Topic: Postdoctoral Training
Comments by Michael Gavino
The postdoc is a position that is at once trainee and employee. While this feature has remained constant over the years, the circumstances that a postdoc inhabits today have changed much from those of even a decade ago. Namely, the life sciences postdoc is now a position occupied for four years at a bare minimum and, as has been recently documented by several reports, often for much longer periods. Concurrent with the lengthening of postdoctoral tenure, the cost of living in cities across America has skyrocketed; for example, the median rent in San Francisco has nearly doubled, even after adjusting for inflation. What has not changed however, to mitigate these influences, is postdoc pay. Adjusted for inflation, the NIH NRSA postdoctoral stipend, a standard adopted by many U.S. institutions as a de facto pay scale, has actually decreased by over $2,000 since 2004. The result is a scenario that is, for many, literally financially untenable. In particular, those with dependents and those from disadvantaged backgrounds are at significant risk. In light of this, the reality is a system that no longer allows for equal opportunity, and one that fails to elevate the best scientists into tenure track positions.
If the goal of the American biomedical scientific endeavor is to maintain and promote our institutions as the best places to carry out the boldest and most impactful research, then today we are certainly failing. A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences agreed that the financial situation facing today’s postdoc is untenable, and concluded that raising the NRSA pay scale to a starting minimum salary of $50,000 would be a reasonable start to remedy this. We strongly agree with this conclusion and furthermore, strongly support including in a revised NRSA pay scale an adjustment factor that accounts for local cost of living.
This is necessary to ensure that tomorrow’s postdocs do not need to choose between doing the best research and being able to afford monthly rent. Such cost of living adjustments are already used by other U.S. funding agencies such as NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey, as well as funding agencies abroad. Finally, we strongly recommend that action be taken now, immediately. An NIH policy statement dating back to 2001 expresses support for raising the minimum NRSA pay scale; yet, nearly 15 years later, we have failed to achieve even the $45,000 minimum salary set as a short-term goal in that document. It is therefore far past the time for debate and discussion. More than one generation of postdocs has already been irrevocably damaged and discouraged by unreasonably low research stipends, many financially forced out of research altogether. We must act to ensure that this is not the case for the next.