By: Vivek Agrahari
Postdoctoral scientists (postdocs) are an important part of the biomedical research system. In general, they have received a doctoral degree (Ph.D.) but are seeking additional research, training and teaching opportunities to prepare themselves for a career as an independent researcher or faculty member at an academic institution. Postdocs are highly efficient at research work, but are mostly underpaid for the experience they have. The average annual salary for a postdoc is about $45,000, which varies significantly by regional area and funding sources. The pay scale set by the National Research Service Awards (NRSA) is $43,692, $45,444, and $47,268 for the initial three years of a main award through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This scale is often used as a standard by companies to set a starting salary for newly employed scientists.
The U.S. Department of Labor issued a new regulation in May that greatly affects the current salary levels for postdocs. The new pay rule will increase the overtime salary threshold from $23,660 to $47,476 and requires that postdocs who earn less than $47,476 receive overtime pay of time and a half for working more than 40 hours per week. Thus, research organizations have to track postdocs’ overtime hours and compensate them appropriately or increase postdocs’ pay as per the new pay threshold.
Although the new pay threshold will provide financial benefits to the postdocs, this could have a significant impact on the budget of the research lab/hospital/university and may force institutions to eliminate postdoc jobs. The policy change could create a huge dilemma since biomedical research cannot typically be performed in the limited time frame of 40 hours per week. This will create a complicated situation for labs that don’t have the sufficient funding to support “after hours” research.
The increased postdocs pay will also present financial challenges to funding agencies like NIH. They will likely cut their research budget, which will ultimately affect the overall research quality in biomedical sciences. To reduce the impact on research budgets, a gradual transition to the pay scale change is needed. For example, active research could be exempt from this regulation while newly funded studies must follow the new pay requirements.
One factor that has not been considered in this pay rule is the cost of living variability in different cities. In 2014, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences identified cost of living adjustments as an important factor in keeping postdoc salaries current. One salary across all cities is just not equitable. However, this important factor is sidestepped in this pay rule change. Moreover, the skills postdocs have developed should be equally measured, for example, the quality of publications, applicability of their work, and any special technique they have acquired in their research.
It will also be interesting to see how this pay rule will affect the future of the research system. The new pay change may entice graduate students to consider an academic career option as a worthwhile opportunity. At the same time, since the postdoc jobs may be cut, graduate students may consider the postdoc option unsafe for their career.
Overall, the new pay rule can be a win-win situation for both postdocs and the research system. Salaries for postdoc scientists should not be the primary motivation, but the experience they are getting that ultimately leads them to become an independent researcher. From a postdoctoral researcher’s perspective, I am hoping that increasing the salary threshold for postdocs will further enhance the quality of biomedical research and the next generation scientists will be encouraged to consider a postdoc career as an exciting and worthwhile option.