Why A Postdoctoral Researcher Position Pays Less Than A Librarian Salary

postdoc researcher jobs | Cheeky Scientist | job opportunities for postdocs
Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

“Wait, a first year postdoctoral researcher position pays how much?”

I looked up from my labmate’s computer screen and back down again.

There it was on both the National Institutes of Health and the National Postdoc Association webpages.

The number was so small I couldn’t believe it.

“Not very much is it?” he said.

No, it wasn’t very much at all.

It was pathetic. In fact, it was demeaning.

It was less than librarians, mail carriers, and garbage collectors make.

But this wasn’t the worse part.

The worst part was that most postdocs didn’t get any benefits either.

At many Universities, once you went from being a graduate student to being a postdoc, your healthcare benefits were dropped.

If you paid enough, you could get put on one of the University’s most expensive, lowest coverage healthcare packages.

But all other benefits were nonexistent.

Retirement?

Forget about it.

A report from the National Postdoc Association shows that only 41% Institutionally Funded Postdoc Employees and only 17% of Institutionally Funded Postdoc Trainees receive matched contribution to a retirement plan.

I couldn’t believe it.

It was the middle of my second year of graduate school and all of this was shocking to me.

I seriously thought that once I got my PhD I would be taken care of.

I figured that PhDs made close to six figures right after graduation, even as a postdoc.

Dozens of questions filled my head.

What am I doing here?

What am I working for?

Did I really dedicate over 20 years to academia for this? 

I felt used and helpless, sad and depressed.

I made a decision right there to never do a postdoc, but ended up applying to postdocs my final year anyway because it was what everyone else was doing.

It’s all that I thought I could do.

Luckily, I was wrong.

As my final year came to a close, I came up with a job search strategy that got me several industry job offers.

A few years later, I got together with some other industry PhDs and we worked out a system for helping graduate students and postdocs get high-level industry jobs.

Things are not any better for PhDs in academia but they are better than ever in industry.

Why You Should Quit Your Postdoc Position

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay of a Librarian is $55,370 per year.

The Bureau also reports that the median annual salary of postal service mail carriers, as in mailmen and mailwomen, is $57,200.

Meanwhile, according to the National Institutes of Health and the National Postdoctoral Association, 5th year postdocs make $52,116.

In other words…

A scientific postdoc with a doctoral degree (to be redundant) with 5 years of experience makes ~$4,000 less than the typical librarian and ~$5,000 less than the typical postal carrier.

Okay, but maybe you’re thinking that you won’t stay a postdoc for 5 years.

If this is what you’re thinking, you’re wrong.

The director for extramural research at the National Institutes of Health reports that the average length of postdoc time in the sciences has stretched from around two years to over five years.

It only gets worse if you’re a first year postdoc.

First year postdocs make $42,840 while the average garbage collector makes $43,000 a year.

The hard truth is academic postdocs are not valuable.

It’s simple economics.

The supply of postdocs in academia far exceeds the demand for them.

This makes postdocs essentially worthless in academia.

Argue all you want, but the data don’t lie.

If you’re an academic postdoc, you are worth less than librarians, mail carriers, and garbage collectors.

The end.

You can’t deny this.

The good news is that in industry you are worth much more.

Accept That The Academic System Cannot Be Fixed 

Every year a few articles come out from lifetime academics or academic journal editors touting the increase in pay for postdocs.

Postdoc payday!

Postdoc salaries are on the rise!

But what they neglect to tell you is that salaries for many positions are on the rise.

They also neglect to account for inflation.

Most importantly, they neglect to mention that a slight increase from an abysmally small number is meaningless.

100% of 0 is still 0, so to speak.

You could increase postdoc salaries by 10% right now across the board, which would be a giant raise, and a first year postdoc would still make ~$10,000 less a year than a mail carrier.

Academia cannot be fixed.

There is no funding and there are no jobs.

The NIH Director reported in USA Today that the NIH has lost 25% of its purchasing power.

At a certain point, you need to stop trying to fix or adapt to the system and instead, leave the system.

postdoctoral positions in industry | Cheeky Scientist | better salaries for postdocs

How To Transition Out Of Academia

The only way to escape a dead-end postdoctoral researcher position is to develop an intelligent job search strategy.

But before you do this, you need to drop your poor academic mindset. 

You need to change your perspective and change what you value.

For example, you must stop writing a bloated, self-indulgent resume that no one will ever read.

You must stop believing that your publications will matter to recruiters and industry hiring managers.

They don’t.

You must also start creating a real networking strategy and start leaving the lab to go to seminars, conferences, job fairs, and daytime networking events.

Most importantly, you can’t keep executing the same twenty-year old, career-killing job search mistakes that keep getting regurgitated online.

You need to get access to exclusive, high-level job search information.

You need to get access to a quality network of PhDs and industry professionals who will support you during your transition.

You can either get access to this information and these contacts, or not.  It’s up to you.

3 New Cheeky Scientist Association Success Stories

With the way things are in academia, it can seem like there’s no hope for postdocs.

It can make you feel helpless and even foolish for getting a PhD in the first place.

But don’t lose hope.

There is a better career and a better life waiting for you if you stop burying your head in the sand and instead, take action to improve your situation.

It’s possible and it’s been done by hundreds of other postdocs and graduate students in the Cheeky Scientist Association.

Here are 5 new Cheeky Scientist Association success stories…

“I was looking for an industry job for over a year without any luck. Now, I’m a Medical Science Liaison for a top pharmaceutical company. What happened? I joined the Cheeky Scientist Association. After joining, I was really impressed with the quality of the private group. The amount of support and high-level insights were invaluable to me. I was able to have in-depth conversations with other Associates, learning from the resumes they shared and the networking and interviewing experiences they had. I also got to attend live webinars and workshops with top MSLs and other industry professionals. After making a few key changes to my own resume, interview presentation style, and networking strategy, I was suddenly hired. It all happened very quickly after I got my strategy in place. I couldn’t be happier now. I finally have the career and life I’ve always wanted.”

Yuri Klyachkin, Ph.D
Now A Medical Science Liaison At Bristol-Myers Squibb

“Prior to joining the Association, I was a postdoc and working in a lab just like I had been for the last several years. Though I love science I realized that academia was not for me. Since budgets are cut more and more a lot of labs turn into an environment full of fear and jealousy where publications are “produced” under high pressure, which has nothing to do with the innovative, cool science I wanted to be doing. I wanted to move on and do something new but I felt stuck and like I didn’t have any job options or good connections. I realized I needed to change strategies and joined the Association. Since becoming a Cheeky Scientist Associate, I’ve been on several interviews and have had numerous recruiters contact me. I recently got the industry job of my dreams and I’m still having recruiters contact me. The Cheeky Scientist Association continues to keep me one step ahead in my industry career. I really enjoy interacting with the private online groups and know that I can ask questions and get support whenever I need it. The Association is a great resource for any postdoc, PhD, or Phd student.” 

Karin Weigelt
Account Manager at Bio-Rad Laboratories

“The Cheeky Scientist Association took me from being very unsure on how to approach my job search to getting an industry position above the one I interviewed for and a correspondingly much bigger salary package. Trust me, the program is worth every penny. The Association takes you through the broad strokes of networking and designing a job search strategy to concrete practical tips like inserting the right result in the right place on your resume and saying “any reasonable offer will be considered” when asked how much you expect to earn during an interview. The resume workshop in particular was a game-changer. The only people that shouldn’t join this program are PhDs who want to keep procrastinating and making excuses for why they are still stuck in academia.”

Aaron Gajadhar, Ph.D.
Now A Senior Scientist at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals

Read more success stories here.

You don’t have to accept being an overworked and underpaid postdoc.

You don’t have to accept being valued less than a librarian, mail carrier, or garbage collector.

You deserve better. You deserve to do meaningful work and to be paid well for it. But it’s not going to happen on its own. You need to take action. You need to get access to top-level job search information and a top-level industry network to support you during your transition. Either start creating an intelligent job search strategy now or settle in, because you’re going to be in academia for a long time.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association. 

Cheeky Scientist Association Learn More

Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah is a Ph.D. in Anatomy & Cell Biology and internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant. He is an expert in the biotechnology industry and specializes in helping people transition into cutting-edge career tracks.

Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.
Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.
  • Neil Graham

    The time comes in every postdoc’s life when he or she felt the same feeling of depression, sadness and annxiety because of the fear of the future. A postdoc work like a dog in his life and get the same salary as an ordinary person like garbage collectors or librarians. All these thoughts make them weak and stop their growth.

    Actually, I am reading this website for the past couple of weeks and I think that it has a great thought that can help many graduates and postdoc who are going through the same pain and feelings. So I am going to refer your articles to such students and postdocs in my circles so they can change their lives. Thank you very much.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Thanks for referring the Cheeky Scientist blog to your colleagues, Neil. The feelings of sadness and and anxiety are real, so it’s important that postdocs realize that they are not alone and there is a way out.

    • arlocrescent

      Oh, those puny ‘ordinary’ people! You get a Ph.D. and that makes you special? Like, um, lawyers are special because they have J.D.s and make tons of money?

  • Alex Hoobie Schott

    I’m fairly sympathetic to your points about postdocs being underpaid and the need to look for careers outside of academia.

    However, in my experience your points about health care and retirement benefits are *simply wrong*. As a postdoc at the University of Iowa, both I and my employer contribute to my Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System (IPERS) account and the university picks up fully 90% of my health and dental insurance costs.

    Can you provide any data / reference about which or what percentages of universities do and don’t provide benefits for postdocs?

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Thanks for the comment Alex – you’re one lucky postdoc. Not all postdocs are so lucky. In fact, most are not. By the way, are you a STEM researcher or other? In terms of data, I think Dr. Sally Rockey, the NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research, sums it up best by saying “there is little reliable information about the amounts and types of benefits received by postdocs, but anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a wide variation among institutions and across funding mechanisms” here https://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2014/03/12/collecting-data-on-postdoc-benefits/. However, data from the National Postdoc Association shows that only 41% Institutionally Funded Postdoc Employees and only 17% of Institutionally Funded Postdoc Trainees receive matched contribution to a retirement plan like you do. Page 5 here http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.npacommunity.org/resource/resmgr/2015_AM/2015_AM_-_Town_Hall.pdf?hhSearchTerms=%22retirement%22. Again, glad you’re one of the lucky ones. This article is for those who are not so lucky. Of course, individual retirement accounts like IRAs and Roth IRAs are available to all postdocs and are recommended, but Universities do not contribute to these accounts.

  • Julia Mahone

    At First, I really couldn’t believe you, so I googled it and What did I find? You are absolutely right. I wished you wouldn’t, but you are. This isn’t the case only in the US, but also in the UK, the range appears to be £28,000- £38000. This would be roughly $44,000 – $58,000, but you have to adjust for taxes, health insurance, and then the cost of living (which can be quite high in the UK).

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Excellent, point Julia. This isn’t just a US problem. Thanks for commenting!

    • Maddy

      BUT, in the UK we also have the NHS- in the US, to get decent coverage, you need to fork out quite a lot for health insurance.

  • Dave Kinnamen

    Hi, this is my third time on your blog in the last week. Your thoughts and statistics gave me inspiration to leave academia and transition to industry. Before that I can only imagine myself doing some lab work assigned by my boss and making him happy. But now I know that I can prepare myself for industry position and get a well paid job there compare to the low postdoc salary. Consider me for the next batch of the Cheeky Scientist Association.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      That’s great, Dave. Congratulations on making some strong decisions regarding your career. We will be opening enrollment for the Cheeky Scientist Association very soon, so make sure you are on the wait list http://cheekyscientist.com/association-learn-more/

  • Albert Hayes

    ‘If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys’, and there is no exception, not even science field. I agree that postdocs love science and their first priority is development in science, but they are human beings, and like all human beings, they also have needs, which must be satisfied. And if their needs are not satisfied, it will affect the quality of work and ultimately it’ll hurt science.

    • arlocrescent

      Fuck you. I know some awesome librarians.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Well said Albert, thanks for commenting.

  • Dr.Vogel

    Some people say (including some post doc graduate also) that 45k is a good amount of money and is totally sufficient. I completely disagree. Since when undervaluing a job has become popular? They work very hard so that an average person can live a better and healthy life. They make a major contribution to society. So there should be a respectable salary, at least for the sake of dignity of this job.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      I hear you, Dr. Vogel! Earnings that reflect dignity and respect shouldn’t be an unreasonable expectation. But it all comes down to supply versus demand in the end.

  • LT Fang

    I agree that the academic system is broken and cannot be fixed. In fact, there is no point trying, because it will only prolong its life when the entire academic system should be utterly annihilated, so it can have a clean reboot.

  • Kaye

    I appreciate the comparison that you are making because I think you’re trying to cultivate indignation in your readership, but I think that you need to normalize to different education levels. Academic librarians need a master’s degree in library science at minimum, with a second master’s degree in education or a discipline-related field preferred. (Some academic librarians hold a doctorate in the field they support and pick up the MLIS degree later.) Postal work only requires a high school education. The average person in each of these professions will devote a different amount of their income to student loan repayment. A more level comparison would be a Ph.D. who goes into academic administration against a postdoc.

    Other professions, like civic waste management, pay well because fewer people want to do them. However, your value for the average (US?) garbage collector’s salary is wrong. The US Bureau of Labor Statistic reports that it is actually in the mid-$30,000s/year: http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes537081.htm. The web site you were using bases its data on the job postings in their database.

    That aside, I agree that it makes sense for a lot of postdocs to go into industry because the skills picked up studying for a Ph.D. are invaluable in the data-driven economy. Different types of people will always be drawn to different career paths based on personality, and it’s great that people are starting to support the Ph.D.s who don’t want to work in academia.

  • Oswaldo Alonso Lozoya

    Let me take the liberty of re-posting views I shared with a colleague on this piece a few moments ago (in particular, on the view that a postdoc’s salary base is not that bad because is a training and temporary training period leading to a better long-run financial outcome than those of librarians and other similarly paid jobs):

    “… and that’s the type of mentality many PIs prey on, intentionally or not. Training-schmaining: any current newly minted PhD is generally more equipped than their senior PIs ever were after any of their (usually single) postdoctoral stints.

    Let’s keep in mind that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It’s like in Moneyball: “No. You’re not doing it for the money. You’re doing it for what the money says and it says, well it says, that any player that makes big money, that they’re worth it”.

    One of the few quantifiable measures of worth that our society understands is a fair salary to live a life of sufficiency. For supposedly objective individuals in the sciences to disregard this at their own peril is borderline narcissistic, as if victimization came with lapel pins for valor”.

    “[…] I’m sure you are much more highly trained than when you got your PhD, no question about that – and so am I. In fact, I believe anybody with a postdoc under their belt is better trained than prior to it: such is the nature of career and work experience for anyone in any walk of life, not only postdocs.

    With that being said, in the case of “run-of-the-mill” PI-postdoc relations in academia (not quite the same in governmental or industrial settings, by the way), I just perceive that the current bar postdocs’s credentials are measured by was raised well beyond what it used to be for today’s PIs “back in the day” on the basis of economics, but ironically the remuneration wasn’t held to those same standards: better pay for better skills. All of a sudden, throves of postdocs, each one of them highly educated individuals, find themselves in a large-scale master-apprentice model where the masters neither leave their posts nor reward their apprentices enough to recognize their career advancement “hiatus” for the sake of scientific excellence – regardless of their apprentice’s impressive records.

    Sadly, many – not all – postdocs buy into a narrative of “this is how it’s always been” lifestyle that doesn’t match the majority of senior PI’s recollections of their own past as postdocs (take, for example, a sufficient institutional allowance for postdoc health insurance not requiring a partial paycheck deduction, let alone pre-tax). This is hardly the approach I envision laying a strong and accountable foundation to build scientific progress upon for decades to come.

    P.S. And, for the record, I’m a happy second-time postdoc, only this time not in academia and with enough income to make the rent and without nickel-and-diming in my head trying to choose between an occasional cup of coffee or saving enough money to cover my child’s health insurance”.

  • Bujon

    I totally agree with you here, nowadays the number of postdocs are increased compared to their requirements. So they have to suffer with low salary. So it is better to transit into industry and leave academia forever. But you have to work hard and leverage your PhD to shape yourself to fit into the industry. I think you have a great program called the Cheeky Scientist Association.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Exactly, Bujon. It’s just comes down to supply versus demand, it’s as simple as that. You do have to work hard, but you also need to understand what is expected in industry and how to network.

  • Jill K

    My sister was doing PhD last year, once she told me that she can’t continue such pain and stress. I shared your blog with her if she can get some relief. She learned many things from your articles and made herself ready to transition into industry. And the good thing is, she got the well-paid job as a consultant in the industry last month. You did the great job by changing the life of many people around the world. And I would like to thank you for that.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Thanks for sharing that, Jill. It’s always nice to hear such positive feedback. Your sister made a strong decision and it paid off. Congratulate her on my behalf, please 🙂

  • Jason Lee

    Graduate students and postdocs are life of research and they should be paid well, current pay-scale is definitely less.A computer science major with bachelor’s degree makes 80-90k and a newly graduate law student earns up to 100k. A science graduate doesn’t work any less than them. Then why this huge gap?

    • arlocrescent

      Garbage men, letter carriers, and librarians don’t work any less, either.

      It’s called the market. It’ pays as little as it can.

      “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”

  • Dr.Harris

    I’ve been working with academia for 10 years, and my salary isn’t that great.So I’ve been thinking to leave it. I applied in 3-4 biotech companies for the job. Their response is good. I’m hopeful for this job. If everything goes right and If I get this job, then my salary will be almost double, including other benefits.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Congratulations on making a strong decision to leave academia, Dr. Harris. Good luck with the job applications and know that the CSA is here if you require guidance.

  • Dr. Kumar

    According to me, if all postdoc understand that they need to stop trying to fix or adapt to the system and, instead, leave the system then it’ll be easy for them to make the transition into industry. Otherwise them blame academia for being jobless or low salary job. So don’t depend on academia and work on your own.

  • veeranagouda yaligar

    I don’t agree with Isaiah. He is writing this with vested interest. Please note, PostDoc is not job. It is training period where you have an opportunity to expose yourself to new ideas and think of your own lab as young instigator or scientist. If you fell you don’t have that interest, you don’t have to do it. Just find job. If everyone go with Isaiah logic, all top professors and scientists in universities and institutions would be in industry by now.

  • Shadowhunter

    I think there’s also a difference in the ultimate goals in mainstream academia vs industry. I’m a postdoc in a physics group now and my pay is only slightly more than what’s listed in the article. The difference is that I don’t equate pay with worth – as it is, I only spend a little under 55% of my tax deducted pay on common expenditures. Ultimately, I’m doing physics because I think its cool and if I really wanted to make 6 figures, I could have chosen that path a long time ago.
    While I do agree that some people may see a problem in a garbage collector or a librarian making more money than someone who spent a little over a decade in college, for a good number of us, being involved in the cutting edge of science matters more than simple monetary gain.
    As someone who comes from a family of academics, I can tell you that you never earn the big bucks in this enterprise – even as a tenured professor in most cases. I see it as a fair compromise for being paid a living wage for doing the thing I love.

  • Jamesbay

    This is simply taking advantage of the fear and anxieties of PhD students to coax them to buy a membership, product, service, or something from this website.

    The bite-sized articles are written in a very pandering, sensationalist manner similar to what you would find on any other website shilling something. Then the allure of being contacted when an opening in “The Association” opens up.

    You may be helping people by telling them there are other options available beyond academia, but you are being quite disingenuous by hiding your business as an altruistic, self-help blog for the anxious, overworked, and underpaid PhD student.