It should come as no surprise that by increasing the supply of graduate students (and in turn post-doctoral fellows), we have arranged to produce more knowledge workers than we can employ, creating a labor-excess economy that keeps labor costs down and productivity high (How much is a scientist worth?) – but is this what we want? While advantageous in the short-term, there is little room for additional gains and a more efficient and productive system will need to be created if we wish to actualize research-based economic growth.
Federal investment in the knowledge sector is better spent creating new employment pipelines to redistribute a highly-educated labor market rather than worsening the blockage. The imagery of a bottleneck is fitting, and something needs to give. Compared to their peers in engineering, law, medicine or business administration, post-doctoral fellows languish at the bottom of the salary scale. In North America, typical post-doctoral salaries begin at $38,000/year and cap out at ~$50,000/year. While most researchers commence post-doctoral fellowships at 27, the 20% that obtain their first faculty position do so, on average, at 42 years of age. At an average 50* hours per week (*Nearly one third of PhD biological scientists put in 60 or more hours per week; Careers and Rewards in Bio Sciences: the disconnect between scientific progress and career progression), this amounts to roughly $14.50 an hour.
Author’s note: Against my better judgment I could not help but do the calculation for myself – after 4 years in the Honours Bachelors of Science program at McMaster University, 4 years in the PhD program at the University of British Columbia, and nearly 4 years as a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School, I now earn $12.58 an hour – less than I did in highschool!
By comparison, physicians enter private practice at 29, lawyers at 25, and earn $70,000+ (How much is a scientist worth?). Within the basic sciences, academic salaries average 40% lower than in industry, and are also subject to the steepest rises at every career stage among all of these professions (For Love and Money). Not surprisingly, the largest jump is from the post-doctoral to assistant professor level where top-level science positions are in the $100,000-$160,000/year range. Salaries in academia, while insulting, are not the most pressing concern – burnout is, and I’ll discuss it in my next post.