Postdocs at Brookhaven: Establishing a Living Wage

Late one night last October, I found myself going to sleep in a familiar place: my office floor at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL). A roommate provided my weekday transportation to work, but I had no means of getting to the lab on weekends. So I decided to work longer days and to spend those nights sleeping in my office.

After finishing my Ph.D., I was chronically broke with no hope of saving enough money to purchase a car. When I learned that BNL technicians and undergraduate summer interns were taking home more than I was, it was time to ask some questions. Why did I bother getting a Ph.D.? Was it reasonable to expect postdocs to live like I was living?

Then it occurred to me that I was the person being most unreasonable. Nobody forced me to go to grad school. Nobody forced me to agree to the BNL postdoc salary. There are better paying opportunities available for those with a Ph.D. in life sciences. Why was I sticking with this job? As I lay on my office floor, staring at the ceiling, I discovered reason. I determined that I needed to be willing to quit–to walk away from this unreasonable situation.

Don’t get me wrong: I did not want to quit. I enjoyed my project and liked my co-workers. I decided that I would try to make the BNL administration understand that it was unreasonable to expect postdocs to live on the salaries they offered.

Recommendation #1: Figure out who you are and what you need.

First, I had to figure out who I was and what I needed. I am no longer a student. That era ended the day I defended and submitted my thesis. As if to affirm this change, banks were calling with reminders that it was time to start repaying my student loans! And I knew I was no longer in training. Being a “trainee” implies that one is a burden to the lab and as such should be grateful for any compensation–a characterization I reject. While still learning, I am also contributing from my own considerable experience. I am a productive member of the laboratory.

I now have a firm understanding of my value, as a postdoc, to the system. I no longer believe that someone is doing me a favor by employing me. I was hired to do scientific research for which I had prepared, and it is fair to expect reasonable compensation for this work.

So, what is reasonable compensation? I have no overwhelming desire for material wealth, but I am tired of living from paycheck to paycheck with little or no cash prior to payday and no reserve for retirement. As a foreign national (like fully half of the postdocs in the United States), I was prohibited from taking a (legal) part-time job, so I had to make it on my BNL salary alone.

Given my contributions in the lab, I want a salary that could reasonably be expected to meet my monthly expenses with a cushion, including modest retirement savings. I also think fairness demands that my contribution to BNL’s mission be compared relative to that of other staff members. So, what would be fair?

BNL offers postdocs $31K per year, whereas NIH is hoping to offer first-year postdocs $45K per year. These figures are completely meaningless without context: What is satisfactory in Omaha will not go far on Long Island. Before I could ask my boss to consider my salary to be inadequate, I knew I would have to demonstrate, in no uncertain terms, that it was so inadequate that no reasonable administrator would suggest that personal habits might be to blame for my poverty.

Several postdocs at BNL joined me to create a cost-of-living analysis that we could all agree reflected our experiences. We did our homework, checking housing costs and obtaining low-cost car insurance quotes. We negotiated reasonable expenses and luxury items, acknowledging that different postdocs have different needs. We then assembled several budgets to reflect the family situation (e.g., single, married, married with children) of postdocs we knew. When our analysis was complete, we determined that our current salaries were at least $10K short.

Anticipating that we would receive little sympathy if we were being paid substantially more than other BNL staff members, we compared our salaries to others at BNL using a comprehensive list of pay schedules for all employee categories, with the exception of postdocs. Had postdocs been included on the list, we would have been some of the poorest paid employees at BNL. We learned, for example, that an entry-level technician with a bachelor’s degree earns $1000 more per year than most postdocs. The technician also earned a 10% retirement contribution, a benefit not offered to postdocs.

We determined that the minimum salary for postdocs should be equivalent to that of a technician with 5 years experience, roughly the amount of time one devotes to a Ph.D. in North America.

Recommendation #3: Be bold, make recommendations.

We published our findings in a report called “Establishing Adequate Living Conditions for Research Associates at Brookhaven National Laboratory.” In the report we described who postdocs were and how we fit into the mission of BNL. We presented our budget analysis and the comparisons to other job classifications to illustrate that our salaries were not only inadequate but also arguably unjust. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we made clear recommendations.

We believe our report was clear and uncompromising and hoped that it would be viewed as constructive. To avoid confrontation or hostility, we first presented our report to our principal investigator. Before we could circulate the report to other postdocs and administrators, he forwarded it directly to the director of human resources with a plea to take our position seriously.

The news was somewhat of a letdown. We had put considerable effort into informing our arguments and were confident that we had not sought a penny more than was necessary to optimize our productivity. Although we hadn’t really held out hope that we’d receive the extra $10K we had determined we were worth, we were disappointed that the response had not addressed the issues raised in our report. Moreover, the base salary for technicians was also increased to $35,050–still (just) above that of postdocs.

The experience was not a complete letdown. Despite the meeting being called with short notice on a Friday afternoon prior to a long weekend, nearly all the postdocs turned out to listen and to voice their opinions. We were given a raise without much of a struggle, suggesting that if postdocs as a group were to push harder, a larger raise could be achieved. Finally, despite failing to obtain a more substantial salary increase, I was satisfied that I had made a significant effort to change my situation and had experienced a modest measure of success.

Recommendation #4: Move on.

Now I face two choices: Stay and tolerate a slightly improved financial situation for an indefinite period of time, or move on to a career that accurately recognizes both my needs and contributions. The decision may not be so difficult. I’ve several friends who have left research science for very rewarding careers, reasoning that science had become an expensive hobby that they could no longer afford to indulge. Perhaps if we all become more sensible, conditions will change and allow us back into this career that we find so unreasonably difficult to leave.

Science Translations: Bridging the Knowledge Gap

Pursuing a PhD in Physics