Everybody thinks they are underpaid. It's true, and this sentiment probably even scales with the more money someone makes. We see it on public display in sports all the time and I'm sure it happens in the business world just as much. Most people that do a specialized job feel like they have outplayed their contract.
In the academic science game, this is certainly true. No one feels like they get paid enough, especially after years of training. Grad students don't have a lot of take home salary, and while each level above them is an upgrade in pay, academics is not a place to get rich. There's been a discussion at DrugMonkey about grad student pay and relative comparisons, but that's not what I want to talk about today.
I'm more interested in why scientific trainees are not paid more*. Many people seem to think it is just a matter of the PI of a lab either not caring or being stingy. While undoubtedly there are plenty of uncaring and stingy people running labs, there are constraints on people who are neither, as well. This particular post was partly spurred by a comment by LabSpaces overlord Brian Krueger on one of Gerty-Z's posts, in which he stated:
I think a lot of professors are stindgy bastards. It always really pissed me off when I was in a lab where the PI would brag about how much money he had to waste on new computers or whatever at the end of the fiscal year and yet the undergrads in the lab are unpaid and the techs haven't seen raises in years. I say pay your good students and pay them well. Good people are really hard to find and the "compensation" of training is such a ridiculously arcane idea. Sometimes people need to eat too. And in this case, I think you're right. A student shouldn't have to choose between debt and research, especially if the PI can afford to pay them.
Now, to be fair, in response to my comment that I will elaborate on here, Brian did clarify that he was talking about a lab in which the PI genuinely did seem like a douche. But I do think this sentiment is held by a lot of students and postdocs, as evidenced from a couple of years reading this here blogosphere.
So what are the constraints on pay?
Well, the most obvious is grant funds. I realize that the typical trainee or technician doesn't care where their money comes from, but the reality of their PI's situation is relevant to the question. If we think about a postdoc, for example, the salary is only one part of the equation. If a PDF makes $45K / year, their benefits are roughly 60% of that, or $27K. Together, that's $72K / year from a budget of a grant, but it gets better because in the submitted budget the PI has to factor in the university overhead. Now you're looking at $72K X 55% (or so), which means that the hit to the grant budget is a little more than $110K / year. I know that I am in the minority of science bloggers in that I am primarily NSF-based in my finding opportunities, but I think people might be interested to take a look at the NSF funding info page and to get a feel for the median annual size of grants by NSF organization. If you don't want to click on the link, I'll spoil the surprise and tell you its in the $110K-$120K range. For BIO, it was $143K in 2009, but drilling down a bit you will see that even that number is slightly misleading due to some bigger money programs in the mix. If you look at DM's post from yesterday on NIGMS at NIH, the median funding level would appear to be $220K per year there. You can see where this is going....
Students, despite popular belief, are no bargain on a grant either. Some departments subsidize them in a significant way, but if not, you're talking a $25K salary, plus benefits (in the summer), plus tuition (no overhead paid on tuition, at least) and O/H on roughly $30K. All in all, about $60K / year. If you are writing an NSF budget and want to include a student, postdoc and actually do some work, publish it and talk about it at meetings, things get interesting.
So why can't a postdoc get $5K more? Because $5K in salary is not $5K on a grant, it's (($5K X 1.6) X 1.55) = $12,400 X 3 year = $37,200. I don't know about everyone else, but I struggle to keep my budget within what has been suggested to me as a fundable range. Adding almost $40K is not an easy thing to do because we are in competition with similar proposals that may require less funds. If your labs runs on multi-R01 NIH fuel, a $5K raise for three postdocs for only three years means someone gets one year less to work in the lab. If you draw the short straw, would you rather have two years with an extra $5K in your pocket each year, or that extra year at $40K?
Another issue is unions. Whereas unions may be to the advantage of the whole, IME they can be smothering to a talented technician who deserves a solid raise. In many cases a substantial pay increase $5K-$10K can only be accomplished with a new job description that needs to be opened up for applicants and can be taken without question by a more senior individual from that union who possess the same title elsewhere. How many technicians or PIs are willing to risk that?
Graduate student unions also put restrictions on how much students can get paid. Although they ensure that students have a minimum salary, get raises and have a collective voice, they don't allow for much flexibility in what can be paid to a student. Make no mistake, I think removing grad student unions would result in a worse situation for grad students, on the whole, but if you are going to complain about pay, your union is the place you should start.
And we haven't even gotten to the issue of competitiveness. I would bet that most people reviewing grants would tell you that they don't take into consideration what the proposal budget is, but I bet they are not telling you the whole truth. If the budget seems reasonable, no one pays attention. But, what if one investigator budgets $5K more per year in a three year proposal for a student, tech and PDF than someone else proposing something not to far off. The first proposal is going to come in $100K (15-20% of many NSF budgets for that amount of time) more than the other, and in less the science in the first one is substantially better for one reason or another, that is going to be noticed.
Finally, having grant funds and having money for salary can be two different things. While start-up funds are not categorized, grant funds are. Money in the computer budget, for example, is gold because you need to justify money in that category with a special form that needs to get cleared at you agency. Money earmarked for foreign travel and equipment is similarly guarded. A budget can therefore roll over a substantial amount of money from one year to the next without actually having any dollars available for salary.
I am writing about this because I had no idea how research budgets really work when I was a trainee and of course I could have used more cash in my
beer fund pocket, but from the other side of the desk, it isn't always that easy. Unless the overall budgets for proposals is allowed to make a jump (and at 10% funding rates, where is that extra coming from?), I'm not sure where the extra money is going to come from to give grant-supported trainees a substantial raise.
*I'm interested in my professors aren't paid more too, but that's a topic for another day