Looking to start a larger conversation about the difficulties of budgeting for postdoctoral labor, Shyam Dwaraknath took to Twitter on Saturday to share his experience as a former research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, or Berkeley Lab.
Dwaraknath alleged that budgeting was made difficult by complex rules and systems, making the process difficult to navigate. He noted that the administrative bureaucracy accompanying labs added further complexity to the matter.
“Postdocs need to be more involved or understanding of what it takes to increase their salary,” Dwaraknath said. “The reality is that they don’t have access to any of the information.”
According to Dwaraknath, the budgeting system for postdoctoral researchers is defined on multiple levels, each with its own set of rules. This means anyone looking to hire a postdoctoral researcher must know the entire lab’s rules, and the resource administrators who help navigate this process are difficult to access.
On a larger scale, Dwaraknath said this complexity expands with funding agencies, as a proposal must juggle the rules of the agencies and the research institution in question. He called for more laboratory autonomy, stating that “micromanagement level control” from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science — despite the official independence of the labs — further slows decisions.
“There are many factors in how postdoc compensation at the Lab is determined. For example, scientific and technical fields, which are very different, may demand varying compensation needs,” said a Berkeley Lab spokesperson in an email. “Berkeley Lab also has many different sponsors, and not all departments have the same level or type of funding.”
However, some labs have an easier time budgeting for postdoctoral labor. Jennifer Pett-Ridge, principal investigator at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, or LLNL, noted that LLNL compensates postdoctoral researchers the same amount regardless of field.
She said this equalization makes budgeting simpler by providing a clear system of costs. It also ensures that two researchers working side by side will not have “radically different” salaries. Dwaraknath echoed this sentiment, suggesting that it’s important to recognize the value of all scientists and compensate them accordingly.
“There’s no reason that one is worth less than another,” Dwaraknath said. “They’re all doing critical work for (Berkeley Lab).”
Dwaraknath noted that internal politics may be a barrier to equalizing postdoctoral salaries, as some may see no need to raise salaries for positions that can already be filled. However, he added that postdoctoral researchers are growing to understand their worth and bargaining power, shifting the power dynamic and opening the idea of equal salaries to more principal investigators.
Pett-Ridge added that the next steps after equalizing wages are to secure a living wage and a sense of job security for these postdoctoral researchers, as well as an idea of their potential to convert to a staff or academic position.
“People’s lives, families, futures get affected by something as simple as this,” Dwaraknath said. “There’s a whole host of things that we can do to try to make this a fairer and more level playing field.”