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I am interested in taking up a postdoctoral position in a UK institution. The appointment details write:

Appointment will be on a Fixed Term Contract for 3 years and with a starting salary in the range of £29,517 to £42,187 p.a. inclusive dependent on postdoctoral experience. It is anticipated that the starting salary will be in the range from £29,517 to £33,740 p.a. inclusive.

I just started a family and I will need ~£36,000 p.a. to break even when calculating living costs in UK (London). Is it reasonable to negotiate for a ~£36,000 p.a. salary? (I know it is somewhat on the high side but not insane by UK standards.) It is reasonable to apply in such a position and explain that I will expect an substantial increase (~10%) in my salary within my first year of employment if I start around the £32-33,000 mark?

I do not want to waste my time or theirs on this matter but clearly my cover letter is not a place to put this concern forward. I also think ill of the idea of e-mailing a potential hiring manager/team lead with queries about a salary raise right off the bat.

The USA-based post-doctoral appointment I currently hold pays ~£40,000 p.a. I do not mean to sound like a money-grubber; I am genuinely interested in the position and I think I will be a great fit for that team but I do not want to endure a ~20% pay-cut.

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You will have to explain why you deserve the extra money. If they really want you, your family will be a valid argument, if you are just one of many candidates, your family won't be a valid argument. – Captain Emacs Feb 15 at 8:59
Salary negotiations are usually not about how much you need, but what you bring to the table. Also be aware that when comparing salaries, that things work differently between the US and the UK, e.g. public health insurance and pension contributions. – Gerhard Feb 15 at 9:03
Thank you both for your comments. Yes, I checked HMRC, rents within a reasonable distance from that institution, etc. before coming up with that figure. Yes, of course, I appreciate that I will be bringing extra skills. The point is though if such a salary is plausible or they want someone within the £29-33,000 range for 3 years and the £29-42k range is just a place holder. – PacificDrive Feb 15 at 9:16
I don't think it's realistic to to move to London and expect to break even, unless you're moving from equally extremely expensive cities. Living in London you can't realistically expect to support a family on a single post-doc salary, although you might be able to afford living ½–1 hour commute away. Commuter passes are expensive (£5024/year from Reading to London, ½ hour by train) but not as expensive as London rents. – gerrit Feb 15 at 11:05
Living outside London is definitely something you should consider, some organisations offer help in paying for rail season tickets (I know that the Wellcome Trust does). You could ask about this at your interview. – MJeffryes Feb 15 at 12:00
up vote 3 down vote accepted

You have the same issue that many people do.

The cost of living in London (rent or buying a home) is often double what it is outside of London, yet salaries are about the same in London as elsewhere in the UK.

It is common for professionals (e.g. computer programmers) in their 30s to not be able to afford more than a small room in a shared house if they choose to live in London. Expecting to support a family on any “normal” single salary in London is unreasonable.

If you are willing to spend 2hr each way commuting, then you can get a lot cheaper housing, but your train ticket will often be over £5K a year. But why have a family if you are commuting so much…?

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Thank you, I appreciate the point you raise. I apply in jobs outside London too. This question concerned a specific London opening. – PacificDrive Feb 15 at 17:54
It's also worth noting that "London" can vary. An academic wanting to live in reasonable distance of UCL or SOAS in Bloomsbury will have a much harder time than one wanting to live in reasonable distance of UEL in Newham. – Andrew Feb 15 at 18:40
On the other hand distance is not the only factor in commute times. Somewhere like UCL is close to a group of major london rail terminals. Possiblly better to have a job right in the center which you can commute to using one fast train than something slightly further out that requires changing transport. – Peter Green Feb 15 at 18:56
Distance, Travel Time and Travel Costs are not well collated with each other in London. If you are happy to cycle then you can find cheaper housing as most people wish to live near the transport links. (I think you could get a 2 bedroom flat for £1000 pcm within a 1hr cycle ride of UEL) – Ian Feb 15 at 19:06

This depends heavily on the funding source. For all UK funded postdocs the pay will be set on the national scale - current rates without London weighting are up-to-date, but I'm not sure if the comments about the London weighting are correct.

For research council funded postdocs I would expect the salary range to be fixed somewhere between spine point 27 and 40, with the initial upper limit more likely around spine point 34. This is close to the numbers you quote. I would not expect much flexibility unless they can find additional funds to supplement the (fixed) funding from the grant.

On the salary increase in post: there would typically be a 1 (one!) spine point increment after the second year. I'd be very surprised if a substantial increase along the lines you're wanting could be negotiated, let alone after the first year.

If the funding is not pure research council then there may be more flexibility.

As someone who's been on both sides: I have fielded salary questions, particularly from overseas candidates, and (done sensitively) I don't think it will be held against you. The above is more a warning that the constraints of RCUK funding may make it impossible to get a solution that's acceptable to you.

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Perhaps add that in the UK the PI doesn't set the salary, it's done by HR on the basis of candidate experience (so that all everyone on the same grade is meant to be of similar experience). (I'm assuming of course the funding has already been secured: if applying for funds for a specific researcher one can ask for more up-front.) – Joseph Wright Feb 15 at 13:36
Thank you this is helpful. – PacificDrive Feb 15 at 17:52
@JosephWright Does it mean that HR can offer a candidate higher salary than the one requested by PI from RCUK? – Dmitry Savostyanov Feb 15 at 20:24
@DmitrySavostyanov The PI has to agree and there is a resulting cut in the length of the appointment (or the difference has to come from other allowed fund), but yes, subject to agreement from the funder. – Joseph Wright Feb 15 at 20:28
(My direct experience of this as a PI is with another funder, but as a PDRA I moved job/employer and was appointed at the 'correct' scale point without any comment on my part.) – Joseph Wright Feb 15 at 20:36

When I was searching for a post-doc position, during the phone interview with the PI asked about salary. I just told him I have a family. He said he could get me something a little higher than what they were advertising. Basically, in academia, a good PI will understand your situation because he's been there.

Expanding on Ian's excellent answer, there is a best practice for salary negotiation. Your instinct is correct: don't mention money in a cover letter. They will ask you about money at some point. You are not wasting anyone's time if you are applying for a job you are seriously interested in taking. They expect to interview many candidates and have some offers they make rejected. And you should not expect that both parties could understand the complete situation from your cover letter.

The correct response to the money question for a post-doc position is simply to state you have a family to support and you'd like them to do the best they can for you. As Ian pointed out there may only be so much they can do.

Once you get an offer, you can decide if that's enough. If it's not, you can always call and tell them you'd sign instantly if you could get +x instead, if indeed that's the case. It may be they cannot. However, once they are trying to get you (i.e. post-offer), you chances are maximized.

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Thank you. I will take that on board. – PacificDrive Feb 15 at 17:56

From a business point of view, it is MUCH easier for HR to give you a higher starting salary due to "technical excellence" or something similar, than to try and justify a large salary increase after the first year. HR asses their own job performance by breaking down cost to hire new employees, and costs to retain existing employees, respectively. In short, a 10% salary bump to just 1 worker will look weird and raise eyebrows, while a larger-than-average hire cost will not look so weird if it can be justified.

And no, I wouldn't put it on your cover letter - I would bring it up at the correct moment, which is when you negotiate the contract. No matter how valid your reasons for wanting the money, you should spend 99% of your time talking about what you will offer, not how much you will cost :)

Also, two more things I just want to get off my chest because this post really highlights the issue well:

1) You know why Medical Doctors get paid so much more than Scientists? Because they value themselves higher (rightly or wrongly) and wouldn't settle for anything less than what they're worth. If this employer can get you for a price significantly lower than your actual value, you don't just hurt yourself, you also harm the rest of us by devaluing the job.

2) It pains me to hear of highly educated, highly dedicated people, worrying if they "break even" for a deal where they take most of the risk. What an awful situation we got ourselves in to. I don't know what your situation is with you family, expenses, etc - but I would say that it's really not a crime to leave academia if it can't pay the bills. At least do your due diligence and look into other jobs that will pay you 50k+ a year, and see what that work would entail. You don't have to do it, but you give yourself more options, which will help you out immensely when negotiating the contract at the aforementioned UK institution.

EDIT for Moriarty:

enter image description here enter image description here . Not to mention better job security, working hours, paid vacation time, etc. I'm not trying to convince anyone to be a medical doctor here - rather, as someone who has both been to Med school (in the UK) and has done a PhD in basic research, the discrepancy in pay is more to do with how we value ourselves rather than, say our actual value to society (and what it would be willing to pay).

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"medical doctors get paid so much more than scientists" – ha, not in the UK they don't. Socialized healthcare systems generally pay doctors much, much less than privatized healthcare systems. – Moriarty Feb 15 at 15:54
A GP has done many years training AFTER their degree, unlike a PostDoc. A GP should be compared with a senior lecturer. – Ian Feb 15 at 17:17
A second post doc, which is not unusual, often comes after a BSc, an MSc, a 4-year PhD, and a 3-4 year first post doc. Or in otherwords, most PhDs do not go on to become senior lecturers, while most junior doctors do go on to be a senior doctor in some speciality. You're right, its not an apples-to-apples comparison: but I stand behind my hypothesis that there is a substantial pay discrepancy between two fields of similarly-educated and aged-matched peoples. The weakest part of my post is that this pay discrepancy is due to contract negotiation... I would focus on that. – Wetlab Walter Feb 15 at 18:02
Thank you for your input on this. After my PhD I worked in the industry before going back to academia so in general my experience is not directly compared with a post-doc my age, this is a bit of a double-edged sword. Thanks again. – PacificDrive Feb 15 at 18:02
That's a terrible misleading chart. The doctors' chart covers the whole career, from qualification through retirement; the scientist chart covers a few years post PhD. I work in a University Department where the non medically qualified professor earns substantially more than any of the medically qualified staff. – rhialto Feb 15 at 21:17

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