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I am a couple of months off my defence and started thinking about postdoc possibilities. I seem to have an opportunity at a very prestigious lab in the U.S. (I'm currently located in Europe).

After a brief chat with the PI at a conference, and some e-mails back and forth I was invited to come for a visit, meet the people and present myself and my work so far. Considering that we are still in contact and started discussing more regarding the projects and funding possibilities, I feel like they genuinely do want me to work there.

Putting aside all the parameters regarding the scientific matters, I am a bit concerned about the economic aspects. The lab is located at a city which is among the most expensive in the country, based on what I read/hear. I have been in contact with the postdoc-community (turns out there is one) at this university and asked them about how salaries are decided and how it compares to the cost of living in that city. The answer wasn't very simple, but my understanding is that it's not regulated at uni or faculty level but instead decided on a case-by-case basis. I hear figures varying from $30K to $75K, which is a pretty huge span.

So, coming back to my contact with the PI, at no point during our communication the subject of salary came up, and while initially I was cool with that, I am starting to feel like it would be good to know what I am getting myself into before we start putting serious effort into writing grant applications and designing projects.

I realize money shouldn't be the first concern, while negotiating an academic position; but if I'm going to relocate to the other side of the planet without any security of a future there, or back here, I'd like to know that I'm taking a step up from my current life rather than a step down. The issue is that as a grad student in Sweden, you have a pretty decent life and you get a respectable salary (despite being 20-35% down from a comparable position at industry).

Q1: How can I inquire about the salary offer/negotiation without appearing greedy or money-oriented?

Q2: As a follow up, is it reasonable to expect/ask them to match my current living standard?

  • At my lab, there is one post-doc salary set by HR. At a university I could see (have seen but a long time ago) that the post-doc salary could vary widely by school (engineering vs arts) or possibly by department (civil vs electrical engineering). Certainly the professor has some (limited) budget to allocate to a post-doc, so you might price yourself out of their market. – Jon Custer Jul 30 '15 at 14:01
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    Hope you don't feel bad about asking about salary. My postdoc got relocated to London (where my living costs more than doubled), and felt I "shouldn't" press for more money. In the end I just got resentful and resigned. There were other factors too but the point I want to make here is that, given the current market for permanent academic positions, a postdoc is a just a job and you can negotiate to get something that works for you. As @Jon Custer says, the issue is whether you price yourself out of the market. – P.Windridge Aug 1 '15 at 10:41
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I think all your concerns are very reasonable. Honestly, I am not really buying into the "money is no concern in academic job hunts" story. A postdoc is a job. Part of a job is a salary. I never understood why you are allowed to ask about housing, students, packages, whatever, but not what money you are going to make.

Q1: how can I inquire about the salary offer/negotiation without appearing greedy or money-oriented?

In the past, I have brought up this topic during my faculty visits (i.e., when they invited me over). At this point, nothing is promised yet, but it should be reasonably clear that both sides are interested and will not be scared away by trivialities. That is, if the PI went through the pain and costs to fly you over, (s)he isn't going to drop you just because you said the nasty M-word. Also, a slightly uncomfortable topic is better discussed face-to-face, over coffee.

Usually, there is a point in the conversation where you can drop it in without being overly heavy-handed. Don't make it the first thing you ask, but some time during the day quite naturally the formalities of your employment will come up. At this time you just ask directly for your yearly salary.

"You say that my employment would be full-time for 2 years? By the way, how much in yearly salary would this roughly amount to?"

If this is above what you expect, nod sagely and let the topic go. If this is slightly below your expectations, ask if there is possibility to increase (e.g., with additional teaching, by bringing in grants). I wouldn't really consider this negotiating (as they like to say over at Workplace.SE, one cannot negotiate without being prepared to walk away), but rather an open discussion what you would need to do to get to your expected salary. If the offer is way below your expectations, to the extent that your standard-of-living would actually unreasonably sink from your current position, explicitly say so.

However, keep in mind that there is a good chance that in this third case, you may well have an unfixable problem - likely, the PI will be unable and unwilling to go up very far from whatever (s)he currently has in mind, so there is a good chance to you will either have to take the lower salary for the experience, or be prepared to walk away. However, at least then you know - this is still much better than finding out when you are already in the US that your salary isn't close to what you are used to.

Edit: There is, unfortunately, also the very real chance that the answer will be something evasive, for instance:

  • "We'll tackle this when you are here, ok?"
  • "Salary will follow the university standards / NSF standards / whatever."
  • "I don't know from the top of my head, but I am sure we will be able to figure it out."
  • ...

If this is the annoying case, I would press the topic. Really. No matter what anybody says, it is not unreasonable to expect to have more or less exact knowledge about salary before agreeing to changing jobs, especially but not only if that "changing jobs" will mean that you move to a different continent. Also, it is a super-bad sign if the PI won't even give you a ballpark number. That alone would make me very anxious about the entire salary topic.

Q2: As a follow up, is it reasonable to expect/ask them to match my current living standard?

Partially. Your current standard of living isn't really of much concern to your new employer, but of course you can use this argument to plausibly explain why you care about having a specific minimal salary goal. Of course for the PI it's not an ethical problem at all to respond with "I don't have this money", or "For this money I can get two qualified people who don't have your expectations regarding standard-of-living". So I certainly wouldn't expect them to match your current salary, but it is not unreasonable to ask for this.

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    Or the PI might say, "sure, but then your contract will be 18 months rather than 24 months"? – gerrit Jul 30 '15 at 13:29
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    @gerrit Maybe, but there's a good chance that this is actually not even bad for the OP. – xLeitix Jul 30 '15 at 14:57
  • @xLeitix well he's not being evasive but the subject never came up and I am not sure if it's on purpose. I can't imagine him being short on research money, given the reputation and their success in literature. – posdef Jul 30 '15 at 19:19
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    @posdef Most won't bring the topic up by themselves unless they think that their salary offer is particularly good. It is your job to make this part of the conversation. (and, sadly, that he is a well-known researcher neither means that he has a lot of money, nor, if he has a lot of grant money, that he is free and willing to use it to pay particularly high postdoc salaries). – xLeitix Jul 31 '15 at 6:09
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    @Miguel I am not sure how one could "confirm" this. Surely there are labs that do this. I am sure there are others that are paying just fine. That being said, generally speaking paying subpar salary is rarely the optimal strategy if you want to hire the best people (which the best labs def. want to do). The best people usually have offers not only from your excellent lab, but also from your competitors who have equally good reputation. – xLeitix Aug 1 '15 at 17:53

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