Pitt’s postdocs welcome pay hike but still worry about job security and career prospects (2024)


The University’s move to increase postdoc pay to the National Institutes of Health National Research Service Award minimum annual salary is a big win for the University of Pittsburgh Postdoc Association (UPPDA), but there are still other issues facing postdocs and questions from research leaders about who will pay for the increases.

Pitt’s postdocs welcome pay hike but still worry about job security and career prospects (1)Provost Joe McCarthy announced in December 2023 that the new postdoctoral salary minimum and annual maintenance increases will be required starting in July 2025, but he strongly recommended that units implement the new minimum salary — which in April increased to $61,008 — in July 2024. Starting in July 2025, raises for postdoc associates will be tied to the annual University raises.

Rachael Rush, president of UPPDA for 2023-24 and a second-year postdoc in the Center for Vaccine Research, said the group was “excited and encouraged by the announcement.”

“Across the nation, everyone needs postdocs, everyone’s looking for postdocs,” she said. “So there's this big push of, how can we fix this? How can we keep people more interested in postdocs? The fact of the matter is for a lot of people it’s just money, and that's what it comes down to, and job prospects. It's really, really tough to get in the faculty stream. You have to be willing to move and you’ve got to be really, really lucky and right timing, right place, also good at what you do. A lot of things have to fall into place.

“But the push for matching the NIH minimum was a big win. The UPPDA was focusing on, in conjunction with the provost’s office, to match some of our similar universities and what they do and to try to keep postdocs at Pitt.”

A report in Nature in late 2022 detailed the problems primary investigators around the world were having hiring postdoc researchers. And Darlene Zellers, associate vice chancellor for academic career development, Health Sciences, and associate dean for postdoctoral affairs, School of Medicine, said institutions like Pitt have “depended very heavily upon graduate students and postdocs for their contributions to their research programs.”

Around 80 percent of postdocs work in the schools of the health sciences, mostly in the School of Medicine.

Panos Chrysanthis, a pro-tem member of the Senate Budget Policies committee and a faculty member in the School of Computing and Information, told the committee in February that he lost a postdoc to a European Union school, “because they pay more competitively and treat them like real employees with benefits.” He said many postdocs are going to Germany or Norway.

Amanda Godley, vice provost for undergraduate studies, said the Provost’s Working Group on Postdoc Salaries and Benefits, which she co-chaired with Zellers, did benchmarking against other public AAU schools and found that the majority tied their minimum post-doc salaries to the NIH minimum.

Up until now, Pitt has been operating with a minimum salary it set in 2016 of $47,476, Zellers said.

The annual mean and median salary report from the Office of the Provost showed that in October 2023, the median salaries for postdoc associates fell below the newly set minimum in all schools except the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. Overall, the working group found 68 percent of postdocs were under the NIH minimum stipend rate in 2023.

A report last year by an NIH working group on Re-Envisioning NIH-supported Postdoctoral Training found that, “The existing postdoctoral research system is not optimally supporting the current biomedical research ecosystem nor is it building the best foundation for a diverse, inclusive, productive, successful and sustainable future. Among other issues, postdoctoral scholars often receive low compensation and benefits relative to their education and work experience; they confront job insecurity, insufficient support for professional development, and uncertain career prospects; they are subject to a power imbalance that favors the institutional establishment.”

“We just don't want postdocs to be missed,” she said. “We should be saying faculty, students, postdocs, staff. … Every single time we talk about our community, we should be talking about postdocs too.”

Associates vs. scholars

In March of this year, there were 853 postdoctoral trainees at Pitt, according to figures on the postdoc.pitt.edu website. Of those, about 80 percent are postdoctoral associates and are recognized as Pitt employees. The others are postdoctoral scholars, who are directly funded by grants and not considered Pitt employees.

One of the reasons for bringing post-doc salaries up to the NIH minimum was to have a standard across the University, Godley said. Salaries of most postdoc scholars are already set by the NIH.

“Postdocs are this very unique category, because they go back and forth between what we call associates and scholars, … back and forth between employee status and not,” Godley said. “So the more you can reduce the changes they go through when they're associates, which are the employee category, and scholars, the better. It reduces the stress of the postdocs. It reduces confusion over stipends.”

Pitt has long advocated for postdoc scholars to also be considered employees, but the NIH has shown no signs of making that change.

“We try to keep these two groups as equivalent as possible,” Godley said. By law, however, postdoc scholars, for instance, can’t participate in retirement savings programs, while associates can. But even the associates don’t get matching funds from Pitt.

Godley told the Senate Budget Policies committee that the working group also did benchmarking on benefits for postdocs and that Pitt’s “are often better than a lot of our peers.” No recommendations were made to change the benefits. “However, we have a provost advisory committee now on postdoc affairs that meets once a semester, and so that might be something we would consider in the future.”

One of the bigger issues for postdoc scholars is that taxes are not taken out of their pay, “which can be kind of a pain, to be honest,” Rush said. “But we are working at UPPDA to develop some resources to help navigate that.”

Rush, who is a postdoc scholar, said that being a scholar is supposed to be good for career development. “It shows that at least at an institutional level, you're somewhat competitive.”

Pitt limits postdoctoral associate appointments to four years, although in the health sciences a designation of senior postdoctoral associate can expand that by three years. The appointments of postdoc scholars are determined by the funding source.

Issues for PIs

Raising salaries can put primary investigators in a tough spot. “That's going to have to come out of PIs’ budgets, and the NIH hasn't really changed the budgets accordingly,” Rush said. “It's not like they increase the award. … From what I understand, most PIs would love to pay their postdocs more. A lot of it is their hands are tied.”

Godley told the Budget Policies committee in May that the working group on postdocs included representatives from the schools that account for most of the postdoctoral appointments, including medicine, the Swanson School of Engineering and the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences.

“We were aware (the pay increase) could potentially cause some pressure on PIs who were funding postdocs through external grants, which is the majority of the way our postdocs are funded,” she said. All of the department chairs in the School of Medicine, which accounts for 80 percent of postdoc appointments, were consulted to see if PIs or departments could absorb the extra cost of raising the minimum to the NIH minimum.

Those chairs indicated that the schools or units “would be able to absorb any additional costs that PIs could not,” Godley said.

“A pattern I've sensed across many RCs and many initiatives related to salaries and benefits is when changes are made — and this has happened with the staff reclassification — the RC says yes, but maybe they didn't consult everyone in the individual departments,” said Juan Taboas, Budget Policies chair and faculty member in the School of Dental Medicine. “Because from the ground up, that's not what we're hearing that everyone can absorb it. Everyone would like to.”

He said PIs need to know well in advance about salary changes so they can incorporate that into grant requests. Godley said that’s why they built in 18 months between when the salary change for postdocs was announced and when it must be implemented.

The spending plan approved by President Biden in March kept NIH funding virtually flat from last year, and the National Science Foundation’s budget was cut 8% for 2023-24.

“It's the reality of scientists across the United States that there is kind of a fixed pot,” Godley said. “Costs are going up. You're trying to get the same volume of research done, and it's hard. Everyone’s squeezed. And you need good postdocs; they're essential to our research mission.”

Postdoc resources

The Center for Postdoctoral Affairs, under the Office of Academic Career Development, Health Sciences, was established in 2002, Zellers said, to provide oversight to postdoctoral training and career development within the six schools of the health sciences, and to be a resource to postdocs and faculty members recruiting them.

Around 2020, all postdoc positions were added to Pitt’s Talent Center job postings and can be found through the Center for Postdoctoral Affairs website. Faculty also can post jobs through that site. Godley said they also are exploring this summer a larger jobs-posting site, like one instituted by the Big 10 schools.

The center also helps monitor that the postdoc guidelines instituted by the provost’s office in 2005, and updated regularly, are followed. Zellers said part of that has been enforcing, at least for the past five years, that “anybody who wanted to give above the University raise or not give the raise had a justification.”

Because 80 percent of postdocs are in the health sciences, Rush said those in humanities often don’t get the same support. “We are hoping to develop more resources so that non-health science postdocs can also have some sort of career development check in just because we find that to be a helpful tool as postdocs to kind of evaluate where you're at,” Rush said.

One of the top concerns of postdocs in a recent NIH report was about transitioning to permanent employment. Pitt health science postdocs are required to create a career development plan and check in with mentors annually.

Zellers said the national shortage of postdocs is, “the direct result of the change in the employment landscape, in academia, that typically a postdoc was the traditional pathway to a faculty position and the majority of postdocs would move on to faculty positions. Now it's reversed; the majority are finding positions outside of academia. … People who have Ph.D.s can go right into industry, they don't necessarily need postdoctoral training.”

For postdocs, the route into a faculty position can sometimes be difficult, but Rush said, “I don't know anyone that goes the academic route — hopefully faculty or something like that at a university — who has not done a postdoc but they're also beneficial for people who want to go into industry. If you look at industry job listings, a lot of times having a couple of years of post graduate school experience can really help set you to a higher entry-level position.”

Godley said one of the things her and Zellers’ offices have been trying to do is “provide professional development opportunities for postdocs, where we are also preparing them for careers in industry or government by providing leadership training, training around managing budgets, training around networking. And that's true for grad students too. We want folks, postdocs and grad students, to be able to be supported in a number of careers.”

Godley also hopes to continue the book group for female postdocs she started last year.

“We tried to have a social, especially for postdocs outside the health sciences because they tend to be more isolated, and it didn't get enough traction, and we think it might have been at the wrong time of the year,” she said. “So we're going to try again this fall because we want postdocs to get to know each other and feel that sense of community.”

One of the perks for all postdocs at Pitt is the educational benefits.

“That is a nice perk and a lot of us take advantage of that,” Rush said. “There's certain postdoc-oriented microcredentials, like one called ‘Leading People in Organizations’ offered through the business school that I know a lot of postdocs, myself included, have taken part in. … It can help whether you choose to run a lab someday or go to industry.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 724-244-4042.

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Pitt’s postdocs welcome pay hike but still worry about job security and career prospects (2024)
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