A new rule issued by the US Department of Labor, scheduled to go into effect on Dec. 1, 2016, is likely to have a major impact on the structure of the biomedical research enterprise in this country. This rule, which was designed to provide help to those at the lower end of the pay scale, has raised the threshold that absolves employers from paying overtime from around $24,000 a year to $47,476 a year.
What does this mean? Currently, it is not required for an employer to pay overtime for any worker earning less than ~$24,000 a year. Accordingly, post-doctoral fellows in the US, whose NIH-recommended salaries begin in the lower $40,000 range do not qualify for overtime. Post-docs who are not at the NIH—particularly those who live and work in less expensive areas of the country, often earn considerably less. The scale could be in the mid-to-high 30K for the midwest or periphery (at least for a starting position). By the current overtime rules, these post-docs still earn well above the $24,000/year threshold, and therefore are also ineligible for overtime pay.
However, with the change in the rules Dec. 1, even post-docs earning $45,000/year will now need to be paid overtime for any work that goes beyond an 8 hour day and 5 day work-week. For many of us who put in 6-7 day weeks, often with 60-80 hours physically in the lab (not to mention reading, writing and thinking science at home) during our post-doctoral stints (and graduate days), a 40 hour work-week just doesn’t seem sufficient to compete in today’s highly competitive world. A post-doc working such hours and intending to obtain a tenure-track position will be at a significant disadvantage if he/she is forbidden from spending more time in the lab or working at home to abide by labor regulations, AND to avoid the employer (i.e., the principal investigator) from having to pay overtime. On top of these serious concerns comes the virtual impossibility of clocking work when dedicated researchers read at home on the computer, pencil ideas on napkins during dinner, and make finger-drawn diagrams in the steam on the shower door.
What is the alternative? Raising salaries so that post-docs meet the $47,476/year threshold, and that no overtime pay is necessary. In fact, this is really the only solution, since overtime pay would be practically impossible to enforce.
The problem? I am all in favor of better wages for post-docs and students. However, not only are grants in this country harder and harder to obtain and maintain—but they have not increased with the cost of living in the 13 years since I have been a principal investigator. The cost of research materials and reagents goes up every year. Serum for cell culture has risen to ~$400 for a 500 ml bottle! It’s hard to purchase an antibody for under $400. Students stipends have gone up to ~$25,000, and post-doctoral fellowship stipends have almost doubled since I was a post-doc (between 1998-2003). The starting post-doc stipend at NIH was about $22,000 in 1998—less than a student earns today.
Don’t get me wrong—this is progress! But the problem is that the funding situation has not progressed at all in parallel. It has worsened. And as a result, I predict that while post-docs will soon earn more when they attain their position, I suspect that many fewer researchers will be able to afford a post-doctoral fellow. This means that most likely, post-doctoral positions will be far more competitive to obtain.
Is this all bad? Truthfully, I don’t know. Many claim that we train too many post-docs for too few faculty and biotech positions. Others think that the post-doctoral position awards a final chance for those who may not have succeeded as well they intended as graduate students to prove themselves as highly capable researchers. But in an era where post-doctoral positions are few and far in between—and with attempts to have students graduate timely within 5 years—there may no longer be second chances, and this may increase the pressure on student trainees to be highly productive.