Fair Pay for Postdocs: Why We Support New Federal Overtime Rules

Our nation should embrace the fact that increasing the salary threshold for postdocs represents an opportunity to encourage more of our brightest young minds to consider choosing careers in science.
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The Department of Labor's recently announced revisions to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) will make more than 4 million currently exempt U.S. workers eligible for overtime pay, unless their salaries are raised. Among them are an estimated 37,000 to 40,000 junior scientists who have emerged as critical players in modern biomedical research. There has been considerable concern in both the public and private sectors about how this change will affect the United States' ability to carry out leading edge research in an efficient, cost-effective manner. But as leaders of the nation's biomedical research and labor agencies, we are confident the transition can be made in a way that does not harm -- and actually serves to enrich -- the future of our research enterprise.

Commonly called postdoctoral researchers, or "postdocs," these junior scientists have recently received a doctoral degree (typically a Ph.D.) and successfully defended a research thesis grounded in extensive training in biochemistry, genomics, computer science, or another area of science. However, these individuals are not yet at the point where they can set up their own laboratories and become independent researchers. Consequently, many embark upon a postdoctoral fellowship in a more senior scientist's lab to gain a few years of additional training and experience. The average annual pay for a postdoc is currently estimated to be about $45,000, but this varies greatly by region and funding source.

Current law entitles all workers in the United States to overtime pay, unless they are exempted because they are paid on fixed, preset salaries; are engaged in executive, administrative, or professional duties; and are paid at least $23,660 per year. The figure of $23,660 was set in 2004 and has not kept up with inflation. Under the new rule, which was informed by 270,000 public comments, the threshold will be increased to $47,476 effective December 1, 2016.

Many biomedical postdocs are supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), either through specific grants, known as Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSA), or through standard research grants awarded to their laboratory chief, typically known as a Principal Investigator. Despite the postdocs' extensive training, expertise, and high level of responsibility, many experts believe their starting salaries are too low. For example, in the first three years after receiving their degree, NRSA awardees currently receive awards of $43,692; $45,444; and $47,268 -- all below the newly issued overtime threshold.

Under the new FLSA overtime threshold, universities, teaching hospitals, and other institutions that employ postdocs have a choice: they can carefully track their fellows' hours and pay overtime, or they can raise their salaries to levels above the threshold and thereby qualify them for exemption. Biomedical science, by its very nature, is not work that neatly falls into hourly units or shifts. So, from our vantage point, it seems that the only option consistent with the professional nature of scientific work is to increase salaries above the threshold.

We are fully supportive of the increased salary threshold for postdocs. Indeed, the NIH has been increasing those salaries gradually over the last several years, even in the face of challenging budget circumstances. But we acknowledge that more is needed, and we agree with a number of leaders in biomedical science who have bemoaned the current state of affairs, arguing that postdoctoral fellows are generally paid salaries that do not adequately reflect their advanced education and expertise. Some experts have even explicitly called for starting pay for biomedical postdocs to rise to at least $50,000 annually.

In response to the proposed FLSA revisions, NIH will increase the awards for postdoctoral NRSA recipients to levels above the threshold. At the same time, we recognize that research institutions that employ postdocs will need to readjust the salaries they pay to postdocs that are supported through other means, including other types of NIH research grants. While supporting the increased salaries will no doubt present financial challenges to NIH and the rest of the U.S. biomedical research enterprise, we plan to work closely with leaders in the postdoc and research communities to find creative solutions to ensure a smooth transition.

Our nation should embrace the fact that increasing the salary threshold for postdocs represents an opportunity to encourage more of our brightest young minds to consider choosing careers in science. Biomedical science has never been more exciting or promising than now, and we need to do all we can to support the next generation of scientists.

Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., is Director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Thomas E. Perez, J.D., is the U.S. Secretary of Labor.

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