Molly Cule is an Associate Professor in a medical school at a public university in the United States. Professor Cule is delighted to receive comments on her answers and (anonymized) questions at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit her here on the BPS Blog.
Dear Molly Cule,
I’m about to finish my PhD and have been offered a postdoc position that I’m excited about. However, the PI won’t go above $38k for a salary. I recently got married and we’re expecting a child. Raising children is expensive and as somebody with a family I think I need more than what a single postdoc gets. What should I do?
–Poor, from Pennsylvania
Fixing a salary for a new postdoc can be a tricky process, both for the PI and the trainee. In the US, there is often some room for negotiation, although in other countries the system may be more rigid. Even in the US, the PI may be bound by institutional or department procedures. In my “administrative unit,” for example, PI’s are “encouraged” to pay at least 80% of the NIH scale, although some trainees make a lot more than this and some a little less.
One of the reasons fixing the initial salary can be difficult is that the PI and the potential postdoc often have different goals. The trainee is frequently trying to get the highest possible salary while the PI might be trying to pay the minimal amount required to recruit a new lab member. This is not necessarily because the faculty member is frugal (a polite word for mean). They could be trying to harbor their resources so that they can pay for a technician or a new piece of equipment to support the postdoc and help him or her to be successful.
There are many different strategies that you could adopt in your situation but my advice is to try and negotiate fairly and openly with your potential mentor. If the process goes well, there’s a good chance you’ll come to a reasonable compromise you’re both happy with. If, on the other hand, the negotiation is emotionally difficult and overly tense, you might want to think carefully about whether or not you really want to work closely with this person for the next few years. Remember also that they will be thinking the same thing. It takes two to tango!
When you negotiate, try not to fixate on a specific number. In the long run, your “relative” pay may be more important. For example, a $38k salary will go a lot further if your postdoc position is at the University of Nebraska than if you’re moving to Columbia University and have to live in or close to New York City. Some institutions will offer you low-cost health care while others may require that you pay more out of your own pocket. You may also be eligible for retirement packages at some institutions but not at others. Being new parents will almost certainly change your tax situation, too—consult an expert about this to make sure. Bear these things in mind because they can make a big difference in the long run. Recognize also that if you’re offered $38k and other postdocs in the department are averaging $36k, you are already ahead of the pack. (Salaries at public universities are often available online, so do some comparison shopping. Check http://www.collegiatetimes.com/databases/salaries or the websites for local newspapers etc. for the information.)
If you’re left behind the eight ball and really can’t agree on a number, try to be (politely) creative. Perhaps your PI can offer your spouse a part-time position, or you can negotiate a bonus if you get a grant or when you publish a second Nature paper! If nothing works, you may just have to walk away, recognizing that you’ve priced yourself out of your PI’s market.
Finally, let me comment on “postdocs with families deserve higher salaries.” I’ve heard this idea before and I have some sympathy with it. After all, you’ve been studying and training a long time and it’s a pity that you’re not being better rewarded (financially) for your advanced skills. Nevertheless, you knew that being a biophysicist was unlikely to win you a Wall Street salary when you got into this game. You therefore shouldn’t be surprised that you’re not yet a millionaire. Moreover, having a spouse and family was a personal choice and, in my opinion, it’s not appropriate to suggest that it should influence your salary. You would probably be upset if your potential mentor had discriminated against you and recruited a single postdoc who would “spend more time in the lab because he or she wouldn’t be distracted.” Paying you more than a single lab member is equally discriminating against them.
In summary, my advice is to negotiate reasonably and fairly with your potential mentor and try to come to a reasonable compromise. Walk away if you have to, but recognize that if you’ve walked away from three jobs in a row, you’ve probably overestimated your perceived value.
Good luck and best wishes.