Thursday, July 9, 2015

Why postdocs should ask for more in general

I thought I'd weigh in on the kerfuffle going on on Twitter about the mostly irrational fears that Obama will force us to pay postdocs $50K. I'll have to start by admitting that I was never a "disgruntledoc" and I often wondered why people whine so much. When I was looking for postdocs I think I just accepted the job without even asking about salary and received an offer letter that stated that I would be guaranteed the NIH minimum for 24 months and then I was supposed to obtain fellowships to pay for my own salary. If I was able to do this, I would receive a 10% raise over whatever my salary was at the time. Within a year, I had my own fellowship and paid first for most, then for all my salary and fringe. However, I also knew that if I ran out of money, my boss could spot me if I was productive (or fire me if I was not). It is normal in any job that you can be fired if you don't produce or if the company goes out of business or closes down you unit. I also assumed that I was supposed to start writing grants as much as possible, since this is what would be required of me for the rest of my career. By the 5th year of my postdoc I had been promoted to a non-tenure track staff position and I made $63K. I should have made $75K as recommended for my position, but I needed money for exome sequencing, so I capped my own salary. I was comfortable, saving for retirement and paying my mortgage (in Boston, not in Iowa City), but had I had a child with a $1400/month daycare bill or even a car to take care of things would have been very very different. Then I started talking to friends who still made less than $40K after 4-5 years of postdoc, and friends at institutions that cap postdoc salaries at $50K so that you can never ever make more. Yes, yes, as a grad student in New York City, fresh off the boat from Europe, I was giddy for my $18,000 stipend, BUT in your mid-30s you need some sense of stability, you need to know that your work is valued and that your life is going somewhere. So I am shocked whenever PIs say that asking for $50K is too much. One of the most depressing thing that happened to me was when I got my first postdoc paycheck and it was only $200 more than my grad student one. Where had the extra $1,000/month gone? Damn you, FICA!! After all, one thing I learned in this great country that is America, is that you are worth what they pay you. No PhDs working for free, no 6-month in between postdoctoral fellowships when you have to go to lab anyways, like in the old country.

So the thing, Postdocs, is that you have to ask, because I find that most people don't ask nicely and venting on Twitter doesn't accomplish much. It only hit me recently that I was in a privileged position. That I was given clear guidelines and expectations, fair raises (including an annual review with a discussion about salary), a lab flush with cash and in addition, a very very strong office for postdoctoral development with constant seminars and workshops on grant writing, management, job talk delivery, you name it. And with "given" I don't mean as an unexpected gift and I was Oh, so lucky!, I mean that it was available to me and I took it and I worked like crazy to make sure I was successful. I had friends who asked for a $15K raise for childcare expenses and got it, and friends who asked and only got $5K, and friends who asked and got roped in writing a grant so that they could get the raise because there was no money. If your boss is an asshole and you lab is hell, you should just leave or start plotting your exit. In most cases, your boss is probably crazy busy and going insane trying to figure out how to keep the lab running. If they don't automatically offer mentoring, you should ask for it. I see myself as a good mentor, but I was in the middle of first R01 hell and I had an undergrad who made sure he scheduled regular meetings to talk to me. Every time I thanked him for being so proactive because my schedule was so crazy I would not have known how much time had passed. If your boss is not really the "mentorly" type, which is possible and still workable if they provide other assets, you find another mentor or better a group of mentors (see an older post on this). If career development workshops are not available at your institution, ask for them. Start a postdoc group at your university. Most likely some Associate Dean will be happy to give you $100 for pizza because they've been "meaning to do more for trainee development but have not gotten around to it". You cannot wake up in the middle of year 5 of your postdoc and realize that you are paid nothing, have never applied for a grant, work for a jerk and are all alone. Then you should just be angry at yourself. There was a great post today from Dr. Acclimatrix on learning how to fail better on the academic job market, which means that at least if you fail because you are unlucky and the market sucks you have done your homework and are a step closer to succeeding.

But then, be careful what you ask for, because you have no idea whatsoever of what's on the other side. You think you do, but you don't, because most of us in the corner office are doing their best to screen you from all the bullshit that goes on in our job, so that you can do your job. In some cases, we are probably too embarrassed about such bullshit to actually talk to you about it, because we are afraid to disrupt morale or to make you want to look for another job. As we freak out about our own career, life and family, we simultaneously freak out about the future of everyone in the lab. Because it's not my salary that keeps me up at night right now, it's my people's salaries. How long can I keep them? How much money do I need to bank if I don't get an R01 within a year? How do I buy them an extra 6 months of funding? A friend starting a lab recently asked me what I had learned about money management and I replied that all that matters is salaries (and mouse costs, but she's a zebrafish person, so she didn't care). So, part of me, also gets the angry PIs harping about an extra $10K expense. It's not easy on the other side when all you see is the bottom line getting smaller and smaller. There are multiple solutions, but trainees, PIs, universities and funding agencies have to work together to make things feasible and the government has to provide the money. I won't go into this, but if you have not, there are some really interesting suggestions originating from the U. Wisconsin Madison workshop on rescuing the biomedical workforce.


  1. I was participating in some of the discussions (Drugmonkey blog), but then I stopped ... because I was just SO depressed and disgusted by some of the PI attitudes. If postdocs are clueless about what it's like to be a PI, most PIs, especially the younger crowd, aren't clueless about what it's like to be a postdoc these days. So I was left speechless by the appalling lack of empathy.

  2. Thanks for your comment. Yes, the Drugmonkey blog discussion is what spurred my post because it rapidly degenerated into trolling. I don't think the PIs involved in these discussion are the majority, because the vast majority of people are know are desperately looking for money to keep their labs running and are deeply concerned about their trainees. On the other hand, the trainees are also a bit entitled and just expect things to fall from the sky, while they really need to take it into their hands to shape their careers...I'd like to see them transition into an industry job and see how long it takes them to change their tune.