A guest post by Tammy Barnes, Ph.D., postdoc at the University of Michigan and co-chair of the University of Michigan Postdoctoral Association (UMPDA).
I’m a Kentucky gal. Before I moved to Ann Arbor for work as a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan, all that the word “buckeye” meant to me was a treat to be savored around this very time of year. These days, however, I have started bleeding a different shade of blue and detesting a darker hue of red.
Two weeks ago, a federal judge issued a court order to block changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that were intended to take effect on December 1, 2016. These changes would have raised the salary of an individual to $47,476, unless paid overtime. At the University of Michigan, this act would have positively affected at least 2,400 faculty and staff, including postdoctoral research fellows (often called “postdocs”). As a result of this recent FLSA court injunction, the University has paused implementing these changes. In other words, postdocs will remain overworked and underpaid. As one of the 1,400 postdoctoral fellows at the University of Michigan, I have heard countless testimonies from devastated postdocs who have planned for their future based on the FLSA ruling. Therefore, I cannot sit idly knowing that now colleagues will suffer.
My first year as a postdoc, I worked 10+ hours a day, 7 days a week, typical of the position. I care deeply about my research and am working to make a difference in how we treat obesity and its many co-morbidities, including type 2 diabetes and various forms of cancer. I, like many of my colleagues, am deeply dedicated to improving the world through the advancement of science. That being said, I also have needs. I have expenses. I have a family, including a five-month old daughter with a corresponding monthly daycare bill, and living in Ann Arbor is not cheap.
University of Michigan postdocs generate immeasurable data to advance research, and contribute substantially to why the University is one of the most publicly funded research institutions in the country, with an endowment of over 10 billion dollars. Equally important, postdocs contribute to the University of Michigan’s mission statement of “creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge” by teaching and mentoring undergraduate and graduate students. However, postdoctoral fellows are considered “trainees,” meaning that we are honing skills beyond our Ph.D., and as such, the pay scale in the academic sector is a fraction of what might be observed for the same work elsewhere. While postdoctoral and graduate-level training of yesteryear may have been only 2 to 3 years with a well-paid job afterward, many fellowships today, on average, are 4-5 years. When combined with the nation’s average of 6.5 years in graduate training, this means that an individual may undergo 10 years of training before hopefully achieving an ever-dwindling number of “real jobs” with “real pay.” When thinking about these numbers, it is unsurprising that postdocs feel exploited and equally unsurprising that academia is losing retention of skilled researchers. Make no mistake; this is a nationwide problem.
In 2016, postdocs affiliated with the University’s medical school (43% of all postdocs) were protected by the National Institutes of Health salary guidelines (salary for a first-year postdoc was set at $43,692), but there was no guarantee for the other 57% of postdocs. I am one of the lucky ones; I have a mentor who supports fair pay for postdocs and who celebrates my value as a postdoctoral researcher. Some colleagues, however, are paid $10,000 less than I am for full-time work. The FLSA therefore represented an opportunity for postdocs to be paid a livable wage, and the University of Michigan had notably already devised a plan to assist professors in coming up with the extra salary for the first transitional year. With the injunction of the FLSA, the University of Michigan may now abolish any implementation of this salary increase, along with any plans to assist professors in the transition to higher salaries.
What is particularly painful is that a number of other top-tier research institutions that clearly value postdocs have chosen to continue to raise their postdoctoral salaries as originally planned. If the University of Michigan does not follow suit, it is possible that the flow of premier researchers UMich normally attracts may shift toward other institutions. What is more, the inequitable salary between colleges and institutes does not comply with President Schlissel’s initiative on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. In order to remain the Leaders and Best, I and my colleagues as well as many professors who champion their researchers strongly believe it is in our best interests to invest in these employees by raising the minimum salary for postdoctoral fellows campus-wide to $47,476, independent of the status of the FLSA.
The Future of Research (FoR) group has compiled a list of institutions and their positions regarding whether they will raise postdoctoral salaries (http://futureofresearch.org/flsa-and-postdocs/). In this list of peer institutions that the University of Michigan has itself used to determine salaries in Ann Arbor, Future of Research has determined that so far Duke, Harvard, MIT, NYU, Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UNC Chapel Hill, Notre Dame, University of Virginia and Wash U are all raising postdoc salaries at the time of writing. Even Ohio State is considering—at minimum— tracking postdoc hours. Other institutions have admirably shifted positions and provided the pre-injunction salaries as originally promised, including the University of Illinois, which after announcing they would not raise salaries, then reversed their position and are going ahead with salary raises. So I pose this question to the University of Michigan: If these institutions can do it, then why can’t we? Finally, if you’re coming to my winter party this year, bring New Holland bourbon balls, not buckeyes. Go Blue.