Postdocs, don’t buy that yacht just yet

If you’re an early career scientist and you spent any amount of time on the interwebs this past week, you no doubt caught sight of headlines proclaiming great news for U.S. postdocs: “Postdoc pay to increase due to new overtime rule,” “US law could increase postdoc pay,” “Fair Pay for Postdocs.” Well, I hate to be a killjoy, but I’ve been around the sun enough times to know how these sorts of laws play out in real life.

Let’s take a look at what the law actually says. For starters, it does explicitly talk about science postdocs as one of the target groups of “white collar” employees.[1] and explicitly rules out grad students, humanities postdocs with mostly teaching duties, and teachers, including professors, which seems inane to me, but there you have it. Its main goal is to get rid of uncompensated overtime for people making less than 40th percentile of the salary in the poorest part of the country for professional work. [2] Yes, that’s right: on average, science postdocs make less than the median salary in the poorest part of the country. Let that sink in a bit. So what it does is specify a threshold ($47,476 initially and updated every three years) below which you must be paid 1.5 times your hourly salary for any time worked over 40 hours per week.

Now what does this mean in practice? Well, most ecology postdocs earn substantially less than $47,476 in salary. Starting December 1, if they work more than 40 hours per week, they’ll be paid extra! Great! Except not great. Except not great, because PI budgets are fixed and nobody has budgeted for overtime in the grants that currently exist. There’s not any extra money to cover overtime, and so there is a strong incentive for PIs and institutions to ensure that postdocs are not working more than 40 hours per week — at least in the short term.

All the popular press pieces seem to think that within a few years postdoc salaries will simply go up to the threshold so that no one will have to worry about postdocs working overtime. However, they focus on biomed research where postdoc salaries are already reasonably close to that threshold. When I was looking for ecology postdocs a couple years ago, salaries were typically offered in the $38,000 to $44,000 range. I don’t think most PIs are going to give a $42,000 postdoc a blanket 13% raise. In fact, PIs might perversely reduce postdoc salaries so that they have more room to budget for overtime, in attempt to keep the total slice a postdoc’s salary takes out of a grant budget stable.

Which brings us to a major point: how many postdocs record their hours? My guess is it’s fewer than half. Some institutions require postdocs to punch a clock, but my impression is that many don’t. Well, that’s going to change. Institutions are going to have to make a calculation about whether to insist that all PIs hire postdocs at (or above) the threshold or whether to track postdoc time. And I think ecology PIs are going to push back against hiring postdocs at a considerable premium. [3] But hopefully, I’ll be wrong. Most universities are already doing timesheets for administrative staff, work-study students, and the like, and it probably isn’t that hard to force postdocs into existing systems.

So I think we’re going to start being put on a clock. Which sucks. (Been there, done that.) Beyond the hassle of the extra paperwork, once you start being on a clock, you lose flexibility. That’s because you’re in theory being paid for 40 hours per week. Right now, if you need to work extra long one week (deadline, experiment, etc.) you can slack off a bit the next. If you have a really crappy home life for a month for whatever reason, you can make it up another time. Postdocs are used to this sort of flexibility, and for me, it is the #1 reason I am still in academia as a mom of two little kids. There are some days where my productivity is maximized by taking a two-hour nap and then working hard for six hours instead of blearily trudging through eight hours barely awake and accomplishing very little. I do not work exactly 40 hours per week every week, and I wouldn’t want to be forced to. It doesn’t make sense both from an efficiency standpoint or from a work-life balance standpoint.

But wait, you might say. It’s still possible to grant flexibility even when you have timesheets and an expectation of 40 hours per week. That’s true in theory. But what happens in reality is that when budgets are strained, extra hours worked at one time (“comp time”) become a liability to the payer, because the payer is on the hook to pay for those hours if they aren’t used by the employee. For example, when the Sequester went into effect, the Department of Interior (which employs most federal ecologists) and other parts of government clamped down on the use of comp time. Employees used to being able to flex their hours from week to week were no longer allowed to. The reason was simply that if employees didn’t use those comp hours, the government would have to pay out for them. And they didn’t have the budget flexibility to do that.

The law allows employers to cap the hours postdocs are allowed to work at 40 hours. And I think what’s going to happen is that most PIs are going to tell their postdocs that they can only work 40 hours unless there’s a special circumstance dictated by research needs in which more than 40 hours are needed (experiment, field work, etc.) Which brings into question, what exactly is “work” time for a postdoc? On one hand, I think this law is good in that it may force a conversation about what “counts” as postdoc work – something that is desperately needed.

Postdocs are underpaid, a fact that is typically justified by highlighting the fact that they are trainees. Postdocs are working, yes, but more importantly, they are building their skills and CV for an eventual permanent position. NSF requires that grant proposers that intend to support a postdoc provide a Postdoc Mentoring Plan, to emphasize that the postdoc is not just an employee, but rather someone in training for the next rung of the career ladder. And yet, when PIs are faced with a cap of 40 hours per week, are they going to allow activities that don’t directly contribute to the funded research?

Due to the long time frames of research, it’s expected that a postdoc will be finishing up papers from graduate school and possibility former postdoc positions. These papers are essential to the advancement of the postdoc, but are a liability for the current PI. I think currently, most PIs rightly tolerate a fraction of postdoc time going to these old projects. But I think most PIs believe their postdocs work more than 40 hours. So if we’re up against a 40-hour maximum, is working on old projects “work” that should count under the 40 hour rule? Or are these projects a personal hobby that postdocs should do on their own time? This is a tension that already exists, but I think it will become intensified under the new law.

And there’s an additional question about what counts as “work” that is ubiquitous across career stages, but only becomes an issue once you start counting hours. Our work as scientists is in large part a cerebral one. And for the most part, we don’t turn our brains off from our work when we leave the office. So if you’re lying awake at night thinking about your experimental design, is that work? If you have your analysis breakthrough while in the shower or on your commute, is that work? If you figure out why your code isn’t running while you’re out on a jog, does that count? What counts for the timesheet? Does inadvertent work count for overtime?

Here’s how I think the law is going to play out for U.S. ecology postdocs:

  1. In the short term, no one is going to get a raise just get to the threshold. Maybe over longer time frames, postdoc salaries will gradually rise more than they would have anyway. Maybe. (But they might go down instead to adjust for payment of overtime hours.)
  2. For postdocs of unscrupulous PIs, nothing much will change. The postdocs who were previously overworked and exploited, will mostly continue to be so. They will just be “encouraged” to fudge their timesheets on the threat of the PI not signing them. [4] If you don’t turn in your timesheet, you don’t get paid. And everywhere requires a supervisor to sign off on the hours written on the timesheet. What could go wrong? Eventually there will be a lawsuit (though probably not in ecology) by postdocs who were coerced into recording 40-hour workweeks when more hours were regularly worked. And as a result, unscrupulous PIs will get sneakier.
  3. For postdocs of scrupulous PIs, two things will happen. In the short term, PIs will get a sense of how much work postdocs can actually get done in 40 hours. And it will likely be less than they were expecting. That will put PIs in a bind, because, as I mentioned, their budgets (in the short term) are fixed. To get the work done, they will likely have to pay some overtime, because for many studies that involve live things, there isn’t a lot of flexibility as to when the work gets done. The forbs are flowering! The anoles are breeding! The daphnia are… uh, doing that thing that daphnia do! We need to record everything NOW! And that means less money for the postdoc in the future, because we are in a zero-sum game. If you need a bit of overtime now, your 2-year postdoc is now a 20-month postdoc. There isn’t any magic money for overtime.
  4. In the long term, scrupulous PIs will probably start budgeting more money for postdocs to cover unexpected overtime [5] They could conceivably just increase postdoc salaries to the threshold instead. But depending on the weekly number of hours postdocs are currently putting in, my guess is that it’s more cost-effective to pay overtime. On the other hand, PIs may not be that sensitive to a difference of less than $10,000 per year in their proposal budgets and prefer the simplicity of not having to worry about overtime. And I wouldn’t be surprised if overhead rates increase, too. After all, the universities now have to do a lot more bookkeeping to keep track of all those postdoc hours. Do you hear that, funding agencies and proposal reviewers? PIs will need more money to do the same research they have been doing to comply with the law. Please up your expectations accordingly, and be prepared to give out fewer higher-dollar-figure grants. Hey, Congress, you know what this also means? It means that funding agencies need more money to continue doing the same amount of research without exploiting their researchers. Please provide more money to scientific research. Yeah, that’s going to go over like lead balloon. So basically, I foresee an increased pressure at the funding agency level. Postdocs are already “expensive” with respect to the size of ecology grants, so postdoc positions may become fewer in number and/or shorter in length, something that some of the popular press pieces point out.

In summary, I think that for ecology postdocs not much is going to change. We’ll likely have more paperwork to do, and probably less flexibility. Meanwhile, fellow postdocs, we’ll just have to keep saving our pennies for that first sloop.


Image by Alex Kerney / Flickr / CC-BY-NC

Permanent link to this article: http://ecologybits.com/index.php/2016/05/25/postdocs-dont-buy-that-yacht-just-yet/

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