Anticipation ... Is Getting Me Down

High job satisfaction and rising salaries may be in the future for those young life scientists who stick at it long enough to become senior researchers and research administrators. These are among the findings of the AAAS 2001 Salary Survey of Life Scientists, the largest employment survey of U.S. life scientists ever conducted, which is published this week by Science .

The AAAS membership office, in consultation with human resource experts in the sciences, developed the survey and sent it to 20,000 AAAS members in the United States. The sample was constructed to ensure representation of postdocs, 292 of whom responded. Seventy-six percent of those postdoc respondents work in academic settings.

Not surprisingly, postdocs reported earning less on average than all other life scientists working in academic or nonacademic settings. (Graduate students were not included in the survey.) Postdocs reported a median gross salary of $34,000 for 2001, which is less than half of the $80,000 median gross salary for academic life scientists. Postdocs working in nonacademic settings earn slightly more than do postdocs performing similar duties in academia. This differential is a trend that continues--upwards to the tune of 20%--throughout careers in industry and academia. This income discrepancy exists despite the fact that most postdocs work full-time and, for those in academic settings, for the entire academic year or more.

But there is a glimmer of good news for those at the bottom of the salary scales: Even before the outcome of the NIH initiative aimed at improving postdoc pay has started to hit their paychecks, their lot has evidently been improving. The highest percentage increases for 2001 academic salaries went to those in the lowest paid positions. Adjunct instructors and teachers, as well as nonteaching researchers, saw an 8% increase over 2000 salaries; those with the highest salaries reported a 7% increase.

The study also makes it clear that one's discipline within the life science arena makes a difference. Regardless of title or work location (that is, academic or nonacademic setting), the disciplines with the highest salaries are medicine (median of $144,000) and pharmacology ($104,000). The lowest paying disciplines are environmental science ($74,000), microbiology ($73,000), developmental biology ($72,000), and cell biology ($71,000). When taking work setting into consideration, on average one can count on a 20% boost to the median gross salary.

Getting back to postdocs, the survey asked postdocs to identify a likely career path, but nearly half did not answer the question. Those who did respond indicated a clear preference (46%) for a tenure-track academic position.

Access to career support services is another area of concern to younger scientists, as is evident in the COSEPUP recommendations to advisors, institutions, funding agencies, and disciplinary societies. The AAAS survey finds that younger scientists--those under 40 (including most of the postdoc respondents)--have available to them a full range of career resources. And although opportunities to co-author papers and to present at major conferences were reported as widely available, these are not valued as highly as personal contacts and mentors. Evidently there is no substitute for one-on-one interest and direction. At the same time, the survey indicates that recent postdocs are less likely than postdocs from earlier times to have benefited from personal contacts when seeking their first permanent position. Younger scientists also reported significantly more association memberships and access to job vacancy postings than did more senior scientists.

And in more good news, the survey also finds that younger scientists (those under 40) are more likely than postdocs from earlier times to have access to an office for postdocs and a postdoc association. This finding is consistent with a Next Wave Postdoc Network poll that found that increasing numbers of postdoc offices were being established.

An even bigger story uncovered by the survey is the fact that men are more satisfied than women in all aspects of their jobs. Significant differences were found on eight of the 11 satisfaction scales: Autonomy and Flexibility in Decision-Making, Job Security, Working Conditions--Hours Worked, Opportunities for Collegial Exchange, Salary and Compensation, Promotional Opportunities, Recognition and Prestige, and Opportunities for Sabbatical. The lack of job satisfaction is particularly of concern given that women represent 27% of the total sample but 38% of the "under 40" respondent set. In short, women are surging into the life sciences but finding that the working conditions are not all that satisfying. And although gender differences in pay are always difficult to interpret, this report finds more evidence that women are paid less for similar work even when the type of employment is held constant. These gaps are greatest at the top of pay scales in both academic and nonacademic settings.

The AAAS 2001 Salary Survey of Life Scientists is compelling reading. If you aspire to a life science career you will find information in it that is available nowhere else. Survey data are being made available to AAAS members who will be able to conduct searches to determine salary and compensation ranges based on variables that include discipline, gender, and work setting. Others can read overviews of the survey here.

Overall, the survey confirms that most life scientists find their work and careers rewarding, both intellectually and economically. But it is also clear that the "start-up costs" for those entering life science fields must include considerations beyond getting those first grants, setting up a new lab, and hiring staff. For many, the true costs may also include years of anticipation--a lot of hard work while waiting for the rewards and satisfaction of academia to come to them.

Keep an eye on Next Wave and the Postdoc Network as we continue to mine the survey data to report on career-family trade-offs and factors that drive job satisfaction.

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