the value and cost of doing a postdoc

Jan 25 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

There has been lots of talk on the intertubes about this topic. Much of it has been from folks near the decision points. At my end of the age spectrum, I'm seeing it a bit differently. My perception isn't more right or wrong. It's just different.

So to start, it is import to remember there are choices being made here. As my father used to say to me: no one's holding a gun to your head and saying "be a postdoc or I'll blow your brains out" (or something like that, his exact words fade with time). But, as a good economist would say, The more information you have, the better decision you can make. Be informed about the future. Real numbers about who makes it and who doesn't. PI's let your trainees see what is involved in making sausage. Trainees, get beyond your views (good and bad) about what PI's actually do. And get beyond both your imposter syndrome and your special snowflake syndrome. Neither serves you well as this point.

Arguing that it's not fair to work that hard and not get paid like people industry is fatuous. That's like arguing that gravity isn't fair as you fall out of the tree. The world is. There are parameters, and guidelines and rules and a couple of laws. Anyone making a decision about what to do with their postdoc is (relative to the rest of the world) in a fairly privileged position.

I'm not saying it's an easy choice. Or in fact one that everyone can make in their own best interest... Family, commitment, children, all of these compromise that decision. Let alone fair. Somebody will have more money, brains or good looks and be making a different decision or have the option of a different decision. Being a scientist is  bloody hard work. Hard. Work. I'm not saying you don't work hard. I am sure you do. But its hard work in a Red Queen Context.

My concern here and now is that we (the people picking postdocs) are selecting for wealthy individuals who can "afford" to do this, and keep their lifestyle. We who have some control over the "fairness" may be, could be, aiding and abetting an unfair situation. When all the FLSA stuff was happening and people were looking at raising postdoc salaries, I heard junior colleagues agonizing. If I raise the salary of this NSF postdoc, I will have to cut my experiments. (Remember that NSF grants are an order of magnitude smaller than NIH). Those junior faculty are just trying to survive, too. What angered me, too, were the senior colleagues with five postdocs who decided to let one go to cover the raises of the others. That's a hard decision, keep five at a lesser wage, or drop one, and raise four up? The answer, to those of us who believe that the problem may be too many mouths at the trough, is that you don't hire five postdocs in the first place.

So young padawan, here is the world. You can make a lot more money doing something else. I know lots of people who did. Or you can make less money doing science. It's a hard road. There are no guarantees for those walking it.

 Note after writing: Ola had a comment on the managing people post that says similar things, in a different way. It's worth adding here:

As others have said, as a junior prof you need your ass at the bench and then every other waking hour is writing grants. If you're not submitting 5-6 grants a year for the first few years, you're not doing it right. Yes it sucks! You have to teach, run a lab, manage people, do department politics crap, mentor people, manage money, write papers, and have a life outside the lab possibly including young children. In short, you have to be all of the things to all of the people. This is not new, this is part of the job and has been for as long as anyone can remember.

 

19 responses so far

  • the Viking Diva says:

    "You can make a lot more money doing something else. I know lots of people who did. Or you can make less money doing science."

    I object to the notion here that only a postdoc/academic track counts as "doing science." There are lots of ways to do science. Scholarship of discovery (a la Boyer) in an academic lab is only one of them.

    • potnia theron says:

      Yes, this is true. But my comments were in the context of leaving academia for an industry job. Industry may or may not be doing science. I was using "science" here as a shorthand for "academic". Your point is well taken.

  • becca says:

    "You can make a lot more money doing something else. I know lots of people who did."
    This is hard to say. People who have not recently been on the industry job market may not realize it, but the economy stopped adding permanent full time jobs some time ago. And government is obviously less viable than at other points (even under the Democrats, the size of the federal workforce was pretty static). #EntitledSnakePeople basically have to wait for someone in a scientific field to die, or move to another industry that is actually expanding, such as financial services.

  • Morgan Price says:

    On who can "afford" to be a postdoc -- I live in Berkeley, the land of high rent, and even here, postdoc salaries seem to be high enough to ensure an ample supply of postdocs in molecular biology.

    • Berkeley Postdoc says:

      It's 'cause we're willing to prolong debt, family formation, and retirement savings for Berkeley on our CV and all the 1's for environment and mentor on F32 applications. Trying to keep a below market rate apartment is precarious; I live in fear that they'll evict everyone and renovate. Awful financial decision, I know, but I really do like working here.

  • Postdoc salaries are low compared to industry, but not low compared to the average salary in most communities. Most people can easily afford to live solo on a postdoc salary--it is, after all, a salary increase compared to a student stipend. It would be much more difficult to be supporting a family on a postdoc salary, but a postdoc would not be able to keep the "normal" hours associated with academia if they were a single parent either. Academia has always favored people who are not the sole provider for dependents of any kind. The time sink required alone ensures that before considering the salary.

    Given how hard it can be to find any kind of degree-related job, a low salary is better than no salary, of course.

  • 5th year PI says:

    I've never understood the moaning and wailing about postdoc salaries being so terrible. I'll echo the comment above; 40-50K a year is a good salary, especially here in flyover country. Of my three grad students who each make 27K, two of them have invested in condos, and my postdoc drives one of those mini range rovers. Academic trainee salaries are basically the same regardless of where you are in the country, so If you want a high standard of living while a PhD student or postdoc, then stay away from NY, Boston, or San Fran. There's plenty of awesome science being done in the Midwest, and everything is cheaper.

    • Ola says:

      Agree 100%. As a grad student in the europe in the '90s, my stipend was equivalent to ~$8k in USD. Starting post-doc' salary about $30k. This was in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

      We made it work by being single/mobile (lots of time spent crashed on floors of friends, in between apartments), by eating Ramen, riding bikes, not owning laptops/smartphones, brewing our own alcohol, generally being poor.

      It seems today's class of trainees want a high standard of living, but are unwilling to sacrifice being in a cool place. The trick to long term financial stability is to train in a cool lab' in a cheap town. It's really that simple.

  • aspiring riffraff says:

    One of my friends worked in industry for 3 years before going to grad school. He then went to grad school before returning to industry. His wife went straight in to grad school from undergrad. She published multiple mid to high impact papers as a grad student, and then, after publishing 2 CNS papers as a postdoc, was recruited to industry.

    My friend was given a higher starting salary and position than his wife, based solely on his pre-grad school industry experience.

    A postdoc is only useful to those who want to stay in academia.

    • potnia theron says:

      This is one example, where yes, the PD was only useful to staying industry. It is not data about all other cases. Generalizing from one case is not scientists do.

  • wally says:

    I love being a postdoc - but I am concerned about finances as next year I will have to move to one of the most expensive cities in the US to follow my mentor. If I didn't, I wouldn't have a post-doc. I guess I am saying, we don't always have choices as to where we live - not all kinds of research occurs all over the US. Further, some of us belong to minority groups and living in some places in the US (where costs are often far cheaper) is just not particularly safe.

    I wondered if I could ask a question of the group - my mentor has been out of town/the country for the past 3-4 months and will continue to be so for another 2 months (at least). I adore my mentor, but I'm having a hard time getting the mentorship/training I need (we don't really have a lab - it's just me) - and at the same time feel guilty for needing anything. I wonder if anyone has thoughts on what are reasonable things for a first year postdoc (in a completely new research area) to ask for from their mentor (for example, regular meetings/phone calls)? What does ideal mentorship/training look like in the first year of a postdoc? Thank you in advance.

  • […] Wally wrote: (edited a bit for space, but go read the whole thing) […]

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