University of California picketers protest at University of California-Irvine in Irvine, 2022.

Postdocs and other academic staff at the University of California’s Irvine campus protest over pay and working conditions last December, during a university-wide strike.Credit: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Getty

Salaries for postdoctoral researchers in the United States are woefully inadequate, according to a survey released last December by the US National Postdoctoral Association (NPA). The non-profit organization, based in Rockville, Maryland, has been advocating for postdocs since 2003. Its 20,000 members are among the 70,000 postdocs working in US academia, government agencies and industry. Nearly all (94.8%) of the survey respondents said that their low pay negatively affects their personal and professional lives.

That finding reflects what the NPA has been hearing anecdotally for years, says Tom Kimbis, the organization’s executive director and chief executive. The report, based on responses from 366 participants, helps to quantify the ongoing low-wage problem, he says. “This is an issue that is fundamental to postdoctoral scholars — having sufficient funds to carry out their lives, have families and pay for rent,” Kimbis says. “Despite these challenges, postdocs across all fields are continuing to accomplish a significant amount of critical research to the benefit of their disciplines and to science and to the nation.”

Postdocs and other academic staff were among tens of thousands of workers at all 10 University of California campuses who staged a strike over pay and working conditions in November and December last year.

Barely scraping by

Postdocs’ low wages undervalue their crucial contributions to the scientific enterprise and make it impossible to meet expenses, many say. Manisha Skaria, a survey respondent and postdoc in organic and medicinal chemistry at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, takes home only about US$3,200 monthly. Skaria, who is in her second postdoctoral position, lives with her husband — also a postdoc, who earns less than she does — and their two children. After non-negotiable outlays such as childcare, the couple have only $700 to $800 for monthly expenses, which recently included a surprise $459 medical bill for her daughter. A lot of people, she notes, say that postdocs should “just do the bare minimum” at work. “I would agree.”

The NPA survey asked postdocs to weigh in on other areas including job security, clarity of roles and responsibilities, and career progression. The survey also invited comments from international postdocs; more than half of US postdocs come from other nations, according to the US National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. Respondents who identified as international indicated that they experience extra challenges — with immigration and cultural transitions, for example.

Childcare challenge

Skaria, who hails from India, recounted how a postdoc friend, also from India, had urgently needed more infant-care support. But visa restrictions had made it unclear whether she could bring her mother-in-law to the United States for help. Her friend’s husband is caring for their young child, a situation that is far from ideal, Skaria explains. “We don’t have family support,” she says.

Nine out of ten respondents reported that uncertainty about their career path is a significant problem. Survey participants also identified a lack of job security and decreased funding for their position as obstacles to professional satisfaction.

Declining stipends for postdocs in biomedical research, among other disciplines, have been well documented and have led to fewer applicants for those positions.

The NPA study echoes Nature’s 2020 survey of 7,670 postdocs from 93 nations. That survey’s findings uncovered widespread discontent along with concerns about the future. More than half of respondents to the Nature survey had negative views about their career prospects, and less than half said they would recommend a scientific career to their younger self.

Yet some NPA survey respondents are upbeat about their current position. Zeke Piskulich, a second-year postdoc in computational chemistry at Boston University in Massachusetts, says that he’s been fortunate to have mentors who clarify for him what he needs to achieve during his stint as a postdoc. Yet his path to a faculty research post is murky. “In terms of when I will find a professor position, or if I will, that’s still up in the air,” he says. If he cannot land a faculty position, he says he’d join a pharmaceutical or software company so that he could continue his research and make an impact on science.

Industry beckons

Andrea Joseph, a second-year postdoc in chemical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school in Philadelphia, had thought that she would be able to begin applying for faculty positions after a year in her post. “That’s kind of standard in the engineering field,” she says. But now, she’s been advised to first publish a couple of papers and secure a grant. Industry is beckoning at this point, she says. “I am considering whether [industry’s] stability and high financial security would be a better fit,” Joseph says.

Tara Schwetz, acting principal deputy director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funded more than 20,000 postdoctoral positions in biomedical research in 2022, says that the agency is well aware of the issues identified in the NPA survey. In November, the NIH launched a working group with experts across disciplines to tackle them, she says. “We’re seeing stagnation in the number of postdocs and we want to explore the reasons behind that,” she says. The advisory group is expected to develop interim recommendations by June.

Kimbis, who will be participating in the NIH working group, notes that the survey underscores the need to improve support for US postdocs. “We have to do better by postdocs as a country — better at understanding their needs and responding to them.”

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