How long has it been since your last pay rise? For almost half of current respondents to a recent Naturejobs poll, the answer is more than two years – and with ever-increasing inflation, that’s effectively a year-on-year pay cut. So is there anything you can do to improve your salary prospects, particularly in academia, where there is often a lack of flexibility in pay?
Know your opportunities
Setting your starting salary
At universities in the UK, where research positions are appointed at a particular grade, there is often a window of opportunity to negotiate the precise point within the grade after you have been offered the job. “That depends on your level of experience and what you’re earning already,” says Rob Hardwick, co-chair of the UK Research Staff Association (UKRSA) and a postdoc at the University of Leicester. It’s likely you will be able to match your current salary, and you may be able to move up one additional point. If you find yourself applying for a position at a lower grade due to the current economic climate, propose that you are appointed at the top of that grade’s scale. In Germany, where positions in public universities are also appointed at a set grade within each district, with defined increments every two years, there are fewer options to discuss the fine details. “The public wage agreements leave no space for negotiation,” says Ute Heckel, project leader for Kisswin, a career development and information platform for young researchers in Germany. “Scientists have fixed contracts, and the contracts have fixed wages.”
In the United States, PhD students can earn a few extra thousand dollars a year by becoming teaching assistants, but there is little else you can do to improve your pay at that stage. The starting salary for postdocs in academia depends on whether your university follows the National Institutes of Health (NIH) guidelines of a minimum stipend of just over $38,000 per year. If it does, there is not much negotiation to be had, says Zoe Fonseca-Kelly, chair of the US National Postdoc Association (NPA). “For the most part, to negotiate a higher salary you’re looking at a promotion,” she says.
Securing higher pay
Pay at UK universities usually increases by a small increment each year until you reach the top of your grade. If you’ve hit the ceiling, make the case to the university that you should be promoted up to the next grade — you’ll need a letter of support from your supervisor for this. Also ensure you double-check your contract — one of Hardwick’s fellow researchers was automatically promoted up a level as they were appointed at the top of a grade, but their contract still said they were entitled to annual increments.
In the US, if you’re getting paid less than the NIH minimum guideline, Fonseca-Kelly recommends that you try to secure your own funding: “A postdoc’s best way to make sure they get at least the NIH minimum is to apply for their own training grants and get their own money.” If you are able to secure funding that can also benefit your career in general by demonstrating early independence. Scientists in Germany searching for funding at a more senior level to develop their career should apply for several grants or prizes at the same time, says Heckel. “You will be more successful if you hand in more applications. That’s perfectly all right.” She also cautions against having a single narrow research focus. “We advise people to have at least two specialisations that they follow in order to increase their chances of getting funded.”
Gather evidence of your value
Whichever opportunity for a pay rise you pursue, you’ll need to justify why you should get more money. “Frame the request in terms of the value you bring to your employer,” says Deb Koen, president and chief executive of Career Development Services in Rochester, New York (see ‘Salary boost’ for more of Koen’s advice).
If there’s an appraisal system in place at your institute, make sure you use it. “People don’t really do that enough,” says Hardwick. He also recommends using self-help tools such as Vitae’s Researcher Developer Framework to self-assess and quantify your full range of skills. “The research things go without saying,” he says. “Aside from that, there are many [other skills] you can use to your advantage.”
The US NPA provides a similar resource called the Postdoctoral Core Competencies Toolkit. Fonseca-Kelly suggests using the toolkit to set a two- or five-year plan either by yourself or with the help of a mentor. “That gives you bargaining ground and a results-orientated output you can use as a negotiating tool to get a promotion,” she says. “The people that I’ve seen successfully get a promotion in academia have had a very good plan of what they want to do and have been able to market themselves to their PI. It takes a lot of planning and communication skills.”
As well as identifying your full range of skills, remember that your publication record is still one of the main ways your value is judged. “That’s always been the most important thing,” says Hardwick.
Do you have any other advice to add? Have you recently secured a pay rise or a promotion? Share your thoughts below.