Today’s guest contributor is currently a postdoctoral fellow in New York City. She holds a PhD in Neuroscience, and her research interests include neuroanatomy and psychiatric disease.
This past Halloween, I was invited to a costume party at a swanky 3-story Fifth Avenue apartment. My brother and his girlfriend tagged along as my guests. People were walking around in costumes that looked like they stepped off movie sets, hopping in and out of a hot tub on the second story, laughing, eating, drinking, and talking. Conversations flowed in different accents, different languages. But when I looked up from a conversation I was having with a costume designer (who, ironically, was one of the few people at the party not in costume), I saw my brother’s date standing over the cheese platters, silent and frowning.
I walked over to her, “Is everything OK?”
“Yes,” she shrugged. “I mean, no. I just feel so out of place here.”
“I don’t know many people either,” I said, “But I’m happy to introduce you to the alien over there. Or the cow—she’s nice, too.”
“No, it’s not that… everyone’s been nice. I just feel like I don’t belong. I mean I don’t make the kind of money to fit in here. I feel like I should go.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! Just relax and enjoy yourself!”
“No, seriously. Look at this place! I can’t even imagine how much it’s worth.”
“Just stop it!” I laughed, “You’re here with me, so you can chill out, because if I was invited here on my whole $40,000 salary, you belong too!”
The room was suddenly silent— my last statement was timed to coincide embarrassingly well with a break between songs. Her jaw dropped. “You can’t possibly make that!”
“Um, yes, I make about that. Science isn’t the greatest paying gig.”
“But, you can’t live on that in New York!”
“You know, it’s tight, but we’re good with money so we get by.”
She raised her eyebrows at me, “You can’t possibly be that good with money. I live with two roommates in Canarsie, and I couldn’t imagine surviving on that salary. Plus, you do important work—way more important than my shitty job. I just can’t believe that’s what you earn.”
The cow I’d been speaking to earlier chimed in, “Seriously. At my catering business, I start off the girls who answer the phone at $45,000. And they have zero experience in anything. Wow. And you’re a scientist? Waitresses probably bring in twice what you’re earning!”
My actress friend who had invited me to the party said, “You know, I heard you weren’t earning much. I think it’s something we expect in the arts, but it was so surprising to hear that science pays so low, especially with all you hear about needing more people to go into STEM fields.”
I did my best to explain what a postdoc was, why I was doing one, how NIH salaries worked, and to fend off the cow’s well-meaning attempts to convince me to get a waitressing job. After a few minutes, they looked at me with the same look I’ve been getting from my parents and family lately, a look that tells me they’re wondering whether I’m a saint or I’m insane (and they’re leaning towards insane). I downed another glass of my host’s champagne and changed the subject.
The thing is, New York can be an amazing city to live in, but it’s really hard to get by at my age and career stage on a postdoc’s salary. In my mid-30’s, I find my financial needs extend beyond rent, ramen, and beer. And my salary barely covers the first of those. My husband, cat, and I share a 250 square-foot studio apartment. NYC taxes eat about 30% of my $42,000 stipend and my half of our rent consumes about 50% of what’s left over. A significant portion of our income goes to pay for annual flights to visit our families. A rainy day savings fund and a retirement account are luxuries I can’t afford—and, as a postdoc, I’m not offered retirement benefits, anyway.
If we had children, working as a postdoc wouldn’t even be an option, as typical childcare costs in NYC exceed my take-home pay.
Low postdoc pay is a problem across the US, but if you’re in a high cost of living area like NYC, Boston, or San Francisco—which is where many of the USA’s biomedical research institutions are located—the financial situation can become simply untenable. The New York Times estimates that $40,000, my approximate postdoc salary, gives the purchasing power of about $18,000 in a more typical part of the country.
Most businesses, including academic institutions, acknowledge the high cost of living in New York and adjust salaries accordingly. At NYC universities, administrative pay is much higher than it would be in cheaper cost of living areas. Faculty pay is higher too, and faculty are also sometimes offered generous housing allowances. Even graduate student stipends in NYC rank among the highest in the nation—and graduate students are almost always offered subsidized housing.
But postdoc pay typically stagnates around the NIH minimum, even in high cost-of-living areas like NYC.
So, knowing this, why would you choose to come to NYC for a postdoc? For my husband and me, the high density of biomedical research institutions here solved our two-body problem, at least in the short term. The financial cost of doing a postdoc here, however, is unfeasible for the long term, especially because we do want children. Just shy of two years into my postdoc, I’m on the job market. I’m going to have to leave academia— the current trend of a 5-7 year postdoc prior to first faculty appointment is as unfathomable financially to me as owning a Lamborghini. It’s not a matter of whether I’d want to become a PI (and I’m not entirely sure I would), it’s a matter of accepting the reality that we can’t afford it. Unfortunately, a cloud of economic uncertainty has been the most prominent feature of my postdoctoral experience in NYC, and it’s overshadowed any scientific training I’ve received.
Nearly all of my friends in New York have already flown the coop and have left academia. One who’s recently started a job in medical advertising took me out to dinner the other night at a nice French place. She looked happy, well-rested, healthy. She doesn’t wake up anymore in the middle of the night worrying about money. She no longer has to walk people’s dogs to supplement her stipend, and has even hired a dog-walker herself. After six months, she got her first promotion and raise. Her only regret, she says, is that she didn’t leave academia sooner.
Because, despite its high cost of living, New York has one huge hidden advantage for a postdoc: it’s a great place to leapfrog to a career outside of academia. My former colleagues have found work in fields as diverse as web design, finance, education, consulting, marketing, and healthcare.
What mystifies me the most, however, is why university professors and administrators here seem baffled and angered by the migration of some of the best and most promising minds away from academia. They ask me why on earth anyone would leave their postdoc, as if they honestly can’t think of the answer. I don’t know if they can’t do the math to calculate how difficult it is to live in NYC in 2015 on our stipends, if they don’t care, or if they consider these ever-extending years of postdoctoral poverty a type of brutal hazing ritual during which we prove our love for academic science.
The system, especially in high cost-of-living areas, seems specifically designed to encourage postdocs to leave academia. Why, then, is anybody surprised when that’s exactly what happens?
*A final note: some universities and academic institutions in high cost of living areas offer subsidized housing, childcare, and other benefits to postdoctoral fellows and thereby create a more secure economic environment for postdoctoral trainees. If you want an academic career, and are considering a postdoc in a high cost of living area, look for this type of support. My institution did not offer these benefits.