Postdoc salary (& benefits) : what is negotiable?

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Postdoc salary (& benefits) : what is negotiable?

Postby WG » Wed Apr 08, 2015 5:06 pm

We are told to negotiate for most job offers. But I was recently in a group discussion where a faculty member said that she "does not expect" postdocs to negotiate their salary because usually the amount is set, it is a "line on the grant application" that states what this person will be paid. While I understand her point of view I found this view surprising i.e. the idea that someone should not make any attempt at all to negotiate their pay. While it is generally accepted that postdoc is generally low, I find it crazy to just accept whatever is offered. It seems most U.S. institutions follow NIH salary guidelines, but some postdocs earn more than others. Obviously some P.I.s could be generous but I suspect that some people may have negotiated for themselves.

So the question is what can you generally negotiate for in a postdoc position: salary, moving expenses, computer & software, travel expenses for conferences/fieldwork, benefits (health, some include retirement nowadays), parking, use of campus gym, vacation days etc? If you manage to secure your own external funding after you have started working somewhere, can you use that to ask for/justify a raise? For other countries like Canada or places in Europe where can one find the guidelines as set by the main funding agencies?
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Re: Postdoc salary (& benefits) : what is negotiable?

Postby H.L.F. » Thu Apr 09, 2015 7:45 am

In Scandinavian/Nordic countries, PhD students and postdocs can negotiate their salaries and are paid based on a responsibilities/performance chart In practice, that means that PhD students get 2200-2900€/month; Postdocs get 2800-4000€/month. Vacation is the legal minimum (5 weeks where I am) and non-negotiable. To the best of my knowledge, travel is generally not pre-negotiated, some groups have you apply for travel grants while others will pay if you don't get a travel grant. Health, childcare, and retirement are paid by taxes.
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Re: Postdoc salary (& benefits) : what is negotiable?

Postby Dave Walker » Thu Apr 09, 2015 9:13 am

You can negotiate for many things. Even salary, though the range is very small at least in the US. My experience is all US-based.

I personally believe you'll do best in the non-salary department. If you think about it from the PI's perspective, their hands are mostly tied by the NIH, and even if they want to pay you more they can't. I have seen successful negoations for: new laptop, paid travel to conferences, extra time off, long-distance commuting reimbursements, access to a PI's network, specific job responsibilities and a timeline to finish.

Some of what you mention, like health benefits, use of the campus gym, and some times a 401k are usually set in stone by a policy. Maybe this is different at smaller colleges/fields, but I've never seen this in the life sciences in my experience.

For salary: I just had this conversation with some Boston-based colleagues, both in their first year of postdoc at the same school system, one making the "higher" end of the scale and the other at the lowest. They have told me that for each year there is a range, and you can be anywhere in that range. It seems to vary less than $5,000. And if you get a fellowship, you are paying yourself and can jump to the top of that range (this may be institution specific).
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Re: Postdoc salary (& benefits) : what is negotiable?

Postby BMK » Thu Apr 09, 2015 9:44 am

Let me second some of Dave's points and elaborate on others.

1a) It is weird (and potentially off-putting) to negotiate the salary of a postdoc position before you get there. Really, salary is set by your institution, which in turn bases their decisions based on the active grants of your group (your PI's and yours) and what the salary line items for your position were set at. Your PI can very much wish to pay you more, but as NIH rules prevent supplementing salary with federal money, a purely NIH-funded PI would have their hands tied while another with a large departmental discretionary budget would have more leeway. This is the cause of ALOT of the variability we see in practice. Alternatively, convince the DOD or a private foundation that your salary will be X (and your institution to let you put X as your salary) your fine, you are basically asking for the raise at this junction. If your institution says the budget is correct (which they have to confirm for every grant application they allow their name to be on), then almost no grant or fellowship committee will question it even if it has no semblance to the NIH paytable. Not just reach the top of the range, but surpass it.

1b) Be really productive in your first year and see if you can't convince people to slide you up the range for your level even without your own fellowship.

1c) Also realize you could "supplement" your income with awards, like NIH has a loan repayment program if you have qualified student debt.

2a) While its nice to negotiate an "understanding" with your PI of different perks and expectations (vacation days, training, travel for professional development, road map to your project and success), postdocs are not often considered actual employees of a university (its most commonly seen an apprenticeship or glorified grad student from HR's perspective). As such there is no contract to back ANY of the promises up, so make sure you talk to the people in the lab and make sure the PI is by and large sincere. I don't believe that most PI's would willingly renege on that kind of stuff, but it doesn't mean it doesn't happen either.

2b) That said: professional travel expenses for conferences and so that you can do your fieldwork/collaborations should be in the budget already, otherwise the PI and grant reviewers really dropped the ball.

3) Interview expenses (for trainees) are not allowed to be paid for by federal money, moving expenses may be allowable by NIH but then subject to institutional rules.

4) Depending on whether your institution considers you an employee, your benefits (incl retirement) will vary. At a minimum, one would get healthcare for themselves as part of the grant as I believe that is a mandatory requirement by NIH (family and whether its subsidized or not, is another matter).

5) Depending on where the money comes from, things like laptops may be given to you for personal use, but the institution would still consider it their property.
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Re: Postdoc salary (& benefits) : what is negotiable?

Postby Craig B. » Thu Apr 09, 2015 1:40 pm

I've seen a quite a bit of variability between the different facilities I've been at. Starting out as a newly minted postdoc, I don't think there is a ton of room to negotiate salary and benefits beyond NRSA stipend levels. Some higher cost of living areas do try and mitigate that fact by providing higher stipends or subsidized housings, while some low cost of living areas won't even provide stipends that are at NRSA levels.

Getting external funding for yourself also isn't a guarantee that you'll get better pay and benefits. At my current institution, if you have an external fellowship like an NRSA, you are not considered an employee and get the bare minimum of benefits from the university (healthcare). On the other hand, I know people who have gotten different sorts of funding (e.g. a K award) that's turned them into an investigator with a considerable increase in their compensation.
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Re: Postdoc salary (& benefits) : what is negotiable?

Postby M.A. » Thu Apr 09, 2015 4:25 pm

I have actually seen situations where getting an external fellowship means both a reduction in salary and loss of benefits. It looks like most private foundations these days try to match NIH pay scale but that is not always the case. Furthermore, some of them only provide a limited amount of money to pay for benefits such as health insurance, leaving the postdoc or the PI to try to pay for the rest of the cost of the coverage.

It is a complicated issue for sure - one can try negotiating various aspects of employment as suggested above but the PI does not always have the ability to do much about some of those.

It is kind of interesting how hiring in the academic job market seems to differ from that within companies - as a hiring manager, I imagine one could go to the higher-ups and ask for a higher salary for a well-qualified applicant. In the NIH-funded world, the best one can do, is spend some of the money that was budgeted for experiments, on extra salary (and in reality there may be no wiggle room in the budget left, considering inevitable funding cuts that seem to occur every year even on the grants that are already awarded).
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Re: Postdoc salary (& benefits) : what is negotiable?

Postby P. Lues » Thu Apr 16, 2015 12:23 am

Hmmm money doesn't grow on trees. All salaries are set in the company's fiscal budget at the beginning of the fiscal year. There is always room for negotiation. Postdoc salary varies widely. I know postdocs who made 39K vs. 75K at the same institution with similar years of experience. All depends on the PI. They could pay you more if they wanted to.

I'm in Canada.
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