Scientists, let's talk about cash—and the financial realities of career choices

Written by: Karin Bodewits
Published on: Oct 18, 2021

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Image credit: C. Aycock/Science based on image by grmarc/iStock

Max and Gareth stand side by side at the gas station near Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie. Gareth holds the fuel nozzle in the tank while closely observing the pump.

"Isn't it fascinating to watch the numbers increase?" Max jokes.

The friends and former Ph.D. colleagues haven't seen each other for a while. Max lives in the Netherlands these days, where he works as an industry food scientist, having decided to leave academia after his first postdoc. He is visiting his friend for the weekend in Berlin, where Gareth just started his third postdoc after sojourns in the United States and Singapore.

"Seeing those numbers tick up is actually quite scary when you only have $50 in your bank account for the rest of the month," Gareth answers, without looking at Max. Max gasps. "Publications ain't payin' the bills," Gareth laments. He takes the nozzle out before the tank is full and pays the cashier, and they both get back into the car.

"It isn't my business, but do you want to borrow some cash?" Max asks.

"No, thanks. I am OK until the next payday," Gareth says, maybe a bit too defensively. Max doesn't look convinced. Gareth adds, "I just had a pay gap of a couple of months between contracts—international moving costs, an extra month of rent for the deposit on my new place, it all adds up. But you know all that."

"That's why I left academia," Max says. "I loved my research, the traveling, the students … but I am not willing to pay the price. It starts with moving costs, but it sure doesn't end there." He recalls how he worked on a postdoc stipend for 4 years. "At first, I considered myself rich, feeling like Uncle Scrooge sitting on cash—much more money than we got as Ph.D.s. But that feeling didn't last long. I was on a German scholarship, so I got paid in euros while living in the U.K. It was a phase when the value of the euro took a nosedive. I could barely pay my rent! The way you just stared at that pump, I stared at exchange rates. It was ridiculous!"

Gareth and Max both laugh ironically.

"While the euro muddled its way back up, I realized the biggest price was still to come," Max continues. "I didn't have any social insurance—no health insurance, no pensions, and not eligible for unemployment benefits back home in Germany. A few dentist appointments plus a couple months of unemployment pretty much ate up all my savings. The worst part was, I hadn't considered any of these costs or trade-offs at all before starting my postdoc."

"Uncle Scrooge ended up like a fooled cat," Gareth jokes darkly.

"Exactly!" Max says. "Plus, very few of my colleagues talked about finances. The impression I got was that caring about money somehow made you less of a scientist. But that isn't true!"

"I see what you mean," Gareth says. "I guess I've been so focused on my publication record and chances at a permanent academic job that I haven't really let myself consider my personal finances. When choosing positions, I've felt like I have to prioritize things like my research trajectory and relationship with the lab head instead. And you're right that I never really talk about money with my colleagues. We joke about how we're all broke, but we just kind of accept that as the way it is."

"Yeah, I remember those days," Max says. "And the decisions you've made about your postdocs have been great for your research. Maybe it will all pay off for you and you'll get tenure and won't have to joke about being broke all the time. I just wish scientists and academics talked about this more—or at least that someone had explained more of it to me before I started my first postdoc. Fun fact: My initial industry salary was lower than it was for my colleagues who joined industry straight after their Ph.D. and had industry experience to show instead of a postdoc."

"Yikes!" Gareth exclaims. "I had no idea. Yet another trade-off I hadn't realized. You know what, I'm going to talk about this with the grad students when I'm back in lab. At least then some good might come out of my empty bank account!"

The moral of the story

Salaries, earning potential, and financial risk are frequently underdiscussed and often perceived as taboo topics. But they are important aspects of any career, including one in science, and there's no shame in acknowledging this. Before deciding what your next career step will be, consider not only what your job entails but also your current and future finances.

A typical pitfall is to only look at gross salaries without fully understanding what the take-home pay will actually be. But gross salary tells you little without knowing the exact contract conditions. Depending on what costs the employer covers and what you need to cover yourself—for instance, insurance, gym, child care, gadgets (for example, phone, laptop, car), moving costs, and professional trainings—the same gross salaries from different employers can feel completely different in your wallet. Then, there may be additional earnings beyond the base salary, such as bonuses or holiday pay. These considerations could easily add up to 10% to 30% of your annual salary. Before you accept a job, ask about these details so you can estimate what your actual take-home pay will be and make an informed decision.

More broadly, it can be valuable to consider career decisions in terms of your lifelong earning potential and trade-offs. Your future finances often depend on previous salaries and work experience, so the echo of your decisions can be audible for years to come. For example, many Ph.D. students who know for sure they do not want to become professors opt to do postdocs because "it won't hurt" and it may seem like the "easy" option. Many academic supervisors advise their students to do postdocs to gain professional experience. Studies have shown, however, that earning potential outside academia greatly suffers from postdoctoral endeavors. These "lost years" lead to a significant pay gap. This gap might close if you fare well—but it can take years.

This isn't to say that salary and finances should always be your primary consideration as you navigate your career. The right balance varies from person to person, and no set of priorities make you a better scientist. But no matter where you fall, the goal is to aim for informed decisions—including how you'll feel the next time you need to buy a tank of gas.

Philipp Gramlich (NaturalScience.Careers) and David Giltner (TurningScience) contributed to this article. Philipp combines industry and academic experience in his workshops and talks for scientists. David teaches scientists how to design and build rewarding careers in industry.

Karin Bodewits is an author, a speaker, and the co-founder of NaturalScience.Careers.