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Postdoc: Our salaries at Princeton are not enough

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the authors views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here. 

Recently, the University announced a 25 percent stipend increase for graduate students by the start of the Fall 2022 semester. As a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton, I welcome this news because for aspiring academic professionals, appropriate compensation and the ability to maintain a basic standard of living has a significant impact on our career development. However, the University seems to have forgotten to extend the same pay increase to the essential postdoctoral community.

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The postdoctoral community in Princeton University is severely underpaid and often overlooked by the administration. This needs to change.

The approximately 680 postdocs at Princeton are a vital part of our academic community. Our primary responsibility is to conduct academic research with the ultimate goal of obtaining sufficient qualifications to lead an independent research career. We forge new research directions and collaborations in faculty-led laboratories, oversee and mentor undergraduate and graduate students, and often manage the day-to-day workings of University laboratories.

As a result of the competitive academic job market, postdocs frequently work significantly longer hours than what we are formally compensated for, often including weekend and evening work.

The minimum salary for a postdoc at Princeton is currently $53,760 per year, which is set by the University according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) postdoc minimum. Although salaries can be negotiated and are not the same across all departments, from personal discussions with my colleagues, many postdoctoral research associates at the University receive the NIH postdoc minimum salary. While the minimum salary does increase with years of experience, the raise is practically negligible. For example, with two years of experience, the postdoc minimum annual salary increases by only $760; the vast majority of postdocs only stay at Princeton for three to five years. This means that the NIH minimum effectively serves as a benchmark for postdoctoral salaries at the University. If the same NIH minimum guideline was used to set graduate student stipends, they would receive $25,836 per year. Instead, following the University’s announced raise, graduate student stipends will range between $45,600 to $50,400 for a 12-month contract, assuming that the same salaries apply during the summer months.

The fact that the University pays graduate students more than the NIH minimum and is also increasing salaries reflects its understanding that the NIH minimums are not representative of the cost of living in the area. However, this same consideration has not been extended to the vital postdoctoral community, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet.

The typical postdoctoral salary is not sufficient to provide a basic standard of living. For example, the average rent for a one bedroom apartment at Merwick Stanworth, a University-owned housing complex specifically designated for staff and postdocs, is around $1,721-$2,295 per month. Paying $2,295 a month for rent and receiving the NIH minimum income, postdocs could be paying up to 68 percent of their after-tax income for rent. Rent closer to the University is typically considerably higher.

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The struggle to provide a basic standard of living is especially common for postdocs with families, postdocs who are single parents, and postdocs coming from underrepresented backgrounds, many of whom have fewer financial resources to begin with. This serves as a de facto barrier for those individuals coming from more challenging and diverse backgrounds and directly undermines the University’s stated family and diversity focused initiatives. The issue of postdoc pay has become a significant problem in the past year because of the increasing cost of living and is expected to continue to worsen in the near future, partly because the graduate student pay increase may make the local housing market more competitive.

Ignoring postdocs while giving graduate students a raise has created a situation where a first-year graduate student, who has access to subsidized Princeton University housing, can effectively have a greater income than that of a postdoctoral research associate, who holds a Ph.D., has substantially more technical skills and experience, contributes more to the academic enterprise at the university, and is often in the early stages of starting a family. The University has the financial resources to raise postdoc pay, considering Princeton’s large endowment, one of the sources that will pay for the graduate student stipend increase, and the fact that the postdoctoral community is one-fifth the size of the graduate student community. However, the University has yet to take any steps to increase postdoc student pay.

Postdoc pay has been overlooked and has not been formally addressed by the administration in the three months since the announcement that the University would increase graduate student stipends. This is an example of how fundamental postdoc concerns are often overlooked and brushed aside by Princeton University. By not extending the same courtesy and consideration to the postdoc community, our contribution to the University is critically undervalued. Many of us will continue to represent Princeton throughout our careers as academics, but the inadequate compensation combined with the increased cost of living is making it extremely difficult for postdocs to feel valued by the Princeton community. 

For the sake of myself and my postdoc colleagues, I am asking the University to formally address the issues of postdoc pay and, at a minimum, to increase the minimum postdoc salary by 25 percent, in line with the graduate student stipend increase, by the Fall 2022 semester.

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Editor’s Note: The ‘Prince’ granted the author anonymity due to the sensitive nature of their employment and the potential for retribution. The ‘Prince’ also took a number of steps to independently verify factual claims in the guest contribution.

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