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Cities offer great postdoc opportunities—but make sure you factor in the cost of living

Over the past year, Anand Rao—a postdoc at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California—employed an unconventional strategy to alleviate the financial strain of living in the pricey San Francisco Bay Area: He worked as a handyman for his landlords in exchange for reduced rent. The cost of living in Palo Alto forces postdocs to get creative about finances, he says. “But I felt that the opportunities that Stanford provided—the doors it would open—made that well worth it.”

Many postdocs in large metropolitan areas struggle to pay basic expenses—rent, food, transportation costs—in part because postdoc salaries in those locations don’t go as far as they do in small college towns, as a new study highlights. Often, it’s a price Ph.D. graduates are willing to pay in the quest to secure their dream job. “If you’re really aspiring to an academic career, then … I think that the advantages of postdoc-ing with a very prominent PI [principal investigator] in a prominent university outweigh the cost for a couple of years,” says Michael Roach, an assistant professor at Cornell University who studies the scientific workforce. 

But it’s important to enter into a postdoc with a full understanding of the financial realities. And the new study, which analyzes postdoc salaries from across the United States in 2016, may help job seekers do just that by providing a clearer picture of how much a typical postdoc salary is truly worth after adjusting for cost of living.

Based on survey responses from 7551 postdocs at 351 institutions and across all fields, postdoc salaries were roughly $47,000 on average—ranging from an average of $39,125 in Kentucky to $56,736 in New Mexico—researchers reported in a preprint posted on bioRxiv. Those numbers are similar to another recent study that estimated U.S. postdoc salaries, notes Erica Westerman, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville who spearheaded the new study with fellow biologist Sean McConnell when the two were postdocs at the University of Chicago in Illinois.

But these numbers were only the first step. Salaries are worth more in places with lower costs of living, so the researchers adjusted the raw numbers to take that into account and offer a more meaningful comparison. “I knew cost of living was high in San Francisco,” Westerman says. But until she looked at the adjusted numbers, “it was unclear to me that … the postdoc salary that you would get in, say, Wyoming was essentially $30,000 more.” That amount of money goes a lot further “in terms of rent and buying food and paying for a car and being able to go to a movie or buy yourself a new bed or live by yourself versus having roommates.”

“I love the map,” says Megan Fitzgerald, a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania who previously completed two postdocs at institutions in New York City. “That’s something everyone should look at before agreeing to do a postdoc.”

When Fitzgerald lived in New York City, she noticed that some graduate students and postdocs were hit by “massive sticker shock a couple of months [after moving to the city]; they just couldn’t believe how much things were.” That’s problematic because “if you are constantly stressed about finance, it’s hard to really concentrate on what you’re doing. … You’re not going to be productive; you’re going to be depressed.”

Some New York-based postdocs take on side jobs to supplement their income—not necessarily by choice, but because they need the money to make rent, Fitzgerald says. “I was tutoring, myself, and that helped a little bit, to take the stress off,” she says. “Some people are waitressing or bartending or DJing, exploiting some of their other talents to get by.” But many people she knew got sick of doing that, she says, and left academia for more lucrative jobs.

San Francisco Bay Area postdocs told a similar story. “I had a second job as an editor doing grammatical and English editing … for extra cash,” says Karen Mruk, who recently finished a postdoc at Stanford and is now an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. “I basically gave up all of my social activities because I didn’t have any money to do anything else but work and live in my apartment,” she added. “I was in a bowling league and I had to give that up.”

Pricey cities

Major research cities in counties that had the lowest average postdoc income after adjusting for cost of living (only counties with more than 50 survey responses were analyzed)

Daniel Standage, who recently finished a postdoc at the University of California, Davis, says that cost of living was a big concern when he—along with his wife and three kids—moved to the west coast from Indiana. Standage, who now works as a scientist for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center in Frederick, Maryland, was excited about living in California and working with his postdoc adviser, but he wasn’t “sure how the finances would work out or what debt we’d get into.” They ended up barely squeaking by on his postdoc salary, which was the family’s sole source of income. But, he says, “there’s no way I would have been able to accomplish this as a single parent.”

Beyond the challenges of living on a postdoc salary when you have kids, it’s also difficult to pay for basic living expenses in a pricey location “if you are not from a family that can financially support you or if you don’t have a spouse that can financially support you,” says Mruk, who is a first-generation college graduate. As Rao, who until last month was the chair of Stanford’s postdoctoral association, put it, “A postdoc becomes a position of privilege.”

But it can be tricky for professors to find money to give postdocs a raise because grant dollars have not kept up with the rate of inflation, and funding agencies don’t provide supplements for researchers living in high cost areas. “Professors are increasingly being asked to do more with less,” Westerman says. “The things that tend to give first are salaries.” Even so, Westerman hopes that the new survey data will help empower current and prospective postdocs in salary negotiations.

In the end, graduating Ph.D. students have to make the best choice for themselves, weighing the benefits of doing a postdoc against factors that may impact their quality of life. “I would not discourage anyone from doing a postdoc in New York or San Francisco,” Fitzgerald says. “But I would really encourage them to do the math before they signed a lease anywhere.”

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