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I started a Marie Curie fellowship, and the salary is lower than I expected (I did not realize employer costs were included in the advertised amounts).

Since moving to the (southern) USA I am experiencing huge costs in living, and the country correction coefficient does not account for it. Each month, after taking costs into account, my pay is negative.

I am struggling to see how this is financially feasible. I am literally going into debt. It is so low that even a "top-up" salary would not cover it.

Did anyone else encounter this problem and what did you do? Would it look bad to leave a Marie Curie fellowship?

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    What are the "employer costs"? Are you sure that those are allowed by agreement with the funders? Have you asked the funders about that? Aug 10, 2023 at 15:17
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    – cag51
    Aug 12, 2023 at 5:25

6 Answers 6

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Research admin here from an R1 institution in a major metro area here in the US. I have not personally administered a Marie Curie fellowship, but in looking at two agreements we currently have, one with a university in Denmark, another with one in Italy, I can tell you that the agreements are completely different. The amounts sent over are completely different. One actually sent us a budget dedicated for IDC, another said here's a small amount "for everything", and they would pay the fellow directly.

Given that it's not even remotely the same model in my dept, I would say you have to go to your research administrator and ask them to look at the contract. In my school, we guarantee all students and postdocs a specific minimum rate. If you are below that, we bring you up to the minimum.

If you are suggesting the taxes are such that you will still be negative, based on how the IRS or other governments handle taxes, that is a bit trickier. Technically, I am not allowed to consider taxes when administering payroll. To do so would lead to great inequality and a huge amount of paperwork besides. This is why we always talk about payroll in terms of gross salaries, never net. However, it may be that the difference between the agreements I am reading is because of how things like tax law work, and one university knows this and another doesn't. One agreement may be more to the benefit of the student than another, and no one has considered such implications at this other university.

Overall, the problem with giving advice on Marie Curie is that it is so highly individual. You can read the published guidance from the organization, but the implementation ranges too much for us to advise based on that. Contact the research administrator assigned to your fellowship to get specific advice. You may also need to contact an accountant to understand your tax situation. It's possible you have a tax treaty that will help this, and so you are paying taxes you will get back later. Understanding how your taxes should be structured is important, and your institution cannot do this for you -- you are responsible for that. If you can't tell who your research administrator is, start by going to the department manager. They will know who to contact.

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    Italians have a hugely advantageous tax treaty where no tax is paid anywhere on salaries for the first few years after arriving in the US. This might simply account for the difference in the discussed cases.
    – Kvothe
    Aug 11, 2023 at 12:12
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    There is an important tax distinction for postdocs that isn't well known unless you've been there. If the money is paid as a grant to a non-employee postdoc (postdoctoral fellow), the money is generally FICA exempt, which saves 7.65% on the employee, and reduces effective fringe by the same amount. Grants are non-wage income.
    – user71659
    Aug 13, 2023 at 9:30
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my pay is negative

Well this is pretty simple : time to move on.

It's just insanity to keep doing this and the solution is as simple as that : you cannot sustain less than zero pay. You don't even try.

Simply write (email) the department head and all other parties involved in the agreement and state plainly that either they increase the money you take home to a realistic level or you will have no choice but to leave. State the actual figures. State you need an urgent positive response and give a deadline - and a deadline you plan to stick to.

And plan to leave. Assume they will not sort something out quickly or even on a realistic timescale. Bureaucracies are notorious for preferring to argue over dealing with a problem that doesn't directly affect them and you have multiple agencies involved.

Start looking for a new position now.

Would it look bad to leave a Marie Curie fellowship?

Who cares what it looks like ? You're going into debt because of this !

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    This is a sad but realistic answer - one of the reasons we have brain drain from universities to private companies is that people also have a real life: they have to pay the bills, go to the restaurant, have fun, etc. I do not see a reason why PhD students or postdocs are expected to live an ascetic life. Either the research id funded or there is no research as apparently the country decided that the money is better spent elsewhere.
    – WoJ
    Aug 11, 2023 at 15:49
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    This is not good advice. I received a nastygram like this via a dean during the pandemic. The student freaked out and didn't start by talking to me. They failed to mention to the Dean that they moved to Quebec, and Quebec taxes them at a much higher rate than our state does. How is that my fault? Take some ownership in learning how your paycheck works before you blame people for what it looks like. I didn't ask to have to execute a foreign agreement to pay this guy who just decided to move without checking, putting us in violation. So, you now have a lower net pay. Welcome to the real world. Aug 11, 2023 at 17:41
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    @yourfriendlyresearchadmin That sounded more like a personal rant against someone you didn't like complaining to you rather than any rational attempt to help the OP. As for "living in the real world", that does not mean you have to go into debt to work. Aug 11, 2023 at 18:27
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    @yourfriendlyresearchadmin The OP does not currently have an income to speak of and is going into debt. There's no upside to this unless they get a realistic income soon (and enough to pay off the debt !). They either do that or get a different job. Discussing this with admins from multiple organization who all want to blame someone else for the problem doesn't sound promising, and your remarks make it clear they could all try to blame the OP. You're looking at it from admin point of view, but admin are not the ones going into debt here. The OP needs to act decisively. Aug 11, 2023 at 18:45
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    @yourfriendlyresearchadmin My advice was to contact all parties and explain the difficulty and the urgency of the matter, but also to prepare a parachute because they cannot just hang around hoping the debt stops building. Debt starting out in a career can cripple you and make pursuing your chosen profession impossible. Maybe you work wonders daily, but my long experience of admins (not just in academia) is that they're often more worried about avoiding blame than dealing with a problem. This is the job culture people exist in and they adapt by being defensive. Sad, but often true. Aug 11, 2023 at 19:26
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Third party funding like a Marie-Curie grant come in two basic forms (with lots of variation in the details).

  1. You receive a grant, that is supposed to cover costs for your lab and the people employed in the lab, including you. It is very common that universities take a major cut (on the order of 50%) from these grants for the administrative cost and providing you with space and such.

  2. You receive your personal salary, possibly a little extra for travel expense or for relocation. This should be paid out directly to you and the university does not get a cut. The university agrees to pay for your office and similar costs in exchange for getting you as an employee without having to pay your salary.

I don't know the details of what kind of grant your MC fellowship is but it seems at least possible that you were granted something more like type 2 but the university thinks it is type 1. Unfortunately it is also possible that everything is as it should be and the salaries haven't been adjusted for inflation in recent years. It depends on the details of your fellowship.

Edit: You added the source for the Marie-Curie grants in your questions. If I understand the document correctly, as a postdoc you should get 5080 Euros gross salary plus 600 Euros mobility allowance plus possibly a family allowance (page 86). This does include salary deductions that are usually payed by the employer like some social security deductions. This is modified by the country factor which for the US is 102.3% (page 110). This is supposed to be for your salary, the university is not supposed to deduct anything from that for its own costs. If they do figure out why and try to stop it. For a postdoc this is a very good salary pretty much anywhere in the world. If you do get that, it should cover your living expenses. If it doesn't you need to focus your career away from academia towards maximizing your salary.

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    @Trunk You seem to be making assumptions about these fellowships up and down this thread, many of which are quite inaccurate. On this point, MSCA fellowships provide a maximum monthly contribution to the hosts' indirect costs. They do not cap the grant's contribution to direct salary costs, but these can only be those which are required for employment (so, social security etc.) My experience with the MSCA is that EU's terms favour Fellows at least as strongly as other funders, and e.g. ensured that I didn't lose out due to changes in exchange rates during the MSCA-IF I had some years ago. Aug 11, 2023 at 15:39
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    @yourfriendlyresearchadmin You are sort of sitting at the opposite site of the table here but these restrictions are done on purpose. For a type 2 grant, your university gets the offer of having an excellent researcher just for the price of an office without needing to pay their salary. You still have to pay something but less than you would pay for an employee. That is the idea of the grant, if the university is not willing to pay their share but instead just tries to take a cut from the grant they are just not getting the researcher.
    – quarague
    Aug 11, 2023 at 17:57
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    @quarague -- "just the price of an office" is not accurate; these are expensive to administer, and we may not recoup the costs. Academics love to throw around that institutions just take their money for admin costs, which is totally unfair. We are audited on these things! Academics often act like they know what is going on, however have they read the terms and conditions, all the federal laws, all the university policies, and seen the actual accounting? I want to ask these people, if it's so easy, why don't you just do all the paperwork yourself? It's a lot more than people think. Aug 11, 2023 at 18:29
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    @yourfriendlyresearchadmin There definitely are other costs for the university but you need to make the appropriate comparison. The usual way a university gets a researcher is that they employ them, so the university pays the salary plus all the administrative costs. The grant is an offer than you only pay the administrative costs and the salary is covered by the grant and you still get the benefits of having a researcher working for the university. If you don't want that don't accept grants.
    – quarague
    Aug 11, 2023 at 19:12
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    FWIW, I just looked at our Danish contract, and it says this, "In the framework of the Fellowship, the Fellow will remain a full-time (Danish university) employee with appropriate salary and benefits, including worker’s compensation insurance. The Fellow will be ineligible for benefits at (US University) and shall not receive any funding or other financial support from (US University)." This is an example of where my hands are tied. If this person is getting a negative paycheck from this arrangement, I am not really able to help. I hate saying that to people, but what can I do? Aug 11, 2023 at 19:28
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I'm a Marie Curie fellow in the UK. I'm so sorry you have to go through this; MSCA is one of the highest paid postdoc in the EU, if not the world. That said, the Uni likes to take social security contribution from the grant (i.e. salary). I'll share my experience in the UK. The basic salary was rated at 6k per month. I was getting 3k per month. Some of the deductions were not shown in the pay slip. I asked them for an explanation. Here is an extract from the payroll contact: "Total amount in the agreement 6,026.12 less employer pension 979.74 less employer NI 468.17 = basic salary 4,578.21". Apart from employer's contribution, they deducted employee contribution from my salary as well. This was pension, tax and employee NI. So the take home was reduced to 3k at the end. I asked them why they were deducting employer's contribution, they sent an extract of the employment agreement. It's included in the contract, which obviously I did not read. This is true irrespective of the host institution. There was a really long discussion about this on a Facebook group.

I'm really sorry to hear this. One thing you can do is to contact NCPs. (They are very responsive; also mention your grant ID. They must respond to your queries.). If your host is Italy, Germany etc, find that country's NCP email on MSCA page and ask them if there is a way to fix this. Something thats not clear to me is: There are no social security contribution in the US (insurance + tax. This is what I remember paying in US), if it's still getting deducted at your parent institution (host) - thats completely useless. You can ask them to stop deducting the social contribution when you are away. Does that makes sense ? For example: you are hired by a University in Spain, who pays your salary. They are deducting your social contributions from your salary. Then you move to the US for your secondment, which is 1 year. What's the point of deducting social security in Spain, when you are in the US ? That should give you a surplus money.

You can also ask for reimbursement. You should get your travel reimbursed, visa costs are also reimbursed. I think you can get the rent you paid during your secondment reimbursed (thats quite a lot). (I tried to look this up, I remember reading it somewhere but I couldn't find it now, sorry - it must be in some guidelines). You can also ask your NCP if thats possible. Travel money is separate from your salary as per MSCA grant. The university can't touch it. Like you said, you could top up your salary. (I'm sorry it's still not enough for you.)

You could also stop your pension contribution for a year. I don't pay pension contribution in the UK. They used to deduct employer's and employee's pension contribution out of my salary, which I did not like. You can also send an email to MSCA alumni association. Someone must have dealt with similar problem before. They are usually very helpful. I hope this helps.

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  • "There are no social security contribution in the US" This is not always true. It depends on your visa. If a postdoc is directly employed by the university, they are subject to 7.65% FICA tax, and the same amount charged to the university, which will be taken out as overhead/fringe. The key is international postdocs who maintain nonresident status are exempt; however if one stays more than 2 calendar years under J-1 and 5 years under other usual nonimmigrant student cases, they lose that exemption. Thus, if the person completed their graduate studies in the US as well, they may pay FICA.
    – user71659
    Aug 13, 2023 at 19:38
  • If your take home is ~36k GBP/year ($45.6k), then it's not the highest paid postdoc in the world. In fact, in the US it would be illegal under many circumstances. For example, Washington state requires a minimum of $65k gross by law. In life sciences, the Federal NIH rates, which are probably the most common, range from $56.4-68.6k. I'd say $60's in an average locale to $70s in an expensive locale is normal here. The further trick is to pay directly via a fellowship, which eliminates most overhead and FICA. Take-home effectively can be roughly 90-95% of those numbers.
    – user71659
    Aug 13, 2023 at 19:44
  • @user71659 take home and gross pay are not the same; you are comparing 65k gross with 45k take home ($). Gross is 72k GBP pa ($92k), which would not be illegal under any circumstances in the US. Like you said, postdoc salaries are usually around $65k PA with national labs probably paying more than universities. Aug 13, 2023 at 20:04
  • No, because you deducted employer's contributions in your "gross". Gross pay in the US does not include employer's contributions/fringe/overhead. If you want to figure those in, add ~20% for fringe and ~50% for overhead. If it really was $92k gross, then your take-home would be roughly $65k as an employee, $70 as a fellow.
    – user71659
    Aug 13, 2023 at 20:09
  • A note on MCSA terminology - the scheme does support secondments for which expenses can be claimed, but the outgoing phase of a MSCA-IF is not considered a secondment, so rent and other costs there are expected to come out of your main salary. Aug 13, 2023 at 22:40
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Although I can cover my cost of living I had the same negative experience. This was not communicated and in fact I remember asking what my net salary will be. The amount I get and the number that they were suggesting differs by 30%. Now they do not remember their own words. I would not have taken this “prestigious” fellowship if I knew. Please speak up so that the next generation doesn’t fall in the same trap. I burned some bridges but this disrespect I can’t tolerate.

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  • While receiving the scholarship, are you allowed to do part time job ?
    – Nobody
    Oct 4, 2023 at 6:23
  • Not if you work on it 100%. Why does that matter anyway?
    – Kai
    Oct 4, 2023 at 7:35
  • If the amount is not enough, you'll need a part time job. "cover my cost of living" sometimes is not enough for other costs, e.g. you may need to purchase an expensive book. Inflation is still rising, we don't know what will be the rent next year.
    – Nobody
    Oct 4, 2023 at 7:43
  • I see. I think before taking on a second job one should join industry.
    – Kai
    Oct 4, 2023 at 9:05
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Go to your academic supervisor and demand full clarity on this matter - something that should have been outlined to you long before now.

It's high time this situation was brought to the attention of the EU Commission bureaucrats.

Best to do this via a direct communication - since a personal meeting is impossible at present - with your MEP at his local EU constituency office.

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    This answer suggests that OP is a "32+ year old intelligent analytical person", but the answer in the whole sounds quite condescending to me. I don't think it's helpful, considerate, nor suitable for professional academic environment. Aug 11, 2023 at 11:01
  • @Dmitry Savostyanov Corrected w.r.t. age and options.
    – Trunk
    Aug 11, 2023 at 14:26

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