No, I'm not a millionaire either

This quick post is in response to one by DrugMonkey a few days ago entitled, "Nope, I just get my regular salary..." Drug speaks of the realities of federal research grant-supported scientists at US universities and research institutes and how the apparent large dollar figure grants do not line the pockets or supplement the salary of principal investigators.

Yes, there are some caveats here in that many institutions now offer professors a base salary that can be increased by some percentage if they receive X grant dollars or % effort. This was started at some institutions by taking one's current salary, say $80,000, and telling faculty they were guaranteed $60K but could win back their full $80K if they got a grant that paid the other $20K. Happy day, eh?

Drug asked what others have found to be the perceptions of friends, neighbors, other university employees, etc. when they learn that one just received, say, a half million dollar grant.

Here's one of my earliest experiences upon becoming an independent investigator:

One of my previous institutions would routinely publish in the dead-tree university news the full dollar figures of recently-awarded grants. The indirect costs would also be added to the figure, making a then $175K/year grant look around $250-260K. So, a 4-year R01 back then woyld still look to be over a million bucks, right? I'd have students come up to me and congratulations me on my millionaire windfall, assuming that this money went entirely into my pocket, and ask why I was still driving the same shitty car.

So, I would actually take time once a semester to explain to my students (B.S. pharmacy students then) how much it takes to pay, say, 25% of my salary, a postdoc, and a technician, plus the 27% or so in fringe benefits that "the university pays" to those lucky enough to be employed. Students had no idea that the postdocs and graduate students there had to be paid by us; their impression was that they were university employees provided to us to do our research while we counted our million dollars. Add reagents, common equipment maintenance, etc., and they saw right quick what "my" million bucks went to. This was useful for two reasons: 1) to help students understand why we did research even though they were told "teaching is the most important thing we do at this university" and 2) enhance the respect they'd have for the level of science being done in the labs they though were just dabbling in some foolishness.

They began to understand, in essence, that each prof was a free-agent, small-business owner that operated in a collective or co-op where they could share in some higher-ticket common instrumentation.

I'd also share with these students, in general terms, what a new assistant professor makes after a BS, PhD, and 3 to 6-year postdoc (was $50K at the time) versus a fresh BS in pharmacy - back when it was the entry-level degree, it still paid $60-80K/year. Today, PharmD graduates easily make $90K while new assistant profs in our market get $70-75K. They were amazed that the people teaching them made less than they'd make their first year with a BS.

Okay. Now I'm depressed.

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"Today, PharmD graduates easily make $90K while new assistant profs in our market get $70-75K. They were amazed that the people teaching them made less than they'd make their first year with a BS."

Why is there the disparity in salary? This has never been clear.

By Katharine (not verified) on 06 Jan 2010 #permalink

They began to understand, in essence, that each prof was a free-agent, small-business owner that operated in a collective or co-op where they could share in some higher-ticket common instrumentation.

I think it's great when a PI shares this type of info with his or her trainees. My grad advisor would hold various group meeting talks for us on relevant topics we may otherwise no nothing about (e.g. the patenting process), however, he steered clear of talking about funding. His rationale was that he didn't want his students worrying about where their salary was coming from or whether or not they could buy more pipet tips next week.

While I appreciate that he was trying to protect us from the anxiety associated with grant acquisition, I wish he would have shared more with us about his strategies for obtaining funding and how he managed the $$ once he had it.

I was always aware, however, that any money my advisor seemed to have had certainly come from patents and his dealings with industry instead of his miserable $70k starting salary as an asst prof.

Kiddos to you prof. The business of science is glaringly lacking from most undergraduate and graduate education programs. Its time we stopped doing this disservice to our up and coming scientists. Graduates have to use their degrees to work in the real world, and this is the type of information helps them make an informed choice about their career path. I am astonished how many first and second year graduate students are learning the lesson you describe. Thatâs a little late in my opinion.

By Fellow educator (not verified) on 07 Jan 2010 #permalink

But now that you are a PharmaShillTM your Maserati does 185, amirite?

By El Picador (not verified) on 07 Jan 2010 #permalink

@Katharine - I think the salary disparity is supply and demand. There remains a national shortage of pharmacists, especially in rural areas, while there is not a shortage of PhDs desiring tenure-track faculty positions. In addition, pharmacy, retail pharmacy in particular, generates revenue based on high volume. While universities do generate revenue through tuition and indirect costs on grants, these dollars have little or no influence on faculty salaries. But while pharmacy may look attractive via these numbers, I'd venture over to The Angry Pharmacist.

@C.E. and Fellow Educator - My advisor was a lot like CE's but, then again, I was his first student and he protected me from a lot of the sad truths of this business. Today, I share all this stuff with my students, even let them read my summary statements. It's all part of the education - the more we hide, the less prepared our trainees will be.

But with regard to the pharmacy students I taught, the intention was a little different. Few of these students did research in the lab because they could go work part-time as pharmacy techs for $17/hour. Instead, I was trying to explain why it was important to the university for faculty members to bring in research dollars (besides the fact that one should be involved in creating knowledge while sharing knowledge) and to help them understand why profs often seemed more concerned about their research than their teaching. Students then began to understand why profs got cranky around grant submission time.

@El Picador - duh, duh, duh, duht, I lost my license, now I don't drive.

But for the record, I have owned two successive all-wheel-drive sport-utility wagons since my first faculty appointment. I really miss my 1977 pickup with the snowplow. Our one extravagance, though: the PharmGirl finally broke down and replaced her 15-year-old car with one of those newfangled hybreeds.

new assistant profs in our market get $70-75K

Of course, for every newly minted ass prof there are hundreds of postdocs getting nothing but a poke in the eye with a sharp stick after ten, fifteen years of grinding hard work...

Don't mind me, just sour grapes, after all if I were any good I'd have got a grant, right?

Could part of the reason for the disparity be that being a pharmacist is actually really boring? My dad's a pharmacist and has always hated his job. He's spent his life scheming ways to make his job less miserable -- working 4 days a week, working holidays for double pay so he could take more days off, and so on.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 09 Jan 2010 #permalink

@Anonymous #7:
Could part of the reason for the disparity be that being a pharmacist is actually really boring?

It really depends on where the pharmacist is practicing but the description of your Dad is a common one I hear among retail pharmacists. High-volume prescription filling gets to be boring after a time and while the professional has really been pushing individualized patient counseling, reality finds much of the interpersonal interactions to be patients complaining to pharmacists about their co-pays or other insurance issues.

To be sure, there are some really enriching areas of pharmacy practice, particularly in clinical pharmacy. However, many of my retail pharmacy friends use the job as a means to enjoy their expensive hobbies: traveling to compete in triathlons, motorcycle touring, beach houses, etc.

Now I wish more of my prospective clients understood overheads as well as you do (I'm an independent computational biologist who contracts to research groups and companies). One constant frustration is for me to present my rates (deliverable hour rates at that) only have the staff make lots of funny noises about it be a lot of money despite that in practice my rates undercut that for their own staff (usually even their post-docs) once the overheads are properly accounted for.

Do keep sharing the full story with your students. One of the few weaknesses of the lab I did my Ph.D. at was that it didn't prepare people for having to get their own grants and the reality of how they were accounted for, etc.