July 3, 2020
Dear President Stanley,
We recently learned that postdocs (including Research Associates, Senior Research Associates, Postdoctoral Fellows, and those with other formal titles) at MSU would be subject to the proposed mandatory salary cuts for non-union academic staff members effective Sept 1. The postdoctoral community of MSU would like to formally object to the proposed salary cuts, and request they not be applied to this category of employee for the reasons laid out in this letter.
First, MSU postdocs are not treated the same as other academic staff members in terms of benefits access. Unlike other academic staff, most Research Associates (the title held by a majority of postdocs), are ineligible for university contributions to retirement accounts until 36 months of employment. For Postdoctoral Fellows, postdocs who have received prestigious and competitive fellowships, the disparities are even more striking. These postdocs are ineligible for University contributions towards any health or retirement benefits. Asking postdocs to be treated the same as other academic staff members in terms of salary cuts, while not offering the same treatment in terms of benefits access will put postdocs at an even greater disadvantage.
Second, most of us are paid from federally funded grants. Grant funding is already allocated for salaries, and cannot be moved into general funds for the University to help mitigate projected University budget shortfalls. Therefore, cutting our salaries will not help address the University’s financial goals. It will only hurt postdocs who are already at the bottom of the salary spectrum. You may be unaware that MSU remains behind the national standard for postdoc salaries. The minimum annual salary for MSU postdocs as of July 2019 was $48,671, which is well below the current NIH guidelines of $52,704 for new postdoc hires (the benchmark recommended by the National Postdoctoral Association and used by research institutions across the country). These additional salary cuts will only put us further behind our peers, and will significantly affect MSU’s potential to recruit and retain highly qualified and competitive postdocs.
Third, as postdocs, we are at a particularly precarious time in our careers. We face low salary rates compared to our non-academic peers, but this is a sacrifice we make with the hopes of achieving our ultimate career goals. However, given that many universities are imposing hiring freezes or restrictions due to budgetary constraints from the COVID-19 pandemic, we are likely to remain at this stage of our career for much longer than we anticipated. This will reduce our lifelong earning potentials, and will keep us in a financially vulnerable position for longer than expected.
Postdocs serve our departments and the University community as a whole in ways far beyond what is listed on our job description. We mentor students, teach classes, write grants, serve on committees, do community outreach, and much more. Indeed, it was recently shown that postdoc engagement in student training is a better predictor of student skill development than PI engagement. We are dedicated to the research mission of the University, and many of us were the first to return to campus as essential workers to continue and/or re-start research activities at MSU during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, postdocs and postdoc representation (i.e., MSU Office of Postdoctoral Affairs) were not included in discussions around employee pay cuts. As a group, postdocs have continually been undervalued and underappreciated at MSU. The disregard for our financial vulnerability in this crisis, and the lack of transparency in the decision making process, is unfortunately another example of this.
We care deeply about the ongoing success and well-being of the MSU community during this unprecedented time, and we do not believe the proposed salary cuts for postdocs helps achieve this shared goal. We urge the administration to reconsider imposing mandatory salary cuts to one of its most productive, yet most vulnerable, groups on campus. We recommend that you instead follow the lead of other institutions that are exempting postdocs from cuts (1, 2) or making cuts voluntary for postdocs. Alternatively, we recommend that the lower limit for salary cuts be raised to $60K which would protect most postdocs from cuts without significantly affecting the ability of MSU to recoup the needed funds to maintain its programs.
Thank you for your consideration on this urgent matter, and we look forward to discussing a solution to this issue with you soon.
Dr. Kelsey Graham, Research Associate and USDA NIFA Postdoctoral Fellow, Entomology Dept, MSU-PDA Steering Committee Member
Dr. Sandra Hammer, Postdoctoral Fellow, Physiology Dept; MSU-PDA Steering Committee Member; College of Natural Science DEIAC Postdoc Rep
Dr. Anne-Sophie Bohrer, Senior Research Associate, BMB Dept, GLBRC; MSU-PDA Steering Committee Member; Research Subcommittee of the University Task Force Postdoc Rep
Dr. Christina Reppucci, Research Associate, Psychology Dept, Neuroscience Program; MSU-PDA Steering Committee Chair
Dr. David Olson, Research Associate, Mechanical Engineering Dept; MSU-PDA Steering Committee Member
Cc: Dr. Aaron Reifler, Office of Postdoctoral Affairs