Labor of love: The reality of science research compensation

A clear and bold header

As a college senior, my peers and I comprised three main groups when it came to post-graduation financial plans.

Group 1: These folks would continue taking out loans and making little or no immediate money so they could eventually bring home nice paychecks. In other words, these were my friends who went on to graduate or professional school straight out of undergrad.

Group 2: This crowd wanted to make moola right away, and knew how to make that happen. They were also aware of what earning money actually required. These friends took positions at large pharmaceutical or biotech companies, and many are still there—mostly in higher positions.

Group 3: These people wanted to make money, but had no clue what that really meant. Herein lies my group.

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As a biochemistry major, I wanted a job where I could gain real-life biomedical research experience—and make some serious dough. I took a lab technician position at Johns Hopkins University with a $26,000 salary, and was convinced I was on my way to becoming a millionaire. See you later, bank accounts hovering at minimum-balance thresholds. Bye-bye, ramen noodles, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, crappy sandwiches, and even crappier coffee. But then I got my first paycheck and nearly died when I realized that, after taxes, I couldn’t even cover my rent. Unlike my Group 2 friends, I’d never had any money, and had no idea that what I considered to be serious cash flow was truly just a trickle. Oops.

So I reevaluated. I returned to ramen noodles, relinquished the notion of getting my hair cut and colored by an actual professional, duct taped my car together for as long as possible, and made it work. I fully embraced the motto, “If it’s free, it’s for me.” I started a master’s program under a tuition-remission program Hopkins offered. Yes, this would take much, much longer than it would if I paid for it myself, but a degree is a degree, and once I had it, I got a raise. I could then pay rent from one paycheck—and still have a few bucks left over. Hallelujah!

By the time I decided to return to graduate school, at Vanderbilt University, I was a lab manager making nearly $40,000, and I had some money in my checking AND savings accounts. I even got paid for all the vacation days I’d accumulated over the years (because the only place I could afford to vacation was my parents’ house). This extra cash was a godsend because I needed the money to recoup my graduate school application fees—not to mention move to a new city, sign a new lease, and undoubtedly fork over first- and last-month’s rent and a security deposit.

Oops No. 2 came when I finally realized—and reluctantly accepted—that as a neuroscience PhD candidate at Vanderbilt, I was going to earn (seven long years later) almost what I’d begun earning out of undergrad: somewhere around $28,000. *Major sad face*

My years at Hopkins taught me a lot about the ways science works financially. I no longer thought postdocs made bank. I understood that salaries were regulated, and that scientific funding was key to everyone’s success in a research-heavy institution—from the barista downstairs to the PI down the hall. I also understood that the people who remained in academia did so for one main reason. Hint: It’s not the money. It’s for the pure, priceless love of research.

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Amy M Palubinsky

Amy M Palubinsky

Amy Palubinsky is a Neuroscience PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University and mom to two human children and one fur-kid. She hates mornings and therefore loves coffee.