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The Black Hole

Fewer postdocs with higher salaries? Hold your horses!

BY DAVID KENT | MAR 05 2013

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. Academic training (i.e., a springboard to a PI job)
  2. 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.

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. S C / March 5, 2013 at 13:02

    Great observations! I have always found the pay me more type arguments to be quite short-sighted and self-serving.
    Can’t really speak for the humanities, but in biology/biomedical sciences, I feel less postdocs and more research associate/ research assistant types would be good for the long term. There are plenty of folks who love to do research (which needs to get done anyways), so why not recognize them as employees, pay them 50-55K/yr and let them have benefits like CPP/EI? Makes a lot of sense to me!

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? / March 5, 2013 at 13:26

    Great point about there being two postdoc “streams”. I came in knowing I was a Type 2 – I knew I didn’t want to be a professor, but that I did want to spend a few more years doing lab-based research before moving on to my real passion of writing about science instead of doing it. Arguably I could have gone the technician route, but I wanted the independence that only the PhD-postdoc track brings (with a few exceptions – I know of a couple of labs where the technicians have a great degree of independence, but they’re exceedingly rare IME). As it happens, I’ve ended up a in a career track that does require a PhD – and the relatively easy path to a Canadian work permit was another factor in my decision!

    Obviously I would have liked more money as a postdoc, but my salary was significantly bigger than my grad student stipend and I knew I was only going to be there for 3-4 years, so it wasn’t as big a deal as it would have been if I’d wanted a “permanent postdoc” position. I do think that increasing the proportion of current funding for that kind of position would benefit individual scientists and the scientific enterprise as a whole, but it’s going to be hard to overcome the inertia inherent in the current system…

  3. Erika / March 5, 2013 at 18:04

    I understand your point Dave, the money has to come from somewhere. Everybody, everywhere in every job would like to get paid better. And I agree that reducing the number of postdoc positions in order to increase the salaries would remove a chunk of people from academia and research, perhaps prematurely in some cases.

    However, I have 2 comments.

    1) Yes, keeping the pay low means we can have more individual postdoc positions. But because the pay and security is so poor, great scientists are currently leaving academia in search of better pay and more security.

    We currently have this system where people act like it’s a rite of passage/hazing to go through the postdoc years of poor pay and no security – but you do it for the love of science and it shows your commitment. If you “give up” or “quit”, it just means that you couldn’t hack it or weren’t committed. In reality, I know many amazing and talented scientists who would have been excellent professors who chose to leave academia because the pay and security during the postdoc years was not compatible with their personal/family life. The current system is not selecting for the best professors possible. In effect, we have created a selection process where the only people who go on to become academics are the individuals whose life was compatible with the low pay/low security years of postdoc life.

    2) This is a more general observation about many early career scientists/postdocs. I can’t believe the number of people who undervalue themselves. I have heard several people comment (on this blog and elsewhere) that $40,000/year is a totally sufficient salary, or that they are happy to work full-time for a part-time postdoc salary because it’s better than nothing, or the Banting postdoc salary is too high. I completely disagree. We are highly trained, highly educated people who make a major contribution to society. I’m not sure if it’s years of being undervalued and underpaid as grad students, repeatedly being told that we’re not good enough, a case of the Imposter Syndrome or what, but it bothers me immensely that people don’t think they are worth more. Look around at other industries, other jobs, other careers. We deserve better!

    • Ian Sudbery / March 6, 2013 at 06:41

      $40,000 a year is more than 81% of the US population makes.

      • Jesus / January 25, 2014 at 23:14

        The average postdoc salary is $38,000, not $40,000 in the USA.
        The 76th percentile (not 80th) figure is only valid for SINGLE people. If married, a postdoc whose spouse is a stay-home mom or dad is in the 20th percentile!
        Thus, many postdocs with families are technically POOR and CANNOT AFFORD to be married or have kids. This is a disgrace.

        Going back to the case of single, unmarried postdocs:
        Making more money than 76% of the population doesn’t compensate for being more educated than 97% (that is, only 3% of the population has a doctorate-level degree, including JDs and MDs).

        In this light, the average salary for scientists (yes, Nobel-prize professors and private-industry scientists included) with a PhD should be in the 97th percentile.
        Instead, it is in the 93rd percentile if you’re single, and in the 52nd percentile if married and your spouse doesn’t work.

        To put things into perspective, why is the average income for MDs and JDs 300% (or 3 times) more than the average income for scientists?

        Why is the average salary for professional athletes and for celebrities in the filming and music industry in the range of MILLIONS of dollars?

        This suggests that society doesn’t value scientific research enough, in spite of it driving the progress of humanity (from better supplements for athletes, better cameras for filming, better sound systems for artists, to better instruments, treatments and medicines for doctors…).

        Rather, the bulk of society would seem to be more concerned with rewarding what generates immediate profit through consumerism and superfluous entertainment.

    • SB / March 6, 2013 at 23:06

      I loved the comment about the current system selecting for people whose lives are compatible with the low-pay/low-security period of being a postdoc, rather than for the best scientists. Not to say that people who do go on to become profs aren’t excellent scientists – they are and they have sacrificed a lot to get there – but it is unfortunate that the process selects for many traits other than those which are actually relevant to the job.

  4. BP / March 6, 2013 at 01:16

    Erika, a woman after my own heart. Thank you for saying what i’ve heard so many type 1 and type 2’s comment on over beers but do not admit to otherwise!

    Other comments,

    Dave, having read some of these types of articles regarding cutting down the # of pdfs, i always got the impression that they were talking about a long term and not a short term solution- that is, less trainees in general in the future so that they won’t have to deal with our current “baby boomer” type situation in the lifesciences. I’ve always gotten the impression that the writer/blogger was referring to the problem of PIs taking on too many trainees (grads) and the resulting highly skewed available PI position to pdf ratio.

    As for the two types of pdfs, I have to say i agree with you that pdfs can be categorized, but i’ve noticed the underlying reasons/descriptions to be possibly different.

    First i have to appologise for how condescending this may sound to some readers. But somethings are best said as is and without proofing. I’ve noticed that pdfs (ofcourse not the entire population) can fall under two very general categories as well.

    1) those without responsibilities (no dependents, no assets, basic general concern is to have rent money and possibly travel money).

    2) those with responsibilities (mortgages + other life expenses, family dependents-spouses, children, elderly parents, dependent siblings, chronic health problems)

    The first type of individuals may fall under your category 1 and the second type under your category 2.

    Both my husband and I currently fall into the second category. When we got to an age where we had to consider all the big picture life questions, decided we wanted to have a family, and would soon have to care for my parents and some of our siblings, we realized, damn, we better get a better paying job!

    Before i became a mom, as you know, I was a hard working, smart, and dedicated type 1 pdf who spent most of my time in the lab and even worked for no pay for quite a long period at the end of my pdf just to get my paper out. I’ve known several people who claim to be a type 1 but would never make such sacrifices. I have found that many of them secretly want more but don’t like to admit it publically. Although several people have shared such views with me over beers as i stated earlier, i’m now recieving their views over a completely different type of meeting. Now that i have crossed the threshold into the forbidden land of more money, some of the type 1s approach me to enquire how they too can aquire such a position. This tells me, and it is something i’ve known from being involved in the research community for years, that most people are just too scared to ask for me, because of the possibility of rejection and failure. They are even too scared combined with too proud to admit it to themselves untill the last possible final stick breaks. I understand it because underneath it all, i’m just like everybody else and i was the same. I had to fall hard before admitting to myself that i wanted more and that i deserved more.

  5. Ian Sudbery / March 6, 2013 at 06:33

    A management consultant once told me that they consider remuneration on a three point triangle. On one point was material reward, on the second was much flexibility/hours/responsibility the job was, and on the on the third was enjoyment/fulfilment. A job that provide more of one has to provide less of the others. We enjoy our jobs and while we might work long hours, those hours are flexible. Need to go to go grab something at the shops? No problem. Got to wait in for a delivery? Fine. Pick the kids up at school at 4pm? Three people I work with do that every day.

    Think you’d be able to do that working at a law firm? Think working for a bank would be this much fun? Sure there are a few people who get the fun, the flexibility and the pay. These tend to be people who have “made it” in incredibly difficult fields (way more difficult than science), like writing, or music or film making for example.

    High value people need to be paid well to make them do things they don’t want to do. It doesn’t matter how talented someone is, if they want to do something, if it doesn’t seem like work, then you don’t need to pay them as much.

    I don’t consider my self poorly paid. I make more than 75% of people in the UK, when I was in the US two years ago, I made more than 81% of people in the US. I live in a nice house, drink good wine and scotch and eat out not infrequently. I go on holiday at least one a year. I get paid less than many postdocs and yet I always have money left at the end of the month. I have a job I actually want to get to when I get up in the morning, and that allows me enough flexibility not to if needs be. And at the end of it all I get the feeling that I’m doing something worthwhile. I’d do what I do for considerably less is necessary.

    Postdocs should stop moaning about their salary, or go do something better paid, but more soul destroying.

    Now job security and scarcity is a different matter. Given that I love what I do, the fact that I might not get to do it for much longer scares the hell out of me. So fewer, better paid postdocs definitely doesn’t appeal to me. But i’m not sure I’ve actually heard many people making this argument. The argument I have heard is that we should train less PhDs. I can see some merit in this argument. While there are many other careers that one can go into with a PhD other than research science, it seems to me that a PhD is more an apprenticeship than a degree. Surely the reason that they are funded by research funding bodies is that the intention is to train the next generation of researchers. So why train so many more than we could possibly have positions for?

    And to go into a PhD if you have no intention of being a research scientist just seems odd. A PhD is such a focused, narrow, vocational qualification, that enviably at some point involves much blood, sweat and tears, nashing of teeth and tearing of hair. Why go through that if you don’t intend to use the training?

    • Ian Sudbery / March 6, 2013 at 06:40

      I’d like to clarify that I am in no way having a go at people that go the PhD route with the intention of staying in science but realise its not the right choice further down the line. This will of course happen to many people and may still happen to me, and there is no shame in realising that your best contribution is to be made in a related to different field.

      Nor saying that I have anything against people who do a PhD without the intention to stay in science. I just thing its an odd plan to have from the start given so few other careers require a PhD, and the PhD path is so hard.

    • Lucia / March 6, 2013 at 13:25

      Ian,

      Its not about moaning for a better pay, its so that our pay should reflect what we do. Are we students or are we adults, is this a real job or not?
      I don’t know in the UK, but here in Canada we have to pay taxes, and because it doesn’t come with the job we also need to take care of our own pension, employment insurance, not to mention raising a family: house, bills, kids education, etc.
      So, while a low pay for a post-doc without a family might look great at the beginning, specially after spending 6 years in grad school – yes, 6 years at Canadian universities – doing it as a permanent job is not a viable option, unless one wants to pledge a poverty vowel – no thanks. Or unless the other partner has a “real” job.
      Now, you also mentioned about job flexibility, while in other jobs you wouldn’t be able to do that. Well, technically, no, there is no flexibility because even when your boss won’t fired you for taken off early your experiments will suffer in the long run. Coming back from home after kids go to bed, I have a 20 month old toddler, although it’s possible is not realistic. But hey, if you get pay more maybe you would be able to put your kids in after school activities or pay for a babysitter for taking care of your kid until you come home from your 8hr job.
      Like Erika said above, we are highly trained educated people (adults). Tell me of another career that takes the same amount of schooling and that will work for the amount of money we get pay? Are we not professionals?

      • Ian Sudbery / March 7, 2013 at 08:52

        Postdocs in the UK don’t get paid any more than they do in Canada, my salary comes out around the quoted $40,000 Canadian. And yes, we have to pay taxes here too. The simply fact of the matter is that with two people earning a postdoc salary, even with two children, you are still better off than 70% of similar families who manage perfectly well to bring up their children on less.

        Flexibility. Sure if you went home at 4:30 and didn’t do any more work your experiments wouldn’t go so well. Most people I know who do this go home early, wait for their kids to go to bed and then carry on working afterwards. Name me other job that pays more than science that would allow even this amount of flexibility?

        As scientists we are highly skilled and highly trained individuals. But we are rewarded for this, its just that the reward is not financial. In a capitalist society, pay has never represented the value of the employee – it represents the market value. How much do you have to pay to convince someone to do the job? You have to pay a scientist less than a lawyer because scientists enjoy their job more than lawyers do.

        This undoubtedly leads to some able scientists leaving the profession. But so would restricting the number of postdoc positions. Success would become more based on the luck of your last project and we would be given less chance to prove ourselves over a longer period.

        • Lucia / March 8, 2013 at 09:28

          Hi Ian,

          I reply to your post, but somehow it got register as a new comment.

          • Lucia / March 8, 2013 at 09:43

            Hi again,

            I missed your last point about enjoying what we do. I think that this is the new trend now a day, if you like what you do, you shouldn’t complain about how much you get pay, otherwise you are in it just for the money – sneer.

            I highly doubt that any of us are in the job because of the pay. We have all inquisitive minds and love what we do. We both agree to that. However, we are also human beings that live and are part of a society that requires wages. Somehow we have convinced ourselves that we don’t deserve to get pay because we love what we do. That people that get pay more must hate what they do, otherwise they wouldn’t get pay that much. I really don’t think that lawyers, MD’s and people with other high paying jobs hate what they do. Sure, they might complained about it who doesn’t?. It’s just that they know their own value, they know what they are worth. Maybe science collects people with low-professional self esteem.

        • Jesus / January 25, 2014 at 23:59

          Ian,
          Enjoying or hating what you do has nothing to do with your salary.
          In any case, there should be no “punishment” for enjoying what you do as in “because you enjoy it, it’s fair to get less money for it”.
          Enjoyment is personal and is, in principle, not inherent to any particular field.
          While we love science, others hate it.
          Perhaps you’d hate to clean toilets, but others might be perfectly content with doing so as a job (that’s a far stretch… but it’s still *possible* in principle).

          If people got compensated based on how much they enjoy or don’t enjoy their job, then it would be the garbage collectors or the toilet cleaners or the labor and construction workers who would get the highest salaries (because they likelihood that they enjoy it is the least), and not the lawyers and businessmen sitting in air-conditioned, nice-smelling offices.

          People get compensated based on the uniqueness of their capacities and their knowledge, and on how much society values those skills.
          It is clear that the uniqueness (the scarcity, the rarity in society at large) of a postdoc’s knowledge and capacities is usually out of question.

          The matter is a basics economics problem of supply and demand.
          There’s no more demand for scientists and there aren’t more resources channelled into science because society at large does not value science or scientists as much as they value professional athletes, celebrities or doctors.

          Society seems more concerned with short-term gratification, superfluous entertainment and immediate profit.
          Values therefore seem highly misplaced, which is of course extremely short-sighted, being that science is responsible for pretty much all technological progress.
          Science impacts and DRIVES progress in construction/engineering, transportation, communications, manufacturing (production, of pretty much ANY good)…, technology in ANY field, including the arts, music and filming industries, education, agriculture, pharmaceutics, health and medicine, etc.

          Based on qualifications, degree of specialization, knowledge, and potential impact to society, the average scientist with a PhD should make at least as much as the average MD or JD (let alone entertainment artists and professional athletes…).

          Flexibility is relative (you have to come into the lab to do experiments at night and during the weekends, plan activities and vacations around the cells you’re growing [for example], schedule specialized equipment… etc).
          Relative flexibility has to do more with the nature of the job than with it being a real “asset” that compensates for lower salaries.
          In the end, what really matters is how many hours of work you put in.
          For example, software-developers in some companies have as much or more flexibility (they can work from home or from anywhere in the world, as long as they have their computer, or can run jobs remotely on large servers if needed…), but still get paid MUCH more than postdocs (100% more). Even if they only have a B.Sc degree, or no degree at all and trained themselves on how to program, because they loved it.