Harvard Postdocs Call for Increased Pay in Open Letter to University
The Office of the Provost is located in Massachusetts Hall. By Julian J. Giordano
May 5, 2023
Harvard postdoctoral researchers published an open letter April 27 calling on the University to improve and standardize compensation across departments.
The letter, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, asked Harvard to raise the postdoc pay scale, guarantee employer-sponsored health insurance, increase childcare benefits, and provide employer-matched retirement contributions.
More than 30 representatives of Harvard’s postdoctoral associations signed the letter, including those from Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
While Harvard has not publicly responded to the letter, Harvard FAS Postdoctoral Association Advocacy Committee Chair and Treasurer Rachel L. Harris said postdocs are “in communication” and intend to meet with both divisional deans and Harvard President-elect Claudine Gay in the coming weeks.
“We want to work together on this. We’re not wanting to be antagonizing because that’s not productive,” Harris said.
“But the data don’t lie, and they haven’t lied for years, and we want to make it known that it’s not just the time for listening,” she added. “It’s time for action.”
University spokesperson Jason A. Newton confirmed that Harvard had received the letter but declined to comment on its contents.
There are more than 7,000 postdocs at Harvard and its affiliated institutions who typically perform research either funded through specific departments or with grants, scholarships, or fellowships they apply for independently.
“We’re generally hired by faculty to work on research projects as the first step of the academic career path — so many postdocs aim to apply to tenure-track faculty jobs, though others also go into industry or government jobs,” Kelsey M. Tyssowski, former president of the Harvard FAS Postdoctoral Association and current board member, wrote in an email.
The letter acknowledged many postdocs are paid directly by faculty members and asked Harvard to allocate “central funds” or use some of the University’s endowment or budget surplus — which was $406 million in 2022 — to support salary increases.
“Inadequate compensation provided to postdocs has made pursuing a postdoc position at Harvard and its affiliates a privilege not everyone can afford,” the letter reads.
Current postdoc salaries are set using the National Institutes of Health National Research Service Award salary scale, which is not adjusted for cost of living. The cost of living in Boston is 30 percent higher than the national average, according to a recent Purdue study cited in the letter.
The letter endorsed a starting salary of $77,738, which is the minimum salary in the Federal Government General Schedule pay scale level 11, and is $21,254 more than the current minimum starting salary for all postdoc positions according to the NIH-NRSA scale.
“If you think about the sense of the work that everybody’s doing under the same affiliations of a postdoc, it’s unequally compensated,” said Mayank Chugh, Harvard Medical Postdoctoral Association president.
In the letter, the postdocs alleged that Harvard pays less than half of what peer institutions pay when adjusted for cost of living.
“In order for a postdoc in Boston to be compensated competitively with a peer institution such as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. (where the minimum salary policy is $70,013/year), the minimum salary at Harvard would need to be $124,531, more than twice the NIH-NRSA postdoc starting salary minimum,” the letter added.
“It’s hard for a lot of people who have any sort of financial stress, any sort of care responsibilities, to choose to make half as much money,” Tyssowski said. “For some people, that’s not a choice they can afford to make.”
The signatories also argued comparatively low compensation has contributed to a postdoc population that is “particularly lacking in diversity compared to peer institutions,” citing internal Postdoc Association surveys from 2021 and 2022.
The same surveys found that postdocs of color were paid less than white postdocs across departments surveyed — “a result mainly driven by low salaries of international scholars of color,” the 2022 report added.
The letter comes three months after Harvard’s non-tenure-track faculty — including postdocs — began collecting union cards for official recognition, which they are continuing to do, according to Harvard Academic Workers organizer and postdoc Morgan S.A. Gilman.
“The goals of the PDA and HAW overlap but a union seeks to bargain with the administration and is separate from Harvard in a way that the postdoc association doesn’t need to be. But individuals can certainly be a part of both organizations,” Gilman wrote.
Harris said while the letter is “meant to be considered separately from the ongoing union campaign,” it is “part of the same conversation” around compensation at Harvard.