No one goes into science to get rich.

A while back, Heather posted an entry about salaries in France, and just came right out and said what she makes:

The beginning junior professor (maitre de conférences, or MdC) fresh out of the Ph.D. (which never happens anymore) gets approximately 1700 euros in their pocket after benefits withholding each month, and this measure will bring it up to about 1800 euros. […] A MdC with 15 years’ seniority on the Le Monde comment thread earns 2600 euros a month; I earn 2300. (Unlike the French, I have an American indifference to revealing my salary to all; what with the fluctuating exchange rate it’s approximately equivalent to that of a tight-belted American high school teacher.)

I don’t know that it’s particularly American, but I’ve never minded telling everyone my income either. I understand that there are lots of reasons why one might be reticent to reveal this information, but by and large I’ve always felt that such reticence was mostly encouraged by those setting the salary levels, so that they could keep them as low as possible: divide and conquer exploit, or something.
Anyway, Heather’s comments got me curious, and I’ve always been scornful of the numbers available from sites like as they seem ridiculously inflated to me. Further, most of the survey data I’ve seen have been like this set from the AAUP or this one (warning: Word doc) from CPST — no mention of postdocs or grad students at all. When the CPST, for instance, reports a median salary of $80,000/year for “doctoral scientists”, believe me when I tell you their numbers are skewed towards faculty! Similarly, The Scientist’s annual life sciences survey for 2008 (free but requires registration) lists a median salary for academic scientists of $77,900. When you look at further breakdowns, though, you find that the median for scientists with no supervisory/managerial responsibilities is $49,400/year — tell that to the next TA, grad student or (junior) postdoc you meet!
So, I went ahead and posted a question — “how much money do you make?” — to the Life Scientists room on FriendFeed. There’s quite a conversation underway in that thread as I write this; Donnie pointed me to the AAUP survey I linked, others have posted reference material of various kinds, and Daniel reminded me of Mike Barton’s bioinformatician survey, the data from which can be downloaded from here. Some workup is available on OpenWetWare, but there’s not much there about salary so far, so I went ahead and did a little Excel spreadsheet-ing (shut up, ok, I’m just a biologist) of my own.
(Pause here to applaud Mike for all his hard work in collecting this data, and even more loudly for his decision to make it Open.)
I removed the entries with no salary information and made three arbitrary decisions: anyone reporting between $1K and $10K per year was actually reporting monthly salary, anyone under $1000/year was probably reporting monthly salary but who knows so I deleted them too, and anyone reporting between $10K and $20K/year didn’t entirely make sense as monthly OR yearly so I deleted them too. (I couldn’t be arsed to make case-by-case decisions by, for instance, looking at how many years each person had worked in the field.) This left me with n = 490 and a healthy appreciation for careful survey design (read: never give your respondents a free-form field if you can help it!).
If you’re really keen, you can download the spreadsheet I used from here. The basic outcomes are these:


The categories are as follows:

  1. Masters / PhD / Entry Level (n = 211)
  2. Post Doc / Research Scientist (n = 138)
  3. Senior Post doc / Senior Scientist (n = 58)
  4. PI / Group Leader / Team Leader (n = 52)
  5. Professor / Senior Managment (n = 31)

Means are shown +/- one standard deviation. I did break out categories 2+3 separately but it was not much different from 1+2+3. Plotting salary vs. years served of service gives us this:


I dicked about with the outliers a little, but nothing I did improved the curve fit much — unsurprising, given the spread, and almost certainly meaningless (note, for instance, that it extrapolates to a negative starting salary!). Anyway, there it is; if I get another wild hair I might break out the categories by industry/academia/government, but right now I’m too lazy.
If all of this has whet your appetite for more data, the NSF might have something for you (it’s getting late, so I’m not going to dig around in there myself today). The most believable numbers I’ve seen (viz, the numbers which accord most closely with my experience!) come from the Sigma Xi postdoc survey. You can get hold of the Sigma Xi data; briefly, data were collected from ~7,600 postdocs at >40 institutions, median salary in 1995 = $28,000 ($34,700 in 2004 dollars) and median salary in 2004 = $38,000.

2 thoughts on “No one goes into science to get rich.

  1. never give your respondents a free-form field if you can help it

    Tell me about it. Standardising that data, (which I admit is still very unstandardised) is one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever had to do with a computer. I feel a little ill just thinking about it.
    Nice work though Bill!

  2. Yeah, that had to be a nightmare — I was only looking at one field out of, what, 15 or 20? Yeesh. Thanks again for all the work you put into that survey — I had a lot of fun with the data!

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