The Hidden Costs of a Postdoc

the-hidden-costs-of-a-postdoc

In this post, I outline some of the potential hidden costs of taking a postdoc position after grad school. My goal is help readers make a calculated and informed decision about whether to pursue—and accept—a postdoc gig.

When you’ve been living on a teensy graduate stipend for years, the allure of a real salary from a postdoc position can be strong. After all, you’ve managed to live on a fraction of what some of your friends have been making. Some might even have bought homes while you were pouring over manuscripts for the 43rd night in a row in the library or running just one more experiment (for the 6th time) to get that last bit of data you needed for your dissertation. How dare they have the financial means to buy a house?!

When you finally complete your PhD and go on the job market, you might find a university offering to pay you an actual reasonable salary as a postdoc. It sounds too good to be true. The good news is that it probably is true. The salary for postdoc positions vary widely by university and by field. But overall, shifting from grad student life to a full-time postdoc gig comes with a pretty reasonable raise. For most, it’s probably actually a living wage. Progress!

Shifting from life as a graduate student to life has a postdoc has mostly been pretty good for me. However, there were several factors that have had an impact on my financial life that I failed to consider before making my choice. In sharing about what took me by surprise, I hope you will be able to carefully weigh your own situation and make a well-calculated and informed decision. And with that, here are four things you should consider before accepting a position as a postdoc:

1. Moving Expenses

Will you be moving hundreds—or even thousands—of miles to your new (temporary) university home? Some postdoc positions come with a stipend for moving expenses, but in my experience, the majority do not. I highly recommend asking—even negotiating—for a stipend to cover some, or all, of your moving expenses. I am a little embarrassed to admit it, but my less financially savvy self of two years ago did not even think to negotiate funds for moving before eagerly accepting a postdoc position 2,000 miles away. Ultimately, my fiancé and I paid thousands to cover the costs of a moving truck, gas, and (cheap) hotels along the way. As we were both grad students, this large expense took up all of our existing savings and then some. We started back at $0 when we arrived.

2. Appointment Length

Some people are lucky enough to have three or more years of funding for their postdoc position. Others get a one-year position. I’ve even heard of six-month or single-semester appointments for postdocs. Consider very carefully whether the effort and costs of moving are worth it for you to move to a new place for one year or less. Many people weigh the professional benefits and deem these moves worth it, but please at least stop to think about how a short postdoc might take its toll on you—and your family—emotionally and financially.

3. Cost of Living

The average cost of living varies widely between US cities. The city I moved to for my postdoc has an average cost of living that is 35 percent higher than the city I was moving from. Before getting starry-eyed about your postdoc salary, do some math to determine what that salary means in context. The salary for postdocs is often higher in expensive cities, but you still want to run the numbers to see if it’s high enough for you.

Consider–What is the cost of rent in your new city? Will you incur any new expenses with the move? Will your family need a second car? That’s a big deal! Fortunately, Mr. Frugal PhD and I are able to share a single car, even here in California. However, we pay a hefty amount to send our pup to doggy daycare each day when we go off to work. I promise you, it’s not a trivial expense. We gladly pay it because we love Furiosa and want what’s best for her. But it’s a large chunk of money each month that we could use to make faster progress on our financial goals.

4. Employer Benefits

When I first started my postdoc position, I felt like my benefits were pretty good. Medical and dental? Check! I soon discovered that at my university, postdocs have fewer choices about their providers than other full-time employees of the university. Currently, I have to settle on a healthcare provider that I am not especially happy with because it’s my only option near where I live.

Unfortunately that wasn’t even my biggest postdoc benefit drawback. Unlike postdocs who work at the public universities nearby, the private university I work for offers no retirement benefits for postdocs. That’s a huge deal, you guys. I diligently put 10 percent of my earnings into a personal Roth IRA each month, but I live in jealousy of postdocs in my city who are able to put their employer-matched contributions in a 401(k). My so-called comparable salary doesn’t feel quite as comparable after doing the math on this one. A 3-5% employer-match on retirement benefits is a major financial benefit! One that I don’t have.

There are a few other postdoc status-related pitfalls you may want to watch out for. For example, while other full-time employees at my university are able to pay for their campus parking permits with pre-tax dollars from their paycheck each month, I had to pay for the entire semester in-full when I arrived on campus. That was another huge expense after I had just incurred thousands of dollars of moving expenses. Yeesh.

Summing Things Up

So that’s it. Four things I wish I had done better homework on before eagerly saying “YES!” to a postdoc.

My point with this post is not that being a postdoc is crummy or that you should say no to a good opportunity. You’ve invested a lot in your graduate career and a postdoc that is a good fit could be the perfect opportunity to launch you into the next phase of your academic career. Personally, I’ve been able to spend this past year working on an innovative research project with a great team of people. I absolutely wouldn’t take it back. But I do wish I had been more informed about the financial implications of my choices.

Be sure to take advantage of the fact that there are many great resources out there to help you calculate the cost of living in a new city, to guide you through negotiating with a potential employer, and to learn about individual retirement accounts. The Internet has a wealth of great information and you’re a savvy researcher.

Best of luck with the postdoc journey. If you are a postdoc, have been a postdoc, or are a soon to be postdoc, drop me a line in the comments about how you managed the financial side of postdoc life. I’d love to hear your story.

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