Is the University of California rigging it so research scholars get paid less? | Opinion

In 2022, researchers at UC Davis reached a milestone: We joined an elite list of fewer than 20 public universities that receive more than $1 billion every year to conduct research. This achievement puts us on par with the most prestigious institutions in the country — and for good reason. UC Davis researchers are responsible for important advances in public health, medicine, engineering, agriculture and other fields.

As epidemiologists at UC Davis, my colleagues and I focus on how prenatal environmental factors like pesticides and air pollution may contribute to the prevalence of autism. I love my job and I’m proud of what we are achieving together. But given the importance of our work and the sizable investment taxpayers make to support it, it’s time to address a flaw in the system that undercuts its longest-serving scientists and diminishes the quality of research overall.


For years, a bureaucratic loophole has allowed the university to arbitrarily reduce researcher pay by using a required title change to appoint us at salary steps far below our experience level.

After experiencing this directly, I looked at the data: The UC system’s records show that postdoctoral scholars who have over five years of experience are “promoted” to a new, more permanent position, typically in the project scientist series. (The National Institutes of Health only allow people to stay in a postdoctoral scholar position for five or six years. To continue the work they are doing after this time, postdocs often move on to a new, more permanent position as an academic researcher, typically in a position called a “project scientist.”)

But more than 50% of postdocs who make this transition are placed at least one pay step below where they should be, according to documents received by my union, UAW Local 4811, as part of a request for information to the UC system. And a full 35% of us end up taking a pay cut.

The UC system routinely uses this maneuver to lower the salaries of scientists like me. After I earned my PhD and spent more than five years as a postdoctoral scholar conducting research in our lab, a rule required that my title change to “project scientist,” a career position in the academic researcher unit.

At first, this title change appeared to be a good thing: at age 42, I was eager to start a family and hopeful that a promotion and raise might allow me to start in vitro fertilization. After consulting with human resources and reapplying for my job, I received an offer letter stating that I would be appointed at a salary step commensurate with my years of experience. It was signed by my supervisor and the head of our department.

I signed it immediately, sent it back and began planning for a new stage in my life. Then, several months later — and a mere eight days before my start date — I received an updated version of the letter that invalidated the previous offer letter and moved me three steps lower, erasing the raise I had been promised and the new life that came with it.

This was insulting, demoralizing and disruptive. But writ large across UC Davis’ research community, this creates a compounding pattern of missed financial opportunities: homes never purchased, loans never paid off and families never started.

Especially pernicious is its effect on women, who are often forced out of academic research and make up only 37% of tenured faculty, despite earning more than 50% of PhDs. I will always earn at least $10,000 less than I would have had I been appointed at the level appropriate for my experience.

As researchers, it isn’t lost on us that we are the people applying for and winning the over $1 billion dollars of annual funding that drives UC Davis’ research mission. Without our work, the university would never have attained the prestige and financial well-being it enjoys today. But in return for that work, the university gives us stagnant or reduced salaries.

UC Davis can do better than this. While it isn’t comfortable to examine our university’s weaknesses, we are scientists, and learning from data is how we improve. Fixing the university’s appointment practices, which unfairly penalize researchers who have made a long-term commitment to their work in Davis, would help make our campus’ research enterprise stronger, more fair and more sustainable. It would improve the stability of our careers and personal lives, allowing us to focus on our work instead of financial and bureaucratic struggles. And it would begin to address the systemic inequities that have plagued academia for too long.

Amanda Goodrich is currently an assistant project scientist at UC Davis. Her research focuses on prenatal environmental risk factors for autism spectrum disorder and other neurodevelopment disorders.