Raising the Bar on Postdoc Pay and Benefits

Whitehead plan may break new ground by making retirement contributions for those on fellowships.
January 21, 2008

An academic generation or two ago, postdoctoral fellowships were a relatively brief transition period for scientists -- between finishing up their Ph.D.'s and getting faculty positions of their own. Increasingly though, it has become routine for scientists to spend four or more years as a postdoc -- making their salary and benefits issues more important.

With that in mind, the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, a top freestanding research center (with ties to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), last week announced significant upgrades in salary and benefits for postdocs. The institute is among the top postdoc centers in the biological sciences, so its moves could spur other improvements -- particularly in what may be a landmark move to offer retirement benefits to those who are on fellowships.

On salary, Whitehead is setting a new first-year salary of $47,000 -- a significant increase over the current $38,000. (Cost of living increases would be assured postdocs beyond the first year.) While there are not current national postdoc salary averages available, experts said that Whitehead's new level is probably near the top for the biological sciences, with some physical science postdocs elsewhere paying more. By way of comparison, Whitehead compares itself to 12 top postdoc programs, including those at Harvard Medical School, Rockefeller University, and MIT, and their average was just under $38,000.

When Whitehead set the $38,000 figure in 2002, the hope was to be on top and the realization that others had caught up motivated the big increase, said Marianne Howard, associate vice president for administration and director of human resources.

A major remaining problem, Howard said, was retirement benefits. Like some other postdoc programs, Whitehead has contributed some minimal funding toward postdoc retirement savings, but only for those not on fellowships. Those receiving their pay through fellowships (the case for many) have been unable, at Whitehead and most other institutions, to receive the benefits. Working with tax lawyers, Whitehead identified ways that it could contribute in these cases, too, and is now pledging an 8 percent contribution.

The addition of the benefit comes at a time that the retirement benefit is getting more attention from postdocs. A recent survey of postdocs at Rockefeller University, for example, found that more than 90 percent of postdocs were either somewhat or very concerned about their retirement savings, and most were not making their own contributions.

Howard, of Whitehead, said that with postdocs typically starting there in their late 20s or early 30s, and staying for four to six years, they were being hurt in not having retirement savings. "It's the time value of money earning interest," she said. "The sooner you start, the better off you'll be."

Alyson Reed, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association, said that the Whitehead retirement plan could be "a promising work-around" that many universities might want to consider. "Postdocs are increasingly interested in retirement benefits," she said. "They are spending prime earning years as a postdoc."


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