Issue Date: September 20, 2010
Feedback On Postdoc Salaries
I am writing about the news story on the new University of California (UC) postdoc union (C&EN, Aug. 23, page 9). Although the contract may specify that postdocs receive a minimum salary that is related to the National Institutes of Health postdoctoral stipend scale, that amount is not “recommended” by NIH to anyone, nor is it an NIH “guideline” (for example, for research grant budgets). It is the amount that is awarded to applicants who go through a rigorous and highly competitive review and receive a prestigious Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NIH postdoctoral fellowship).
It has been UC policy for some time (long before the union contract was agreed on) that postdocs at the lowest step on our salary scale are paid the same as the NIH minimum postdoctoral fellowship stipend ($37,740 in 2010). So the short-term impact of the new contract on our postdoc salaries will only be a small raise.
A larger question (that existed before the contract) is the reasoning of the UC System in mandating high postdoctoral minimum salaries. Only a few applicants at the top of their peer group are selected for NIH postdoctoral fellowships. Many UC postdocs are not eligible for them (because they are not citizens or permanent residents) or do not apply because of the stiff competition and low probability of success.
Yet UC policy is that all postdocs must be compensated at the same level as the best of their peer group, who were selected for the honor of NIH postdoctoral fellowships. At least in chemistry, postdoctoral appointments are generally intended to be transitional career stages, with postdocs ideally moving on to permanent positions after two to three years.
Perhaps this policy is needed in other fields where longer term staff may be appointed as postdocs, but I do not believe it addresses any problems in UC chemistry departments. I echo the sentiments of my UC Davis colleague Carlito Lebrilla that the UC System makes postdocs very expensive and that the effect of its policies is to decrease postdoctoral research opportunities.
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