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What kind of life can one afford with a postdoc position salary?

  1. Jul 15, 2010 #1
    Hello everyone,
    I'm about to finish my undergrad physics degree, and I'm going to apply to a US grad school for a physics PhD. I'm not from the US. Once I get my PhD, the logical next step would be to look for a postdoc position in the US, as I want to dedicate myself to physics and possibly follow a career in the academia.
    Anyway, I've heard salaries for physics postdocs go in the 30k - 50k per year range (I've read of some jobs that offer even more, like 60k). I have close to no idea of what this kind of salary can afford in the US. Would you have enough to maybe take some vacations, or would it be just enough to get by? I suppose you could live well by yourself with this salary, but what about having a wife and children?
    I know it all depends on what your standards are, like going out a lot on weekends, wanting expensive clothes, etc. But I would greatly appreciate some rough estimates on the kind of life one could afford with a postdoc position. By the way, I'm not looking to live in this super expensive city, like NY or LA. I don't spend a lot, but I wouldn't want to have financial issues.
    Any first hand experiences would be very nice. Thank you.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 15, 2010 #2


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    First of all, a postdoc is a temporary position. While you can "live" on it, you can't live on it for very long, nor do you want to.

    Secondly, whether you can live with it or not depends very much on (i) your lifestyle (ii) your decision to have a family (iii) the city/neighborhood you live in. Various parts of the US have a wide range in the cost of living. A postdoc in the bay area of California will have a tougher time in making rent money (and thus, will get a considerably higher postdoc wage) than, say, Ames, Iowa where the cost of living and rent are cheaper.

    So yes, you can live with such a wage, especially when a postdoc also gets medical benefits. However, it isn't a position that you want to stay on for very long if you can find a permanent job.

  4. Jul 15, 2010 #3
    It depends wildly on the part of the country. If you are looking in a typical mid-Western state university, then 60K will allow you to lead a comfortable life and support wife and kids. As far as vacations, you can pack up everyone in the car and go camping in the local state park.
  5. Jul 15, 2010 #4
    Thanks for your comments.
    Of course I wouldn't expect to have postdocs forever, I know it's temporal. It's just that I was wondering if it was a good enough job to get married or should I wait until I have a decent job to do it.
    What do you guys think about earning like 40k and having a wife, and maybe one child 3 years after having PhD. I love physics but I wouldn't want to wait forever to have a family.
    One more question, I believe national lab jobs are only offered to US citizens, am I right? So those jobs I couldn't land? How hard do you think it would be to get a permanent job after one postdoc (or would I need two)?
  6. Jul 15, 2010 #5


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    No, that is not correct. Postdocs at US Nat'l labs are open to non-US citizens in general. But this very much depends on the Nat'l lab and the nature of the postdoc funding. If the work involves defense related work and/or funded by DoD, then those are typically restricted to US citizens.

    However, if you are currently outside of the US, unless you are some well-known candidate, or if someone is willing to fly you in for an interview, you have less of a chance being considered because of the travel issue and the expense of bringing you in for an interview. Typically, a candidate will be invited to visit the lab, go around to various people for the interviews, and give a seminar. Candidates already in the US are easier to be invited because of the lower expense in doing such a thing. Not to mention, depending you the country of your citizenship, the timeliness of getting a visa could also be an issue.

  7. Jul 15, 2010 #6
    Oh I didn't know that. But what if I do a PhD in the US? They then wouldn't have to bring me in from outside.
    Labs like NASA and Los Alamos are the ones that admit US-only, right?
  8. Jul 15, 2010 #7


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    Again, nationality does not preclude one from being hired. So if you're already in the US doing your Ph.D, then what I said above about not having to fly people in from outside the country applies.

    NASA is not "a lab". In fact, many parts of what people think as "NASA" are actually facilities spread all over the country. Many NASA projects are run by non-NASA people.

    Los Alamos has many different research areas. Of course, they have defense related projects, but they also have civilian related research as well. I know of a couple of Russian nationals who are working there. Again, it depends on the research project.

  9. Jul 15, 2010 #8
    Thanks Zapper.

    Does anyone here have first hand experience with being married and having a postdoc? Or know somebody who has?
  10. Jul 16, 2010 #9
    Many people here will. All I can say is that, for your partner, it will be difficult! :smile: No more difficult than the PhD, however. A PhD student becomes a nightmare to live with and generally be around in their final year or two (I was the nightmare).
  11. Jul 16, 2010 #10
    I managed to support a family in a graduate student stipend. You have to watch every cent, but it's doable.

    Also, this is one of those things that is hard to plan out. Fate tells you when you meet the right person.

    Except for some defense related work, this is not the case. It's not difficult for visa related reasons, but with some exceptions there is no prohibition.

    In academia? In physics? Quite hard. You typically need two post-docs to get a tenure-track position in academia. The trouble is that if you don't get tenure track after two post-docs, then it's really hard to get anything else, and so you end up in industry, which is not the end of the world.
  12. Jul 16, 2010 #11
    On the other hand, Ph.D.'s do have a tendency to marry each other. One thing about being married and either a graduate student or a post-doc is that you have to have a partner that is committed to the lifestyle.
  13. Jul 16, 2010 #12

    I will just be starting my 3rd year of a postdoc (in physics) in a few weeks. I am married with 2 kids, ages 3 and 1.

    I live comfortably. My wife makes good money (better than me) so between the two of us, we do pretty well. My postdoc actually pays very well, but there are some additional bureaucracy related things I therefore have to put up with. My postdoc is with NASA, and typically, governmental postdocs (national labs, NASA, etc.) pay more than university postdocs. In fact, it is likely that if I get an assistant professorship somewhere, that I will end up taking a pay cut.

    The real problem with a postdoc is the temporary nature of the position. My funding is up in 2011 and I will need to move on. That is really hard on a family. Wife might need to find a new job, new daycare for the kids, cost of the move, etc. It is stressful to always have the end of the contract hanging over you head.

    As far as spending goes, my children do not go without. I have two kids in daycare- daycare for two kids costs more than my rent. These are things you probably already know. We are not living it up, since we have two little kids, so we don't go out often at all (maybe once a month).

    As far as vacations: with kids that is really expensive. So, we usually just go home to visit family for Christmas.

    Since you are not from the US, however, it is unlikely that your wife will be able to work while you are here (at least at first). If you are on the low end of the spectrum (30k) it would be quite hard, in my opinion, to live comfortably supporting a wife and kids.
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