The current mistake was in how I hired students. It's relevant to current Postdoc Salary issues, to which I'll return at the end of this post.
In the summer, we (my department, other labs in the med school here) take summer students into our labs. Some of these are med students, some other clinical professional students or college students, and there's even the occasional high school student. These folks can be paid in a couple of ways, but the two big ones are on a fellowship (an amount regulated by the university that isn't very good, but its better than volunteering, something to which I object) or as an hourly employee. NIH grants will not pay student fellowships. People paid as part time on an NIH grant need to be an employee, and make at least minimum wage. Fellowships, by the way, work out to less than minimum wage in my lab, where the students are seriously involved in the work.
I make all of this very clear, including different categories (and when possible offer students the choice), before students start. I tell them, no I discuss with them, what working in my lab entails: the hours are long, some of the work is less tedious (data collection), some of it exciting. I tell them the upsides: fellowship students can go to a national meeting, at my expense, if they get an abstract accepted (and all who have submitted one have been accepted), their name goes on the papers to which they contribute. Finally, I give them names of former summer students and tell them to go talk to them. I trust the former people to give accurate information, good and bad.
This summer, I had two students on fellowships. The third person, Jane, was hourly, and on my grant. All students worked long and hard hours, as is the case with large animal work. The first two were wonderful, did well, and will get their names on at least one paper. They are back to their student lives this week, and I will miss them.
These two were acutely aware that Jane was making more than they were. Jane turned into a disaster (which is another glorious post all on its own). The disaster was not because Jane was in a different employment category. The disaster was Jane not being honest. But even if Jane had not been a disaster, the two categories was the basis of my mistake. Having two categories made for bad feelings, and a number of less than totally smooth incidents in the lab.
It may be possible to have two categories. After all we have postdocs and grad students and technicians of various levels and skills. My mistake was not differentiating between them more cleanly. And having not distinguished between these two categories might have contributed to the disaster, but it also could have happened anyway. I won't know. Life is not a ceteris paribus experiment.
It seems obvious now. People doing the same job, with roughly the same experience, should not be paid significantly different amounts of money. I should have distinguished between the jobs this summer, and there were lots of ways to do that. For example, fellowship people work fewer hours. Fellowship people do more reading, more development of ideas, more presentations in journal club. Fellowship people get "a project". Hourly people wash bottles, and take on more grunt work. But making this distinction is not necessarily easy, and it's obvious only in hindsight. If one gives fellowship people a "good experience" one can end up spending more time designing, implementing and assessing the experience, and not getting the science done.
Why is this relevant to postdoc salary issues? Well, my med school, wrestling with the postdoc hours/salary problem has decided, will likely decide, to have two categories of post-degree research employment, names to be determined. In one, with salaries below the $47K threshold, there will be set hours and, allegedly, set tasks. Overtime will be limited to what the PI (who is carrying the salary) can afford, but in general discouraged. These people may have to clock in and out to demonstrate hours worked. The other category, over the threshold, will be able to (what a verb) work unlimited hours. There are going to be two categories of job, two categories of postdoc, and ultimately two distinct duties/assignments. Leadership believes that distinguishing between these categories will be possible and produce only minor problems.
I know that there are currently different levels of pay for postdocs. Some differences are due to age and seniority, some due to cheapness of PI, some due to passport-of-postdoc-origin. I am not defending nor condemning those. But the proposed scheme will be different in that two postdocs, maybe even in the same lab, of roughly same experience may end up with distinctly different jobs at distinctly different pay. Leadership often does not perceive the problems that PIs wrestle with in the trenches between benches.
However! Fear Not! There are ways to cope in advance, things that are worthwhile in general being a mentor. Lay out specific project and duties. One of the best is to develop an IDP for each person (which probably is important to do anyway). Here's one from FASEB. Here's some NIH info on IDP and postdoc success. And the SCIENCE careers page which has lots of stuff on IDPs, including tools for the postdoc to use.
I'm not sure this would work for summer students who are here for 10-12 weeks in different categories. I suspect in the future, I'll solve this problem by having one or the other employment, and avoid the problem. Which, of course, will just free me up to have other problems.