Historical Trends in Predoc and Postdoc Stipends and Average Grant Sizes

May 20 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

A topic of much discussion in many circles relates to appropriate levels for predoctoral and postdoctoral stipends. In order to inform these discussions, I have analyzed historical trends for predoctoral and postdoctoral stipends provided through the National Research Service Award (NRSA) program.

Consider first the predoctoral stipend. In FY1983, this stipend was set at $5292 per year. Based on my personal experience, this was somewhat (although not dramatically) lower than the stipends provided by many Ph.D. programs. Starting in FY1985, NIH began to make a series of adjustments to move this stipend to a level that more closely reflected stipends being provided in graduate programs (and to make these stipends more consistent with the cost of living in many areas). These adjustments continued through 1998 and the beginning the NIH budget doubling, when more substantial corrections were made. At the end of the doubling with the associated nearly flat budgets, no adjustments were made although modest adjustments have been made in recent years. These stipend levels are compared with those derived by inflation adjustment of the FY1983 levels below:

Predoc Stipend

This shows that the stipend increases substantially exceeded inflation based on the FY1983 value. However, as noted above, the base value was relatively low. Based on the FY2013 level, the corresponding level for FY1983, correcting backwards for inflation, would be $9430.

The first-year postdoctoral NRSA stipend for FY1983 was $14040 (more than 2.6 times the predoctoral stipend level). Modest adjustments were made starting in FY1985 until the doubling when more substantial changes were made (e.g. $21000 to $26250 from FY1998 to FY1999). These adjustments continued through the doubling with more modest adjustments over the past decade. The results compared with those based on inflation of the FY1983 are shown below:

Postdoc stipend

Since most predoctoral and postdoctoral stipends are paid from research grants and not from training grants or fellowships (but these NRSA levels are frequently used as guidelines for other stipend levels), a key point of comparison involves changes in the sizes of Research Project Grants (RPGs) over this same time period. In FY1983, the average annual total cost (TDC) for an RPG was $124,080. The RPG average size increased steadily through FY2012 before dropping somewhat in FY2013 (associated with the sequester cut). The RPG cost data are compared with the FY1983 value corrected for inflation or corrected for the BRDPI (Biomedical Research and Development Price Index) below:

RPG plot 3 curves

The average RPG size increased faster than either inflation or BRDPI over this period. However, a couple of caveats are appropriate. First, while the average size has increased, I do not know how the distribution of grant sizes has changed over this period of time. For example, it could be that the increase in the average size has been driven substantially by increases in the sizes of large grants while the sizes of many grants near the median may not have increased as much. This is a hypothesis that must be investigated further.

The changing stipend levels can be compared with the changing average RPG level by looking at the ratio of the stipend levels to the inflation-corrected value for each year divided by the ratio of the RPG average value to the BRDPI-corrected value as shown below:

Predoc-Postdoc ratio vs RPG

This plot confirms that the predoctoral stipend level (corrected for inflation) has grown faster than the level of the RPG average size. In contrast, the postdoctoral stipend did not rise as fast as the average RPG size increased until the increase in the postdoctoral stipend associated with the doubling.

This figure reveals three phases. In the first phase, from approximately 1983 to 1997, the predoctoral stipend grew slightly faster than the average RPG growth while the postdoctoral stipend grew more slowly than the average RPG size.

In the second phase (from 1998 to 2003 (that is, the period of the NIH budget doubling), the growth in the postdoctoral and, particularly, the predoctoral stipend exceeded that for the average RPG size. The predoctoral stipend increased by 70% from $11748 in 1998 to $19968 in 2003 while the postdoctoral stipend increased by 63% from $21000 in 1998 to $34200. Corrected for inflation, these changes amount to 51% for the predoctoral stipend and 44% for the postdoctoral stipend. Over this same period of time, the average RPG size increased from $277700 to $379900, an increase of 37%, or 16% correcting for BRDPI.

The third phase runs from 2004 to the present.  During this period, growth in both stipends and average RPG size has been relatively modest. Predoctoral stipends increased by 6% from $20772 to $22032. This is a drop in value of 14% correcting for inflation. The postdoctoral stipend increased from by 10% $35568 to $39264. This is a drop in value of 10% correcting for inflation. Over the same period, the average RPG size increased from $393700 to $444900. This an increase of 13% but a drop in value of 15% correcting for BRDPI. Thus, the balance between stipend levels and RPG size has been approximately maintained but with a slight loss in relative RPG size due to the larger effect of BRDPI versus normal inflation.

13 responses so far

  • drugmonkey says:

    I think you need a factor for the slight increase in grants-per-PI as well. We really need to know this (or aggregate grant funding per PI would be better) to better show how increases in trainee stipends drive the accumulation of more research dollars in each lab.

  • datahound says:

    I am not sure that I understand the question. Are you interested in concentration of resources in particular laboratories or the role of stipend increases in driving up the overall cost of research (or something else)?

  • drugmonkey says:

    On the individual PI level, there are at least two possible responses to covering increased costs per trainee. One might simply increase the size of the budget for the same average number of grants. As we know, however, the existence of an unchanging cap on the modular direct costs per year puts a semi-firm ceiling on increases. So another strategy a PI might adopt is to carry, on average, more grants such that the staff effort can be divided across more projects.

    The increase in the number of grants per PI is just as important as the increase in the average cost of a single grant if we are to try to understand the role that increased trainee salaries play in causing pressure within the system.

    Maybe one day in the future the new grant effort reporting rules will permit a better investigation of postdoc effort per grant dollar which is what we really want to know, yes?

  • Ola says:

    Whatever the NRSA levels, my institution mandates a pre-doc' stipend of 26.5k, and I'm not aware of any other institutions that actually pay their graduate students at the NRSA level of 22.5k.

    Regarding grant sizes, I have a VERY hard time believing the average RPG is in the mid 400s. I would KILL for an R01 with that kind of budget! I suspect that the big mech' grants are pulling that number upwards, and it might better to go with only the R01s or even only the modular R01s, as a more realistic appraisal of what real-life PIs are getting.

    @DM, I'm not sure that carrying more grants is a "strategy" that can simply be adopted by a PI. It's something to shoot for, certainly, but I'm hearing increasingly that people with >2 R01s are referred to as "well funded", and anything above that is seen as greedy. This even applies when the existing funding has budgets cut, and the total from 2 R01s is far less than the 450k number seen above for a single award.

    The other big driver of these costs (as I mentioned on another DataHound post) is the increased fringe for post-docs. Back in the day when they were considered trainees, a simple $1500 "health fee" and eligibility for the same healthcare as students would suffice. Now it's a straight 25-30% on top of the $42k starting stipend, which pushes a post-doc' into $50-70k range total. Of course, more benefits is good, given that more post-docs are married with kids now, so they really do need better healthcare, but the failure of NIH to increase RPG levels to compensate for these additional costs, is not cool.

    • drugmonkey says:

      Data published by Rockey point to a slow upward population drift in grant number. You can think in terms of overlapping support intervals and fill-ins from nonR01s ...

    • datahound says:

      These are average total costs (not direct) as DrugMonkey noted. These are also for Research Project Grants (R01, R21, R03, R13, R15, R41-44, R56, R37, U01) and, I believe P01, DP1 (Pioneer), DP2 (New Innovator), etc. This average does not include Centers P20, P50, U54, etc. I am working on an analysis of the distribution of grant sizes that leads to this average.

  • Joe says:

    Looking at the stipend amount for grad students doesn't give the full picture. For us, benefits rates have gone up, and it is stipend plus benefits that is charged to the grant. An even bigger factor is the charging of tuition remission. The uni charges tuition to the grant even for students who are not taking classes (dissertators) equal to about a fourth of the stipend value.
    I have become much less likely to hire grad students recently, partly because of the expense and partly because I'm uncertain that I will have sufficient funding to keep paying all my staff and the students for a 5+ year period. Uni policies force you to fire staff rather than boot students if funding dips.

  • girlparts says:

    Joe, I'd second that. With tuition, fees and benefits, it now costs about the same for me to put a graduate student or a postdoc (a new one, anyway) on a grant. I wonder if this is the NIH surreptitiously trying to decrease the pipeline, and shift towards more senior personnel. If so, it is not a bad idea.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Ola- pretty sure that is a total cost grant size, not Directs. If that helps...

  • drugmonkey says:

    This is a funny post to refer to PIs seeking more than X number of grants as "greedy" is it not? PI salaries are divided across awards, not added to by them. OTOH, staff are more likely to be added - more grants = more trainee jobs, more tech jobs.

  • becca says:

    As Joe notes, if you are actually looking at the cost to grants, we're talking about radically higher increases based on two factors, and perhaps three.
    First, some tuition is paid for out of grants. Since 1983, tuition has increased 227% (above base inflation; BLS data).
    Second, some health insurance is paid for out of grants. I'm not actually sure how much it's gone up since 1983, but between 1999-2013, it's on the order of 189% (Kaiser family foundation data).

    In addition *I have heard* that health insurance coverage for grad students and postdocs is much more widespread than it used it be. If so, that's a global factor in where grant monies go. Of course, charging tuition to grants may also be more or less common than it used to be (or it may be the tuition that is charged to grants has even gone down, if universities went from a standard tuition rate to developing a specialty "dissertation registration" placeholder course fee; I don't have insight into how that could have changed over time).

  • […] my previous post, I compared pre- and post-doctoral stipends with the average size of a Research Project Grant (RPG) […]

  • […] a previous post, I presented data on the growth of average sizes of Research Project Grants (RPGs) from FY1983 to […]

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