Life Scientists Report Rising Salaries and High Job Satisfaction

Credit: Jupiter Images

Becoming a scientist isn't easy. Earning a Ph.D. is just one step in the long journey to professional fulfillment. Then comes a postdoc or three, and maybe a multiyear probationary period. Most scientists are in their mid-30s by the time their real careers get under way. And the payoff--the opportunity to spend the rest of your life working really hard on interesting projects--brings with it a decent, but usually not great, salary.

Fortunately for the profession, most scientists seem willing to put up with those challenges. Those who responded to the third salary and employment survey by AAAS (publisher of Science) report job satisfaction at just a shade below "very good." "I can't believe I'm getting paid for this!" says Bonny Dickinson, an assistant professor at the Research Hospital for Children at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. And in a year when most workers saw their real incomes fall or stagnate, life scientists report receiving modest but significant salary gains. "I think my compensation is good," says Linval DePass, executive director of nonclinical safety at Durect Corp., a Cupertino, California, specialty pharmaceuticals company. "I think salaries are increasing, particularly in the area where I work."

For life scientists, 2005 was a pretty good year. Full-time academic life scientists--the largest group in our survey--reported earning 5.4% more this year, on average, than they did the previous year. That's well above the 3.4% rate of inflation. Full-time scientists in industry did quite a bit better, earning a boost of nearly 10%. To no one's surprise, the salaries of industrial scientists with doctorate degrees far outpace those of their academic colleagues, with means of $116,000 and $78,000 respectively. That difference, coincidentally, nearly matches the $40,000 average salary being collected by academic postdocs in 2006.

Still, even those academic workhorses are doing a little better than in the past. Salaries for postdocs--17% of respondents--rose by an average of 8.1%, more than double the inflation rate. Postdocs in industry had a blockbuster year, earning 19% more. (One caveat to the postdoc numbers: Some of the respondents may be first-year postdocs, meaning the comparison may be to what they were earning as graduate students.)

Despite the rising tide, large disparities remain. Even excluding industrial scientists, scientists in certain disciplines earned far less than their colleagues did. Developmental biologists with doctoral degrees who work in academia, for example, earned a median salary of just $45,000, whereas Ph.D. pharmacologists earned $99,000. Academic developmental biologists gained some ground, however, earning 7% more than last year, compared to a 2% average raise for Ph.D. toxicologists.

How the survey was conducted
The survey targeted U.S.-based life scientists. We sent e-mail invitations to 41,000 AAAS members and 12,000 free registrants on the Science magazine Web site. Kelly Scientific Resources also participated in the survey by polling some 12,000 of their employees, whose responses were combined with the rest of the survey data.

The overall response rate was 7%--just over 4500 scientists--of whom 62% are employed in academia. Some 35% work in industry, government, or the nonprofit sector, and 3% are self-employed. Some 43% of survey respondents are women, three-quarters hold doctoral-level degrees, and 22% are nonwhite. Nearly 9 in 10 are U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

The information collected goes well beyond their paychecks. They were asked where they work and for how long, what they do, and how satisfied they are. (Of the 12% working on temporary visas, for example, half report that their immigration status has caused "job security/pay issues," and 23% said that they faced "challenges obtaining grants.") We also invited them to make comments and interviewed several people who agreed to be quoted.

Despite the considerable challenges of a scientific career--relatively low pay, long hours, a very long training phase, and a tight job market--scientists say they enjoy the work. Survey respondents rated their job satisfaction as 3.7 on a 5-point scale, between "good" and "very good." The finding is similar to those of the two previous surveys ( Science, 18 June 2004, p. 1829, and 12 October 2001, p. 395, subscription required), suggesting that scientists' happiness is not a new phenomenon.

You might think that postdocs, with their low salaries, poor job security, and often poor working conditions, would be less happy than most other scientists. They were--but not by much. Postdocs rated their job satisfaction at 3.5, midway between "good" and "very good."

So what makes scientists happy? Surely it's not simply how much they're paid; compared to the earnings of those in other professions requiring similar training, scientists' salaries remain quite low. But our survey showed that salary is one of many factors determining job satisfaction. People who rated their salary "excellent"--a 5--were also more than three times as likely as the average survey respondent to rate their overall job satisfaction as "excellent."

But a closer look at the connection between salary and job satisfaction shows that the correlation really isn't all that strong. A linear regression analysis of job-satisfaction versus salary shows that whereas scientists who earned $150,000 rated their job satisfaction as "very good," scientists earning barely one-fifth as much were only slightly less satisfied. Furthermore, scientists who work in industry report exactly the same level of job satisfaction as their lower-paid colleagues in academia.

What else affects scientists' job satisfaction? Among the most important factors are promotion opportunities, job security, and intellectual challenge. Our follow-up interviews identified still other factors and gave a more nuanced view of scientists' deepest professional desires.

Moving ahead
Traditionally, Harvard University has been notoriously stingy with tenure. But neuroscientist Florian Engert says times have changed, at least in his corner of the Yard. "I can think of five people who have gotten tenure in the last few years," he says, "and only one who hasn't." (A Harvard administrator told Science, "We have not released tenure numbers in the past and would not do so at this time.") Accordingly, Engert, who comes up for tenure in 2 years, rates his job satisfaction as "excellent."

Engert, an associate professor in Harvard's Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, studies vision and cognition by monitoring brain activity in zebrafish. Engert's "excellent" job-satisfaction rating is consistent with the fact that people who rated their promotion opportunities as "excellent" were four times more likely than average to rate their job satisfaction as "excellent," too. Likewise, immunologist Kathleen Hoag of Michigan State University in East Lansing loves her job despite the long hours--"It's fun! Intellectually challenging! Tiring!"-- and rates her chances of getting tenure this year as "almost certain."

The correlation is even stronger in the other direction. Those who rate their promotion opportunities "very poor" are seven times more likely than average to register low job satisfaction. Many postdocs and soft-money researchers find themselves in precisely that position.

"To start a scientific career is very challenging, and the returns are not very good," says Rahul Sharma, a research instructor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who sees his promotion opportunities and job satisfaction as very poor. (The university uses the title "research instructor" for those who have exceeded the stipulated 5-year stint as a postdoc.) "It's more than 7 years since I got my Ph.D., and I'm still struggling to start my career. This is a critical time."

"I think salaries are increasing, particularly in the area where I work." Linval DePass (Courtesy, L. DePass)

Sharma hopes to snare a soft-money research-faculty position soon. "These [jobs] are a little better than being a postdoc," he says. Besides paying him better, such a job would give him the chance to write his own grant proposals and leverage any funding into a position with greater stability. "Until you are a tenured faculty member, the career doesn't really start," says Sharma, who plans to reassess his situation in a couple of years if his prospects haven't improved.

The right fit
Whereas job security boosts professional satisfaction, our survey found, there's no sure path to fulfillment. Ken Nussbaum, a veterinary epidemiologist at Auburn University in Alabama, sees a "burgeoning need" for animal experts in public health, and he wants to help fill that need. Nussbaum has tenure. But he gives himself a 1 for job satisfaction, and he's in the job market.

"I seem to have plateaued academically," Nussbaum says. "I don't wish to continue highly technical lab work, yet I have training that I hope will be transferable to the field of public health. I'd like to spend a couple of years working in public health or step back into more concentrated classroom teaching." Although his efforts to enter the public health field are going well--he has had a paper accepted at an important meeting--he hasn't yet succeeded in finding a new job. "In some places, it's a [professional] mismatch," he says. Despite his 25 years' experience, employers are offering him entry level positions. "At my stage, my strength is my understanding," he says.

"She's been like a cheerleader for me, understanding that I have a life outside the lab." Kathryn Shows (Courtesy, K. Shows)

Nussbaum has found few opportunities close to home. Although he is willing to relocate, he has ruled out some cities. "A lot of jobs in the Washington, D.C., area look like good positions," he says, but he's scared off by the higher cost of living, in particular the disparity with the deep South on housing.

Steve Verhey has also struggled to mesh his work with his values and ambitions. When he completed the survey, Verhey was a self-described "lame-duck" assistant professor of cell biology at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, where he had just been denied tenure. His frustration at not being recognized for focusing on teaching at the predominantly undergraduate institution was reflected in his self-rating of 1 for job satisfaction.

But concentrating on research wasn't a viable option, either, he says, because of the lack of resources--such as lab space--and a balky infrastructure. "The thing that got me the most was the purchasing system," he says. "Suppliers are set up so that you can call, and they'll ship it the next day." But at Central Washington, he says, orders might languish for a week. "Not conducive to doing real research," he says.

Mind the gap. Women gained slightly on men last year, but their salaries still lag. (Credit: Getty Images)

So Verhey went out and founded his own biodiesel company. In the process, he raised his job satisfaction to a 5. "I'm having more fun that I ever did in 20 years in academia," he says. "I'm using things I've learned and learning new things--in the real world."

Although some people may be happy to labor in obscurity, our survey identified "recognition and prestige" as one of the most important factors in determining job satisfaction. People who gave the top mark to the "recognition and prestige" of their jobs were 3.5 times more likely than average to rate their overall job satisfaction just as high. On the other end, those who gave "recognition and prestige" a 1 were four times more likely than average to give their overall job satisfaction the same poor rating.

In interviews, individual scientists are loath to cite recognition and prestige as keys to professional happiness. But Peter Koulen, a tenured full professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, readily admits that prestige--including institutional prestige--has important practical consequences. "A lot of professional success critically depends on the name of your institution, which, if peer review works the way we think it works, should not be the case," says Koulen, who has also worked at Yale University and at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. "I think the quality of my science has not changed, but the work that I have to do to get my science published or funded is multiple times harder here."

"I can think of five people who have gotten tenure [at Harvard] in the last few years and only one who hasn't." Florian Engert (Courtesy, F. Engert)

Carol Sibley, a full professor in the recently created genome sciences department at the University of Washington, Seattle, says she enjoys "excellent" job satisfaction but is considering a change nonetheless. "I'm 62, [and I] still have lots of energy and interest. But at some point you think, 'I've been a prof all this time; maybe there are other ways to apply my skills.' "

Sibley, who studies the two malaria parasites, would like her work to have more direct relevance to public health. "I study drug resistance. As you work on that at the basic-science level, you get more and more interested in how we can slow this [disease] down." Living in the city that's home to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other organizations focused on world health, she acknowledges that she has many opportunities. But she wants one with modest travel requirements. "One of the minuses is that the folks I know travel a huge amount--more than I want to," she says.

The right location
Geography, too, can have a big impact on scientists' job satisfaction. Scientists who rated their geographic location "not satisfactory" were three-and-a-half times more likely than other respondents to suffer from low job satisfaction. Christopher Dougherty, a soft-money research professor at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in Boca Raton, studies the genetics of age-related macular degeneration. His goal is something more remunerative and secure. But he and his wife prefer to stay in town so their 6-month-old son can get to know his grandparents, who live nearby.

Dougherty's solution is to wait for the jobs to come to him. Scripps Research Institute has just committed to opening a new research facility--with a research agenda that matches up well with Dougherty's focus on the genetics of geriatric diseases--on FAU's other campus in nearby Jupiter. Scripps is expected to attract a cluster of new biotech companies to the area.

But just as some scientists are limited by geography, others are aided by it. "I've worked in the [San Francisco] Bay area, which is a very strong area for biotech," for 22 years, says Durect's DePass. "Because of that, there is considerable competition for good people, which contributes to an increase in salaries."

The satisfaction of older scientists
Conventional wisdom and at least a few scholarly articles suggest that scientists do their most creative work when they're still young. Our survey indicates, however, that it's older scientists who find their work most satisfying. The upward trend in job satisfaction begins at 35, but our survey found the biggest jump at 55.

Golden years. Scientists' salaries keep rising throughout their careers.

So why are older scientists happier? One reason may be that they get paid a lot more than their junior colleagues do. Everyone knows that older workers earn more than younger ones, but our survey showed that in the life sciences the trend is stronger and continues longer than in the general population. Academic life scientists above 65 reported mean salaries of $133,000, more than three times as large as those in the youngest (25 to 34) age group, who earn a mean of $41,000. For the general population, the ratio of peak earnings to early-career earnings is only 1.24, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. BLS data also show that workers in the general population achieve peak earnings between 45 and 54, whereas in our survey, the very oldest science workers also report the very highest salaries.

So although young life scientists earn only a little more than the typical American worker, their salaries increase much more steeply, and the increases persist. That pattern makes sense to David Inouye, a 56-year-old ecologist and conservation biologist at the University of Maryland, College Park. He says his job satisfaction "stems in part from the success of a graduate program that I started 18 years ago." On the research side, the full payoff was also slow in coming.

"In terms of research, much of what I do now builds upon work that I started as a graduate student in 1973," he says. "So part of the age-satisfaction correlation, at least in my own case, comes from having laid the groundwork decades ago for work that is still ongoing and being very fruitful now."

For Ananda Lugade of Luminex Corp. in Austin, Texas, the correlation has a simpler explanation: She just didn't find the right job until she was older. "I could not get satisfaction at an early age," she wrote in an e-mail. "I got an opportunity to make some good contributions," she says--but only after she reached 45.

Mentorship and guidance
So what about younger scientists? Our survey did not address directly the issue of mentorship, but almost all the young scientists we interviewed call this an important factor. Michigan State's Hoag is grateful that her department has faculty mentoring committees, which are available to advise all probationary faculty members. Hoag's department offers all faculty members an annual review, which allowed Hoag to be clear on what was expected of her and how well she was meeting those expectations. That knowledge has been an important element of her professional contentment.

"It's more than 7 years since I got my Ph.D.and I'm still struggling to start my career." Rahul Sharma (Courtesy R. Sharma)

Kathryn Shows, a postdoc at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond who studies the genetic disorder Treacher Collins syndrome, credits her postdoctoral adviser and mentor for helping her return to science after leaving to start a family: "She encouraged me to come back, and she's been like a cheerleader for me, understanding that I have a life outside the lab." Shows also feels she's getting the kind of training she needs to develop into an independent academic scientist. "I've always been interested in genetics and cannot imagine studying anything else. I [also] cannot imagine being anywhere else than at a university."

Dickinson--the Louisiana State immunologist who said she couldn't believe she's getting paid for the interesting work she's doing on the mechanism of cholera, among other things--credits her mentor, Seth Pincus, for making a big difference in her professional life. "I'm happy to be a part of a team working under his leadership," she says. She especially admires how Pincus got the lab back up and running 6 weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

Despite her overall satisfaction, she admits the fit isn't perfect. Her institution isn't large, and compared to Harvard, where she did a postdoc, its approach to science is a bit low key, she says. "It's a little bit isolating," she confesses. "I gave a seminar yesterday, but there were so few people there. I spent so much time preparing, and nobody gave me any feedback. Sometimes I really miss Harvard, where people are very excited. It's not like that here; come 5 o'clock, it's hard to find people."

Salary matters for Dickinson. But what matters most is the peace of mind it buys. "I make $84K," Dickinson says. "I would still do it at $65K, [but] I'd be spending more time worrying about finances and so on." In the meantime, she says, her life is good. "My experiments are going well. I feel blessed."

Another factor our survey didn't address directly--but that came up repeatedly in comments and interviews--is the importance of good colleagues. And Michigan State, with the sixth largest student body in the United States and a faculty to match, offers Hoag plenty of those. "I can pretty much know that I can get advice or expertise, or even a new collaborator, in just about any new direction my research might move in," she says.

Also important, says Hoag, is "the demeanor of the individuals that I work with. My office, my main colleagues in the diagnostics program faculty--we're a team. Everyone is a team player, very entrepreneurial, always looking for new ways to reach the public. It's so exciting," she adds. "Nobody could possibly become deadwood."

Jim Austin is the editor of

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