My department and college have rules as to how much certain people can be paid. There are set salaries (with a very narrow window around each) for the different seniority levels of research scientists.There is a set salary for a full-time postdoc; you can’t pay them more and if you must pay them less, then it’s not a full-time appointment, and you have to justify why it’s less and you cannot ask them to work over the corresponding number of hours per week.

As of a few years ago and in order to become more competitive for grad students, the college and department have adopted a tiered system for grad-student compensation: there are now several different levels of graduate-student research assistantships (based on seniority and merit) and two levels of teaching assistantships. with $2-3k per annum between successive levels.

I’ve always paid all my graduate students the same, but I am now considering, for the first time, bumping two people up in pay based on merit. They are significantly better than others; one is senior, so no one would object to this student being bumped up, but the other one is junior, and some students more senior than this one wouldn’t be getting the bump.

However, I worry what this might do to morale, if there would be issues with favoritism and whatnot.

What do you say, blogosphere? Principal investigators, do you pay all your graduate students the same or are there seniority and/or merit-based differences? Do these inequities ever come up and, if they do, how do you deal with them? Graduate students and postdocs, are there differences in pay among your cohort and, if yes, how does everyone involved deal with it? 



  1. At my school there was a tiered system based on having passed quals or not. I like the merit-based you can implement. I would speak with them one-on-one to explain the merit review process, how you evaluate it, how are they doing based on it, and how can they work their way to having a merit raise. Also, how often they are evaluated.
    This is how faculty get or not merit raises, as well as in industry, so learning to deal with it sooner rather than later is better. And not everyone will be happy, but such is life, and it may lit a bit of a fire under their butts to get it the next cycle.
    What I would not do, is explain why others are getting the raises and not that person. Direct comparisons would be disastrous for morale. But everyone working towards their full potential, different for each, that is a great goal to have.

  2. Our system has one rate for all TAs across all campuses, negotiated by their union. It is probably unfair, as housing costs vary enormously (about $600/month differences) from campus to campus.

    The grad student researchers (GSRs) have a negotiated salary scale with ten steps, but it is up to each department to decide which steps to use and what the criteria are for the steps. Our department currently has all GSRs at step 8, but has voted to move to step 9 if we can convince the other departments with whom we share grad students to do the same. These steps are much higher than the TA pay, and are about what it costs to live on (the TA pay, which is set systemwide, is too low for our community).

    I understand that some non-STEM departments use step 1 of the GSR scale which is lower than the TA pay.

    Some departments tie the steps to having an MS, years of being a GSR, or advancement to candidacy. I don’t know of any that allow the PI any choice in the matter. About the only choice the PI has is what % time (50%–100%) to pay GSRs over the summer, and whether or not to hire.

  3. In UK, there is a set stipend for PhD students and it is the same for everyone, regardless of seniority/year. However, when I was a PhD student somewhere else in Europe, where PhD students are employees, not students, there we had annual increases to the salary based on the year in the same way as all other employees. I have however never heard of a system where the raise would be given based on the opinion of the PI.

    Here in UK I would feel uncomfortable giving a raise based on (potentially subjective) PI perception that someone junior is that much better – this could bring problems re equality and potential (although improbable) legal action, so I am not sure it would be even allowed.

  4. Interesting. When I was a PhD student, the only reasons you could get a different level of pay were (1) taking on extra TA responsibilities (you were required to TA twice, and beyond that you could get an extra ~$3k per course added onto your annual stipend), and (2) bringing in an external fellowship — I forget what the magic was, but if you had an NSF GRFP or similar, then you took home an extra maybe $5k per year. There was a reason… maybe something to do with it paying your tuition? But that always seemed fair — if you did the legwork and wrote a good enough proposal to be selected and brought in money to the university, then sure, you should get a kickback (the kickback was also explicitly used as a motivation to encourage PhD students to apply for those fellowships). But PIs being able to choose to pay certain students more than others… my initial reaction is “ick.” Yes, I would definitely have felt weird about it as a student, even if I were the one getting paid more. Heck, I’d feel weird about doing it with my students now!!! Even if I think about my current group… I mean, my inclination would be to give it to the mom of two young kids who struggles to put food on the table, rather than the person who’s farthest along on writing papers, just in terms of need — but then would that demoralize my more productive students? I assume it wouldn’t be made public, since that would be even worse… but word has a way of getting around. I guess we actually did have something analogous when I was a student, since there were fellowships specifically for 1-2 incoming (accepted) students per class that bumped up their stipend — it was a way of enticing particularly promising candidates to the university (not that it was really necessary; I went to the school with the biggest global name recognition). I do remember feeling kind of demoralized when I found out that that was a thing and I hadn’t been offered one. But somehow having it be the result of work that you do while in the PhD program instead of simply how good you look on paper feels more icky to me. Like, I could dismiss it when they offered it to accepted students, because of course they always offered the incoming student fellowship to the people from the big-name places who had publications under their belts, but I could always tell myself that I was just as good as those students once I got to the program (which is true, in retrospect!). But if I had evidence in the form of cold, hard cash that I was not the “golden child” in my research group after several years of working there, I could imagine feeling very demoralized and even ceasing to consider an academic career track. I can easily imagine that it would backfire in terms of morale and become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the students who get passed over.

  5. I think it depends on if the judgements you make are perceived to be fair by the rest of the group. As a grad student, I would not have been demoralized if my peers who were more productive than I was got paid more, but I would have been demoralized people who are less productive got paid more. I actually remember thinking that it’s unfair that this one particular student got paid the same as I did when she worked way harder and was much more productive.

    In my current industry job, I don’t know how much other people get paid, but I do appreciate that my boss recognizes and rewards me when I do things that help the overall team but are difficult to tie back to me specifically and alone.

  6. “I assume it wouldn’t be made public, …” At the University of California, every employee’s income is a matter of public record and is put in a big database that is publicly readable (and advertised heavily by the media): https://ucannualwage.ucop.edu/wage/

    Oops—I just noticed that student employees have their names redacted (probably because FERPA trumps the state open-record law).

  7. In my department TAs are paid the same, and the TA salary is the minimum GSR salary. But you can pay a GSR whatever you want above the TA salary…. I am new to the department and haven’t figured out yet how other faculty deal with this situation. What I’ve seen so far is that students in labs with more grant money are being paid more than students in groups where funding is tight; this doesn’t seem fair either.

  8. I am all for adjusting pay based on performance. At my private R1 we’re not allowed (yet) to pay grad students based on merit, but everyone else in my lab has their salary tied to their performance. It seems insane and unfair for me not to make it this way. I have postdocs of the same “seniority” with $8k differences in their salary, and I might effectively bump one another $10k soon and relabel the position research programmer or similar, because he’s that good. Some people are easily 3-4x more productive than others. The truly unproductive ones I try to let go, but I also want to encourage the most productive ones to stay and feel rewarded for their effort. It’s also a favor to them should they move on. (I know salary is ultimately not the greatest motivator, but it’s also true that industry is attractive because it’s nice not to live perpetually stressed about money, and to feel like maybe you won’t go immediately broke/crazy having kids and providing childcare.) The university does put a stupidly artificial cap on merit raises, but I get around it by changing the job title or writing a justification letter and just doing it.

    Certainly at the faculty level–even at state universities–there is enormous variation in pay. I’m not sure people realize this. At state universities the variation is simply hidden in things that don’t really go on the books, like fabulous mortgages and deferred bonuses. I’ve been on the inside of those negotiations. I generally try to encourage my trainees to start negotiating with me a little, and to realize that they don’t have to leave academia necessarily to get things they want.

  9. I guess it seems fine to me to give permanent or semi permanent professionals (techs, programmers, etc) merit raises – in fact I think doing so actually improves morale as people feel they are being justly rewarded, or that they need to step up if they aren’t getting it. That’s because for employees the main (only?) way they are rewarded is via salary and promotion. Plus you need to retain these people – if they are 3x as productive it’s a bargain to pay them 10% more!

    However, for trainees/postdocs I feel the opposite is true and merit raises could harm morale. The idea with trainees is if they are productive they will be rewarded down the line with better job offers etc as they build their CV and guarantee a good letter from you. If these people are ALSO getting cash raises in addition to the pubs, conference talks, etc. that might be perceived as unfair (they are getting “rewarded” twice for the same work).

    I suppose if you have a trainee that is super-productive but for whatever reason those efforts don’t show up in published work (??) then a cash raise could make sense as a way to offset that…

  10. Sometimes to get around this, we have them work fewer hours (fewer hours for the same $$ = more pay). I think morale would probably suffer unless it was clearly based on time in the lab. In which case I’d be open about it – “I might pay senior students who have done exceptional work more than other students”?

    p.s. This is your friendly neighborhood PG with my new blog account (but I will also email you when I get my act together, in case this comment makes no sense!)

  11. “However, for trainees/postdocs I feel the opposite is true and merit raises could harm morale. The idea with trainees is if they are productive they will be rewarded down the line with better job offers etc as they build their CV and guarantee a good letter from you. If these people are ALSO getting cash raises in addition to the pubs, conference talks, etc. that might be perceived as unfair (they are getting “rewarded” twice for the same work).”

    I don’t see the line between trainee and non-trainee so clearly. For one thing, goals change over time. I don’t think the only “reward” should be moving on to a better job somewhere else. I try my hardest to support my postdocs in their TT goals, encourage them to apply for jobs, and bake their interview time into the GANTT charts. I also tell them I would be *delighted* to keep working with them, and I pay them accordingly. Same goes for grad students. I don’t want anyone to feel like the only way “up” is out.

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