# Why are postdocs so dismal at simple mathematics?

on the perennial topic of underpaid postdocs who want more money.

per usual, PhysioProf:

The only possible end-game to this continued simultaneous slashing of RPG budgets and inflation of the NRSA pay scale is (1) more layoffs of RPG-supported post-docs and (2) the few post-docs still supported on R01s sitting in front of computers playing Angry Birds because there is no money left after paying their salaries to pay any other research expenses.

Quit viewing us as cheap labor and recognize that we are desperately scrambling for security. We’re getting older, forced to constantly move, write grants -and- do the actual research, all without job security, and you think a salary less than half of yours is fair? Well I guess you got yours so the rest of us can suffer.

Later on in the thread there is another comment suggesting that any PI who can't just pay their postdocs $3,000 more is incompetent. The mind boggles. There is a fixed pool of NIH money here supporting science. Actually it is shrinking. But whatever. If all the postdocs are paid more per year, there are going to be fewer post docs supported. Or, as PP points out, no money to do research. Perhaps these disgruntledocs are okay with the latter but they sure as hell aren't going to be okay with the former when it is them that is out of a job. What gives these morons the idea that they would be magically exempt from the axe? • bill says: We morons are already facing the axe -- sure, there are some delusional types left who think the selection process is meritocratic so they're gonna make it while all those other losers fail, but most of us are well aware that, just by being postdocs, we're already gambling with our futures. So what if the odds just got a bit longer? They're already overwhelmingly bad. For those who do luck out, maybe "postdoc" becomes an actual job again. For those who get canned, the smart money says they were fucked anyway, so better they start looking for that "alt career" earlier rather than later. • drugmonkey says: If the sense of what you are saying is true, how come these folks (and they are legion) aren't just bailing off the track into those jobs that they can get. You know, like they'd have to do in the glorious future of greatly reduced numbers of postdocs? I stand by my main point. They think it isn't going to be them. (and yes, it is not lost on me that the PIs arguing we need not restrict the number of awards per lab head are engaging in the same delusion) • MorganPhD says: I find it hard to believe that increasing postdoc salaries 1% of a baseline$250,000 RO1 award will somehow overwhelm budgets so that it becomes difficult to actually do research.

Yes, if you're a PI with 13 postdocs, you might have to cut 1 postdoc if salaries increase. At that point, maybe you'll have more time on your hands to walk around the lab once and awhile and make sure your trainees aren't playing Angry Birds.

Also, as Henry Bourne and others have pointed out, decreasing the postdoc pool (by raising salaries) may actually be beneficial long-term in two ways. First, increasing salaries may reduce the amount of time an individual trainee stays within a lab, as salary increases may "force" PIs to mentor trainees more effectively. Second, as we decrease the number of trainees, we remove potentially mediocre scientists from the funding pool, thus freeing up more money for "good" science.

• drugmonkey says:

I find it hard to believe that increasing postdoc salaries 1% of a baseline$250,000 RO1 award will somehow overwhelm budgets so that it becomes difficult to actually do research. That$250,000 took a one module cut at funding, one. Then in year, oh, three, it took another 8-10% cross-the-board cut after a postdoc had been brought on board. So the PI is already $50,000 in the budget hole. as we decrease the number of trainees, we remove potentially mediocre scientists from the funding pool, thus freeing up more money for "good" science. Sure, no prob. Lets start with you, your spouse (if you have one, if in science) and your best science friends. Still happy about it? Or are you somehow imagining it couldn't possibly be you who is culled? • MorganPhD says: "That$250,000 took a one module cut at funding, one. Then in year, oh, three, it took another 8-10% cross-the-board cut after a postdoc had been brought on board. So the PI is already $50,000 in the budget hole." I don't quite understand your logic here. Getting your budget cut 8-10% is bad but you still have to pay SOMEONE to do the work, unless you're doing it yourself. A 1% raise on the salary of the person you pay to execute your scientific vision is not the problem. The problem in this scenario is that the NIH cut your budget. Saying postdoc raises would potentially cripple your budget is a straw man argument. Someone has to do the work. And I can completely imagine being the one who is culled. A number of people from my graduate program have been let go from their first postdoc position after a year or so because grants didn't get renewed or budgets got cut. This is why I sought out and obtained my own funding, so it wouldn't be me. The cull of postdocs would be quick, and yes, probably painful, but it might help balance the system long term. I believe it's the right thing to do. PI's will hang on to the best postdocs regardless of what they cost. Those who are cut will look for new labs and if they don't find one, they will move on to other areas of science or industry or alternative careers. • bill says: Like I said DM, not *everyone* is delusional. (Though you have a point about the rate of disappearance, if there were no delusional types it should be much faster than it is. Although it is increasing, afaict...) • Dr Becca says: A 1% raise on the salary of the person you pay to execute your scientific vision is not the problem. Are we talking about a 1% raise or 1% of a$250k/year grant? Because a 1% raise on a new postdoc is about $400, which no, won't break the bank, but probably wouldn't make a huge difference to the quality of living for a post-doc, either. But a$3k raise, as was suggested earlier (and where I thought your original 1% comment was coming from), is about a 7.5% increase in salary, plus fringe, so it would probably cost closer to $4k.$4k *IS* a lot of money in terms of research funds--between animals and reagents, I could probably squeeze a whole paper out of $4k if nothing went drastically wrong. And maybe that paper helps my underpaid post-doc move forward, she wins an award, gets a job, etc. There are lots of ways to look at it, is all. • bill says: maybe that paper helps my underpaid post-doc move forward, she wins an award, gets a job This assumes that your postdoc's chances of moving up the foodchain are noticeably affected by her job performance. That way lies "it won't happen to me" madness. • MorganPhD says: @Dr. Becca, I was basing it on the 3K raise (from 39K to 42K/year), which is approximately 1% of a 250K budget. Let's go with a 4K/year cost to you, or closer to 2% of your budget. I misspoke. • Virgil says: @MorganPhD Where are you getting this 1% pay rise number from? As long as I can remember, with great encouragement from NIH (and pressure to pay all post-docs to the NRSA standard), post-doc salaries have been increasing at rates well above inflation for at least a decade. Heck, from 2008-2010 inflation was essentially zero, but post-doc salaries just kept on rising. For every one of the past 7 years, I've taken a 1% annual raise (0% last year), which has enabled me to do exactly zero extra science because it all gets sucked into post-doc salaries. When I were a lad, a new post-doc in 2000 would earn 25k. Now we're talking >41k for a starting salary, closer to 50 if you have a couple years experience. The other big math that post-docs fail to grasp, is the modular budget freeze at$250k for over a decade. That kinda money buys a lot less science than it used to. NIGMS routinely cuts 2 modules and a year off funded awards, so a $1.25m grant becomes$800k. Then tack on "continuing resolution" cuts and we're talking a 35-40% budget cut in real terms.

So go ahead, look me in the eye, with my 35% budget cut, and tell me you "deserve" a continual 3-4% annual pay raise, no questions asked. Maybe you can figure out how to "make" mouse food, FBS, plastic, and all that other shit you burn through, since we won't be able to buy it if you get your raise.

• MorganPhD says:

Overall, I see postdoc salary raises as a win-win (in a perfect world).

Postdocs that aren't cut get a 7-8% pay raise and potentially get less competition in the future. Postdocs that are cut due to budget constraints find other jobs more quickly (as Bill pointed out, those who are canned were likely SOL anyway). Or a smaller number of the upcoming group of newly minted PhDs take postdoctoral positions.

Perhaps this helps the so-called "glut" of postdocs. Give the strong ones a raise, get rid of the bad ones, and make the postdoctoral training more selective, more like medical residencies. Make it actual "training" and not just a temp job after your PhD or a source of cheap labor for the glory of the PI.

What am I missing?

• Math says:

Since doing math requires actually knowing the relevant numbers, here are the historical NRSA stipend levels in 2012 dollars:

sources: inflation calculator: http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm
historical NRSA stipends: http://bit.ly/VR3E9L

First, for Level 0 (first-year postdocs):
1975 -- 42791
1980 -- 37383
1983-- 32453
1985-- 34225
1989-- 31563
1991 --31440
1994 -- 30460
1997 -- 29107
1998 -- 29660
1999 -- 36274
2000 -- 35985
2001 -- 36737
2002 -- 39789
2003 -- 42791
2004 -- 43348
2005 -- 41928
2006 -- 42248
2007 -- 41078
2008 -- 39559
2009 -- 40100
2010 -- 39845
2011 -- 39400
2012 -- 39265

And then for Level 5:
1975 -- 56485
1980 -- 47609
1983 -- 41357
1985 -- 55638
1989 -- 61514
1991 -- 49864
1994 -- 45827
1997 -- 42315
1998 -- 42575
1999 -- 52069
2000 -- 51643
2001 -- 52726
2002 -- 57096
2003 -- 58061
2004 -- 57271
2005 -- 55395
2006 -- 53663
2007 -- 52177
2008 -- 50248
2009 -- 50929
2010 -- 50108
2011 -- 50049
2012 -- 49884

Notes:
2012 Level 0 stipend as % of peak (2004) = 90.6%
2012 Level 5 stipend as % of recent peak (2003) = 85.9%
2012 Level 5 stipend as % of overall peak (1989) = 81.1%

In other words, a first-year NRSA postdoc is making ~7% less in real terms than first-year postdocs made when he/she entered grad school (using the 2006 level and assuming a 6-year Ph.D.).

Data!

• Alex says:

I completely agree with DM that discussions of workforce issues in science draw a lot of innumerate commentary.

Sadly, this seems to be true of just about every area of science. How much you want to bet that even economics PhDs lose their ability to do math and manipulate demand curves when talking about workforce issues? (I don't know if they have postdocs, but they are an academic field so I assume that something or other is screwed up, unsustainable, and exploitative in their workforce model.)

• MorganPhD says:

@Virgil

In my post to Dr. Becca, I mentioned the 1% number is the approximate amount the 3K raise would draw from a $250,000 modular budget. Not the raise actually given to the postdoc (which, as Dr. Becca pointed out, would be only about$400). I wasn't clear in my earlier post.

By the way, I do deserve a raise. There, I said it. I deserve a raise because I provide exceptional value for the level of expertise I bring to the table, and because you have no other choice with the amount of money you do have. If I'm not performing up to your standards, don't renew my 1 year contract.

Look, I sympathize with you. I know your budget is cut 35%. I know science costs a lot of money to actually perform. If I'm lucky enough to get where you are, I'll have the same damn problem. But if the people (NIH) giving you the pittance of grant money you DO have tell you that you must pay people more, what choice do you have?

You'll have plenty of money to do your OWN experiments once you go and get rid of postdocs.

• miko says:

There are too many postdocs. They are paid fine.

• Industry Scientist says:

There are too many postdocs. Many of them suck. Why not get rid of all the sucky ones and pay the good ones a living wage? Likewise, graduate schools need to stop taking in every 22 year old who has no idea what he or she wants to do with their life and only accept the best and brightest.

The postdoc position needs to be made into something coveted and rare. And, yes, I realize this means blowing up the system entirely. But it's unsustainable as is anyway - when only 62.5% of newly minted PhDs have commitments after graduating and 2/3 of those end up in endless postdoc positions (as per the most recent SoED), something has to be done to reduce both the supply and the demand. Get rid of the bad ones, accept only the good ones and pay the good ones more.

• Virgil says:

@MorganPhD

I provide exceptional value

I believe Wal-Mart knows a thing or two about "value", and all their stuff comes from China. Maybe if you're providing a boutique or artisan skill, you deserve to be paid more, but it's a hard sell convincing any PI that their post-doc is like the craftsman organic goat cheese maker at the farmer's market. No, post-docs are a commodity, and most of them make velveeta, which is good enough to get by in science. You may be selling a "better" product that appeals to the 1% of PIs, but the rest of us can't afford that fancy stuff, and are happy enough with the velveeta.

• dr_mho says:

morgan et al... omg - stop whining! if you don't like the odds of a job or the salary or the general level of appreciation, by all means, get the fuck out of science. you don't "deserve" a raise - there is no invisible spaghetti monster out there setting a universal moral standard for what you should be paid for your labor. this is a market-driven endeavor with, as pointed out by DM, a fixed pool of resources.

• Miles says:

In our microenvironment, postdocs are now unionized. I used pay waaaaay over NIH scale but didn't adjust over the years for costs of living increases. Over five years the postdocs got much more money my way.

No with the union in place I have to pay minimum scales because they force me to increases salaries each year.

My consequence: I don't offer postdoc positions anymore and replaced them all with techs. Much more efficient and I don't have to deal with aggressive union reps, lazy postdocs, or generation xyz life-work-balance issues anymore. Many others do the same. In the long run this will clean up the current mess.

• becca says:

@Virgil- Those greedy stinkin postdocs, demanding an exorbitant increase of 1.9% from 2008-2010* (a MASSIVE increase from $36,996 to$37,740!!!!!!11!!) instead of the basically nill inflation rate (a mere 1.3%!) . HOW DARE THEY?! INSOLENT FOOLS!

(*also we won't even bother to mention that from 2007 to 2008 there was no increase in NRSA stipend levels, despite a 3.8% inflation rate that year).

Really guys? Healthcare (3.4% this year, long term average 5.5%) and tuition (4.8% this year, long term average >5%) are eating up NIH budgets left and right and you guys wanna pick on postdocs? REALLY?

• Grumble says:

" this is a market-driven endeavor ..."

No, it isn't. Post-doc salaries at many institutions are dictated by NRSA stipend levels. Those levels have as much to do with a free market as Soviet 5 year plans.

"Why not get rid of all the sucky ones and pay the good ones a living wage? "

Interesting idea. But how do you tell whether a post-doc sucks or not? If I knew before hiring a post-doc that he sucked, I wouldn't have hired him. And if it becomes very clear that he sucks 1 year or so into his project, I fire his ass anyway. So what exactly are you proposing that is different from the status quo? Other than that I should double all my post-doc's salaries and fire half of them. Seems like a great way to cut my lab's productivity exactly in half.

"But it's unsustainable as is anyway - when only 62.5% of newly minted PhDs have commitments after graduating and 2/3 of those end up in endless postdoc positions (as per the most recent SoED), something has to be done to reduce both the supply and the demand. "

No, it does not. Prospective grad students should simply be made aware that their chances of eventually getting my job are very slim. Then they can decide for themselves whether they want to go to grad school. And you know what? In my experience, incoming grad students know exactly what the job market is like... and they're still here. Maybe that's because they know a free PhD (yes, FREE - all expenses paid AND a stipend) is a great leveraged investment, even if it doesn't lead to a faculty job. It can lead to many other career paths that pay significantly better than non-PhDs get paid - and without student loans to pay off.

• Grumble says:

" I don't offer postdoc positions anymore and replaced them all with techs."

At my institution, it's the techs who are unionized, and the post-docs who have no union. I don't really see that it makes a huge difference, other than that techs get overtime pay (which in practice means they get to go home early every day compared to everyone else in the lab).

• bill says:

Seems like a great way to cut my lab's productivity exactly in half.

I suggest reading this: http://t.co/d2OHSy4m, paying particular attention to the last two paragraphs.

• Industry Scientist says:

What's more productive - having three mediocre postdocs who need to be micromanaged and frequently screw up or having one independent, efficient postdoc who is able to write, design experiments and produce data for you on his own?

Thing is, the mediocre postdocs will likely stick around for as long as you let them because they can't do anything else. And the good one will eventually bail for industry or anything that pays him or her a reasonable wage for the work that they do. There's no carrot for the good ones in academia anymore.

• Crystal Voodoo says:

I hate to bring this up but where exactly are all these fabled "alternative careers" that are waiting open-armed for the hordes of displaced postdocs supposed to come from? Pharma is cutting research departments in favor of farming R&D out to academics. With shrinking budgets grant writers/editors are considered a luxury and are the first thing to get kicked to the curb. Shrinking state funding means community colleges are on hiring freezes. Getting a program manager job involves ridiculous certifications and learning a whole new set of jargon. We're too qualified to teach primary education except at elite private schools. Our skill set is too critical-thinking based to tutor for standardized tests. Decreased funding equals fewer service contracts which means fewer equipment technician jobs. I'm not above abandoning academia to get a little forward momentum to my life but the sad truth is that there is nowhere else for someone like me to go and I live in an industrio-medical Mecca.

• drugmonkey says:

becca-

This is not "picking on post docs". This is "defending ourselves from the scurrilous ignorant attacks of postdocs". Didn't you read the quoted bit?

• drugmonkey says:

Ok, paraphrased, not quoted. But same diff.

• Miles says:

Grumble, in my experience, techs do a job and get it done. They are unionized but the good once don't care about unions and love doing their jobs.

I cannot mentor anyone who is unionized. Mentoring and unions exclude each others.

• drugmonkey says:

What? How so?

• make the postdoctoral training more selective, more like medical residencies.

Medical residencies -> selective???????????? AHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

• dr_mho says:

@grumble
It most certainly is market-driven in the global sense. The taxpayers (consumers) decide how much our science is worth and vote to fund the NIH, by proxy, accordingly... thus setting the size of the zero-sum pot.

• Physician Scientist says:

The problem I have with post-doc salaries is that because they are essentially fixed by the institution, I can't reward my good ones. At my stage of career (6 years into my lab at a mid-west R1), I have a tough time recruiting elite post-docs. My applicant pool is pretty weak, and 80% of the PhD students here, I would never hire as a post-doc. I've had 2 - one needed to be fired and the other is outstanding. Here's the problem...I can't reward my good one because salaries are fixed. I would alter the system so that it allowed the PI to pay the post-doc what they deserved.

Also, I think that PIs don't necessarily want to pay post-docs less. They want to pay them a good wage. The issue is one of simple finances for the PI. A $250K modular R01 gets cut to$200K. The school requires the PI to pay 30% of their salary + 29% benefits on this grant for a total of (let's say) $38,700 on a salary of$100K. The technician makes $45K + benefits for a total of$58,000. Mouse costs in my lab are $3K a month for a total of$36K a year (this is modest as we are not a huge mouse lab). After the post-doc's salary of $42K +$5000 benefits is added in, there's only $20K left for reagents and what not. Its not that we don't want to give raises, its that the finances are incredibly tight. This is why all post-docs need to be writing for fellowships. Lastly, I am able to increase my outstanding post-doc's salary "outside the system." I get consulting gigs from Industry that pay well and I am able to throw my post-doc a couple of hours of consulting fees from time to time. Over the course of the year, this adds$1500 to $2000 to their salary. For me, though, the problem is not enough money in the system and no way to reward the truly outstanding post-doc. • Dr24hours says: How is this not related to the Open Access debate?$3000 of grant money for an OA article cuts science and PD pay too. Research budgets are stretched to the bone, and going to get worse.

Post Docs do deserve better pay. No question. So do professors, even at the assitant level. Physicians deserve less. But until we slash administrative costs and universities start ponying up dough, it's going to get worse.

If PDs really want to improve working conditions, they should strike. And I, as a PI (but likely leaving soft-money academia for a semi-academic hard money job), would strongly support them.

• I am surprised that you cant' raise postdoc

• Hit send too soon! Sorry (newbie problems).

Anyway, I am surprised you can't raise the salary, funds permitting. It took some work, but the NIH guidelines are minimums or "suggested". I was able to get a substantive (5%) raise for a good postdoc who was in danger of being poached. Other pathway - retitling the position to "Research Associate". Check with your HR, they tend to be sympathetic. Biggest problem: dept chair who didn't like the precedent.

And as loathe as I am to admit it, CPP hits the nail on the head with this one: its arithmetic. Budgets are limited. Study sections while not questioning budgets per se, often question "the number of personnel included on the proposal". And my institute is into the 10-15% cut every year from awarded budget.

• MorganPhD says:

@Virgil
It's your choice to hire a postdoc and treat them like a commodity. The postdoc position is meant to be used for additional training and mentoring, not to make sprockets for Mr. Spacely so he can get rich (figuratively rich, not actual rich, in the science world). If you want that, by all means, hire a research technician. You may find that they cost more in the long term, or you may find that they're cheaper and easier. I don't know, but staffing decisions in your lab are up to you. My point is that postdocs asked for something and got it. Perhaps it's time to actually get upset with the NIH budget cuts and get together and do something about it.

@dr_mho
Unfortunately, your boss (the NIH) says we deserve a raise. As I suggested to @Virgil, you are free to hire whomever you want. If you want a postdoc, 42K is now the going rate.

I erred when I said medical residencies are selective. What I should have said was that physicians-in-training have much better job prospects when they are finished. The training is approved by a larger governing body. The training period is finite. Unlike postdocs. Overall, less postdocs in the system would be a benefit long-term, IMHO.

• MorganPhD says:

@potnia theron
My university allowed my PI to give me a 1.2% raise when I acquired external (non-NIH) funding. We couldn't change my title because then I wouldn't be a "postdoc" and wouldn't qualify for the grant anymore.

• Physician Scientist says:

MorganPhD echoes my experience. I could change my outstanding post-doc to "Research Associate" but the connotation is that this is a more permanent position and that the person is done with training (which IMO would hurt their job prospects in either industry or academics).

Any raise we try to get my post-doc is a huge battle with the ceramic cat-type administrator. In fact, her fellowship pays her higher than the NRSA level, but we had to fight tooth and nail to get her what the fellowship said she should be paid. The reason given is that they didn't want post-doc salaries across the institution to fluctuate - they wanted them essentially fixed to the year of training the post-doc was in.

The current system rewards the mediocre and punishes the outstanding. IMO, most post-docs think they are outstanding when in the PI's view only a few are outstanding. I'd like the freedom to be able to pay my outstanding one(s). As I stated earlier, I get around this by throwing industry consulting fees their way. I suspect if you are in a biomedical field and the PI is getting honorariums and consulting fees and they aren't being distributed somewhat to the "outstanding" post-doc, perhaps that post-doc is not as "outstanding" as s/he thinks they are.

• miko says:

There are virtually no "alt careers" that require or benefit from postdoc experience. I can't believe we still have this discussion.

That said, I don't think there is much wrong with postdoc salaries, but I do think it's fucktarded in the extreme to moan that a few thousand bucks is going to make or break your lab. I have NEVER been in a lab where there isn't easily far more spent on duplicated efforts, stupidity, waste, and inefficiency. A lot of this stems from having trainees (being "trained" with skills the workforce doesn' t need) instead of professional scientists do government funded research.

Let alone how many labs on...oh, I'll pick an example: THIS HALLWAY... own the same $50,000-$100,000 piece of equipment that gets used exactly once per week or less. The way grants are funded encourages massive waste and duplication at the lab, department, and institution level. You guys are the worst managers imaginable, and 90% couldn't run a fucking Subway franchise.

Whining about paying a postdoc inflation rate raises. Pfft.

• miko says:

"The reason given is that they didn't want post-doc salaries across the institution to fluctuate - they wanted them essentially fixed to the year of training the post-doc was in."

Ah... fixed wages unconnected to ability, experience, performance or any type of merit or value. This is the free supply/demand labor market we are talking about, which postdocs just can't seem to understand.

• dsks says:

DM said,
"how come these folks (and they are legion) aren't just bailing off the track into those jobs that they can get. You know, like they'd have to do in the glorious future of greatly reduced numbers of postdocs?

I stand by my main point. They think it isn't going to be them."

Partly that, but partly also that thes "alt careers" are not all that numerous. This isn't simply about a lack of funding, the problem is broader than that. Industry isn't hiring, the biotech boom has lost its momentum, journals are streamlining their workforce... slow hiring in academia and shitty funding is just one part of it; there are few places to go where these folk will be using their training.

There are too many STEM workers gunning for too few jobs. That happens, it's part and parcel of a cyclical economy. What drives me batshit insane is that the main funding agencies continue to act like there's a STEM shortage and that we need more PhDs, which is simply encouraging universities to pad out there grad programs (regardless of candidate quality it seems these days) and draw out this train wreck even more. Labour experts have been calling bullshit on this "conventional wisdom" for night on ten years now, but, hey, why on earth would we expect scientific funding agencies to rely on empirical data when directing their policy?

Of course, it's not just the less competent candidates that get shafted by this pyramid scheme; a lot of bright students that might have made a better shot of it in another part of the economy are being encouraged to play the PhD lottery, but don't know any better to see it for what it is (how can you when you are relying on advice from self-interested academics trying to get another pair ofhands in the lab?).
/rant

• miko says:

"Sure, no prob. Lets start with you, your spouse (if you have one, if in science) and your best science friends. Still happy about it? Or are you somehow imagining it couldn't possibly be you who is culled?"

You keep saying this...it's misguided. 1) Culling is already happening to most PDs...the ones that don't get jobs. So fucked by "market" forces or by policy looks the same from where we stand. 2) You assume people are unable to (or shouldn't) advance common good policy positions that are not necessarily in their immediate self interest. That's ridiculous.

• Grumble says:

"a lot of bright students that might have made a better shot of it in another part of the economy are being encouraged to play the PhD lottery, but don't know any better to see it for what it is (how can you when you are relying on advice from self-interested academics trying to get another pair ofhands in the lab?)"

Oh, cry me a fucking river. Do you really expect us to believe that most students don't carefully consider the costs and benefits of going to grad school before making such a huge life-changing commitment? Do you really think they are swayed by evil professors enticing them into their labs with promises of easy entry into the facultariat? Bullll-shit. In my experience, students know exactly what they are getting into. When I launch into my speech about how hard it is to get an academic job (and to keep it, if it's a soft-money job), they tell me yeah, yeah, yeah, they know.

As for "alt careers aren't that numerous", I'm not sure that's true. Yes, pharma, biotech and scientific writing aren't as booming as they once were, but name an industry that is. (Health care is one - yet grad students are still flocking to free education rather than med school. Why might that be? Maybe because it's FREE and you exit with an advanced degree and no student loans?) Anyway, go to http://jobs.phds.org/ and see for yourself how many jobs are out there for PhDs.

• Virgil says:

@Physician Scientist.
Your numbers sound about right. Thanks for being so candid with the absolute $amounts. If more most-doc's understood these simple economic truths, they wouldn't be clamoring for raises. @Miko. Looking at Physician Scientists numbers, which roughly equate to my own ($20k for reagents and such, after everything else is accounted for), where does this "waste" you speak of, originate from? Heaven forbid a major piece of equipment should break and need replacing - but I'm sure you're correct, having only one of everything is the way to go! Next time something breaks in your lab, just force yourself to sit tight until it gets fixed a month later, rather than running down the hall to use the neighbor's rig. The panacea you speak of, in which all scientific equipment simply never breaks, is quite removed from reality.

• miko says:

"Anyway, go to http://jobs.phds.org/ and see for yourself how many jobs are out there for PhDs."

I'll bite: put my field into search: 53 jobs.

Vast majority? Postdocs and PhD fellowships.

• miko says:

Sorry Virgil. I correct myself: academic research funding is a model of efficiency.

• Alex says:

I think most entering STEM grad students know that academic jobs and other "basic research jobs" (whatever that means to a person fresh out of college) are hard to get. However, they are also told that if those paths don't work out (whatever "working out means to a person in their 20's) "you can always go into industry" (which probably means, to a person in their 20's, a job with far more money than academia).

So it seems like a pretty good deal to most people in their 20's, based on the info they have.

The funding agencies are obsessed with the "STEM pipeline." To the extent that they are talking about equity issues, yes, we should make sure that people from disadvantaged backgrounds get a fair shake and supportive atmosphere if they make an informed decision to try for a STEM career. However, generally they are talking about total numbers "in the pipeline", not just the composition of the cohort of STEM students. I work in a primarily-undergraduate institution, and the message sent to us (by funding agencies, private foundations, administrators, and anybody involved in any aspect of undergraduate research) is that we need to send more students to graduate programs. There is no discussion of WHY we need to send more students, just that we need to send them. As many as possible. As soon as possible. Grant money is tied to this. I wouldn't say that (most of) my colleagues deliberately manipulate students toward grad school to get the numbers up for grant funding, but I would say that all of the pressures we face point us in one direction rather than the other.

Occasionally the grad school pushers wring their hands about how many foreign students there are in our grad programs. After talking about the importance of diversity and competing in a global marketplace, of course. If pressed on the contradiction, they say "The problem is that many of those foreign students are starting to go home rather than pursue careers here." They gloss over the fact that some of those students leave because our job market sucks, and some leave because of visa restrictions that chase them away. The two factors that I cited in the previous sentence seem to tell contradictory tales (are people leaving here because it sucks, or are they eager to stay?), but the bottom line is that nobody really knows if we actually need more STEM graduates, because it's a complex issue. But the mantra is "More STEM PhDs! More STEM PhDs! More STEM PhDs!"

Mind you, I do research with undergrads, and I write good letters for good students who make the informed decision to take their chances on grad school. But I don't see it as the be-all-and-end-all of STEM. I involve students in research because I can teach them things in a research project that I can't teach them in a formal class. (I can't even really teach these things in a project-based class, because working with 20 students or whatever in 4 hours/week or whatever on a project that has to have a finishing point in 10 weeks is different from spending a year working with 3 people for as many hours/week as it takes.) I don't involve them in research because I want to put them "in the pipeline."

• Alex says:

Given the funding agencies' obsession with pipelines and (increasingly) even "bridges" to the PhD, perhaps we should all start interdisciplinary collaborations with Civil Engineering departments...

• miko says:

"I think most entering STEM grad students know that academic jobs and other "basic research jobs" (whatever that means to a person fresh out of college) are hard to get. However, they are also told that if those paths don't work out (whatever "working out means to a person in their 20's) "you can always go into industry" (which probably means, to a person in their 20's, a job with far more money than academia)."

Yes, we are talking about young people with little experience. They believe what PhD programs tell them: http://rxnm.wordpress.com/2012/08/16/selling-the-phd/

So on top of the tiffin wallah-like efficiency, academic departments are really great at honesty and setting their temps...excuse me, their trainees... up for long term success. Good work, everyone.

• becca says:

DM- "scurrilous ignorant attacks"? I know it's a blog, but that seems a tad melodramatic.
The bit in blockquote is not necessarily ignorant- if a particular postdoc derives security from knowing that as long as one can keep a job, that job can pay the bills, then it is more secure to have a system of fewer positions that are better paid.

Furthermore, I don't see how it's "scurrilous" to say that PIs are indifferent to postdoc suffering. It might be scurrilous to say something like "Drugmonkey wants us to suffer!" but it's not particularly scurrilous to say "PIs are not suffering the way we are, so they don't feel our plight". The later statement risks lumping in PIs who do care a great deal with those that don't, but it's also reasonably accurate to posit that empathizing with someone else's problem is less intense than going through it yourself.

It would be ignorant to state PIs don't have problems of their own, but that is outside of this discussion (the many varieties of "what about the PIs" in postdoc job prospect discussions is pretty much analogous to "what about the menz" in feminist discussions).

The other commenter in that thread doesn't say that a PIs that can't find 3k in their lab budgets is incompetent. Rather, the claim is that a PIs that wouldn't pay 3k of their salary to someone else is stingy. Which is a rather different claim (albeit one that is both more audacious and harder to counter).

• Jay says:

Some PIs in this thread are claiming the reason why they won't fire some postdocs to increase the salary of their better ones is empathy:

"Sure, no prob. Lets start with you, your spouse (if you have one, if in science) and your best science friends. Still happy about it? Or are you somehow imagining it couldn't possibly be you who is culled?"

But the truth is, the reason why you guys won't fire some postdocs to increase the salary of the better ones is this:

"Other than that I should double all my post-doc's salaries and fire half of them. Seems like a great way to cut my lab's productivity exactly in half."

Particularly because that's how you see postdocs:

"No, post-docs are a commodity**, and most of them make velveeta, which is good enough to get by in science. You may be selling a "better" product that appeals to the 1% of PIs, but the rest of us can't afford that fancy stuff, and are happy enough with the velveeta."

I'm currently a postdoc and not a disgruntled one (I'm essentially like a puppy - give me more than what I had before and I'll love you forever). And I'm fully aware of the economics of why postdoc salaries are low (grant cuts, the status quo, supply and demand, etc...)*. But the people claiming that the reason the salary shouldn't go up is because of the "think of all the unemployed PhD's", y'all are between disingenuous and hypocritical. You do it because that's how things are and that a sudden salary increase would generate a strong impact in your lab productivity because you'd be losing workforce.

So stop whining about postdocs whining. We get a salary that is alright but for a lot of us, this is worse than the ones most of our friends and SOs with similar level of education get (unless you only hang out with fellow post-docs). What is worse, every time we socialize with faculty, we hear about their fascinating trips to some tropical islands where they ate fascinating cuisine and I immediately think about the fact I save for trips to Las Vegas or to take my girlfriend to the fancy restaurant in town once in a while (and I can't imagine how things are for the ones with kids). That's when it hurts. And that's why we whine. If the whining is bothering you, pay up or fire the dude. What you guys are trying though is to say "stop whining because IN MY TIME IT WAS WORSE THINK OF ALL THE OTHER POSTDOCS BE HAPPY YOU COULD BE UNEMPLOYED I CAN'T PAY 4K MORE BECAUSE SCIENCE IS EXPENSIVE" and then you get all surprised that the whining doesn't stop. Some here even claim that "they knew what they had coming so don't complain" which for me is very close to the "she asked for it" excuse. Why don't you just stop arguing about this and treat this postdoc whining the same way you treat the noise from your -80C fridge in the background, instead of trying to think there is some noble reason why you don't pay them more.

*And there's also a psychological/cultural component - all the labs for which I was offered a postdoc were uncomfortable when I brought up the fact that I wanted a bigger salary than the one they offered (around 37 - 39k) and one was outraged by the idea of discussing it and removed the offer entirely. And when I started the process I got a lot people (including faculty at my school) saying that I shouldn't negotiate my salary because it looks bad. I'm stupid enough to ignore this advice and was able to set my baseline to the level I thought is the minimum I wanted (>41k - yeah, I'm cheap). But I'm sure most of people follow their mentor advice and accept the first offer. And several labs weren't willing to fork the extra 4-5k for someone that they claimed was a better fit during the interview process. The lab I ended up with was ultimately one in which this part of the negotiation was not hard at all and that made me feel like I wasn't just another piece of meat, or a commodity. Sure, I'm not the PI bringing in the grants but it's nice to not feel like I'm a glorified tech.
It's almost to the point where someone will say that post-docs get paid shitty because they asked for it so stop complaining.
** postdocs are worse than commodities because while you guys can hire and fire us at will, if we are disgruntled and resign before producing anything, we can't get back to the market ever because of letter of recommendations. Commodity suppliers do not suffer impact if they change the buyer.

• Grumble says:

"Why don't you just stop arguing about this and treat this postdoc whining the same way you treat the noise from your -80C fridge in the background, instead of trying to think there is some noble reason why you don't pay them more. "

I never said there was some noble reason, and most PIs I think would agree that the reason we can't pay you more is because we just. don't. have. the MONEY to do it - not without cutting lab productivity. Even DM's comment ("Where should we start? With you?") is not meant as anything other than a means of pointing out that just firing people and raising post-doc salaries is a silly suggestion.

"We get a salary that is alright but for a lot of us, this is worse than the ones most of our friends and SOs with similar level of education get "

So go join your buddies doing whatever it is that pays them so well.

Ya know something? When I was a post-doc, I made much less than you, even inflation-adjusted (because post-doc pay has been going up way faster than inflation - which in itself makes me wonder why this freezer is whining so loudly) - anyway, despite my poor income, I bought a house, bought two cars, had a child, took several amazing vacations to exotic locations, and became a food snob by eating far too many times in expensive restaurants. This was in an expensive metropolitan area, with a wife who is reasonably compensated, but not far beyond what I got as a post-doc. Without said wife, things would have been tighter, but I would hardly have been living in penury.

So unless you can convince me that post-doc salary is a hardship for most post-docs - not just that you could have been making as much as your college buddy who's now on Wall Street - I'm just not going to be sympathetic to any kind of whining about money.

• DrLizzyMoore says:

Until someone actually pays a salary AND fringe, it is hard for them to imagine what a seemingly small percentage increase does to the bottom line of a budget.

I'll tell you: it eats the shit out of it.

Increases in personnel costs means less supply , etc.. This isn't rocket science (unless your grant is about rocket science and then it might be).

• miko says:

Every comment about the precise amount of postdoc salaries is completely beside the point and irrelevant to the pipeline problem.

Postdoc/PI whinging about salary is just the least organised or informed management/labor dispute ever, because both sides seem to think this is about stupid principles they just made up instead being about of what you can individually or collectively negotiate.

• drugmonkey says:

Jay-

Nonsense.

First, to be so easily dismissive of the PI not wanting to willy-nilly fire an employee/trainee whom they have hired, and who has worked with them for some time is plain silly. It is not all that hard to stop and think for a second what it is like to be the boss in a situation of disappearing grant funds. You should try it.

Second, while it is fine to point out that PIs have a personal professional interest in maximizing laboratory output, they *also* have a professional professional obligation. I.e., to the taxpayers who have given them a large award with which to publish papers which advance scientific understanding and health care.

It should be obvious that the job of a PI is a balancing act and when the money is tight, tough decisions will have to be made.

It is all well and good to say a given PI should pay fewer postdocs more, shouldn't use free undergrad interns working for course credit, shouldn't extract the surplus value of graduate students via the GreatScam. But if a PI is way out on the distribution of accepted industry practice....is she treating the tax-payer funded award properly?

• drugmonkey says:

I just rescued this comment from the filter, you might want to read it

http://scientopia.org/blogs/drugmonkey/2012/12/19/why-are-postdocs-so-dismal-at-simple-mathmatics/#comment-36890

Feel free to cherry pick any halcyon time in the past and say that specific one-year cohort had it awesome.

• "Actually it is shrinking. But whatever. If all the postdocs are paid more per year, there are going to be fewer post docs supported."

This is basically the Rethugican argument on why raising the minimum wage of McDonalds employees is bad -- "if you raise the wage; the employers will stop employing these people and massive unemployment will occur". Such people are really just thinking altruistically about the well being of workers, really! Nothing to do with just wanting to pay as little as possible in wages! And yet, it really isn't clear how the hamburgers are going to be cooked and served after all the too-expensive workers have been laid off.

Funny how nobody seems to make the same argument about *themselves* -- why stop at postdocs? If all the faculty refused raises (and better yet, volunteered for pay cuts) wouldn't the university be able to hire more faculty?

• DrugMonkey says:

Have you noticed the reduction of NIH cap JB? This is more topical than you may have appreciated! Wheeeee!!!!!

• bill says:

NIH cap -- like this:

How do "executive I and II" relate to PI, ass prof, prof? And are you fuckers really making close to $200K? What does a PI get paid anyway? I always heard assoc prof$60-80K, assist prof $80-100K, full prof$100-150K.

• Grumble says:

Depends where you live, Bill. In Kansas, your numbers are probably about right. In San Francisco, LA, Boston and NY - you're under by half. Based on review of a few grants with non-modular (i.e., detailed) budgets, I conclude that there are quite a few full-prof fuckers whose salaries exceed the cap (which, by the way, is now $179,700 for all profs, if I understand correctly). (Also by the way, remember how much hay Scott Brown made out of Elizabeth Warren's faculty salary at Harvard? I think it was >$300k.)

• DrugMonkey says:

The pay cap recently dropped on the order of $10k. So I guess if your PI is at cap, then there's$3K raises for 3 postdocs freed up (haaahahahaja!) right there.

• DrugMonkey says:

Oh my bad....that link makes it look like a $20K reduction of the cap. • DrugMonkey says: bill- your numbers aren't too far off. Ime cap is for hugely schwanging types...and those with MD after their name. • Jay says: @grumble If you're aware that the reason you pay postdocs the shitty salary they get is because that's the world we live in (economy, budget cuts, excess supply), I don't have a problem at all. I completely agree with you. But don't try to put lipstick on a pig by saying that "you should be thankful for the shitty salary". That's what pisses me off. I hope in real life your personality is much better than your e-personality, because this one sucks. If you're attitude during salary negotiation is "I'll pay you enough so that you don't go through any hardship but not a penny more", than fuck you. I actually had the chance of going outside of academia for a better pay in a tangible way, as in I had offers that paid better but decided against it. And if I have one advice for graduating students is to interview in the industry: an offer from them will give you perspective and give you leverage against salary bullying that goes on. Also on the fuck yous: don't claim you bought a house a car and a world, when your wife helped you, which is very different. I know academia may make you think that it's ok to claim ownership of the whole study just because you're name is in the author list, but it's a shitty attitude in life. It's not too hard to see that with more than twice the salary and with only 1.5 times the expenses (couple pays one rent/mortgage, share utilities and groceries), things would've been much more comfortable. If I currently get 10% of salary as disposable income, it would suddenly jump to 60% of it, which - or 30% if you want to divide it by two which is a lot of disposable income. @DM You see, the pragmatical aspects of you what you're saying are all correct and fine. I actually understand how complex it is to fire actual real people that you know and work for you. And I understand that the ultimate financial stakeholder of a grant is the taxpayer. But that's life of being a manager: solving conflicts. You make hard decisions and people suffering the consequences go through the motions. If you don't have stomach to handle their reactions, that I'm sorry this sucks, but I don't think it's OK for you to scold people for reacting. It's like scolding a fired employee for crying. What else can he do but cry? Also, the minimum salary solves the "waste public money" conundrum. If the conflict is "pay shitty salary" vs "waste public money by going against the trend" and then the NIH says "hey folks, the shitty salary is too shitty and the noise is too loud, so we'll bump up everything a little", then that is fixing the trend. It is true that the scientific output *will* decrease, but that's a decision NIH made in increasing the salaries, and you won't be worse than everyone else. • Nernst says: I'm not concerned that PI's make X. Good for them, most have worked hard. I'd like to make X one day. I'm more concerned what the implications are if we raise the postdoc salary by Y. Some people see it as an afront to science, that productivity will suffer, and I welcome them to talk about why they think this is true. I tend to think there are few downsides long-term. PI's will tighten their figurative science belts in the short term if they want to keep their staff the same. They'll learn to be more efficient. For those running on a shoestring budget that can't be more efficient, maybe they'll shut it down and find an alternative career. Maybe instead they'll get rid of a bad postdoc, or hire an inexpensive technician. Maybe they'll do some bench work themselves. Maybe they'll supervise their people better and do more mentoring, teaching postdocs how to do good science on 3K less/year. Postdocs will make a little more money in the short term, with the effect that some of their colleagues may lose their current jobs. These people find "alternative careers" 3-4 years earlier than if they continued their postdoc. Reducing the number of postdocs may increase the percentage of postdocs finding faculty jobs (but obviously not the absolute number). The NIH can say it helped out young scientists and helped contribute to the "STEM pipeline". • Jay says: Advice for the present day and age: if you are a graduate student about to enter the job market, interview to industry positions regardless of whether you want it or not. If you get an offer, you'll have leverage, or at least an understanding of how much money you're leaving on the table by doing a postdoc. And if you don't get any offer, than this just means that you're stuck in the academia route because you're life decisions regarding training weren't the best. • Jay says: *your • AA says: Why are PIs so dismal at simple mathematics? From the data provided by "Math": 2012 Level 0 stipend as % of peak (2004) = 90.6% 2012 Level 5 stipend as % of recent peak (2003) = 85.9% That means that current postdocs are being paid 10-15% less (in inflated adjusted dollars) than the past. Factor in the fact that PhD training has gone from 3 to 5-6 years since the 1950s, and postdoc training has gone from 0 to 5+ years in that same time frame. The practical reality is today is that scientists spend 10 years of their working life in underpaid jobs with no benefits. THAT'S NO JOKE. Here's why: If one assumes a working life span of 40 years (mid-20s to mid-60s), and contributing$5k to IRA every year for the 40 years, with a 5% return, that's about $600k at retirement. Because scientists are working in underpaid jobs with no benefits for the first 10 years of their life (and for simplicity let's assume that makes them unable to save$5k/yr), if they start contributing $5k to their IRA on the 11th year of their career, that gives them$300k at retirement. Go run the numbers in excel FV function yourself if you don't believe it.

To put it simply ***underpaid job with no benefits for 1/4 of a person's working life kills off half of our money at retirement***. I admit this calculations makes lots of assumption, but it clearly illustrates the sacrifices that scientists are making today.

So before all you old profs start making noise about how you were paid peanuts back in the days, times have changed. FYI, in the old days where it took 5 years to get a PI position, one would get $450k at retirement using the same model as above. Let's not even go into the fact that SS in a much better shape now than it will be for young scientists when they retire. So yes, if I was a PI, I would pay my postdocs more. If there is a limited pool, then hire less. Cut out the last 10% of the postdoc population, I bet those are not that productive and not 'value for money' either... • bill says: All this talk of zero-sum, finite funding etc has me thinking. This is back-0f-envelope thinking-out-loud: How many PI's are there in the US? I googled around a bit and came up with something on the order of 30-35K: And how many postdocs? Scuttlebut suggests ~100K, I can't find a reliable source. And how many technicians? Let's say two per postdoc just because I can't find any actual data, so 200K. technicians: 200K at average$30K = $6B postdocs: 100K at average$45K = $4.5B PI's: 33K at average$80K = $2.6B So total salary pool =$13.1B, just under half of NIH budget, passes sanity check for me. Somebody will of course yell if they think this is way off-base.

Now, let's play Jonathan's game (or we could call it DM's "how you like them apples" game) and have faculty share some of the pain.

According to the numbers above, we could fund a 6.7% postdoc pay increase to $48K if average faculty salaries fell 11.4% to$71K.

Or we could increase postdoc pay to $60K, cut faculty salaries by 10% to$72K and cull one in five postdocs.

Or the techs could get it in the neck as well: if we cull one in ten techs and one in ten postdocs and give faculty a 10% pay cut, postdocs can get $60k. How about it, faculty? • Physician Scientist says: AA- What you say makes complete sense, and I agree entirely. As a PI (for reasons I outlined in earlier comments), I can't do this for 2 reasons: 1. My R01(s) haven't been indexed to inflation and the buying power of a single R01 is much less than it was 10 years ago while labor costs, mouse costs and consumables have increased substantially. 2. Even if I had the money to do so, my school doesn't allow me to pay my post-docs more than someone else (or within 5-10% of someone else). As a former post-doc, I will say this...the post-doc position is a terrible position. A post-doc should do all they can to secure their own funding to insure their position and they should do all they can to be successful and transition to the next part of their career (whatever that might be). I think the majority of PIs on this discussion board understand the post-doc plight and have empathy. I do my best to get my post-doc additional benefits (travel, honorariums, consulting fees) but I have to do it in spite of the system, not because of the system. • Industry Scientist says: "Advice for the present day and age: if you are a graduate student about to enter the job market, interview to industry positions regardless of whether you want it or not. If you get an offer, you'll have leverage, or at least an understanding of how much money you're leaving on the table by doing a postdoc." Just FYI - 99.5% of the time, you're not getting a PhD scientist job in industry without doing a postdoc first (whether in academia or industry). The job market is so saturated right now the easiest way to cull applicants is to toss out anyone who hasn't done a postdoc. If you're a PhD and you apply to industry without a postdoc on your resume, you're SOL and likely wasting valuable time where you could be earning a postdoc to get a good industry job. It sucks, but that's the job market right now. If all you want is a quality job doing bench science, it's actually better to apply for RA industry jobs right out of college and skip graduate school entirely. Starting RAs make more than 5th year postdocs, with full benefits and yearly bonuses. Yes, they have a glass ceiling as to their career ladder, but they can have a very fulfilling career doing bench work science and make a very good salary without the 10 years of indentured servitude. And they actually have better job prospects than the scientists do as there's almost always a demand for good, experienced RAs where there may not be open positions for PhDs. I do recommend though that any new PhDs apply for industry postdocs if they can find them - you typically get three years of industry experience at a much higher salary than academia and it gets your foot in the door. Yes, you usually have to look for other positions after it's complete, but at least it has a finite ending as opposed to academia. • AA says: Physician Scientist - I appreciate your sentiment, and it would great if the majority of PIs are like you. I can understand when PIs have their hands tied by red tape from their institutions, etc... I still think it would not be that bad if postdoc salaries across the board get a 20% jump in exchange of axeing off the bottom 20% of the population, and I am speaking from the perspective of a trainee. Especially in biomedical fields, we have simply *too much* PhD holders, which is why postdoc limbo is increasing over the years... • bill says: AA -- according to my numbers (who knows how realistic they are, but they're all I have), a 20% cull would allow a 12.4% pay rise to about$56K average for the remaining postdocs.

Like you, I would not see this as a bad thing. Others have pointed out the insidious nature of the "but productivity!" argument.

• pancho says:

What about the increase in fringe (health insurance, etc)? That goes up if salary goes up. Price of supplies goes up, shipping goes up, it all adds up! That's where all the grant money goes. Also, increase in salaries (even mine), reduces travel budget-fewer meetings or participants. But its all good, right?

• Physician Scientist says:

Bill and AA-
I am in general agreement, however, I think your arguments might not have considered the other people in the lab. For instance, as my numbers earlier outlined, as a PI, I am in a fixed sum game. If I give Bill a $14K raise + benefits, I need to either cut that from somewhere. My choices are my$20K supply budget, my own 30% salary support (which my institution will not let me do), my fixed $36K mouse costs or my$45K + 29% benefits technician. Essentially, the only thing to do (assuming we can't subsist on a $2K per year supplies budget) is to lay off the technician. The newly raised post-doc then has 2 choices as there are now only 2 of us on the grant. 1. S/he can do all the mouse genotyping, ordering, chemical and radiation safety plans - keeping track of everyone's training, etc in addition to the regular post-doc job or 2. We can hire a straight out of college 22 yo technician for$25K/year + benefits. Of course this technician didn't get into med school because of their 2.8 GPA and spends all day texting/playing DOOM on the computer and screws up the mouse colony.

Please note that I am in lab at the bench 50-60% of the time, but because of the fractured nature of my schedule (meetings, teaching, study section, travel, etc) its hard for me to do the inventory and ordering every week or keep track of the genotyping/breeding of the mouse colony. I rely on my technician to do this.

Essentially, cutting the bottom 20% of post-docs to pay the upper 80% more only works mathematically if you're in a 4-5 R01 lab where you can better absorb the loss of infrastructure. In that case, a small decrease in the supply budget doesn't matter so much. The PI's salary support is not as big a percentage of each grant. Three technicians can probably do the work of 4. This works in a large, well-funded lab. Unfortunately, the number of 3+R01 labs is minimal and most of us have to make do with the above choices.

Again, I agree with you. Post-docs are paid too little. There's no job security and the future job prospects aren't great. I would hope that other PIs would throw their good post-docs honoraria, consulting fees, good conferences, etc. and I would implore that they do so.

• DrugMonkey says:

All of you that threw down at Rock Talk.... Thanks. Great job.

• Dave says:

Those ivory towers must be nice for some of you guys!! Jesus Christ. Dicking on post docs so that you can maintain your own fucking existence is about as low as it can get in my opinion. It's funny what people will do when their backs are against the wall and resources are limited.

• Virgil says:

@Bill, good start but I think your #s are off a bit. Add in fringe plus indirect costs, and that $13bn salary number probably comes closer to 20bn all told. On the topic of fringe, a big change recently is uniform post-doc' fringe rates, so PDs on fellowships now get full benefits instead of trainee benefits. National PDAssoc' has lobbied heavily for this. What's more, the fringe rates themselves are creeping up. At my institution post-doc's run a 31% fringe and it's going up again next year. Based on my own experience (i.e. what I was paid as a PDF vs. what I pay out now, both factoring in benefits) the true cost of hiring a post-doc' has doubled in little over a decade. All that time the modular budget cap has remained stationary at 250k. What this really speaks to, is the national PD Assoc' has utterly failed in their lobbying efforts, because they didn't include RAISING THE MODULAR BUDGET CAP in their negotiations. In any other busness, the surest way to get a raise is to bring in more money to the company. In academia, if you want a raise that means figure out a way for the PI to secure more funding. • DrugMonkey says: Oh yes, "dicking on postdocs" for maintaining my "existence" is definitely what this is all about. • bill says: PhysSci and Virgil make good points: All my figuring on averages obscures the fact that you can't cut 10% of your workforce if you only have one postdoc; small labs are likely to hurt more. But isn't that always the way, no matter what shit is coming down the pike it gets the little folks first and worst? And, I completely spaced any allowance for fringe, which in industry imo is typically expected to run 33%. Too late tonight, maybe I'll mess with it tomorrow some more. • bill says: Correction: that's imE, experience, not imO, opinion. I have no strong opinion and limited experience in industry (recent move). I pretty much only know how two or three companies estimate overhead, and no idea how the big guys (Roche etc) do it. • Physician Scientist says: Bill- If you eliminate the small labs, do you think the number of tenure-track assistant professorships for these better paid post-docs will increase? I think not. • Grumble says: @Jay "If you're aware that the reason you pay postdocs the shitty salary they get is because that's the world we live in (economy, budget cuts, excess supply), I don't have a problem at all. I completely agree with you. But don't try to put lipstick on a pig by saying that "you should be thankful for the shitty salary". That's what pisses me off. I hope in real life your personality is much better than your e-personality, because this one sucks. If you're attitude during salary negotiation is "I'll pay you enough so that you don't go through any hardship but not a penny more", than fuck you. I actually had the chance of going outside of academia for a better pay in a tangible way, as in I had offers that paid better but decided against it. " That about says it all. You had the chance to do something else that pays more, but heck, it was like working in a fucking salt mine, right? So you decided to forego the money to do a post-doc. Just like an artist turns down office work to focus on her painting, knowing full well that she will be remunerated in other ways (satisfying work, chance of glory, doing what she really wants to do, whatever). That's the way the world works, young fella. So I should feel sorry for you... why? As for salary negotiations, I can't negotiate post-doc salary -- not because my institution won't allow me to pay more than NRSA levels (it will), but because, as I wrote above, I. DON'T. HAVE. THE. MONEY. to pay more. Also, I haven't had to offer more in order to attract good post-docs. Should my post-docs be "thankful for the shitty salary"? Well, in my view, it's not a shitty salary. There are plenty of people in this country who earn far less. And it's about 25% more than what I was making in the late 1990s, in 2012 dollars, according to what someone posted above. So I'm sorry you don't like my e-personality, but you still haven't provided me with a reason why your whining is something I should be sympathetic to. • Grumble says: "Also on the fuck yous: don't claim you bought a house a car and a world, when your wife helped you, which is very different. I know academia may make you think that it's ok to claim ownership of the whole study just because you're name is in the author list, but it's a shitty attitude in life." Now it's your turn to go fuck yourself. First of all, I, and most PIs I know, *never* claim 100% credit for the work done in our labs. Second, I fully admit I was very lucky to marry a wonderful woman who happened to have a paycheck. But even had I not been so lucky, then sure, I wouldn't have bought the house (maybe a condo) etc, but I would have done quite well. At, remember, 75% of what you are making. • miko says: I am the only one who see studying mice as the problem here? • AA says: Grumble - "Well, in my view, it's not a shitty salary. There are plenty of people in this country who earn far less. And it's about 25% more than what I was making in the late 1990s, in 2012 dollars, according to what someone posted above. So I'm sorry you don't like my e-personality, but you still haven't provided me with a reason why your whining is something I should be sympathetic to." I hate people who have little understanding of finances who make up really crappy arguments: 1) What was the average time from 1st year of PhD to 1st year of tenure-track position back in the 1990s. It was half the time than it is today (which is a minimum of 10 years). Comparing back to the past and saying I earned less than you people today, needs to be contextualized in the fact that longer PhD+Postdoc time means more severe effects at retirement. See my earlier post, on how a decade worth of low paying job affects people's finances at retirement. 2) What's the state of SS in the near future (i.e. 10 years) compared to 40 years from now. Young scientists today will not get as fat a SS paycheck as you will (even when normalized for earning power over one's working life). So that's a double whammy to their financial health. 3) What's the market rate for a tech who just graduated with a BS with a shitty GPA. Much more than what Grad Students make, and when you take into account fringe benefits, probably more than what a 1st-year Postdoc makes, who has 5-ish years of working experience. So yes, if your hands are tied, you don't have money, your institution red tape is stonewalling you that's something that I can "understand". But your kind of mentality is just toxic, and I hope that the new generation of PIs don't think as you do... • AA says: Grumble - "Now it's your turn to go fuck yourself. First of all, I, and most PIs I know, *never* claim 100% credit for the work done in our labs. Second, I fully admit I was very lucky to marry a wonderful woman who happened to have a paycheck. But even had I not been so lucky, then sure, I wouldn't have bought the house (maybe a condo) etc, but I would have done quite well. At, remember, 75% of what you are making." So you admit your poor earning power in your PhD+Postdoc years were compensated by your wife's higher salary. That completely throws your "I was paid 25% less 20 years ago" argument out of the water. Hey, I'll be fine to be paid$10k/yr if my wife was a millionaire...

• miko says:

I think it is not the salary that's driving this, it is the steadily decreasing prospects of continuing a research career at the end of your training.

Yes, a "low entry level" professional wage is fine for a few years with some expectation of a progressive career path ahead. For 7-10 years with a brick wall at the end, not so much.

NOTE: before you tell me it was "also hard" or some shit to get a full time research job back in they day: You're fuckin' high.

• bill says:

What miko just said. In flaming letters sixty feet tall.

• DrugMonkey says:

Survival cannibalism PP? Hmmm....

• miko says:

"Survival cannibalism PP?"

Or, as people who aren't posturing hysterics call it, "prioritization."

But yes, I now see that any changes or reforms to how the biomedical career path is structured will bring down the Walls of Science and lead to carnage not unlike humans eating other humans to survive. Good discussion.

• DrugMonkey says:

miko-

Do you not agree with my continual theme that under runs these discussions? I.e. that proposals for solutions that exclusively screw the other guy, who btw is at fault in this scenario for being at best selfish and at worst nefarious, are suboptimal?

• DrugMonkey says:

And people. Are we *really* arguing over whether those who manage to convince another person to cohabitate with them are differentially worthy than those who cannot?

• Jonathan says:

I think the question everyone's dancing around is "are we spending too much money on crap science and crap scientists?" and the answer is probably yes. We're certainly training many more scientists than we need. At some point, if the biomedical research enterprise is to become sustainable, it's going to need a cull. It's also going to need to stop importing so much cheap temporary labor, which is why it was gratifying to see that the recent STEM immigration bill specifically excluded biomedical research from the STEM definition.

• dsks says:

Miko said,
"I now see that any changes or reforms to how the biomedical career path "

I think you're right that the pipeline is stuffed and that this is the main problem. But there is no way to reform our way out of that. The issue is more far reaching than that. It isn't just the grad/postdoc pipe that's backed up btw; there are far more PIs right now than the current funding can support. A reckoning is in process, and it is unlikely to be a temporary one. With the private sector paring back substantially due to a perceived stagnance in progress towards new and signficant clinical outcomes, and the government being more focused right now on propping up the exsiting rickety health care infrastructure, there just isn't a big push to support the current level of R&D activity in academia, let alone raise it.

As it is, the counterituitive policy of pushing PD salaries up while holding R01 funding is likely to accelerate this streamlining ("Intentional?" asked the cynic). There's not really much to be gained from the sailors fighting the officers while the ship is sinking underneath both sets of boots.

For my part, I'm just going to make sure my advisees get the straight dope about grad school (well, non-vocaitonal grad school at least, I guess there is still a demand fo MDs, PAs and whatnot for the time being at least). By that I don't mean avoid it at all costs, but at least give a more realistic appraisal of the employment prospects, which are pretty fucking shocking in every aspect of the life sciences, "alternative careers" included.

• miko says:

I do agree, yes. But I am not arguing for some one-dimensional thing like "raise everyone's salary and figure out the rest yourself." When I say there should be fewer postdocs, this is something you do with policy over time, not by saying "half of you will never be scientists, leave," which is basically what we do now.

1. No need to raise PD salaries.
2. Limit trainee numbers and time. There are lot of ways to do this... restrict trainee #/award, separate pools of $for training v. research (maybe more fellowships, but not allowed to spend rsch$ on trainee pay). This will close the the floodgates a little at both the entering grad school point and the PhD-->PD transition. In particular, closing the PhD-->PD bottleneck a is good. It's too easy to get a postdoc, because it's too easy for PIs to hire them. It should not be the default at the end of a PhD.
3. Allow spending of research grant funds (and overhead) on staff scientist positions that are progressive and compensated similarly to other non-faculty professional university staff.

No one is screwed by this who isn't already screwed by how it works now. Labs might have to be smaller, PIs might have to scale back their ambitions, BSDs won't get to burn through quite as much cannon fodder to get their next CNS paper. I don't think taxpayers should be paying to 1) train scientists we don't need 2) have students and temps do research instead of professional scientists. All policy should flow from these 2 points.

• Grumble says:

@AA:
"What was the average time from 1st year of PhD to 1st year of tenure-track position back in the 1990s. It was half the time than it is today (which is a minimum of 10 years)."

I don't know the average, but it took me exactly 10 years from *last* year of PhD to 1st year of tenure-track position. I think that was, and still is, fairly common.

"What's the state of SS in the near future (i.e. 10 years) compared to 40 years from now. Young scientists today will not get as fat a SS paycheck as you will (even when normalized for earning power over one's working life)."

The state of SS in the near future is in the hands of Obama and the Republicons. As it stands now, your rate of earning SS benefits is pretty much the same as mine has been, as there haven't been major changes over the last 15-20 years. I don't expect there to be huge changes over the next 15-20 years, because, as Krugman and others have been pointing out, SS is actually reasonably healthy and benefits really don't need to be cut.

"What's the market rate for a tech who just graduated with a BS with a shitty GPA. Much more than what Grad Students make, and when you take into account fringe benefits, probably more than what a 1st-year Postdoc makes, who has 5-ish years of working experience."

This I know, as I employ techs and have grad students. Techs start at $45k with full benefits; grad students,$31k with only full health insurance (no retirement). Then again, they're students. First year post-docs start at around tech salary and get full benefits. Post-doc salaries then rise pretty quickly, and of course most post-docs eventually end up in some position that pays a lot more than either post-docs or techs get - whereas techs are pretty much stuck. At my institution the salary for a 10+ year, highly experienced and independent tech maxes out at something like $65k. "That completely throws your "I was paid 25% less 20 years ago" argument out of the water. Hey, I'll be fine to be paid$10k/yr if my wife was a millionaire..."

You're missing the point of my argument, which was: if you get married to someone who makes approximately what you make (in my case, slightly more), you can live very well, and if you're single, you can still live very well, if not quite so high on the hog. My own post-docs tell me tales of fantastic vacations abroad and other expensive pursuits, and I guarantee you they are not all married to people making more than they are. No, they aren't as well of as their PI or any other faculty, but then they are younger and less experienced and are not in a managerial position. Somehow this all seems to me like the way the world works. It's not specific to academia.

I'm sure I'll never really convince you that you're not underpaid, but I don't care. As I said, I have *fantastic* post-docs who are willing to put up with what I pay them. And in fact you said yourself (if AA is the same person as Jay) that you made exactly the same decision as they did: take a post-doc job instead of a better-compensated hack job in industry. So why complain about money? You could be rolling in it.

• Grumble says:

@bill:
"According to the numbers above, we could fund a 6.7% postdoc pay increase to $48K if average faculty salaries fell 11.4% to$71K. "

The socialist in me kind of likes this idea. In general, post-docs earn something like 1/3 of what faculty earn. So, a 10% cut in salary for faculty would, if given to post-docs, mean a 25% pay increase. If this ever came up for a vote, I'd vote in favor. But good look figuring out how, practically, this transformation could be made to happen, much less getting my less socialist-minded colleagues to agree with it.

• Dynein says:

As a postdoc, I'm sure glad I don't work for most of the PI's in this thread.

• drugmonkey says:

And why is that Dynein?

Are you more comfortable with one who lies to you and keeps you in the dark about the realities of life?

• bill says:

So, a 10% cut in salary for faculty would, if given to post-docs, mean a 25% pay increase.

One of us is doing the math wrong... I think your numbers only work if there are as many PIs as there are postdocs, but since there are a lot more postdocs and we're leaving technicians as a fixed cost in this scenario, a 10% cut for faculty would only mean about a 6% raise for postdocs.

Of course you're right that it will never come to a vote, and would be shot down if it did. But I agree with dsks, it's not just postdocs that are in excess supply over demand: how long before universities start treating PI's the way (some/stereotypical) PI's treat postdocs? Soft-money positions are a step in that direction already, no?

• Physician Scientist says:

Bill-
My school has fired 8 assistant profs in the last 3 years. This has been done without faculty input, unilaterally by the dean and the finance people.

• drugmonkey says:

Soft money, ran out of money PS?

• AA says:

Grumble:

I think you are missing my point. I was trying to point out the very often used argument which is common amongst the older PIs is that "I was paid peanuts as a grad student / postdoc, so stop whining". That statement is misleading because it does take into account the changing economic situation of young scientists who (a) need to spend twice as longer in "PhD to faculty" limbo land with low pay and (b) the different fiscal situation of this nation in the near future vs far future.

For part (a), I don't know what field you are working in. But 10-year postdocs did not exist back in the 1990s, the typical postdoc was 1-2 years in the 1990s. 10-year postdoc do not even exist right now, but given the trend I won't be surprised if it does eventually.

For part (b), you'll need to think and look further ahead. SS is not in the hands of the politics, it's in the hand of simple mathematics. Our entitlement programs (Medicare and SS) will go red in 10-20+ years time. Our nation's debt is red, and it's not something that can be fixed overnight. US population demographics is aging, less young people to support old people. So it's not possible to sustain entitlements at their current level 40 years from now, when young scientists like us retire, and this increases the financial burden for our generation.

And as for your postdocs who love getting paid that salary, I think it's more of a situation where they tolerate it, because it's the way how things are and they are hoping to get that coveted faculty position. Based on the other PI posts here, and the constraints of the given system, yes I can "understand" why postdocs are being paid such low salaries. But "understanding" does not mean that I like it, and neither does it make the system right. I don't want to be paid \$40-50k/yr to do science for the rest of my life, and most postdocs will be with me on this. Postdocs were created as *temporary* jobs, in response to the glut of PhD graduates that started a few decades back. Emphasis on *temporary*, which is why low wages were acceptable back then. But now postdocs has turned into a non-temporary but not permanent job that lasts for 5 years and goes on as long as 10+ years for the extreme cases, so yes the situation has changed.

• AA says:

To clarify, I'm not advocating that my suggestion of "pay postdocs more" is the only right way to fix the problem. I've been looking at Miko's suggestions ( implement policies that reduce the PhD to perm job limbo time) and they work equally well, and to some extent I think it's even better.

• bill says:

10-year postdoc do not even exist right now

??

I like to pretend the 1.5 year fiasco in the middle didn't happen, but my first and third postdocs were both 4 years. That gives me 9.5 years, and I'm not at all unusual in my circle of professional acquaintance.

Average age at first award is 42 or 43 now, right? How many people finish their PhD significantly later than 32? I'd say ten years as a postdoc is well on the way to "normal".

• Physician Scientist says:

DM-
Yes. soft money. too long to get their R01s. The funny thing is, IMO, only 1 was really good and a loss for the university. If the university had done a full fledged review with faculty participation rather than a unilateral decision, they likely would have gotten 6 of the 7 fired and not damaged their relationship with the remaining faculty.

• Physician Scientist says:

AA-
I was a grad student from 1993-2000 (MD/PhD) and a post-doc from 2002-2006 at schools where the post-docs were very good. If anything, the mid-90's post-docs in the biomedical sciences were a year shorter than in the mid-2000's.

• drugmonkey says:

the typical postdoc was 1-2 years in the 1990s.

HAHAHHAHAHAAHAH!

No, no they were not.

• Jonathan says:

Yep, you have to back to 1980 to get back to the days of 25% of R01s going to PIs under the age of 35.

• Industry Scientist says:

"I think the question everyone's dancing around is "are we spending too much money on crap science and crap scientists?" and the answer is probably yes. We're certainly training many more scientists than we need. At some point, if the biomedical research enterprise is to become sustainable, it's going to need a cull. It's also going to need to stop importing so much cheap temporary labor, which is why it was gratifying to see that the recent STEM immigration bill specifically excluded biomedical research from the STEM definition."

Exactly. The system is heading for a crash - there's simply not enough funding or positions to go around to satisfy both PIs and the current number of grad students and postdocs. And the grumbling from the postdocs comes more from the fact the carrot (a tenure track professorship or R&D industry position) only goes to those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time (really, there are so many people looking for jobs right now you need both skill AND luck to snag one). If the job market improved I bet most of the salary complaining would disappear.

There has to be fewer students coming into the system at the start, the criteria for passing quals and thesis proposals needs to be tougher to weed out the mediocre and there needs to be a way to get the poor-performing postdocs out of the system entirely. Poor performers are a drain on resources and time - there's no sense in having an extra set of hands if those hands continually interfere with the competent ones.

While I sympathize with wanting to keep everyone employed, it's just not realistic, especially if the funding system can't sustain everyone currently in biological science as it is. If that's the case, then why not start with getting rid of the worst performers? Seems the easiest place to start restoring some balance.

• AA says:

To All: -

Regarding the 10 year postdoc thing, maybe it is field specific since I am not a pure biologist, but I work in bio-related fields. But seriously 10 years postdoc is the norm now? In my field, 5 years is the "norm", 10 years is the equivalent to "forget about finding a perm job" status.

I have worked for 2 young PIs so far, who were trained in the 1990s. They did 2 years of postdoc before landing faculty positions.

• DrugMonkey says:

We should be careful about terms. Average postdoctoral time *for those who eventually became faculty* is different from overall average postdoctoral time.

• bill says:

10 years = normal
10 years = forget about a permanent job

These two things are not at all inconsistent.

• AA says:

To clarify, by postdoc time, I was referring to the postdoc time spent by new Asst. Profs, which has gone from an average of 2 years to 5 years over the last 10-20 years. At least, that's for my field

• Eli Rabett says:

What Industry Scientist said. PIs are going to have to stop training so many PhDs. Labs have to become smaller.

• Dave says:

Does time in soft-money positions count as post-doc time? Curious. I was moved into an Instructor position 3 years into a post-doc (age 29). I thought it was a good move at the time, but I am not sure now how this looks if I decide to apply for TT positions.

• DrugMonkey says:

Did that position allow you to write grants ? What was the point of the promotion and what did you accomplish accordingly? That's all people will want to know.

• blatnoi says:

"There is a fixed pool of NIH money here supporting science. Actually it is shrinking. But whatever. If all the postdocs are paid more per year, there are going to be fewer post docs supported. Or, as PP points out, no money to do research. Perhaps these disgruntledocs are okay with the latter but they sure as hell aren't going to be okay with the former when it is them that is out of a job.

What gives these morons the idea that they would be magically exempt from the axe?"

AHAH HA HA HA HA HA!!!! You fool! Bring it on! From hell's heart I stab at thee!

• Brugg says:

To comment and resurrect an old post, I don't see why it has to be a zero-sum game, i.e. PI vs tech vs trainee. Indirect cost would more than provide for salary and benefit increases all around, and that would be the focus of everyone when it comes to trimming.

Not that NIH would allow ever, but any R1/RUVH biomed dept can run leaner and meaner if it was housed at an office/research park box-like building. Startup biotechs do this and hold cost down to the minimal. Why can't academic research think outside the box?

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