The low salaries of many postdoctoral researchers have long been a source of concern in terms of both fairness and the incentives that low salaries create for principal investigators to employ postdoctoral researchers. With the exception of positions in engineering and some parts of the physical sciences, beginning salaries for postdoctoral researchers in academia correlate closely with the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) minimum stipend for the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA). Even in the field of engineering, there is minimal difference between postdoctoral salaries and the NIH NRSA minimum. Salaries for postdoctoral researchers outside of academia are usually higher. The committee devoted considerable attention to determining an appropriate minimum and explored several approaches to finding corresponding salaries for comparison.
Indexing to contemporary college graduates
One benchmark is the salary earned by a college graduate who did not go to graduate or professional school and entered the marketplace six to seven years earlier. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, this salary was $49,911 in 2012.
Indexing to graduate student stipends
Data on graduate stipends are difficult to compile. However, using the crowdsourcing website GradPay and IPEDS Institutional Characteristics Survey Tuition Data, it was determined that the average total cost for a science, engineering, or health graduate student in 2011 was approximately $51,000, more than half of which is for tuition and fees.40
Indexing to newly hired assistant professors
According to the 2013-2014 Faculty Salary Survey of Institutions Belonging to Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities conducted by Oklahoma State University, the average nine-month salary of a newly hired assistant professor at public research universities in the biological and biomedical sciences is $74,177; in engineering it is $84,012; in computer and information
40 Values rounded to the nearest thousand. Data were gathered for 73 institutions and 51 self-identified science, engineering, or health fields. More information about GradPay is available at http://gradpay.herokuapp.com/, last accessed April 8, 2014.
sciences and support services it is $94,234 (OSU 2014). Assuming a reasonable starting salary for a postdoctoral researcher to be approximately two-thirds of this nine-month amount implies a starting salary in the biological and biomedical sciences for postdoctoral researchers of $49,698; in engineering, of $56,288; in computer and information sciences and support services of $63,137. The 67 percent average for all non-medical related disciplines is $52,062.
Inflation of previous recommendations
Previous reports—from the National Research Council and others—have put forward recommendations for minimum salaries. Recommendation 5.4 in the National Research Council’ s Addressing the Nation’s Changing Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists states “[s]tipends and other forms of compensation for those in training should be based on education and experience and should be regularly adjusted to reflect changes in the cost of living.” (NRC 2000). In 2001, the NIH drafted a response to this recommendation, saying:
The NIH concurs with the committee’s observation that NRSA stipends are unduly low in view of the high level of education and professional skills involved in biomedical research. NRSA stipend targets have been identified for both predoctoral and postdoctoral recipients. NIH plans to develop budget requests that will permit an increase in stipends by 10 to 12 percent per year for the next few years in order to reach those targets. Once the targets have been attained, annual cost-of-living adjustments will be instituted so that stipend levels remain relatively constant in real value. The appropriateness of stipend levels will be examined in future years to maintain comparability to levels of income available to students and postdoctorates from other sources. (NIH 2001)
At the time of the NRC recommendation, entry level NRSA postdoctoral salaries were $26,256.41 The NIH set, at that time, a “tentative target” of $45,000 for entry-level postdoctoral salaries. Although the NIH did not set a target date, using the proposed technique to increase the levels gradually, this goal could have been reached around 2005. Adjusted for inflation, a beginning postdoctoral salary of $45,000 in 2005 would be equivalent to approximately $54,846 in 2014.
Research Grade Evaluation Guide
The NIH and other federal agencies use the Research Grade Evaluation Guide (RGEG) to determine the correct placement of their intramural researchers on the General Schedule (GS) for salary (RGEG 2006). A typical
beginning researcher would be placed at GS-11, which has a minimum starting salary of $50,790 in 2014. The GS system also makes adjustments for local cost of living. For example, the minimum for a GS-11 is $63,386 in Boston, MA, and $59,302 in Mesa, AZ.42
The $50,000 figure
Because all of these comparisons pointed to a starting salary of approximately $50,000 or more, the committee concluded that a conservative minimum should be $50,000. The committee recognizes that it cannot—and should not—dictate salaries to all institutions. However, the justifications for recommending this minimum for what has become the de facto benchmark for many institutions and disciplines—the NIH’s NRSA starting salary level—are strong.
The committee emphasized that this is a benchmark minimum. A number of factors—including but not limited to discipline, region, and institutional salary scales—should be taken into account when setting salaries for postdoctoral researchers.
42 The 2014 General Schedule (GS) Locality Pay Tables are available at http://www.opm.gov/policydata-oversight/pay-leave/salaries-wages/2014/general-schedule/, last accessed on October 30, 2014.
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