This is a guest post by Future of Research board member, Adriana Bankston. It is the second of two posts (the first post can be found here).
Our paper on the effect of the FLSA on postdoc salaries has now been updated here, with analysis of how the injunction and collapse of the updates to the FLSA affected postdocs.
As stated in the previous post, Future of Research has been tracking the national compliance of institutions with the FLSA ruling both before and after the injunction. Unfortunately, some institutions, including MSU, chose to cancel salary raises for their postdocs, causing a great deal of chaos and confusion. To find out how postdocs in this situation felt, in this second blog post, we spoke with postdocs at MSU whose salaries were cancelled following the injunction.
The effects of cancelling salary raises
Michigan State University (MSU) was one of the institutions where postdoctoral salary raises were cancelled. A common thread among MSU postdocs we interviewed, who wished to remain anonymous, was feeling underappreciated. One MSU postdoc states having had “a constant feeling of being under-appreciated, over-worked, professionally frustrated, and constantly pulling the thrown-in-towel out of the ‘screw-academia’ pile” for the past two years. Postdocs at MSU stated that the initial FLSA ruling gave them a bit of hope. It gave one postdoc the impression that “these past months waiting for a decision to be made were worth it” and made another postdoc feel “more encouraged, appreciated, and valued than [they] have in a very long time.”
Following the injunction, the salary cancellation was handled differently among universities across the country. At MSU, salaries were cancelled for postdocs whose salary paperwork was not fully processed before that date. This decision was not reversed for most MSU postdocs “even with a written or oral agreement from the PI.” As a result, postdocs “remained exactly where they were, a surprising number of which were still below MSU’s previous threshold of $39,000 (some of which remain there still).” The salary raise cancellation clearly had a very detrimental effect on postdocs at MSU.
An MSU postdoc brought up the idea that while this raise would not have “solved the broken academic system,” it would have been “a sign of appreciation and respect from both [their] PI and the institution.” Another MSU postdoc stated their reaction to the cancellation as being “upset that a judge decided, over Thanksgiving, to just revoke this new law” but also recounted how quick their PI reacted to the cancellation compared to their (much longer) reaction time to the initial notice of raising. They state that “it took [the PI] roughly 6 months to make up his mind to give [them] a raise (a week before the deadline!) but it took him 2 minutes to tell [them], with a smile on his face, that [they] was not getting a raise which, according to him, was good news because this way [they] could stay a bit longer.” Clearly, then, some PIs were happy about the cancellation.
However the cancellation not only affected the morale of postdocs, but also their desire to stay in academia. One MSU postdoc stated “after these events, I now know that I don’t want to be a postdoc anymore. I don’t want to stay in academia. I don’t even know if I want to continue with research and science anymore” and then go on to state bluntly ”I am tired. I don’t want to be better or go further or manage everything because I don’t care anymore. I am drained.” This is very somber outlook for both postdocs and the scientific system in general, which is likely not unique to MSU.
A call to action and missing pieces
For postdocs at MSU, as for others in the previous post, cancelling salary raises sparked a call to action. A senior postdoc at MSU who is paid above the proposed salary change, also agrees that “postdocs should be paid for their work and ~$47k is quite valuable considering the contribution of most postdocs.” He hopes to become a faculty member soon, and declared that once he becomes faculty, he “would only hire postdocs above this salary level.” This is an admirable course of action which should be emulated by all future PIs.
One missing piece from this discussion as brought up by postdocs was how changes in postdoc salaries affect PIs. The senior postdoc at MSU whom we interviewed stated that he is bothered by the lack of “discussion of the potential impact of the FLSA on postdoc advisors.” As they state, this brings up the point that PIs would be the ones who have to pay for the salary proposed increases at universities, and therefore we should “take into account the effect of FLSA on the advisors’ budgets? Researchers, and not university administration, would be forced to feel the rub.” How the postdoc salary changes affect the budget of PIs is also an important issue to discuss in terms of the scientific system in general.
As we have seen from these quotes, giving postdocs raises and taking them away can have a profound affect on their morale and quality of life. Beyond financials, we must put ourselves in the shoes of these postdocs who have experienced many ups and downs due to the FLSA fiasco. The feelings of postdocs at the universities we interviewed likely very well illustrate how postdocs everywhere feel in the current state of the scientific enterprise. We hope this post can inspire positive change towards postdocs, who, despite being valuable, are still extremely undervalued in the scientific enterprise.
This is the second of two posts.
We have revised our paper on the FLSA and postdocs – check it out here. We tracked how institutions responded to the injunction and removal of a federal mandate for salary raises for postdocs, particularly given that the NIH decided to keep their new NRSA postdoctoral salary levels at the levels set by the FLSA updates.