Career Advancement and a Livable Wage Enable Researchers to Do Better Work

By Current UW Researcher

I was always taught that if I worked hard and showed initiative it would be recognized and rewarded. But that was not my experience as a researcher at the University of Washington. With stagnant wages, a scant resume, and no promotions to show for my 11 years of work here, I’m an example of why researchers need a union. Researchers like me need to have more power to establish clear career paths and bargain wage increases that keep pace with costs of living in Seattle.

In 2010, not long after the 2008 financial crisis, I had two job offers; one with a private company and the other as a Researcher Scientist/Engineer 1 at the University of Washington. Growing up in the state of Washington, UW had so much prestige and appeal, and a reputation of an institution that it provided its workers with resources and support they needed to succeed. And while the job was an entry level position, I believed that I would be given the opportunity to grow and advance, so I took the researcher position at UW with the hope that I could build a career out of it.

I knew that I wasn’t going to have my own project at first, but I was hoping that as I learned more techniques and skills I would be given opportunities to at least give research presentations. I went into work every day giving it 110% because this was my first real job and I wanted to impress. And in the early years, I received great performance reviews. I knew I wouldn’t get a raise or promotion at first because I started working at UW during the wage freeze. But I figured that once the wage freeze was lifted all my hard work would be recognized.

With the hopes of getting a promotion after a few years, I actively tried to increase my responsibilities in the lab to become a more valued lab member. I asked my supervisor if I should take a statistics course to help with the analysis side of projects to show my initiative and effort, but I was met with indifference. There was no encouragement for my advancement and it was becoming apparent to me that there was nothing in place to help me advance my research career at UW.

I have now been at UW for 7 years with not one promotion discussion. I have received a few minimal 2% merit salary increases after the initial salary freeze but in the city of Seattle, this is not livable. The average one-bedroom apartment costs ~$1,900 which would be more than 50% of my income. Many landlords and property owners require your salary be 3x the rent. Most people are priced out. I wanted to move into the next phase of my life and buy a house to start a family. It was sadly obvious that UW was not invested in helping me realize that dream. I really enjoyed research and wanted to continue doing it, but the only way I saw I was going to be given an opportunity to advance would be to get a masters or a doctorate degree. It’s sad that a progressive institution like UW treats people like me as expendable, even though it needs hundreds of us to succeed in research.

I no longer work full-time because two years ago, after years of stagnation, I decided I needed to increase my earning potential to more livable wages. I went back to school to further my education, but I needed to take on additional debt to get a degree in computer science. Since I’ve graduated, I have been diligently looking and interviewing for new jobs.

I look back at my decision to work at UW and can’t help to imagine what life could have been if I would have worked for a private company. Would they have recognized my hard work and initiative and promoted me instead of keeping me in the same position for ten years? Would have I risen to a more managerial position? I look at my friends from college that work in non-academic employment and they see that they were supported to advance their careers. I look back now at the “performance reviews” I got at UW and recognize that I was never given clear guidelines on how to improve to advance my career. The reviews were nothing more than a vocational pass/fail.

When I first started in 2010, I started at $39,996/year. Today if I were working full time I’d be around $45k/year, in exactly the same job title. That’s a little over 1% per year with no promotions. This inability of upward mobility has forced many researchers I know to leave UW to seek employment that pays a liveable wage and career advancement. In retrospect, I wish that UW was more transparent about what my true career options and trajectories were when I first started working here. I assumed that my hard work, drive, and loyalty would be rewarded with career advancement and financial security, but obviously that faith was misplaced. As I hopefully soon find employment outside of UW, I wish that future researchers win a union and can bargain for true structure, support, and guidance so that they can advance their scientific careers.

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