Breaking Through’ report is an example of a national study addressing larger scale changes in the system.

We are also expanding this work with Emily Roberts to create, a site where postdocs can self-report yearly salaries and benefits. We invite you to add your information so we can continue to increase postdoc pay transparency, which will hopefully allow us to improve the postdoc experience and change the culture to where money is not a selecting factor for scientists.

Acknowledgment: I would like to thank Gary McDowell for help with writing and editing this post.

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