This is a guest post by Dr Sridhar Vedachalam, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Johns Hopkins Water Institute at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and one of the travel award winners for the Advocating for Science symposium in Boston, 2016.
In May 2016, the Obama administration’s Department of Labor issued a new regulation under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that raised the threshold for overtime pay from $23,660 to $47,476 per annum. At that time, it was unclear how the new regulation would impact the academic sector that employs nearly 40,000 postdoctoral researchers (or “postdocs”), the vast majority of whom are paid more than the current threshold, but less than the proposed threshold. Within days, Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Labor Secretary Tom Perez wrote an op-ed advocating for better postdoc salaries, arguing forcefully that not only do postdocs deserve to be paid more as stipulated in the FLSA regulation, but that the research and academic enterprise and the nation stand to benefit from well-compensated researchers.
To comply with the new rules, universities could either raise postdoc salaries, or track their hours to enable overtime payment. Gary McDowell is the Executive Director of the non-profit Future of Research, an organization that works with junior scientists to improve the scientific research enterprise. When the FLSA regulation came out, he expected all institutions to raise salaries. “This is because it is against the spirit of academia – and frankly, in my opinion, practically impossible – to track postdoctoral hours and pay overtime, as postdocs are often expected to be available to work on urgent experiments or paper revisions, etc., with very short notice, and often work from home as well as in laboratory environments,” he says. He also believes that tracking hours is likely to be administratively expensive and potentially litigious for these institutions if hours were to be improperly tracked or false reports were to be made.
Anwesha Banerjee, a biomedical postdoc at Emory University did not think the pay raise suggested by the new regulation over her current NIH-recommended minimum was substantial. Despite that, she feels that the pay raises are a move in the right direction. Carlos Jarro, an Electrical and Computer Engineering postdoc at the University of Louisville agrees, and states, “My personal feelings about the mandate were positive.”
Variability in postdoc salary and the cost of living, student debt and supporting a family are among the many reasons there is no consensus on what constitutes fair pay for postdocs, a term Collins and Perez used in their op-ed. Yet, the postdocs interviewed for this story believe that, in general, their peers are grossly underpaid for their talent and experience, not to mention their current stage in life. “It is very frustrating to be in your 30’s with a Ph.D. and not be able to afford to buy a car or to make enough to rent your own apartment or even contemplate having children because of financial restraints,” remarked a biomedical postdoc at the University of Colorado, who wished to remain anonymous.
The proposed FLSA regulations were to take effect on December 1, 2016. Adriana Bankston and Gary McDowell of the Future of Research tracked the responses to the FLSA ruling from universities employing postdoctoral scientists. Even 10 days before the implementation, two-thirds of the universities employing postdocs had not publicly announced any plans. “The fact that such a high percentage of universities had not reached or released a public decision on postdoc salaries with 10 days to go was quite alarming. I think this fact speaks to the way postdocs are being viewed across the country,” says Bankston. Many institutions announced increases in postdoc salaries, while others either required tracking of hours or allowed individual departments or faculty to make that decision. Since the universities that laid out FLSA action plans were some of the ones that employed postdoctoral fellows in large numbers, nearly 69% of the postdocs were likely to see pay raises. Outside of this action spectrum were schools like Brandeis, Brown and Rutgers that challenged the notion that FLSA applied to postdocs on fellowships.
A week before the FLSA implementation, Amos Mazzant, a federal judge in the U.S. Eastern Federal District of Texas issued a preliminary injunction halting the overtime regulations from going into effect. Twenty-one states, led by Texas and Nevada, had filed the lawsuit challenging the administration’s authority to implement the regulation. Even though a final ruling is yet to come out, the alarm bells were enough to stall, if not reverse, the tide. Although a majority of schools are continuing with their plan to raise postdoc salaries, some have decided to cancel the planned salary increases. Bankston from Future of Research says that although canceling the salary raises after the court injunction is not surprising in itself, it can make postdocs feel disposable. “Reversing the salary raise can have an extremely detrimental effect on the morale of postdocs and their quality of life,” she notes.
Even before the injunction, the fate of the FLSA overtime regulation was in jeopardy following the results of the Presidential and Congressional elections. The election of Donald Trump as President and the continued Republican control of Congress meant that any policies of the previous administration were under a threat of reversal. But more specifically, the Congressional Review Act of 1996 allows Congress to overturn major policy decisions passed within the last 60 legislative days. Because Congress met ever so rarely in the run up to the election, and is likely to be adjourned in early December, the Department of Labor’s overtime regulations will be subject to CRA. Bruno da Rocha-Azevedo, co-chair of the Committee for Postdocs and Students (COMPASS) at the American Society for Cell Biology feels that despite the inability to predict the incoming administration’s priorities, the election results signal a likely reversal of the FLSA regulations.
The possibility of reversing the FLSA benefits doesn’t go well with Jarro. “[In the absence of the mandate], advisors in the arts and sciences with grants from entities other than NIH will just pay less, ” he adds. The anonymous postdoc from University of Colorado believes that this has the potential to cause rift between postdocs and their advisors, as well as among postdocs who are paid differently even within the same department.
Despite the court injunction, NIH has stated its commitment to increase postdoc salaries. Whether that would change when a new NIH Director is appointed next year is anyone’s guess. According to McDowell, “It’s incredibly difficult to know, especially as it is unclear who the new director of NIH may be. However the current names under discussion suggest a reversal would be an unlikely priority, and Congress is currently concerned about junior scientists – as evidenced by recent legislation, such as Title I Subtitle C of the 21st Century Cures Act, and the Next Generation Researchers Act – and so a decline in postdoctoral stipends would seem unlikely, although it shouldn’t be ruled out.”
Perhaps one could argue that these highly qualified and skilled postdocs should be able to negotiate their salary at the time of joining, and even on an ongoing basis. But there is very little evidence to support that argument. Fewer openings for faculty positions and a tight funding environment has resulted in postdocs staying longer to bolster their credentials, leading to fewer openings and creating a seller’s market. None of the postdocs interviewed for this story were even aware that salary negotiation was a possibility. “I thought you either accept [the position] or you don’t,” adds Banerjee. Some, like the anonymous postdoc at University of Colorado, are able to negotiate a higher salary after receiving a grant, but such situations are rare and require deft handling of interpersonal relationships.
According to Leobarda Robles, a postdoc in Biochemistry at the University of Kentucky, the lack of benefits otherwise made available to university staff makes the salary line even more critical. Others, like Suman Govindaraju, an Oncology postdoc at University of Texas, are happy with fully paid health insurance on top of an NIH-level salary. International scholars are at a particular disadvantage here as the need to obtain a visa sponsorship from the employer can reduce any bargaining power they may have in the hiring process.
It is no surprise to anyone that a vast majority of postdocs did not enter the world of science for the money. Long work hours, ever-changing targets, little to no benefits, and cross-country moves are par for the course in the path toward scientific discovery and advancing the frontiers of knowledge.
The FLSA regulation, followed by the injunction and the possibility of its reversal in the upcoming Trump administration, however, has placed the issue of compensation squarely in the center of decision-making for some postdocs. “Salary absolutely influences my decision to continue as a postdoc. We are a highly trained and valuable force in academic research and our greatest skill is that we know how to troubleshoot to overcome obstacles. At some point, we have to be acknowledged as the valuable workforce we are, or we will start using our skills elsewhere,” adds the anonymous postdoc. Banerjee agrees, adding that poor compensation makes her feel “grossly underappreciated” for the efforts put in.
Speaking for himself and a few of his colleagues, Govindaraju feels unfazed by these developments. “I personally wouldn’t change my perspective on going further, and satisfaction levels really do not change.” Others like Jarro and Robles have similar thoughts, but for entirely different reasons. Both plan to look for a position outside of academia, knowing fully well that a postdoc is a temporary position. Still, it rankles Banerjee that instead of wholesome efforts to further the professional growth and development of postdocs, all they get are piecemeal and tenuous efforts like the FLSA regulation. As she put it, “it feels more like a carrot on a stick.”
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Dr. Adriana Bankston for comments and edits.