There has been a lot of rumbling over the last few years about how poorly compensated postdoctoral fellows are and how the system churns out too many doctoral students. Many have suggested that the best solution is to trim the number of positions and increase the salaries of those remaining. However, I suspect that many of the people arguing for better pay and fewer postdoc positions do not consider that they might be part of the cohort who would lose their jobs if such a measure were undertaken.
I imagine that just about everyone would like to have more money and more job security, so I always find the “pay me more” arguments tough to swallow unless they are backed up with some good reasons and a clear plan for how things will be paid for. There are certainly good examples of exploited and underpaid postdoctoral fellows – I know this is especially prevalent in Canada and would love to remedy it. However, there are several things one must bear in mind before proposing radical solutions that involve removing swathes of people from the most productive and independent part of their academic careers.
- The research needs to get done – cutting the number of postdoctoral fellows means fewer hands, and fewer heads, undertaking research. If you told a leading scientist that their lab would shrink by one-third and they would pay the same amount of money to accommodate salary increases, they would not need to be a mathematics professor to disfavour this approach.
- Some projects work out and others do not – the postdoctoral period of research is a time of great independence and involves undertaking very risky/adventurous research projects that often do not work out. We all understand this does not necessarily reflect on the innate abilities of a particular person, but if we don’t let the risky projects get started, then they won’t ever be tried.
- Selecting the “lucky ones” will be really, really hard – we already find ourselves in a state where fellowship applications get ranked as “fundable”, but do not end up getting funded.
- The squeaky wheel gets the grease – the vast majority of complaints seem to come from two places: the life sciences and the humanities. One suffers from chronic underfunding (humanities) and arguably deserves a greater share of the research pie, while the other (life sciences) suffers from over-subscription where hordes of trainees end up competing for the same jobs and spend 4-6 years (or longer!) as a postdoctoral fellow before getting past the first round of a job search.
In the life sciences, I feel that this debate always gets confused because it comes back to the two reasons that people find themselves in postdoctoral fellow positions:
- Academic training (i.e., a springboard to a PI job)
- Research (i.e., they enjoy doing bench science, and want a career doing it)
I see the former as a group who would tolerate lower pay for a few years to get the potential independence and security of a tenure track post and I see the latter as those who want a stable career in science asap (i.e. higher pay, benefits, etc). If two such groups are classed as one and the same by institutions (or themselves!), it is a guaranteed recipe for big fights about how to best represent the core issues of postdoctoral fellows.
Overall, I don’t like the idea of cutting off people from the academic track before the postdoctoral stage. Therefore I think a sensible approach is to create a system that allows postdoctoral fellows begin their training but regularly challenges them to consider alternatives. I’ll be describing the core components of this system in my next post – stay tuned.