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As of July 1, the entry-level postdoc minimum stipend at Penn will be $65,000, marking a 21% increase. Credit: Adam Bennett

Penn will increase minimum postdoctoral stipends by 19% after some researchers and fellows raised concerns about the benefits they receive from the University. 

Effective July 1, the entry-level postdoc minimum stipend at Penn will be $65,000 – an increase from this year's $54,840 minimum and above the National Institutes of Health minimum pay scale for fiscal year 2023. Senior Vice Provost for Research Dawn Bonnell announced the increase alongside changes to insurance benefits for postdocs on April 3. 

“Penn’s decisions were informed by engaging with postdocs, faculty, school leadership, and benefits experts, as well as peer institutions, to develop a program that recognizes the essential role postdocs play in Penn’s research ecosystem," Bonnell wrote in a statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian. "The University will continue to evaluate the stipend level structure and benefits package on an annual basis."

The NIH sets annual guidelines for minimum stipend levels based on years of postdoctoral experience. Its recommended entry-level stipend for FY23 is $56,484 and increases for each consecutive year of experience. Under Penn's new plan, postdocs with four years of experience receive the largest minimum stipend at $67,000.  

Penn's announcement also included changes to postdoc benefits. Three new options will replace the medical, dental, and vision insurance that are currently offered to postdocs. 

In addition, for postdocs choosing coverage for spouses or dependents, the costs will be significantly lower. 

Under the current plan, the charge for fellows with no spouses or dependents was $0 for the most basic coverage. However, Terren Niethamer, a research associate at Penn and the advocacy committee co-chair of the Penn Postdoctoral Association, said that when she added her two children to her insurance plan, the cost increased to $1,400 per month — a "large percentage" of her $54,000 salary at the time.  

Using the new plan, postdocs with spouses or dependents will contribute comparatively less per month than they currently do. The minimum monthly contribution for a postdoc with no spouse or dependents will change to $50. 

Niethamer's fellow co-chair, third-year postdoc researcher Olivia Lenz, said that PPA has worked on improving health insurance for a long time. Lenz said that the individual premiums will offset some of the stipend increase but that Penn primarily wanted to lessen the cost of health insurance for those with families or dependents.

Sarath Pillai, a postdoctoral research fellow and postdoctoral representative on the University Council, said that the new plan is more similar to the one offered to University employees. 

"What we are getting now is a health insurance package that is on par with what faculty and staff are getting, which is what we have been demanding," Pillai said. "But at the same time, we are making monthly contributions now.” 

The announcement comes at a time when compensation for researchers is being discussed nationwide. At Penn, a petition – unaffiliated with PPA – addressed to Bonnell and Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein circulated among postdocs. The petition, which garnered 309 signatures, demanded that Penn raise the minimum postdoc salary to $70,500, citing the 25% increase to graduate student stipends and annual adjustments for the increasing cost of living. 

"As postdoctoral researchers, we are the backbone of Penn’s research mission," the petition read. "We mentor and train undergraduate and graduate students, sustain the day-to-day functioning of Penn’s laboratories, and drive innovation.”

In its benefits enrollment guide for the 2023-24 school year, Penn cited concerns “voiced” by postdocs – “We appreciated the input from postdocs across campus who voiced concerns regarding their benefits and engaged with us as we developed improvements.” 

Niethamer called Penn's announcement a “step in the right direction,” but she does not think that it is a permanent solution. Lenz described the position of postdocs as being in a “gray area” – “We’re not students, so we’re not protected in that way, and we’re not faculty, so we're not protected in that way.” 

“Penn is very pleased to be expanding benefits and increasing pay for our postdoctoral colleagues, and the University expects to continue the discussion regarding support of our postdocs,” Bonnell wrote.