As part of our effort to make individual postdoc salaries in the U.S. more transparent, we have been carrying out Freedom of Information requests at public institutions to have a standard, albeit blunt, instrument for gathering data on postdoctoral researchers. You can find more information and data on our requests to public universities for data as of Dec 1st 2016 here; but as we continue with this project, we have recently gathered data from the National Institutes of Health for salaries for their intramural postdocs (i.e. those postdocs who work at NIH Institute laboratories).


Using Freedom of Information requests, we have gathered data for postdocs at all institutes at the NIH as of Dec 1st 2016 and Dec 1st 2017, principally in Intramural Research Training Awards (IRTA, for US Citizens and permanent residents) and Visiting Fellowships (VF, for those typically on non-immigrant visas).


The request asked for:

An excel spreadsheet which provides: The total number of postdoctoral researchers at the institute, appointed to postdoctoral intramural training awards IRTAs or as Visiting Fellows, with their job titles on both 12/1/ 2016 and 12/1/17. The annual salaries on both 12/1/16, and 12/1/17; or monthly compensation received for the payroll month of December 2016 and December 2017, of each of the postdoctoral researchers in the institute appointed to postdoctoral intramural training awards IRTAs or as Visiting Fellows.


Here we provide a very brief overview of the data that we have gathered, which we are continuing to interrogate. A more thorough analysis will follow in due course.


Number of Postdocs

The NIH’s page on Postdoctoral Programs at NIH states:

Altogether, the NIH is home to about 4000 postdocs. Just under 40% of our postdocs are U.S. citizens or permanent residents; the rest come from countries around the world, with the largest populations coming from the People’s Republic of China, India, Korea, Japan, and Europe.”


The data received, in response to a FOIA request, gave 2149 postdocs in 2016, and 2119 in 2017. While we did receive data for postdocs on titles other than IRTA and VF, our request did single out IRTA and VF and so is a possible reason for exclusion. However, it seems unlikely that half the NIH’s postdocs are not on these principal mechanisms; an inquiry to the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) came back with the response:

Our current number that we have been talking about for about 5 years is 3000.


Of these postdocs, in 2016, 1273 were Visiting Fellows and 819 were IRTA, giving 38% as U.S. citizens or permanent residents; in 2017, 1283 were Visiting Fellows and 797 were IRTA, again giving 38%. The slight decline in the number of postdocs from 2016 to 2017 is accounted for by a decrease overall in U.S. citizens or permanent residents, despite a slight increase overall in the number of Visiting Fellows.


In 2017, NIMHD and NLM had no postdocs. NCI was the largest, at 686, or one third of the total postdoctoral workforce.



The median salaries across all Institutes were:

$55,050 for IRTA in 2016

$56,600 for IRTA in 2017

$54,050 for Visiting Fellows in 2016

$54,175 for Visiting Fellows in 2017


It is not yet clear what the reason for the discrepancy between IRTA and Visiting Fellows is caused by, and whether it is significant. It could be, for example, that there is a higher turnover in Visiting Fellows, and so salaries may reflect the overall average in years experience for foreign vs. non-foreign postdocs. It has also, however, been found in the National Postdoc Survey, organized by postdocs at the University of Chicago, that foreign postdocs self-report lower salaries than their peers. We do not have the years experience information but are attempting some models to see whether turnover could be the major factor.


In 2017, the lowest median salary was reported by NINR, at $43,200; however, having only 6 postdocs, and reporting their lowest salary at $2,016, suggests that they fell into the same issue as many of our public universities, and reported not the salary but possibly a supplement to a fellowship, or some other supplementary funds passing through payroll (NIH institutes were very clear generally in pointing out supplementary vs full salaries, and those marked supplementary were excluded from the data described here). The lowest median is therefore more likely around $51,400, at NIDCR and several other institutes.


In 2017, the highest median salary was at NCI at $62,900. NIGMS was not far behind at $61,150 (albeit with a much smaller intramural postdoc population, as has been traditional at NIGMS). The next institutes came behind with medians at around $56,000.


NIH has various locations for labs around the US (though mostly in Maryland) which could also affect salaries, as they are likely locally adjusted.


Summary Table

You can see the summary data below, ranked in order of lowest to highest median salary, for 2017 salaries for all postdocs at each institute. The number of postdocs, and various salary data reported for Visiting Fellows and IRTA postdocs (excluding those marked as “Supplementary”) are included. VF/Total gives the proportion of postdocs who are Visiting Fellows at each institute. 2017 Approp gives the Congressional appropriations in millions of dollars in 2017 for each institute. Any non-Bethesda locations identified from the NIH’s website on intramural research labs are listed for each institute.




Intended uses for this data, and advocacy for NRSA stipends going forward

The 2018 Appropriations Bill passed by Congress, in Explanatory Note H, includes:

The agreement expects NIH to support an increase in the number of Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards and to provide a stipend level and inflationary increase to grantees that is at least consistent with the fiscal year 2018 Federal employee pay raise.


Stipend increases are also recommended as part of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine 2018 Report, “The Next Generation of Biomedical and Behavioral Sciences Researchers: Breaking Through“, in Recommendation 4.1:

NIH should increase the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) starting salary for new postdoctoral researchers to $52,700 (in 2018 dollars), with annual adjustments for inflation and for cost-of-living increases tied to the Personal Consumption Expenditure Index. Research institutions should adjust their base postdoctoral salary annually to match the corresponding NRSA rate, with adjustments based on local cost-of-living, and they should harmonize benefits for all postdoctoral scholars regardless of support mechanism.”


Stanford has recently announced it will increase its own salary to $60,000 in September, and current NIH NRSA levels will actually be highly restrictive to those postdocs on F and T mechanisms. We have been informed by contacts at Stanford that federal dollars cannot be used to supplement postdoc salaries on F and T mechanisms above the official NIH levels. Salary raises at private institutions in California, and institutions in New York, will be necessary for postdocs in coming years as state labor law mandates, setting minimum wages for overtime exemption, come into effect, and so it will actually become prohibitive to be on NRSA mechanisms if NIH is not raising stipends as recommended.


Our recent preprint suggests that the national median postdoctoral salary for all postdocs across all fields is determined by the NIH’s lowest NRSA stipend level. Therefore, we will be pressing for the NIH to raise the NRSA stipend as recommended, and with the intramural data we will make the case that NIH is not averse to paying postdocs at the NRSA level recommended by the NASEM report. We are currently preparing an infographic that ties together these cases. It is our hope that increasing the salary of postdocs will counter incentives to hire them as cheap labor in an increasingly hypercompetitive biomedical enterprise, and will also reduce ability to survive financial burden in long training periods as a selection factor in who becomes a principal investigator.


NIH hopefully will agree that they should have the same expectations for attracting talented researchers, and not allowing money to be a selection factor in who performs science, for those they employ on their extramural research awards. As most institutions benchmark their postdoc salaries to NIH NRSA levels, and as NIH may be disadvantaging its own trainees on NRSA mechanisms at institutions where salaries are raised above this level. and will advocate with an upcoming infographic, that NIH can effect changes as recommended by both Congress and a Congressionally-mandated study to effect widespread change of benefit to the research enterprise through raises to the NRSA stipends.