Postdoc Pay: A Women's Issue

If universities want to retain more female academic scientists, it's time to increase postdoc salaries, writes Jennifer Bussell.

June 5, 2013

The message is loud, clear, and has reached cultural saturation: women are underrepresented at the top of highly competitive professions because they cannot reconcile the amount of time needed for such careers with the time they want to spend raising children. Just acknowledging this point has been a recent watershed moment for feminism, triggered by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s controversial Atlantic article and the release of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Slaughter and Sandberg offer different views on exactly what’s holding women back, but both agree that much of it has to do with raising children. And, of course, each woman and critic has proposed an array of internal and structural changes to help improve work-life balance for women in highly competitive fields.

Last month, the discussion continued at Rockefeller University, where Slaughter presented her thoughts in a lecture on "The Coming Work-Family Revolution." Since then, and in light of the larger public debate, my colleagues and I have been pondering our own experiences and – let’s be honest – concerns about pursuing a career in academic science.

Academic science offers a special case of the more general problem of women’s underrepresentation at the top of highly competitive careers. This is because the problem we face as women in science is actually most acute at one specific career stage: the postdoc. Survey data show that women mostly opt out of academic science just before or during postdoctoral training. Not coincidentally, this is exactly when they have children.

Given that the average age of a Ph.D. awardee is 31, women postdocs fall somewhere on the sharply declining portion of the female fertility curve. This is a crucial biological difference between women and men that may partly explain the skew in departures from academic science. Men can put off having children until they land a tenure-track job with relatively few reproductive consequences, but if a woman knows she wants to have a family, the wise bet on her own fertility is on having at least the first child before that point, as a postdoc or earlier. Thus, many women postdocs have children, which dramatically increases the odds of their departure from the road to being a principal investigator.

However, the connection between having kids and women leaving science is not simply a matter of long-term work-family time balance. Rather, it is specific to the postdoctoral stage, despite both graduate school and pre-tenured professorship being incredibly demanding. Once women get permanent academic jobs, they leave at a much lower rate, even though their children are presumably still around. This suggests that there is something about being a postdoc in particular that motivates women to leave.

Despite having already completed a five-year-plus doctorate in the field, most postdocs are only paid around $45,000 per year. This is dramatically lower than the compensation of other professionals with similar levels of experience and education. Such low pay leaves women postdocs with much less money than other professional women to pay for childcare and stopgap measures like sending the laundry out. The compensation gap during the postdoc persists for years at the middle of their career, when saving is most important for long-term financial wealth. There is therefore a huge opportunity cost to staying in academic science given the alternatives available to smart, motivated, highly trained postdocs. Adding on the costs of children in both time and money may make other opportunities impossible to turn down.

Women postdocs’ departure speaks for itself. Women leave science to become industry researchers, teachers, consultants, editors, journalists, lawyers, and so on. Many of these professions lack female role models at the top. Most have less flexible hours than science. All of them require hard work. But, again and again, women choose these options over continuing in academic science. We have to ask ourselves why, and the answer is obvious — money. These options all differ from academic science in one key aspect: they are better compensated and more secure at precisely the stage when women opt out.

Of course, many male postdocs also have children. So why don’t they leave at the same rate as women? They soon may. The current make-up of the top ranks of academic science reflects previous generations of scientists. Men’s role in parenting and expectations of fathers are changing so rapidly that the advice Slaughter and Sandberg offer women about making sure to find a partner who will help you balance career and family seems almost quaint. Going forward, the feeling of being torn between career and family may be just as strong for fathers, and the postdoc brain drain may comprise devoted parents of both sexes.

To change the economic calculus for potential scientists, we could pay postdocs more. Imagine that we paid postdocs, say, $75,000/year. Compared to salaries for other elite professionals, this is a modest increase from current rates, at least in terms of the total costs to universities, but for individual postdocs, and the structure of academic science, it would be transformative. It would allow postdocs to actually afford childcare. They might be able to have a spare bedroom in their apartment for family members to stay in when helping to care for children. They might even be able to put some money away to buy a house or save for their children’s education. These types of changes certainly wouldn’t catapult postdocs into the realm of the rich, but they would make all the difference to a 32-year-old woman who wants children and is considering her next career move.

How could we accomplish this? A major granting agency like the National Institutes of Health or Howard Hughes Medical Institute could change its salary guidelines, and we could pay for it by having fewer postdocs. Making postdocs more expensive to employ – and having fewer of them – would have the added bonus of decreasing the applicant pool for assistant professorships. The dismal odds of being able to get a faculty job in academic science are certainly not incentivizing women to stay, and weeding people out earlier would decrease the cost sunk into postdoctoral training for those who ultimately don’t get jobs. Of course, we could also remove the postdoc bottleneck entirely by actually increasing overall funding for science to create more highly paid tenure-track PI positions.

In the end, being an academic scientist, even a tenured professor at a top institution, should not be incompatible with actively raising children. So, let’s do an experiment. See what happens to women’s choices if a large cohort of postdocs can count on being paid a more secure family-friendly wage and not losing out when they spend time with their children. We owe it to the public that ultimately pays for science to make sure the people most likely to make groundbreaking advances become scientists, whether or not they also want children.


Jennifer Bussell is a graduate student in the Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior at Rockefeller University. This essay is adapted from one she wrote for The Incubator, a website at the university.


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