People rarely discuss money. It makes them uncomfortable, for a number of reasons I won't go into. Logically, this makes no sense; by not discussing compensation openly, we - the worker bees of the world - give the advantage to our employers. As such, I have long resolved to talk about money right up to the point where it becomes unbearably boorish. To that end, I will now bloviate on comparisons of compensation between academia and industry.
Fortunately (thanks to sunshine laws) we have some decent data for many schools on what everyone makes. Because I'd like to relate academic pay to what I see in my own job (pharma neuroscience in Chicago), I used the public salary data from the department of neuroscience look at UT Southwesterm in Dallas. I think this is a representative comparison; UTSW is a fairly large, fairly good place to work by academic standards, and is located in Dallas, a city that is roughly as expensive as my own home here in Chicago. Seems like a good starting point for comparison. You can see these numbers yourself here.
Let's take a look at the summary chart below. The first thing we see is that there are two groups, a large, low-paid group and a second, much smaller group that makes a lot more money. Guess which one are the professors? This post isn't about the probable futility of chasing after the faculty apple, but the data's right there if you care to see it.
Academia vs Industry Comparison of Pay
Seguing to the obvious question - how does pay stack up to industry? I think everyone knows the answer for the postdoc/non-tenure track side of things, but maybe faculty isn't so clear. How does an associate professor's comp stack up to a scientist in industry? Fortunately, the UTSW data is broken down by job classification (and even by individual, if you care to search). Let's see how much each class of tenure track faculty makes:
Again, 26 postdocs averaging 47K (that actually seems a bit high - must be a lot of 6th year posties in there). Moving on, we see the department has 10 assistant professors averaging $108K, 3 associate professors making $127K and 6 tenured professors bringing in about $162K. This seems fairly representative to me - in grad school I remember new assistant professors at my Uni were making 80-90K in a lower COL area. Remember that these are base salaries and may not include other revenue streams (like textbooks, honorariums, etc), but I'm just going to work with the info I have.
So, how does that stack up to my job?
I am not going to post my company's salary guidelines (but I can assure you that we do have them and they are "public" info within the company). I am, however, willing to compare my own experiences to UTSW's pay scale. When I joined up many years ago, my total compensation (which, as I describe below, can be fairly complex with bonuses, employee awards and stock options) would have been fairly close to what an assistant prof makes at UTSW. Maybe a shade more, to be honest.
This year, I'd guess I'll bring home a little more than their average full professor. This happened slowly, with a bunch of incremental raises and a couple of promotions which brought with it a 10-13% increase in pay.
That sounds good, but there's bad stuff not seen in a direct numerical comparison: For one, my theoretical earning ceiling is probably lower than a prof who gets lucky with a valuable patent or the guy who lucks into the directorship of a prestigious institute. I'm certainly paid well for what I do, but a lot of the upside of my work is already built into my compensation. As a slow-and-steady type, I can't really complain about the deal. I suppose there's also a lack of job security that the six full profs probably(?) enjoy, but that's not really something I spend too much time thinking about.
Pay Breakdown In Different Types of Industry
My first comparison was simply between big pharma and big academia. But while academia is a homogenous mixing bowl of uniformity as far as pay trends, industry has a few wrinkles, a subset of relative haves and have-nots. I'd like to address this by speaking about the different pay scales in bioventure companies, CROs and large pharma. That should cover more than 95% of the bench research jobs outside of academia/government* and it's important stuff to know when you get into salary negotiations.
In my opinion, there are basically three researcher-type jobs out there - CRO scientists, start-up/bioventure scientists, and large pharma scientists. Taking them one by one:
These are companies that are on a strict budget. They usually are supported by venture capital or other grants and have a certain amount of money that's designed to last a certain amount of time (usually until they hit some milestone required to receive the next round of venture capital). As an employee of such a place, your salary and benefits count against their burn rate (the speed at which they consume said funding). Every dollar they pay you shortens that runway, incentivizing management to pay the absolute minimum to obtain competent people. Since the ultimate fate of the company is usually to be acquired, keeping you around long-term isn't a top priority.
Benefits are very basic, rudimentary health insurance and MAYBE a 401K with no match. Since most start-ups are located in expensive areas (Boston, San Fran, etc), the money is the worst of the three groups. I was once offered $60K to work in San Jose, a sum of money that I now know to be well under the market rate for that area. However, no one told me that, but that's another story entirely...
I've written before about the dangers of joining start-ups, so I won't dwell on this, but many employers at bioventures mask their crappy pay with promises - they'll say that they're building a pyramid and you'll want to join at the top. To a young naive person, this may sound reasonable, but to a jaded asshat like me, it just sounds like someone asking me to work hard now for the possibility of being rewarded later. These days, I prefer (insist, actually) on taking my pay up front.
On that note, I should also mention the only other thing bioventures offer employees: the vaunted stock options, fractional ownership in the fledgling company. On this I say the following: I strongly encourage everyone to view the future value of any such options with a healthy degree of skepticism. To make a long story short, there are countless numbers of ways for a new employee to have their shares taken away or diluted. There are other painful ways to be burned by stock options - one colleague I had received options worth over $200K at one point, and held them until the company started to fail. If memory serves, he sold his options for a pattance right before he was laid off.
Unlike start-ups, CROs are stable businesses that provide a specific class of good or service to customers (usually other businesses). For example, it's easier and cheaper for us to contract with a company to run our microarray samples. We mail them RNA (and a check), they mail us a spreadsheet with a report. There are many, many CROs that have operated for decades as established, respectable businesses. It's a good gig.
Internally, this contractor needs to hire scientists to run these assays. These are the CRO jobs we're talking about. These folks need to be very, very good at one or two jobs that they'll do over and over.
Now I'm not about to start talking shit about the people at CROs, but let's be real: these folks do not need to be as good at bench science. You also need a certain kind of person who is willing to handle the repetitive actions and not quit. This could mean hiring B-level people, young people getting their start, or individuals who are not very ambitious.
Because of all of these things, pay is not great. It's harder to generalize, but the average PhD is probably making 65- or 70K as a base. There may be some modest bonuses based on how profitable the unit was in the current year. There's also health insurance and a 401K, maybe with a little match. Take into account that many CROs are located away from the high cost-of-living areas (so as to keep prices down and profits high), the salaries go a bit further.
Objectively, CRO jobs are fractionally better than bioventures in terms of pay and benefits. HOWEVER, they can be real dead-ends if your goal is to achieve top compensation as a hands-on scientist. Doing one thing over and over makes you rusty and gradually weakens your resume. Bioventure jobs, in which employees wear many hats and do many things, are only going to look good on a resume. Maybe even enough to compensate for the substandard pay and inherent job instability. Maybe.
There are many things that are bad about large pharma jobs, but the pay and benefits are certainly not one of them.
Pay in the Bay Area starts around 80-85K and goes up to over 200K with a long service record (oddly, pay on the coasts is proportionately lower than in less popular parts of the country. That would be the so-called Sunshine Tax). Bonuses and stock programs comprise a good bit of the compensation package, an incentive to keep employees motivated when they're one of 10,000 or more.
Pay is competitive because it costs a lot to train a new person in the project-driven environment of a big company. Our company watches others like a hawk when it comes to pay. I once got a $7K raise because the company felt that they were underpaying people in my position. I hadn't done shit to deserve it, but it was well-appreciated nonetheless.
One thing I noticed over time was that a lot of the compensation is structured to discourage you from leaving. Regardless of when you walk away from a company, you will leave some money on the table. It's a structured way to get their hooks into you and keep you from heading to greener pastures. All part of keeping the brains on the farm.
To this end, I cannot overemphasize the importance of looking at total compensation (as opposed to base salary alone) to those considering a job offer with a large company. I'll give you a personal example. Three or four years ago, my base salary was a flat 100K, give or take. However, my annual bonus target was 11% of my salary, which I regularly exceeded by 25% or so. There's also an employee stock plan that contributed about 10K a year. Then there was employee retirement contributions. My company contributes 5.5% of my base salary to my 401K and matched an additional contribution dollar for dollar, up to 6% of my salary. Adding this up, my total compensation was approximately 30% higher than base compensation. It was a huge difference. Moreover, the benefits were good. Our basic health insurance is totally free. There are a smattering of other benefits like life- and disability insurance.
Free food, from vendors or from work events, is both more plentiful and better than what was flying around in academia. I have never had to share a hotel room or pay for food when I travel, nor have I had to buy an inconvenient airfare just because it was crazy cheap.
My company does these spot awards a few times a year, netting me maybe 600-800 dollars. There's also a sort of stock option program. Each year we get a set number of points that mature. After a few years, we get X dollars per point. After many years, I'm getting a low five-figure payout from this.
Another incentive comes in the form of online consulting. There are companies that offer 50 bucks for doing a survey on CRO preference. It's not much, but gravy is gravy. There are probably other way to cash in, but I don't work too hard on finding them.
There are a couple of other intangibles that should be considered. Does the company offer two weeks of paid vacation or three or four? Paid sick days? Volunteer time off.
You better save your money, though. Industry often means there are rainy days ahead.
Hope this is helpful for anyone contemplating jumping the fence.
*As shown above, if you want to know what someone at a public university or in government makes, Google is your friend.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.