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I'm a life sciences Ph.D. student preparing over the next few months to begin applying for a postdoctoral fellowship. Several of my potential advisors are on the coasts--California, Boston, Seattle--where the cost of living is quite high. Others are in the Midwest where the cost of living is much lower. I've lived a lot of places myself, so for the sake of argument we can assume I'd be equally happy moving to any of these places.

Although I don't want money to be a factor in this decision, I do have a wife and children and (insert salary here: $45,000 for example) allows a much different standard of living in the Midwest than Boston or Long Island. For those of you who received multiple postdoc offers--is this something that they take into account when setting your salary, or can I expect more or less flat offers across the nation?

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There is a wide variety in the range of post-doc salaries. In the biomedical sciences, the NIH's salary guidelines hold sway, as the NIH is the largest source of funding for such positions. So there's relatively little cost-of-living adjustments.

However, I think many institutes set their own scale according to "what the market will bear." Popular schools like MIT could pay somewhat less and still be competitive because of the "prestige factor."

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There is no fixed "postdoc salary", so by extension there is no way to inherently adjust for cost of living.

The NIH postdoc salary level (which is probably the closest thing to a 'fixed' postdoc salary in the U.S.) is adjusted for years of experience, but isn't necessarily adjusted for cost of living. There are ways around this, for example institutions in very expensive parts of the country (New York comes to mind) may be able to provide subsidized housing to postdocs to help offset the expense of living there, but this is far from assured. They may also find additional "pots" of money, provided by the institution, non-NIH grants, etc. for which they can pay a postdoc more.

But it's not the only factor under consideration - the institution may know they're in a position to not pay much because of the prestige and perceived career benefits, or on the flip side may need to pay more because they know they're potentially competing against private industry.

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This is not the most direct answer, but you might find the glassdoor website useful. You can see salaries for postdocs by institution and see how locations you're considering might vary. It's hard to fix everything you might want while making the comparison, but I think it will be useful to you.

  • Are you affiliated with the linked site? While it seems like an appropriate link, it is best to declare any affiliations academia.stackexchange.com/help/behavior – StrongBad Sep 3 '14 at 18:35
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    Nope, I'm not affiliated at all. I'm just someone who has found it useful when I've been curious about salaries. It's widely known and used in the private sector (where I am) and seems to have decent data for academia as well. I think there are a few other sites with good data that are useful for answering similar questions, I'm just not as familiar with them. – user3499545 Sep 3 '14 at 18:44
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    I can confirm that Glassdoor is widely used in the private sector. From my personal perspective, it is approaching familiarity akin to Linkedin. @StrongBad – Brian S Sep 3 '14 at 21:16
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Stanford University, whose housing market is in the top 2 or 3 worst in the country, sets a minimum salary for postdocs. Currently, a beginning postdoc is guaranteed $44,310, which rises over time (e.g. to $51,830 in one's fifth year). This page states:

"The San Francisco Bay Area is an expensive region. ... Postdocs who are considering offers of appointment at Stanford are encouraged to consider the cost of living in this area in light of their lifestyle, needs, and where applicable, financial obligations towards spouses or family. ... The minimum funding levels for postdoctoral scholars at Stanford are perhaps the highest in the country for trainees, and they are designed to support a stipend-level income for a single trainee."

(We don't generally have postdocs in mathematics, so I can't say whether it's common for postdocs to be paid this minimum salary.)

More generally, everyone in the administration is aware of, and concerned about, the problems that the housing market creates for postdocs. For example, a new program began two days ago through which postdocs are eligible to purchase highly-subsidized Caltrain passes; this program was designed specifically with the aim of mitigating the cost of living, by making it easier for postdocs to commute from more affordable towns in the area.

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