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I was born and educated in the UK but have spent the entirety of my career working in the US in government and higher education. I'm not, and never have been, a faculty member but rather part of the 'academic staff' supporting researchers with technical and domain specific knowledge. Due to changing personal circumstances, I've recently been considering returning to the UK but was surprised at the disparity in salaries between my role at a US institution and similar positions advertised in the UK.

I know this question has been asked before with regard to academic salaries but how do UK universities attract and retain staff? Even within the UK, it seems like there are much better paying options in industry than a university. At my current institution in the US, we have a hard enough time recruiting staff and our salaries are 2 to 3 times higher than those I have seen posted in Britain.

What strategies or incentives do British institutions use to recruit staff that offsets such low salaries? Or do they rely on individuals being mission and prestige oriented to choose a role in a University over a for-profit corporation?

Alternatively, am I just spoiled by higher US salaries and UK academic staff positions are actually well compensated given the prevailing wage in their region?

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    As a general remark, salaries paid by US colleges/ universities tend to vary significantly for very similar kind of jobs depending on the prestige and location of the institution. I don't know how 'fancy' the institutions you worked at are but your userid specifies the San Francisco bay area which is well known for massive salaries for anyone who knows about computers. So I would expect if you replace UK by for example Montana, you would perceive the 2 or 3 times higher salary in the bay area when compared to various other parts of the US.
    – quarague
    Feb 23, 2023 at 10:28
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    Terminological note: in the UK, "academic staff" usually means faculty members. The group of people I think OP is talking about might be called "academic-related staff" or "professional services staff". Feb 23, 2023 at 12:10
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    @DanielHatton I didn't want to edit, but I'd just call them "staff" in the US. Feb 23, 2023 at 14:59
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    @ChrisH I would assume that the sort of position that the OP is talking about would not include postdocs. "supporting researchers with technical and domain specific knowledge" does not sound like a postdoc to me. Feb 23, 2023 at 15:33
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    Anecdotal: because I wanted to do some "non-evil" work for a bit. I could get double the salary in private industry, but chose not to.
    – OrangeDog
    Feb 23, 2023 at 17:19

3 Answers 3

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I think the answer to this very much depends on the sorts of role you are referring to.

If you are talking about positions such as Research Software Engineers, Scientific programmers, or Scientific Officers/Staff Scientists that might, or for example, running a core facility, a large part of the answer is "we don't". Firstly, we make far less use of this sort of people than many other countries do, often relying instead on that most English of ideas of the interested amateur muddling along as best they can. But when we do have such positions, we struggle to recruit to them and turnover is high.

If you are talking about research technician type roles then my experience is that people are either young (and don't stay long) or for the people that do these jobs, it's often the household's second income.

In all cases, it's getting increasingly difficult to recruit and retain good people.

Why do people do it? There is a combination of motivations. Partly, we do rely on the whole "vocation"/"mission oriented". Partly, we rely on the fact that for many specialties, industrial positions are pretty concentrated on a small (expensive) part of country, whereas academia is fairly well distributed and people have a variety of reasons for wanting to live away from where the industrial jobs are. Partly, I think people have a (misguided) idea that an academic job is more secure than an industrial one. Partly, it is the case that salaries for everything, from waitstaff to CEOs, are higher in the US. I don't know about academic staff, but the pay of a senior lecturer at a research-intensive Russell Group university is in the top 10% of salaries in the country, although this varies for other categories of university.

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  • Agree with this, filling/retaining staff in these roles has been extremely difficult at my institution. On one occasion someone from industry actually applied to one of our laboratory support roles and they would have been great. However, HR would only approve a salary a fraction of what they were currently earning. They essentially laughed at us and walked away. Now we have no lab support staff...
    – atom44
    Feb 23, 2023 at 9:52
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    +1 for that last paragraph. I chose a "career" as a teacher instead of staying in industry, and I keep getting asked why I chose the "low-paying job". The answer is that I enjoy being a teacher much more than the "desk job" I had before, it's one of those things money can't buy...
    – Sabine
    Feb 23, 2023 at 10:44
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    I would observe that what finally seemed to work for retaining people in my current department was a change in management (head of school) from not ideal to very very good. It seems to have stopped the turnover tsunami. I knew that the academic salaries were decently above average where I am, but didn't realise they were in the top 10% in the country? Wow.
    – penelope
    Feb 23, 2023 at 11:17
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    I suspect the difference between the two data sets is connected to the difference between "pay" and "income". Feb 24, 2023 at 18:37
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    @penelope I can alter the answer to make clear that I'm talking about research intensive, RG universities, and that there is variation between institutions. I'm not sure how much the detail is relevant as the question is about facilities technicians/staff scientists, not faculty. What would really be good I guess is some actual data on staff scientist like salaries, and where they sit in the distribution, but I don't have that data to hand. Feb 27, 2023 at 16:55
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Partly it's because universities in the UK tend to have quite generous employee benefits. Annual leave is typically greater than average (40+ days in total for long serving staff isn't uncommon). Pensions traditionally have also been pretty good. For technical and administrative staff in particular, the work environment can be less demanding, working weeks can be as little as 35 hours for full time employees and there's generally not massive pressure to be constantly busy. There are also usually a lot of other perks and discounts to take advantage of if they so wish.

You also have to remember the UK generally has lower salaries than the US across all sectors. This is somewhat made up by things like socialised healthcare, higher sick pay and annual leave regulations. The cost of living is also generally lower.

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    Pensions have been eroded but are still better than much of the private sector. Although not many people actually manage to take all their annual leave, that's partly because it's often not necessary to take a day off for appointments/deliveries etc. as occasional working from home is usually possible (he says while failing to do this and taking annual leave) .
    – Chris H
    Feb 23, 2023 at 15:19
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I looked hard at returning to industry after my PhD, before going for postdoc roles.

I would have been on about ⅓ more salary in the private sector, and saved another 10% of my postdoc pay that goes on my commute. But financial motivation isn't everything; especially in academia plenty of people are content to make enough to afford a decent lifestyle, rather than trying to be rich.

The working environment would have been very different - academia suits a lot of people, though of course not everyone. There would have been a lot more travel and a lot less flexibility in the industry roles I looked at - not great with a young child. Having worked in both, the pressures are very different in industry.

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  • Chris, I feel like this answer doesn't consult the original question. The question seems to be about non-faculty roles without a fixed term, which postdocs aren't really under.
    – user137975
    Feb 23, 2023 at 17:57
  • @AnonymousM "seems to be" is right. I read it differently. And now a lot of technical staff are on fixed term contracts too
    – Chris H
    Feb 24, 2023 at 7:56

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