Currently, every scientist with a salary above ca. $24k/yr is exempt from over time pay in the USA – and over time here means everything over 40hrs in a week. Obama now thinks about changing this threshold to ca $50k/yr. This is big, because postdocs make only about $43k/yr on average. So if this comes, and if postdocs become eligible for over time pay, PIs will need deep pockets, because postdocs often routinely work 60-80 hour weeks. In this scenario they probably would increase the minimum salary for postdocs above that $51k level, which would be an enormous jump for most postdocs. Now, while I am confident funding agencies and leading academics will lobby against it, and not all postdocs are officially employed, and I’m rather on the pessimistic side of things, I still think one should at least have spoken up. Otherwise I wouldn’t be eligible for wining, later, right? 😉

So, today I wrote the following comment and made it official by posting it on http://www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=WHD-2015-0001 – which I think is something every US grad student and postdoc should do, too.

This is what I wrote:

The increased threshold for over time exempts is overdue. In the USA the median income is by far higher than the current threshold and it makes no sense to assume a salary over ca $24000 but under $50000 would be sufficient to justify the idea, any overtime should be included.

This change of rule will have a positive impact on almost every postdoctoral researcher. Postdoctoral researchers are scientists (usually in their 30s) holding a PhD and are budding laboratory leaders, and professors. Historically, postdoctoral researchers would work in another PIs lab for a 2-4 years after being awarded their PhD, and would then move on to a tenure track professorship or other long-term position. This temporary ‘trainee’ status is used to keep salaries relatively low and keep benefits minimal.

Today, PhDs work as postdocs on average 6-8 years (in biology), non group leader permanent positions are not available anymore, and postdocs are used to replace any position. This is because they are not only cheap but also numerous. The rising numbers in PhD graduations have not been matched by increased numbers of permanent positions in academia. While in the 80s there were ca. 8000 PhDs graduating in the USA per year, today it’s about 36000 graduates, but the number of open PI positions (around 5000) has not changed significantly. As a result, cheap postdocs are often used to replace more expensive, long-term positions, such as technicians or research associates. There is a rampant abuse of postdocs by PIs who hire them under postdoc conditions but deny them proper postdoctoral mentoring or participation in training events.

Because of this, postdoctoral researchers today are the sole most crucial workers in research and development.

The increase in competition for the rare positions in academia has turned it into a hostile environment. Postdocs work long hours trying to get an edge, while often not only doing their research, but managing the laboratory and giving lectures. Sixty to eighty hours per week are not rare occurrences among postdoctoral researchers. Stress related mental disorders are surging among postdocs but also graduate students who share similar conditions.

Increasing the threshold for the over time exempt for researchers, will increase salaries for postdocs, either by over time pay or salaries being raised above $51000. This will make it more attractive for PIs to transition postdocs who became essential to their research into long-term personnel, as the cost/benefit ratios will become more even. It will also reduce the number of newly hired postdocs, simply because overall fewer postdocs will be affordable. Reduced competition for tenured positions will be greatly beneficial for the scientific progress, since stress related productivity loss will be reduced.

But most importantly, an increase in postdoctoral salaries will give postdocs a better outlook and a compensation more appropriate to their skills and productivity. Postdocs are among the best and literally are the brightest. In a technology driven civilization like in the USA, academic research must remain an attractive opportunity for young scientists in all fields. Academia is currently dealing with deep structural flaws. It is widely accepted that reducing postdoc numbers and increasing postdoc salaries are part of what needs to be done, but academia is a slowly moving apparatus.

I believe that making postdocs eligible for over time pay will be a crucial impulse to change the currently flawed structures in academia and it will make academic research – the engine that drives all technological progress – more attractive for the best and brightest of the coming generation.

good luck, US postdocs!