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Career Assets

Gauging Your Worth in the Research Community


Andres Pagan, Associate Editor

January 2023

Pursuing a career in research can be uniquely rewarding, however, determining (and getting compensated for), what you are worth is often challenging. Many people who pursue a career in research may not be motivated (primarily) by their earning potential, yet sometimes workers that are integral to the success of research and higher education are inadequately compensated. Recently, nearly 50,000 postdocs, researchers, and students from the University of California system went on a 6-week strike to negotiate better working conditions, job security, and wages. Other strikes (e.g., at Columbia University, Clark University, and the University of Washington), have also helped shine a light on the poor compensation of many academic workers. Whether you are a recent graduate, someone looking to pivot to a different sector, or simply wondering if you are being fairly compensated, below we highlight several factors to consider when trying to determine what you are worth.

Influence of academic discipline and sector
Interestingly, the salaries of early postdocs in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math as well as social sciences appear to be similar. However, unlike academic discipline, employment sector can have a major impact on salaries. For example, a recent study found that physical science and engineering postdocs in government or industry had starting salaries that were 45% to 49% higher, respectively, than their peers working in academic institutions. Postdoc salaries in academic settings vary considerably but average close to the National Research Service Awards minimum (~ $47,000), and are often based on the number of years of experience post-PhD. Government salaries are based on grades, however, these usually take into account education as well as all experience, including experience gained prior to completing a graduate degree. A worker for the US government with a PhD can expect to earn a base salary of ~$59,000. In contrast to academia and government jobs, salaries in the private sector are not tethered to awards or paygrades; instead, they are mainly evaluated on their skills and accomplishment of the candidate and the value they add to the enterprise. Thus, PhD graduates in industry often have higher salaries than their peers in academia and government jobs.

Non-financial considerations
Job Security
When discussing your worth as a researcher, it is also important to consider non-financial compensation. For instance, job security can vary substantially across academic, government, and industry jobs. Generally, job security is highest in government jobs where employment is often difficult to obtain but usually easier to maintain, due to permanent employment contracts. In contrast, in academia, projects often depend on limited funding that typically lasts from 1 to 3 years. Thus, job security (particularly for postdocs and adjunct researchers) depends greatly on being able to extend or obtain grants. In contrast, many private sector jobs are offered “at will,” and workers may lack protections in their employment contracts. As a result, if a company is thriving and growing, workers can reasonably expect continued employment, however, when market conditions shift, there are few protections from termination for at will employees.

Work-life balance
Another factor to consider when negotiating your compensation is work-life balance. Again, due to clearly defined employment contracts (which often stipulate the expected number of hours to be worked per week), academic and government workers can expect a relatively balanced work-life dynamic. In contrast, while industry jobs often state the minimum number of hours required, they rarely impose a maximum. Since, the productivity of an employee is often evaluated based on their ability to meet deadlines and the number of projects, products, or results they deliver, workers may be incentivized to work long hours for the same pay. Thus, salaried industry positions may lead to a reduced work-life balance.

Opportunities and career advancement
Careers in academia are often constrained by few openings and a surplus of qualified talent. Since, career advancement is usually evaluated within the context of tenure and institutions only allow a limited period to establish tenure, researchers that do not obtain a tenure-track position may have few opportunities for career advancement within academia. Similarly, career advancement in the government sector is often limited to within a range of grades. Although there are several steps within a grade (with commensurate salary increases), promotion to a higher grade is difficult and career advancement is, therefore, relatively limited. Unlike careers in academia and government, career advancement in the private sector is usually driven by free-market principles. As a resource gains experience, skills, and increases their productivity, additional opportunities and compensation can be expected.

Although the number of PhDs granted per year continues to increase, fewer graduates are pursuing careers within academia. Instead, many are seeking opportunities in government and industry sectors. Thus, when trying to determine “what am I worth?” it may be useful to consider how pay varies across sectors as well as non-financial incentives.

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