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University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill students, David Stilwell and Sophie Kressy participated in the American Physical Society Congressional Visits Day to advocate for legislation that would benefit US science goals and our scientific community.

Grad students and postdocs in physics have long been underpaid — but today, the compensation gap is particularly extreme.

“The salary, or compensation, that students and postdocs receive is about the same as what my husband received 20 years ago when he came to Penn State from Cambridge University as a postdoc,” says Amena Khan, an associate professor of instruction at the University of Texas at Dallas. “It is as though one is being penalized for choosing physics as a profession.”

To change this, it helps to talk to the folks in charge — so in January, 91 APS members flocked to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. for APS’s Congressional Visits Day. In 110 meetings with lawmakers and staffers, attendees advocated for science policy priorities, including the RESEARCHER Act, which would start the process of building compensation guidelines for federal science agencies.

For Ari Jain, an attendee and a doctoral student in aerospace engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, the efforts paid off. After CVD, he spotted an email from the staffer of his congressional representative, Nikema Williams. It felt “a little surreal,” he says. “Our team had just sent a thank you-note to her staffer, and he responded the next day saying that she had agreed to co-sponsor the bill.”

Physics graduate students earn far less money than those with bachelor’s degrees in the field, a deterrent for students considering advanced degrees in STEM. Physics students with bachelor’s degrees working in industry earn a median starting salary of $70,000, while grad students make just under $30,000.

“Their salaries are pitifully low, especially against the rising costs of living in our metros and towns,” says B.S. Sathyaprakash, a professor who teaches physics, astronomy, and astrophysics at the Pennsylvania State University, who also joined CVD.

The RESEARCHER Act was one of several priorities covered in conversations with members of Congress. To make sure the advocates were prepared, APS staffers spent months organizing for the event, providing advocates with extensive training and background information on APS’s policy priorities. These were vital steps for many of the CVD participants, including those who had never advocated on Capitol Hill before, like Khan and Sathyaprakash.

Khan also said she was “lucky to have two experienced colleagues” on her team. “[They] made navigating the day seem almost effortless.” Jain, meanwhile, relied on guidance from seasoned CVD advocate David Stilwell, a doctoral student in physics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

“Some of it was just little things, like navigating the buildings and making sure our team didn’t get too lost,” Jain says. “But also, David gave us amazing insight on what to actually expect from the meetings and conversations that we have with staffers.”


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