On justification of postdoctoral salary

Jul 09 2015 Published by under Postdoctoral Training

If you have been following along, Dear Reader, you will know that I asked a very simple question on Twitter

which resulted in a lot of heat and very little light. Mostly, instead of answering the question, people loudly accused me of making a claim that postdocs did not deserve their meagre salaries. Alternately people angrily demanded that I justify my supposed opposition to some proposed raise to current postdoctoral pay. You will note that I made no claims and offered no opinion on what postdoctoral pay should be. (You will also note that my query is inclusive of professorial types that often whine about how they are underpaid relative to ....something, but this got lost in the torchlighting ceremony.)

Lenny Teytelman was one of those pointedly refusing to answer in his own words but he did eventually appeal to authority. Once again, upon query, he was unable to put an elevator pitch or bullet points together to defend his position and insisted that I read his favored authoritative recommendation for increased postdoc pay.

The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited by the Committee to Review the State of Postdoctoral Experience in Scientists and Engineers; Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy; Policy and Global Affairs; National Academy of Sciences; National Academy of Engineering; Institute of Medicine is available for download here.

The bullet point answers are to be found on page 5 and in Appendix B.
(1) indexing to contemporary college graduates,
(2) indexing to graduate stipends,
(3) indexing to newly hired assistant professors,
(4) inflation of previous recommendations, and
(5) Research Grade Evaluation Guide.

Most of these are straightforward, the last item is apparently how NIH sets federal salaries for intramural researchers. To cut to the chase, the book uses these to arrive at $50,000 as the recommended starting salary for postdocs. Let's unpack.

Federal salaries- right here we are making a bunch of assumptions. It is not clear at all that all postdocs should get the Federal rate, this is not justified. Is anybody else's salary (technicians or PIs) tied to what NIH has to pay intramural people for comparable roles? Mine sure as heck isn't. So this is, right here, the special snowflake rationale. It's the justification of "just because". I find this less than satisfying.

With respect to the graduate stipends, Appendix B includes "total cost" of which "more than half...is for tuition and fees". So right here we start to dismantle Teytelman's claim that this is some sort of justification that should be taken seriously. Obviously the numbers depend entirely upon a set of assumptions. In this case the total cost for a graduate student is presented as being a good estimate for what postdocs should get paid. This makes no obvious sense. Under the current definition, postdocs receive education / training just like graduate students do. If this has monetary value for one, it should for the other. So we have to subtract something of this "more than half" of $51,000 that is for training to arrive at the equivalent justifiable postdoc salary. This one is worse than arbitrary because it makes no internal sense.

Indexing to newly hired assistant professors is an example of assumptions and definitions pulled out of thin air. It says in the Appendix B that average 9-mo salary for biological/biomedical new hires in public research Universities is $74,177. But, I kid you not, "Assuming a reasonable starting salary for a postdoctoral researcher to be approximately two-thirds of this nine-month amount implies ... $49,698". Why do we assume two-thirds is reasonable? Why not two-thirds of the 12 month salary assuming grant paid summer salary? Why not three-fifths? Why not half? The authoritative finding has just pulled this out of thin air to back-justify the number they had already arrived upon. Nice trick.

This leaves us with the two half-decent arguments.

Page 63 is the start of the meat of the discussion on indexing to prior stipend levels and accounting for inflation. The key part is this:

The NIH NRSA stipend for beginning postdoctoral researchers in 2004 was $35,568, which would be $43,230 in 2012 dollars (or $44,207 in 2014 dollars). Despite repeated calls to raise postdoctoral salaries, the NRSA stipend was increased to only $39,264 in 2012. In 2014, NIH raised the stipend to $42,000, which, in real terms, is actually lower than the 2004 level.

You know I love an inflation argument. This suggests there is a 5% gap in the NRSA recommendation for FY2014. This is fine. Except for one little problem. The economy and the recession.

Somewhere in the interval between 2004 and 2014, I am here to tell you, many of us academics went through a period of salary freeze. Intervals in which our annual cost of living raises (2%? 3%? pick your number) were not applied for 1-3 years. Some Universities threatened furloughs which amounted to pay *cuts* for certain years to go along with the lack of raises. I haven't followed the niceties of who actually got cuts and who got raises restored on schedule. The point is simple...many of the people postdocs rub elbows with are also down 4-5% of their salary level in 2014 compared to where they "should" have been based on inflation adjustment raises. So yeah, this benchmark makes a lot of sense in isolation but being 5% off the target just puts postdocs in the same bin with a lot of the rest of us, techs to PIs. This is another special flower argument by some ways of looking at it.

This leaves us with the argument about country-wide stats for bachelor's educated people in their late twenties. Why not the Master's or Professional bins? Who knows???? It's not stated.

The data you are supposed to be looking at is here at the US census (now updated to FY2013 instead of the 2012 data referenced in the NAS report). Particularly Table P-32, I think. Among other things, do note that women get less than men on average. Notice also, that the age bin breakdowns only offer the means whereas other tables let you match up median and means. As you might expect, the mean has a rightward skew. So this NAS report is referencing the skewed measure of central tendency.

Puzzling over these census data you have to arrive at the same query...why? Why pick any one of these numbers to say that postdocs are underpaid? Why does this reference answer my starting question about what is the justification? All it does is put a fake number on a question that requires a deeper response. Why are we different? Why should we assume we get the central tendency as our minimum? After all, the GAO found that public sector salaries are 24% lower than private sector ones. You could argue that that is an outrage. Or, you could argue that this is a reflection of the non-salary benefits and justifications people get for working in one sector versus another. I can't say I see this bullet item as being any sort of objective justification either.

For any of these five methods, one can come up with a lower or higher number just by making different assertions and assumptions about what is reasonable.

This is no answer.

183 responses so far

  • Postdoc isn’t a baby learning how to hold a pipette. Postdoc is a scientist. PhD is the training period. Postdoc is an artificial construct that is the result of the over-production of PhDs and the lack of academic positions for them.

    The problem is that the academic pipeline assumes a faculty position at the end, but these positions don’t exist. Here are some sobering stats on the percent of biomedical PhDs getting faculty positions:

    1963: 61%
    1983: 38%
    1993: 25%
    2003: 15%
    2014: <10%

    That we haven’t revised the pipeline in light of the changed landscape means that the vast majority of PhDs go through 4-6 years of postdoc training before they finally give up and get a non-TT job. And you can’t just tell the scientists to skip the postdoc because biotechs and pharmaceuticals expect it. It’s very hard for a postdoc to find an industry job, and for most PhDs it’s nearly impossible straight out of graduate school.

    We have trapped junior scientists in a pipeline that is 10-12 years without the academic job you are working towards all these years. We are not talking about entitlement and desire for guarantees or job security. We have a situation where it’s fewer years to become a surgeon, and that surgeon job at the end is guaranteed. I know that not everyone wants to be a surgeon, but this situation, for lack of a better word, is fucked up.

    Graduate stipends are okay. And $40,000 postdoc salary, if it was for a year or two with a high probability of a faculty job at the end – that would be fine. But keeping researchers in the current trap during their peak reproductive years, with insufficient salary to afford kids – that isn’t fine.

    Of course artists, actors, humanities PhDs have it worse. The citizens of Mogadishu have it much worse. That’s not an argument to justify underpaying postdocs, and Obama’s rule change isn’t aimed at just postdocs but at all who are underpaid. If the overtime rule changes and leads to higher salary for postdocs, that seems infinitely reasonable. Or is there some special reason postdocs should be exempt from the benefits extended to others in our society?

    Yes, when you say, “no one forced you to get a PhD” you are correct. I agree that we don’t have to raise the postdoctoral salaries. We can just continue as is, waiting for the point where the bubble pops and good students stop applying for biomedical PhDs because of the depressing prospects. This will self-adjust, but that will be a much more painful and costly adjustment for our society.

  • Overpaid postdoc. says:

    I was always under the impression that we typically reserved the term "underpaid" for people who, if they just decided to change careers, they've have a higher income (and not have to compromise on job stability etc), but they stick to their low-income path because they'd rather work towards some noble goal (teaching, science, etc) than towards making some rich folk even richer.

    Half-decent grad students get recruited from our lab into biotech industry, with starting salaries over $100k. The ones that turn down these positions to stay postdocs earn less than half this. Sure it was their choice, and who knows what insanity possesses them, but they work just as hard as the industry folks, and you're damn right they're underpaid.

    The real question is: should we, as a society, spend more taxpayer money improving the lives of postdocs who drive our scientific industry? Personally, I say no. Fuck them. I got a K99, so everything is fine.

  • Karl says:

    What Lenny said. Also your "I'm just asking rational questions but actually trolling" schtick is pretty tiresome.

  • DrDadPhD says:

    Personally, I don't have a problem with postdoc salaries.

    A postdoc is meant as an apprenticeship, and like many blue collar trades this involves training. Yes, most postdocs have some scientific knowledge and are scientifically independent. But we don't necessarily know the proper procedures of how things are done. This type of training requires an investment of time and in my mind justifies the perceived reduced pay.

    I think the real issue here is not the salary, but the training itself. Too many postdocs are not advancing their careers and serving more as research techs than postdocs. Without the training implied by a postdoc position, much of the value is stripped away, leaving trainees feeling used and underpaid. After all, if postdoc positions aren't advancing your career, is it still an apprenticeship?

    ***I say this as someone who was badly burned by my last postdoc. It was hell and horrible, but none of my complaints had to do with salary. It was the training environment that caused the problem.

  • Ola says:

    @Lenny
    At the risk of breaking Internet Rule 14, I hate to break it to you, but the arguments you're making here are loaded with teh weaksauce...

    PhD is the training period. Postdoc is an artificial construct

    This is simply not true. PhD is the training period in terms of learning how to do science. Post-doc' is when you learn all the other stuff you need in order to survive in academia - how to write grants/papers, how to manage/supervise minions, how to teach, how to fix things instead of wailing to the boss "buy me a new one", how to negotiate, how to review and criticize others' work, etc. The PhDs I've seen who went into faculty positions too soon (after 0-2 years post-doc) have crashed and burned badly because they didn't have these skills. There's no framework to teach these things in grad school, because the kids are too busy learning other stuff.

    And you can’t just tell the scientists to skip the postdoc because biotechs and pharmaceuticals expect it. It’s very hard for a postdoc to find an industry job, and for most PhDs it’s nearly impossible straight out of graduate school.

    Flat wrong. Lots of PhDs are recruited straight out of grad school. Biopharma companies come and recruit them from us while they're still in grad school. #FF @cheekyscience on Twitter if you need any evidence that former post-doc's make awesome industry scientists.

    We have a situation where it’s fewer years to become a surgeon, and that surgeon job at the end is guaranteed.

    The only possible answer to this is "Well go be a surgeon then!"

    Of course artists, actors, humanities PhDs have it worse. The citizens of Mogadishu have it much worse. That’s not an argument to justify underpaying postdocs,

    And in the same vein, saying surgeons have it better, is not an argument either! You see what I did there... boom... that's the sound of your head exploding (crash, tinkle, tinkle).

    Graduate stipends are okay. Keeping researchers in the trap during their peak reproductive years, with insufficient salary to afford kids isn’t fine.

    Graduate stipends are more than okay - you get paid $25k a year to stay in school FFS! As for the notion that post-doc' salary can't pay for kids, the high percentage of post-doc's who actually HAVE kids, would seem to suggest that salary is not inhibiting them from procreating. There are not huge #s of post-doc's ranting that they can't have kids specifically because they don't earn enough.

    We can just wait for the point where the bubble pops and good students stop applying for biomedical PhDs because of the depressing prospects. This will self-adjust, but that will be a much more painful and costly adjustment for our society.

    Why can't we wait for this? Some would argue it's already happening (our grad program intake is 50% of what it was a decade ago). And why is this more painful? Why is it that people weighing the evidence and deciding not to get into something, is more painful than people walking blindly into a career and then freaking out when they realize it cant support their chosen lifestyle? Why does "society" have to feel guilty for these folks not doing their due-diligence before taking the plunge? It's not like the current situation was somehow thrust upon us suddenly - it's been slowly developing since the end of the NIH doubling in 2003, well before the current crop of PDFs were entering grad school. Nobody can argue with a straight face that these folks didn't know what they were getting into.

    And lastly, explain to me how a situation where people make more sensible career choices early on, will be "more costly" compared to, say, raising salaries for those who didn't make such choices?

  • Philapodia says:

    "Also your "I'm just asking rational questions but actually trolling" schtick is pretty tiresome."

    I find it very useful. Asking important questions, pointing out inaccurate assumptions, considering options, and having a vigorous discussion about it is the essence of scientific inquiry. If you think this is trolling you may be in the wrong field.

  • Mikka says:

    I'm really torn here. The communist in me screams for the toiling masses in the postdoc holding tank, but the manager in me gasps when he sees that salaries eat up almost the totality of my R01.

    But salaries are not the real problem. The bottom line is that even with increased salaries, the academic pathway is an almost sure career suicide, and a completely sure choice of >10 years of misery. My grad student, one of the finest minds I've ever come across, just told me that he intends to go into industry after graduating. I can't in good conscience give him any arguments against it (other than that industry isn't really a sure bet either, these days). This is a disaster of our own doing: the smart ones, being smart, will opt out of this racket. Mediocrity will prevail.

  • Mikka says:

    Also, Ola:

    "There are not huge #s of post-doc's ranting that they can't have kids specifically because they don't earn enough."

    Women do:

    http://incubator.rockefeller.edu/want-to-keep-women-in-science-pay-postdocs-more/

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    I'm not sure how it applies to bench-types (although I suppose they could compare themselves to MDs), but computational types in the sciences like myself have friends who became Wall Street "quants" right out of grad school (and sometimes not even that) and who are legitimately rich by any measure even compared to full tenured faculty, not just their postdoctoral peers. Given that the work of a quant and a computational biologist are quite similar (some tools like R are even used by both), it isn't unreasonable to consider the former grossly underpaid. Yes, we in the sciences can hold our moral superiority around us like a warm blanket, but still.

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    Yes, the latter.

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    "We can just continue as is, waiting for the point where the bubble pops and good students stop applying for biomedical PhDs because of the depressing prospects. This will self-adjust, but that will be a much more painful and costly adjustment for our society."

    "Why is it that people weighing the evidence and deciding not to get into something, is more painful than people walking blindly into a career and then freaking out when they realize it cant support their chosen lifestyle? Why does "society" have to feel guilty for these folks not doing their due-diligence before taking the plunge?"

    I think one of the issues that is being overlooked here is the fact that there is a middle ground. There are a lot of undergrads getting bad advise from professors about career prospects. Academic always like to hold up the success of their student as a badge of honor, so they council their students to go into grad school despite the dismal prospects. Before I applied for grad school I sat down with a trusted mentor and explained that I wasn't worried about getting the PhD, but I was afraid of being stuck in a postdoc for 5 years afterwards. I didn't want to go to grad school if I was going to be 30 and still not have a real job. I got the "it's not going to happen to you because you're a special snowflake" speech, so I went to grad school. Lo and behold, 30 and no real job, plus the average amount of time in a postdoc had inflated to 10 years by that time.

    In my case, I also had the added pressure of having lady bits. This whole, "Yay Rah women in STEM" push means that if you make it through undergrad and don't hate science, then you OWE it to your whole gender to follow through. Otherwise the ghost of Rosalind Franklin will haunt your dreams making disappointed faces.

    Thankfully I found a lifeboat out of academia, but that only happened because I was willing to take a second job for a year to make the transition out. Knowing what I know now, I wish I had a time machine so I could meet up with undergrad me and wallop her upside the head.

  • anon says:

    Part of the answer, of course, is that there is no answer. You can fill-in-the-blank to the phrase "On justification of [XXX] salary" and get a range of arguments: too high, just right, too low. You could even personalize it to "On justification of Drugmonkey's salary" and get the same range of impassioned opinions.

    That isn't to say that the opinions or supporting evidence are without value. They are informed by people's experience, background, and values. That's OK. Surely I can't be the only one who read the article about the $57,697 salary of the prison tailor accomplice of the New York prison escapees (http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/06/12/us/ap-us-escaped-prisoners.html) and thought, "WTF - that's more than XX's salary"

    What I don't agree with, and I apologize if I've missed some of the comments, is the underlying premise that any PI (myself included) gets to "ride" (to use a verb that I did see in the comments but found objectionable) a PD to work limitless hours. You don't have to pay PDs more. You just need to abide by labor laws. Those laws can, and should, change over time. And just like in any industry, there is flexibility in how you do that: you can have people account for their own time (and trust that it averages out in the end), you can enforce strict "work hours" and comp time for work necessary outside these hours, or you could increase a worker's salary so that it exceeds the threshold where overtime is an issue.

    Using the "you'll never get a job unless you slave away for 60-80 hours a week" cudgel is just an intimidation tactic. In my experience (full prof, 10 years in), I've seen staff who work half as many hours exceed the productivity of those who make a point to show how much they work.

  • mH says:

    DM as much as anyone recognizes the institutional/funding/human inertia that keeps the academic science labor racket going. Federal-level policies that disrupt that racket are good and are the only thing will force a serious effort at reforms at the NIH and university levels in a way that advocacy from the trenches never ever ever would.

    My justification for a postdoc salary increase is that it is a component of all rational reforms to reshape the academic training/research model, so we may as well start there with optimism that it can be used as a spur to bring about other changes. By making an increased salary for PDs non-optional--not something "on the table" but something mandated by the FLSA--it forces funders and universities to rethink the mechanisms that support these positions and how many of them there should be. Ideally if a PD costs $50K it moves us closer to a staff scientist model.

  • dr24hours says:

    Postdocs are probably *overpaid* according to simple market forces. It would be relatively easy to find PhDs to work for something like $35K in a lot of labs, if there were no rules. But the NIH's rules about training grant salaries, artificially boost the floor.

    People who complain about being paid "below market value" because a BSc can make more do not understand the demand/supply equation for PhD labor.

  • drugmonkey says:

    LT- you are making the argument to fix the labor category we use postdocs for, not arguing effectively for a minor raise. A permanent professional staff position with benefits, expected COL adjustment, greater stability, etc. now where, o where, have I heard someone arguing for that as a fix to the NIH system? Hmm. Where was that......?

  • Brain says:

    One angle that does not seem to be included in this discussion is the labor market for post-docs. This is what determines salaries for most positions in the "real world". My impression is that there are fewer positions available now than 10 years ago. At the very least, it seems harder to find a post-doc. Maybe Datahound knows of a source tracking the number of post-doctoral positions in the US?

    If it is true that there are fewer positions now, from a market perspective this would put downward pressure on salaries.

  • Amboceptor says:

    "This is a disaster of our own doing: the smart ones, being smart, will opt out of this racket. Mediocrity will prevail."

    I wouldn't say THAT. The people who stay in the racket will be people from elite pedigrees, and some people from non-elite pedigrees with particular traits: Incredibly good at selling their plans in grant form, and also have exceptional levels of self-confidence such that they aren't discouraged by the awareness that they spend nearly all their time writing grants that won't get funded.

  • In 1998, the year 0 NRSA stipend was $21,000; today it's $43,000. That's between 4% and 5% increase per year. Over the exact same time frame, first-year associate salaries in giant law firms increased less than between 3% and 4% (obviously, from a much higher starting point): http://www.nalp.org/1014research.

  • mH says:

    "the smart ones, being smart, will opt out of this racket."

    No, those who can't take on increasing career risk, financial instability, family planning delays, or who don't have the suite of unearned advantages that accrue around certain classes will be the ones who "opt out."

    CPP - baselines matter when you look at relative increases.

  • mH says:

    and nothing about the academic research economy is set by market forces. it's all central planning. if it weren't it wouldn't exist.

  • Anka says:

    I think another problem with NIH postdoc salaries is that they're not scaled to the local economy. Where I live, an NIH postdoc salary is a pretty reasonable amount for a two-income family to have 1-2 children. In some places in the South, it's enough for a 1-income family to have a kid or two. In NYC or Boston, you probably can barely eat, drive and shelter yourself on that much! Some institutions make up the difference in local cost of living, but many don't.

  • kalevala says:

    "I think the real issue here is not the salary, but the training itself. Too many postdocs are not advancing their careers and serving more as research techs than postdocs. "

    The real issue is that the oversupply of PhDs means that BSD-wannabe PIs have at their disposal a huge stable of cheap labor to pick and choose from, and usually pick those who don't care about the piss-poor training environment. These aren't necessarily the worst candidates, in fact a superstar postdoc might not want/need any training (or feel like they don't anyway). Those looking for an above-average training experience are usually shunned as high-maintenance prima donnas (as evidenced by the derogatory term "special snowflake").

  • drugmonkey says:

    1998 was one of the big jumps/corrections to NRSA right? Or was that 1997?

  • becca says:

    Resolved: If NIH does not set a floor, and the government allows unlimited J1 visas, postdoc salaries will decrease.
    How low can they go? Try adjunct salaries (say $22k), and then subtract more for the influx of migrant labor.
    If you make market based arguments, you need to realize that in the absence of regulation and standardization, postdoc salaries can go lower than current grad student stipends. They can go much lower than local minimum wages (full time minimum wage in Seattle works out to $31k). In all likelihood you can get your Westerns done using fiver. Woo! NIH taxpayer savings! No fringe rate!

    Now. Here's the tricky part. In the absence of regulation in the form of NIH setting grant sizes... the exact same phenomenon applies to PIs. You think grants are hard to get now? Try a world where everybody can write them and everybody reviews them. Oh wait, we already have Kickstarter.

    I don't think postdoc salaries are appalling. I do think an increase to 50k from 42k is a good idea. I think the difference between 42k a year and 50k a year in salary is the difference between having an IRA AND being able to get dental work done vs. having to choose between them. I think it's the difference between being very worried about money and being somewhat worried about money. I also have noticed the psychology literature says that, regardless of whether 10 years of not getting your COL hurts, happiness tends to max out around 75k in salary. It hurts to not get paid more over time if you view $ as a sign of validation for your existence, but academia is unabashedly designed for people who don't find $ as the most crucial validation for their existences. I won't say *you* won't appreciate the $8k in salary more than *I* would, but I would wager good money that postdocs as a group will benefit from it more than PIs as a group.

    More importantly, I also have noticed that universities are large complex machines for extracting tuition dollars from the upwardly aspirational... and that the grad student tuition coming from R01s is a huge racket. I'd want grad students to get a raise before I'd want it for postdocs, and I'd want postdocs to get it before PIs, but you could literally take the money and blow it on a 4th PCR machine the lab and it would be better spent than by spending it tuition. Spending research monies on tuition only encourages universities to structure themselves to soak up as much of that money as possible, i.e. by admitting more graduate students. There is a huge structural problem of too many PhDs... but an ickier problem of too many students admitted to programs that do not finish.

  • kalevala says:

    "Post-doc' is when you learn all the other stuff you need in order to survive in academia - how to write grants/papers, how to manage/supervise minions, how to teach, how to fix things instead of wailing to the boss "buy me a new one", how to negotiate, how to review and criticize others' work, etc."

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHA

    Ask Juan Lopez et al. if they are gonna waste their time with postdocs who aren't doing any benchwork but rather spending all their time trying to be a mini PI. Maybe if you're in a super BSD lab, but then again the pedigree from being there is much more valuable.

    It kills me that people still promulgate the Golden Age postdoc experience. Let's be honest, the purpose of the postdoc is to be that last chance to amass pedigree and glamour hump your way into the Club.

  • mH says:

    Things I've learned from some PIs on these threads:

    1. Most postdocs are mediocre entitled whiners whose value and career prospects are nowhere near what they delusionally think they deserve.

    2. Having to fire one of these puffed-up, meh-performing postdocs would be an unspeakable tragedy for My Lab and Science.

    Trying to parse that.

  • dr24hours says:

    Also probably overpaid according to market forces? Assistant Professors. Which of you postdocs would not take a TT Asst Prof gig for $60K/yr?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Ah, it was 1999 that initiated the 30% upward correction. So PP's average increase incorporates this bump.

  • Krzysztof Sakrejda says:

    "I am eternally curious why science doctorate types think they are underpaid."

    So what would NIH-scale look like for me: there's no way I could support my kids on NIH-scale post-doc money or, if I didn't have kids, save for retirement. If I had an illness in my family or somebody else fell on hard times I would not be able to provide financial support or take vacation time to help them. I would not be able to buy a home. Maybe I could pull off one of those, maybe.

    I have skills needed in my field and I'm getting good at it but there are certainly plenty of people who are better. I can think of a dozen PI's in my professional circles who are actively looking for post-docs with skills like mine and some of them have suggested that they would like to hire me out of my current position b/c finding the skills is hard. I also know plenty of science-doctorate-type people who would be good at these positions but even if they want to do the work it makes no sense for them to apply for purely financial reasons (a pay cut is fine for interesting work but you want to be able to make ends meet, we're scientists not monks). It doesn't help NIH to live in this fictional world where you can hire people with whatever skills you need for $40k.

    It looks like I'm going to post-doc not on the NIH scale for a few years and if I manage to get all the feathers in the cap needed for a faculty position fine, but the alternative is industry or government either of which would come, conservatively, with a 50% pay raise.

    So yes, I think science doctorate types are underpaid and it's a waste of talent that "we" as a country can't move to a system with a better career trajectory for science doctorate types. I think we would get better and more innovative science with a more straightforward career trajectory.

    PI's have my full sympathy about budgetary woes. However, PI types suggesting that post-docs are in a "training phase" and therefore not worth more money than the NIH scale are ignorant of industry. In industry science post-doc types (or even science B.S. types) also get training, and yes part of that training is entirely new to them (e.g.-management). Sure there are trade-offs and you need to really rock your responsibilities to have sufficient time to maintain your academic scientist credentials by publishing lots of papers but the view of industry as some sort of intellectual graveyard is ignorant. PI's suggesting that post-docs "made the choice" to be post-docs and should live with the salary levels in their chosen profession are just using the tools of the used car salesman and trashy appartment rental agent in their wage negotiations. That's fine but it's just manipulation so let's not pretend it's a reasoned argument. Post-docs who go along with these arguments have just been spending too much time at the bench to read any (labor) history.

    Finally, there's also this idea kicking around here that science doctorate types knew what they were getting into (or should have). That might be true of people with academic families or well-connected families with some academic friends, or people who got good professional advice. It ignores that scientists do a dismal job of professional advising and that plenty of science doctorate types grew up in situations where school (including a PhD) was viewed as an achievement that would deliver a middle class life. If most of the people in your high school were going straight from poverty to poverty, getting into college and a PhD program sounded pretty good. It sounded so good you might even believe when people told you not to worry about how to go from college to a living wage. Don't act like an ass just because _you_ knew what an academic career would look like.

    My first job was maintenance work at a wastewater treatment plant cleaning holding tanks and sanding/painting rusty equipment*. The maintenance guys (and they were all guys) had negotiated decent working conditions and pay but they certainly would have done better if the operating engineers didn't negotiate separately (and on the management side w.r.t. the negotiations for the maintenance crew). In science we're just re-playing the oldest labor-busting tactic in the world with less stink and fancier shoes**.

    So yes, if you train four years (science b.s. I assume) and apprentice for four years (science PhD) and then the job offer you get doesn't include a "living wage", you are underpaid. Whether you choose to suffer with it, accept it, jump ship to ____, negotiate your way up, or fight for a living wage is up to you. By U.S. standards you are underpaid, same as the guy working at Wallmart, same as the guy pulling staples all day at that little medical document scanning place in Eugene, Oregon (hey guys!)

    p.s.-I really don't understand why "underpaid" requires special pleading. This is the U.S. where the rule is high productivity, middling profit, and low wages. Underpaid is who we are.

    *lovely place to work by the way, but the city was too expensive to live in... (http://www.cityofmillvalley.org/Index.aspx?page=49)
    ** although they had a glorious shoe allowance at the time, nicest boots I ever owned.

  • Dennis Eckmeier says:

    First, I think DM is missing the point. All this wasn't started by postdocs demanding more money. This was started by the POTUS deciding professional workers deserve overtime pay, and (future) postdocs getting their hopes up.

    Let's also keep in mind that when I asked DM in return how he thinks his salary was justified his answer was 'the market'... now, first of all I don't think this is true, but more importantly, he wanted to be the wise teacher here, but when his 'students' failed (in his eyes) he wasn't big of a role model either. His answer has no meaning at all. Maybe we should decrease PI salaries, then?

    Why should professional workers be exempt from over time pay already at a payline below the median national income at all? Don't outstandingly qualified workers deserve to be paid more when they work more? Is the dollar somehow worth more if you have a PhD? Does having a PhD magically make $24k so much that it should include any work you do, regardless of how much it is? I don't think so.

    The second more general part is that the claims made to justify low postdoc salaries and benefits aren't contemporary anymore ('low' already in comparison to industry, that is):

    - It was meant to only be temporary
    The postdoc phase duration has doubled

    - It was meant to prepare postdocs for the PI job
    Up-starting PIs keep reporting how unprepared they are

    - It is all about the postdocs and their career
    postdocs are often (ab)used for lab managing and other technician jobs (because they are cheaper, over qualified and work harder), and especially in tenure track labs, due to current pressures on PIs, it's actually more about the PI's careers than anything else.
    It's gone so far that when PIs ask for research staff with real contracts, grant reviewers ask them to use PD instead, because they are cheaper.

    - There was meant to be a high chance for a prestigious, tenured position at the end
    The PhD graduation rate is sky rocketing, and postdocs are piling up in the pipeline while the PI position opening rate is almost unchanged since the 80s. It's almost like somebody is sitting on all those jobs since the 70s and won't retire for the love of god.

    Main advertisement thread: academia pays less than industry, but you have more security, more freedom, and you get to do what you love.

    Maybe this is true if you get to become a PI, but as others have pointed out, 80% don't become PIs, instead postdocs become permadocs. But postdoc contracts do not grant more security than industry contracts, modern industry gives their researchers more freedom today than before (the google system of paying employees to work on their own projects is paying off), and I know few postdocs who love to do technician work in addition to their postdoc work.

    But when I look back into the previous discussion here on the blog, I must say it's obvious how certain PIs still think we live in the 80s.

    What hasn't changed is that industry still pays PhDs on entry level more than academia pays postdocs with 5 years experience (which shouldn't even exist according to the 'temporary' argument - these people should be given actual researcher jobs).

    The postdoctoral phase only has value to the postdoc if at the end they actually land a PI position, otherwise they have to switch profession and start at entry level again. By accepting low living quality standards, postdocs are investing into a future that they most likely will never have, and they are being asked to pay this investment over ever-extending time periods while working crazy hours (btw, dear PIs, you may think you know how much people work in your labs, but you really don't. At least I haven't met a single one.). They also often don't even receive their end of the deal in terms of mentoring and type of work, because academia has become reliant on them to do everything, including securing their boss' tenure.

    The postdoc is the least attractive position a PhD can take these days. The sole reason why still so many take it on is that they are fed myths about their chances in academia. They are made to believe that if only they play the game right, do the networking, get their noses brown in the right asses, get those shiny glam papers, do what's good for their PIs, they will be successful. And they are fed this by the same people who are whining about how securing research funding has literally become a lottery!

    So where are the statistics to actually look at today's postdoc situation? Well, it appears, Universities don't even know how many postdocs they have. How very convenient.

    For all these reasons I think
    - postdocs deserve more pay, more benefits and more job security
    - there should be fewer postdocs
    - there should be more alternatives for long-term employment in academic research

    Hope this suffices, DM.

  • Dennis Eckmeier says:

    " PhD is the training period in terms of learning how to do science. "
    Which apparently in your eyes doesn't include teaching and scholarship. A common viewpoint which I have zero appreciation for.

    "Post-doc' is when you learn all the other stuff you need in order to survive in academia - how to write grants/papers, how to manage/supervise minions, how to teach, how to fix things instead of wailing to the boss "buy me a new one", how to negotiate, how to review and criticize others' work, etc."

    You *should* have learned these basic academic skills in grad school. As PhD student, I worked with, mentored and managed undergrads, I taught, I wrote papers and grants, I learned how to fix things, I learned how to program my own DAQ and analysis software, we had journal clubs, I had my own work reviewed, I wrote the revisions to paper manuscripts.

    I don't think somebody who barely learned to put a mouse in a box and push a button should be awarded a PhD. But apparently this is the new standard.

  • Established PI says:

    The announcement of possible new federal rules has been a good excuse to discuss an important topic, namely making the postdoctoral fellowship a true training opportunity and stepping stone to a research career.

    I am all for raising postdoc salaries significantly and think we should go one step further: give them retirement benefits. The goal should be to make biomedical research a career that attracts the most outstanding, creative minds. There is only so much sacrifice we can demand before we turn off college students who are just now deciding what to do with their lives. If they realize that they have to make a lot of long-term financial sacrifices, and also encounter a lot of disillusioned PDs and PIs who don't think it was all worth it, they will vote with their feet and choose careers that offer more opportunity, and that do not demand so many sacrifices in exchange for an uncertain future.

  • Science Grunt says:

    Stop doing the thing where you just correct for inflation. Try also adjusting for loan burden on trainees as well:

    http://blogs.wsj.com/numbers/congatulations-to-class-of-2014-the-most-indebted-ever-1368/

  • Former Postdoc says:

    The reason why postdoc salaries are low is very simple: it is hard to survive on a postdoc salary! Other people my age are at a stage in their lives where they buy houses, start families, etc. These are common aspirations for many people and completely outside the financial reach of most postdocs unless they get support from their families or have a spouse with a much higher paying job. (there are regional variations to this, since housing and childcare are much cheaper in some parts of the US than in others) The risk is of course that science becomes again a hobby for the wealthy, which would turn many talented prospective scientists away form science.

  • Science Grunt says:

    @physioproffe

    "In 1998, the year 0 NRSA stipend was $21,000; today it's $43,000. That's between 4% and 5% increase per year. Over the exact same time frame, first-year associate salaries in giant law firms increased less than between 3% and 4% (obviously, from a much higher starting point): http://www.nalp.org/1014research."

    I don't know if you're aware of the state of legal salaries right now but they are in intense market correction mode for the past 5 years. So using them as reference is pretty much comparing postdoc trends with a very bad sector of the economy. Also, the "much higher starting point" means more disposable income which means that they don't feel the pain as much as postdoc with their 5-10K/yr disposable income do.

    Contra what ola says, I know a bunch of postdocs who are delaying starting a family or buying house because of low income. And the ones who do have a high earning spouse.

  • MM says:

    Seems to me NIH intramural salary is irrelevant. An extramural PD was not hired for an intramural job, first and foremost. I can argue how similar my job title is to that of a job at another employer but that doesn't mean I get the pay and benefit package of that other employer, no matter how much better it may be. Extramural postdocs may not be facing the Bethesda area cost of living, which is admittedly staggering. Surely for intramural salary that is a consideration. Federal employment also has a lot of considerations that do not apply in the university lab setting.

    So given my current job function in the sciences, and using the loosely described NAS report methodology, I could argue that I could go work for Big Time Company as opposed to my current gig and I would make $x. So I should be making $x at my current gig because, same job title. Tell me how that comes off as not entirely off the wall.

    The argument that there is no guarantee at the end of the postdoc period anymore and therefore more pay should be expected: are you kidding me? Life has no guarantees, to say nothing of career paths. Trust me, we all live with uncertainty.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    "It's not like the current situation was somehow thrust upon us suddenly - it's been slowly developing since the end of the NIH doubling in 2003, well before the current crop of PDFs were entering grad school. "
    - Ola, I think you're off there. I'm a 4th year postdoc, I started grad in 2005. Success rates for RO1s took a nose dive right after I made my decision to apply for grad school, and I'm probably a year or two younger than most postdocs in this position. I must say, the grad students below me still have the snowflake mentality about the funding situation, but at least they know more about it.

  • Busy says:

    "This is a disaster of our own doing: the smart ones, being smart, will opt out of this racket. Mediocrity will prevail."

    I see this in my field, where jobs in industry are paid at 2-3x academic ones. Anyone truly smart hesitates to do a PhD and those who do often flat out refuse to stay in academia after graduation. A few years back all four superstar PhD graduates from the top pedigree schools went to industry. This was quite a shock and it continues to be the case though not at 100% rates.

  • neuromusic says:

    over and over again I hear that it is the "training" aspect of the postdoc that justifies the low pay. implicitly here is the acknowledgement that, were it not for the "training", they should get paid more.

    when PIs then list all of the parts of their job that the 0th year postdoc is not prepared for, they list a bunch of stuff which largely is about managing people and projects.

    but who cares? in most fields (industry and private sector), you are expected to have to learn shit for the first couple of years on the job. these positions are called "entry-level" and no they don't pay as much as more senior positions, but Industry doesn't get to cop out of benefits and FLSA.

    and there are very few management positions available to *anyone* fresh out of a degree program (unless you did an MBA perhaps)... the fact that Communications MA is going to need 3-5 years to build up the skills needed to manage a team for a large project DOESN'T drop them out of FLSA.

    correct me if i'm wrong, but most of the training that postdocs get is not explicit, but is incidental to their work supporting the research goals of the lab. a PI usually does not take on a postdoc out of an altruistic self-sacrificing desire to help cultivate the next generation of scientist, but because they need people to help them meet their own career goals. of course the postdoc reaps benefits of this which go beyond the salary. again, this is true of many jobs.

    I'm with Dr24. If we are going to talk about the market, PhDs are overpaid. As are White Castle's managers. Which is precisely why we have the Department of Labor. To pay people more than the market demands.

    And there is a very good chance that in less than 6 months, this entire conversation is going to be purely academic because the POTUS will have answered it for us.

    The 40th %ile of salaried employees might be as arbitrary as 2/3 of the average assistant prof, but at least it doesn't suffer from treating academia like a special snowflake.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    On the broader topic, I think there are two points to be made.
    1) Postdoctoral training in the PI arts is often minimal and highly variable from lab to lab. The majority of postdocs are used primarily as labor. This seems self-evident, but if you want proof, look at the number of postdocs who A) don't apply for and or win fellowships and grants and B) don't present yearly at scientific meetings. These are vital training components, and decent indicators of whether a postdoc is labor or a trainee.
    If you hold this point to be true, there is no justification for not treating postdocs similarly to office staff, as they are both laborers.
    Furthermore, it is important to note that most people currently in postdocs *shouldn't* be getting trained as PIs, since they will more than likely not end up as one. This is another point in favor of massively reducing the number of postdocs (and replacing them with equitably paid and unionized staff).

    2) Regarding salary. I think DM's somewhat infuriating Socratic approach has yielded a useful insight for many people. It is *incredibly* difficult to justify salary in any sort of satisfyingly quantifiable way.

    As CPP, and earlier, datahound, point out, postdoctoral pay is largely consistent historically: http://datahound.scientopia.org/2014/05/20/historical-trends-in-predoc-and-postdoc-stipends-and-average-grant-sizes/

    In fact, he shows that they actually take up a larger and larger portion of the RPG budget every year (due mostly to decreased size of RPG relative to inflation).

    Now, it is true that urban cost of living has increased dramatically over the last ten years, driven mostly be cost of rent (magnified by both the housing boom and financial crisis), and so these historical comparisons may be missing some key data.

    http://livingwage.mit.edu/counties/25025
    This living wage calculator shows that the postdoc salary in Boston (Suffolk county) is still above the calculated living wage if you are single (but not by too much), and that two postdocs could have a single toddler aged child.

    So PD's in Boston and SF are basically at *subsistence* wages, which I think is not ideal or sustainable for people with advanced degrees. If you look at other areas, however, they are doing much much better, often with relative wages of 40-50% more (e.g. the equivalent of a 65k salary in Boston).

    Therefore, the issue of PD pay is highly regional.

    So is it fair to ask the NIH/PIs to pay for cost of living adjustments? The NIH's goal is to contract research and provide training for the nation's scientific needs. It should do this while getting the best bargain it can. If it determines that it needs to do this in expensive areas, then it should provide a cost of living adjustment, as it does currently for all federal employees.

    Personally, I would like to see postdoctoral wages pegged to either the Department of Labor's regional cost of living index, or the cost of living adjustments claimed by institutions in their IDC negotiations.

  • DM:

    "LT- you are making the argument to fix the labor category we use postdocs for, not arguing effectively for a minor raise. A permanent professional staff position with benefits, expected COL adjustment, greater stability, etc. "

    Yes, I don't think the postdoc category should exist. People should get their PhD and go directly to the jobs that 90% of them will end up getting anyway, after the postdoc (including the staff scientist positions you describe). Ideally, those who want a tenure-track job would get one after the PhD. Perhaps a short 1-year or 2-year postdoc before that faculty position.

    But as much as we talk about the staff scientist positions, nothing is changing. As much as we talk about revamping the academic pipeline and saving people 5-6 years of postdoc limbo before they get that non-academic job, we are not there. So as long as we are sending everyone into this underpaid land of postdocs, I think it's only right to increase the annual salary to something a 30-year-old wanting to have kids can survive on.

  • drugmonkey says:

    LT- Don't you think this just perpetuates an unjust system?

  • Established PI says:

    LT:

    Part of the reasoning behind the NAS proposal to raise postdoc salaries and mandate training was to reduce the current incentive for PIs to hire postdocs merely as cheap labor. That report also recommends limiting the postdoc track to those planning an independent research career.

    For those of you who don't want to plow through the NAS document, here is an iBio video of the chair, Greg Petsko, explaining the main findings and recommendations:

    http://www.ibiology.org/ibiomagazine/issue-10/gregory-petsko-the-post-doctoral-situation.html

  • DM - No, I don't think a raise to $50K "just perpetuates an unjust system."

    I think doing nothing as we have been for a long time is perpetuating the unjust system.

    Increasing the salary to a living wage make it, by definition, more just. And as Established PI commented above, this is likely to reduce the total number of postdoc positions. So not only will those who do postdocs get paid more, but more PhDs will go directly to non-academic jobs without wasting 6 years first.

    I think the consequences of this increase are exactly in line with the necessary steps for fixing the deeply broken academic research system.

    And yes, it makes it even harder for the faculty. Deepens the crisis for the PIs. Hopefully that will accelerate the solution to that crisis. But again, the crisis for the PIs is no excuse to underpay the postdocs.

  • Zuska says:

    Huzzah! for becca and Krzysztof Sakrejda.
    For injecting needed perspective, analysis, and reminders of historical/class issues in an ongoing discussion, much else of which is frankly appalling.

  • Zuska says:

    Anyone who is fighting PDs being covered under President Obama's wage proposal might find Scott Walker cheering them from the sidelines.

  • neuromusic says:

    "Don't you think this just perpetuates an unjust system?"

    I've been struggling with this Q myself.

    If we assume that NIH funding stays flat but salaries must increase then we are stuck with two possible outcomes, both of which will probably exist:

    - fewer postdocs, but paid at a higher salary that can e.g. better sustain a family (or pay for a sweet vacay to Maui)
    - postdocs that work 40 hours (possibly as low as minimum wage), thus having more time for family (or moonlighting their way into a new career)

    A $42k salary for a postdoc does not encourage a PI to hire a staff scientist at $65k. A $50k postdoc standard might shift some labs (those who can) toward paying the extra cash to hire a more permanent position, as the marginal cost decreases?

    Maybe?

  • drugmonkey says:

    LT: Increasing the salary to a living wage make it, by definition, more just.

    jmz4gtu already posted the link showing you that living wage in Suffolk County MA (where Boston is) was calculated as $28,642 per year for one adult.

    So not only will those who do postdocs get paid more, but more PhDs will go directly to non-academic jobs without wasting 6 years first.

    Perhaps. But we are left with substantial numbers of postdocs being paid slightly* more without fixing benefits, long term stability, their status as actual employees instead of this "trainee" dodge.

    *In the context of the lifestyle attainments being listed as why current salary levels are unfair, this $50,000 per year proposal isn't that life changing. It's an improvement, sure. But does it make the categorical difference on the kids, retirement, mortgage, nomadism, etc stuff being discussed?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Anyone who is fighting PDs being covered under President Obama's wage proposal

    Who is "fighting PDs being covered" exactly?

  • DM: "jmz4gtu already posted the link showing you that living wage in Suffolk County MA (where Boston is) was calculated as $28,642 per year for one adult."

    For one adult. And 25% of postdocs at UCSF have family. Did you see this?
    http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/component/content/article/33-publications/position-statement/142-position-paper-on-nrsa-postdoctoral-stipends

    "*In the context of the lifestyle attainments being listed as why current salary levels are unfair, this $50,000 per year proposal isn't that life changing. It's an improvement, sure. But does it make the categorical difference on the kids, retirement, mortgage, nomadism, etc stuff being discussed?"

    Going up from $42K to $50K per year isn't much? I agree! Then PIs shouldn't be pushing back on it. But if you are the underpaid postdoc, $8K more per year over 6 years is $48K. That the difference for many between being in debt or not. It's the difference between being able to afford kids or not. It's a huge deal for those being underpaid.

  • drugmonkey says:

    LT- maybe, maybe not. I do have some experience raising kids, having a mortgage and maintaining the sort of lifestyle that is being talked about as if postdocs of course deserve it and this move will make happen for them. Like I said, this amount is better. It may facilitate some of these lifestyle choices being made or some compromises being avoided. But it will not accomplish all of it, most particularly the job stability and de facto age discrimination.

    We're still left in a situation where a big bulk of Labor requested by the government (i.e. the taxpayers) is being conducted by people without compensation that realizes the American Dream lifestyle.

    I suggest there are better fixes available. Fixes that yes, the NIH has even been talking about so they are in the space of potential reality. I would be interested to know how many of the people now talking about how postdocs need more cash have been as vocal and persistent on the issue of permanent, stable staff scientist type positions on the NIH websites where the issue arises.

  • DJMH says:

    Re: categorical difference. Regardless of specific salary, I think all universities should treat PDs as staff, and give them equivalent retirement benefits to their secretaries etc. Where I did a postdoc, this was true, and it made a *huge* difference...both in terms of actual retirement savings, and in terms of how valued I felt as a researcher/person.

    And once you're treating PDs like normal staff...then yes, it makes sense for them to be covered under this same rule about o/t, just like other normal staff.

  • Ola says:

    @jmz4gtu You nailed it with the regional thing.

    A HUGE part of how poor/rich PDFs are, is based on where they are geographically.
    It really boils down to this: pick any 2 of the following...
    - Glamorous institution/lab (pedigree)
    - "Hip" city (left/right coast and a few places in between)
    - Own a house and/or have kids

    Apparently some people are pissed that they can't have all 3.

  • Colin says:

    DM:

    *In the context of the lifestyle attainments being listed as why current salary levels are unfair, this $50,000 per year proposal isn't that life changing. It's an improvement, sure. But does it make the categorical difference on the kids, retirement, mortgage, nomadism, etc stuff being discussed?

    Excellent point. The answer is, "almost certainly not." So, if this were to be the end of all reforms to the postdoc experience and the structure of the academic workforce, then that would be bad. If this change were to hamper future efforts to change the things you mentioned for the better then again, that would be bad. If this change spurs movement on those other fronts, and/or on more fundamental changes to the workforce structure, then that would be a good thing. I can't say with any certainty how it will play out.

  • other MM says:

    jmz4gtu - I totally agree on the cost of living argument.

    Living in a rural college town is not an option for those of us who have spouses with high level skill sets who also want/need to work. Not everyone is partnered to a teacher, waiter, nurse, mechanic, or stay at home spouse.

    Granted the 2nd salary obviously helps.

  • Science Grunt says:

    "We're still left in a situation where a big bulk of Labor requested by the government (i.e. the taxpayers) is being conducted by people without compensation that realizes the American Dream lifestyle. "

    This should be in every single grad school brochure in biomedical sciences. I only realized this about a year ago and that's when I started packing my bags to leave science.

  • Science Grunt says:

    "In the context of the lifestyle attainments being listed as why current salary levels are unfair, this $50,000 per year proposal isn't that life changing. It's an improvement, sure. But does it make the categorical difference on the kids, retirement, mortgage, nomadism, etc stuff being discussed?"

    I think this would be an accidental first step into permadoc positions. The ones where you don't run after money, and the salary scale starts at 50K and has a ceiling at 70K. I know a lot of scientists that would love to have that life.

  • Science Grunt says:

    @ola
    Yes, it's regional. But you're probably aware that universities that has research are in regional high cost living areas. It's not like we can be postdocs in a farm in Nebraska. You kinda have to live in Lincoln so there's so much you can do. Also, the movement from universities in high COL areas is to put a bonus on top of NSRA minimums. Although that hasn't been enough.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I can't say with any certainty how it will play out.

    "we JUUST gave you a raise and now you are asking us for more??!!????"

    -congress, NIH, your local Uni and probably your PIs

  • drugmonkey says:

    I think this would be an accidental first step into permadoc positions.

    I favor an intentional step into sustainable staff scientist type career employment.

  • Science Grunt says:

    Yup, me too. I find it shameful that a proposal for the Department on Labor to regulate the salaries of fast food managers is my biggest hope of seeing positive changes in the lower level labor market in the sciences.

  • jipkin says:

    "we JUUST gave you a raise and now you are asking us for more??!!????"

    "we were JUUST forced to give you a raise and now you are asking us for more??!!????"

    ftfy

  • Zuska says:

    Who is "fighting PDs being covered" exactly?

    That's a good follow-up question to my observation.

  • Zuska says:

    And by "observation" I mean the observation that "anyone who is doing x might find y..."

  • MorganPhD says:

    Are PI salaries justified, especially those near the NIH cap or those with fancy schmancy endowed positions?

    I can come up with an elevator pitch as to why PI's are severely OVERPAID.

    That is, if we cut 5,000 PI jobs tomorrow and rehired those slots, could we find someone for $50K/year to fill the same position, publish papers, and win grants. Yes we could.

    For every faculty position, there are 100's of applicants. It's disingenuous to think a large group of PI's can't be replaced by the current crop of postdocs and have similar productivity (in terms of grants, papers, etc).

    If we culled 5,000 under-performing PI's tomorrow and replaced them with freshly minted PhD scientists, we'd still see 24 issues of Cell with 10-12 papers/issue. We'd still have an extramural NIH budget of X billion dollars. The money would still flow to some % of people, papers would still be published, and the large majority of diseases would remain "uncured", like they are now.

  • Chall says:

    I'm torn about the whole thing since I personally think that people confuse a few main premises and therefore reach a somewhat false conclusion.

    If it is a training period, the emphasis should be training and not "being a tech".
    Is it really "a higher salary" that's important, or "rights to benefits and future retirement savings and sick leave & maternity/paternity leave"? Also, equivalent of stopping the TT clock as for post docs who have children during their fellowship/training
    I find the discussion a little off base with reality considering that median household income in the USA is $51,512 (2012) https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2014/acs/acsbr13-02.pdf - at least acknowledge that we are talking about a middle-class issue.

    And finally, comparing what was the reality 10-15years ago isn't really the same ting. Looking at "the value" of high school today compared to then - and "fact" that most people end up with BS in order to squire jobs that required a high school diploma 15 years ago means that it's not all too off to have to make the similar "adjustments" for having a phd but now you need a post doc experience to get similar jobs.

    (I hope this makes sense and not coming off as completely too shorten -its complex and not really easy to make succinct comments)

  • JuniorPostdoc says:

    Why do Postdocs think they are underpaid? Because they are human beings:
    http://www.gallup.com/poll/109618/half-americans-say-they-underpaid.aspx

    Also, many have roommates and don't really understand what a 401k is despite being well into their 30s.

    It seems like every COLA discussion eventually always frame the choice of where to work as land grant universities versus Cambridge, MA. There are plenty of small to medium cities that have a reasonable enough cost of living and a lot options in most fields for the significant other. In fact, most of the institutions in the top 20 for NIH funding fit this description. I feel like this is actually where a lot of postdocs with kid (including myself) wind up. Based on my experience as a graduate student in a very high COLA, postdocs at high COLA institutions mainly comprise the perpetually adolescent,the trust funded, feverish devotees of their BSD of chose, MD/PhDs, the well married, and J1 visa holders who weren't aware that 40k is about the annual cost of a parking spot a mile from campus.

  • JustAGrad says:

    "In the context of the lifestyle attainments being listed as why current salary levels are unfair, this $50,000 per year proposal isn't that life changing. It's an improvement, sure. But does it make the categorical difference on the kids, retirement, mortgage, nomadism, etc stuff being discussed?"

    An extra $8k per year is an extra $8k I can apply to my student loans. Let's not pretend that these don't exist and aren't growing with each new graduating class. It's infinitely easier to get a funded PhD than a funded BS.

  • qaz says:

    Ola - it is ENTIRELY possible to have all three. Some of the best research in the world is being done at universities in places other than New York, Boston, San Francisco, and LA. In fact, it is possible to do Glamour-level science at a world-class university, get paid the NIH NRSA postdoc salary, and live a middle class lifestyle. Once you look beyond the morass that is those ILAF schools.

  • Morgan Price says:

    If there are too many grad students and post docs, then no wonder post doc salaries are low. But it seems there are also too many PIs (or at the very least, a surplus of young-ish scientists who would like to be PIs). So why doesn't this drive salaries for junior PIs down? I'm missing something...

  • UCSF Professor says:

    You know who is paid less than a postdoc? The janitor who takes out the trash from my lab every night. The dishwasher who cleans my lab's glassware. The mouse techs who change the poop-filled cages for all our animals. The barista at the campus coffee shop where I buy my coffee every morning. The shuttle driver that carts me between all the UCSF campuses. Etc...

    What wages do these people "deserve"? Should they be able to afford to raise a family in San Francisco? Do they deserve retirement benefits? What if they have student loans? I wonder if they feel like they are getting sufficient "training" or if they are just getting paid to do a job, like everyone else in the world. Please share with us your delicate moral calculus, dear postdocs.

  • qaz says:

    Actually, one could make the argument that the proliferation of soft-money PI jobs is exactly "the market driving PI salaries down." There was a time when no one would dream of taking a job where they don't have to pay you. Now people are shocked to find someone on hard money.

    It's not clear what the actual typical PI starting salary is, because it's typically some complex combination of guaranteed money and soft "if you can find it" money.

  • qaz says:

    Similarly, we should probably include adjunct professors in the average, which would also be evidence for "the market driving PI salaries down". All those adjunct professors making less than half what postdocs make (that makes them eligible for food stamps if they have a family BTW) used to be professors making a middle class money with benefits.

  • Anonymous says:

    Come on, people. PIs should be paid less. We have an oversupply, and too many mediocre PIs. If they want to make more, they should go to industry. NIH will get more bang for their buck with lower pay to PIs.

  • pippso says:

    Disgruntled UCSF Professor, I pity you.

    1

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    @UCSF Professor
    "Should they be able to afford to raise a family in San Francisco? Do they deserve retirement benefits?"

    If they work in San Francisco (or other, far better, cities) absolutely they deserve to afford a life there. But far too often they end up commuting from Oakland, Newark, Allston, Chantilly, and so on even if they work in San Francisco, NYC, Boston, and DC/Bethesda.

  • neuromusic says:

    UCSF Professor,

    I call bullshit.

    In 2013, the lowest NIH NRSA pay level was $39,264. The highest level (7+ years of experience) was $54,180.

    Are you at the Medical Center? I'm going to assume you are at the Medical Center. Let's narrow ourselves down to the "MED CTR CUSTODIAN SR" position, whose job description includes...

    Routine Cleaning Duties:
    1. Dust various surfaces such as desks, bookcases and window ledges.
    2. Vacuum carpets.
    3. Sweep and damp mop floors.
    4. Empty, wipe down and reline trash receptacles.
    5. Remove trash from offices, labs, corridors and lobby areas.
    6. Wipe and/or wash walls.
    7. Damp wipe outside of vents.
    8. Wash drinking fountains.
    9. Wash toilets and sinks with appropriate cleaner.
    10. Wipe mirrors, dispensers and shelves.
    11. Replenish various dispensers with paper supplies and soap.
    12. Polish tables and other surfaces as needed.
    13. Shampoo carpets.
    14. Strip and wax floors.
    15. Wash or damp wipe counter tops and cabinets.
    16. Pick-up and transport soiled linen to the designated area.

    Given #5, it sounds like this is the person taking out your trash.

    In 2013, there were a total of 125 custodians employed by UCSF with this title.

    103 of them made more than $39,264 and there were 30 who made more than $54,180.

    Four took home over $70,000 that year... not because this is a supervisory position, but because they worked their asses off and got paid to reflect that with over $20,000 in overtime and what looks like a $5000 bonus.

    And every one of them *deserved* every damned dollar.

  • Former Postdoc says:

    @UCSF Professor Hmm... not that this matters but are you sure that your janitor is being paid less than your postdocs? Did you consider future benefits (pension plan)? This is a genuine question. I am unsure if they are paid more or less, but most postdocs get no retirement benefits and sometimes only mediocre health insurance. Also, janitors get paid by the hour and frequently accumulate more than one job. On an hourly basis I would imagine that your postdocs get paid less than the janitors, assuming they work the customary 60-80 hours/week.

    Another thing to consider is the proportion of postdocs that come from abroad. I think that the ability to attract international talent is one of the reasons why the US is a leader in scientific research. But hiring foreign postdocs is more convoluted and expensive than hiring US citizens (visa costs, fewer opportunities for funding, ...), so I wouldn't expect as many of them. Would be interesting to know if the reason why we have so many international postdocs has anything to do with the salary? Wonder if anyone has studied this.

  • Former Postdoc says:

    @Neuromusic

    Thank you! You answered my question regarding janitor pay.

  • neuromusic says:

    and for the record, in our lab, we wash our own glassware, clean our own poop filled cages, sweep and mop our own floors, and pull our own shots #thankyouverymuch

  • Dennis Eckmeier says:

    @UCSF Professor

    What is *your* job 'worth'?

    "I wonder if they feel like they are getting sufficient "training" or if they are just getting paid to do a job, like everyone else in the world."

    But we are not getting paid to just do a job. We are supposedly investing into a specific future by forgoing benefits etc. - that's the agreement. But we are not getting our end of the bargain, so the deal is a scam. And it's come so far that people like you think that was normal.

  • James Fraser says:

    I'm embarrassed by my anonymous colleague. His/her views are certainly not shared by this UCSF faculty member nor any of the colleagues I've talked over this issue with recently.

    Cost of living and salary are huge concerns for us at the postdoctoral and graduate levels (and for that matter admin, custodians, bus drivers, etc) and the adversarial tactics of the anonymous Ucsf professor do not help move this discussion forward towards constructive solutions.

  • "This group is also badly off so this other group should not advocate for an increase in wages" should actually be an argument for BOTH groups to be fairly compensated, not neither.

    The whole tenor of this conversation reinforces the culture of the noble struggle towards the pinnacle of academia, and that looking for reasonable compensation is somehow cheapening academic science.

    I truly think that if you paid postdocs anything from $0-100,000 annual salary, it would make no difference to the number of people willing to do it. What academics should ask themselves is whether it is right to force people to work for, say, 6 years as grad students, 8 years as postdocs, and all that time be earning salaries that make them eligible for social housing in Boston; or mean they can't afford to have children; or can't save for a pension in the years that the Department of Labor identifies as being the most vital years to do so.

    With low salaries you drive out those with a lower socioeconomic status, women who want to have families, international researchers and other groups who already have enough to deal with. I didn't get into this for the money and, personally, I get by on what I have, for now. But I know all sorts of people who don't have the white, male, Green Card privilege that I have and have had to leave. Frankly, given that my husband and I want kids and that will not be cheap, I'm also having to consider my future on financial reasons.

    If you want ability to suffer financial hardship to be a limiting force in academia, go right ahead. But stop complaining about Ron Germaine's ideas on people not projects leading to only the favored prestigious class being selected, because in my opinion that's the same logic, because those appear to be correlated.

  • Anonymous says:

    Ok, yes, my attack on PI salaries was sarcastic... but also genuine. It occurred to me from dr24hours:
    "Which of you postdocs would not take a TT Asst Prof gig for $60K/yr?"

    Right now a PhD grad's options are:
    (a) a long postdoc (4-10 years) for ~$40k/year
    (b) leave for industry.

    Why not add an option
    (c) Give some of these 30-40-year old grads a few years of independence, for $60k salary (or even $40k, as they're being paid now). Give them a single tech, or a shared tech.

    Pay for this plan by forcing the old folks reduce their lab sizes, or something along these lines. Yes, the old folks will complain and say we're changing the rules in the middle of the game. But the rules are being changed on everyone, including the young people. Go to industry if you can't handle your new budget restrictions.

    If NIH wants the best science done, why are they completely excluding the < 40-year old age bracket? I do think they're not getting the best bang for their buck in the current environment.

  • Dennis Eckmeier says:

    DM: I'm not attacking PI compensation, if you were referring to me.

  • MorganPhD says:

    I was "attacking" PI compensation.

    Not because I think it actually is too high, but because it's a constructive exercise to think about the labor market driving compensation in academia.

    If one makes an assertion that raising postdoc pay is unwarranted in the context of ever shrinking grant #'s and the availability of replacement labor, we should also look at the situation with faculty compensation.

    My opinion is that we could replace the "bottom" 5,000 PI's with the "top" 5,000 postdocs tomorrow, at a significant cost savings or at least cost neutral, and still produce the same level of science we do now. I'm not trying to be clever by saying that. In the absence of actual data, my guess would be that this is true.

  • DJMH says:

    neuromusic wins, big.

  • drugmonkey says:

    MPD- but nobody is making that assertion.

  • Dr. E. Schaffhausen says:

    Long time listener, first time caller. As a PI, the benefit from this blog and from reading DM, CPP, and now Datahound is true clarity regarding career issues with biomedical science. I’m not far removed from PD time and empathize with the problems PDs face today. But I am also now the boss and have the responsibility for finding the $s. This is a good discussion, but the question stands, why should PD pay scales go up? No bloody shirts about 80yr old profs or profligate deanlets (they annoy the shit out of me as well and I would like to blame them for a myriad of injustices and degradations visited upon me). Here in a flyover state the median household income is $42K and change, the NIH stipend for year 0 PDs. Would I like to pay more? Sure, and I do by a couple $K. I have never kept a PD more than 3-4 yrs. If they want to stay in the group and do not find or want a med school PI gig they become research faculty. They get a salary bump and more responsibilities. Other labs do have perma-PDs and this is exploitative of a ‘training’ position without the retirement and some other benefits. All of that said what systemic problems with the biomedical career ladder are fixed by increasing PD baseline stipends $8K? I have the suspicion that a missing variable in this discussion is a geographic one. Would I like to live in Pacific Heights with a view of the Golden Gate and an easy commute to UCSF? Of course. But that hasn’t happened so far. Instead I live in a very nice but not envy-of-the-world city in the middle of the country. That is a compromise I made consciously so that I could do what I love for a living. Planes exist and the Dead shows in Santa Clara were excellent.
    However, we and other labs here have to work extremely hard to get high quality PDs from the coasts. You can do high end work, publish in glam/near-glam journals, and a good number of PDs move on to PI gigs elsewhere. But people want to be in specific cities. I did that for one of two short PD stints and loved it. I accepted that I would not be staying in the same hip coastal city if I wanted to move up to faculty. I do not see a requirement that the NIH (or biomedical research complex in general) conform to expectations that one should be able to do the grad-PD-PI ladder all in one or two very expensive coastal cities while studying only protein specialflowerX1b, maintaining a middle class+ lifestyle, and having the perfect job opportunity for your significant other. Would that be nice – hells yeah. But only a few, very few, will manage this. Not the oversize legion of grad and PDs being produced.

    Life is all about choices.

    If you want to live a middle class life in a very expensive city you need to make a lot of money. Are San Fran, Manhattan, and Cambridge really the only places that good science can be done? Everybody (including those people who don't do science for a living) wants to live there which will drive down salaries and increase costs, not because of a nefarious faculty cabal trying to indenture a generation of PDs.

    If you want to move on to a PI gig find a mentor who will actually help and train you to do that and not treat you like a tech. There are raging asshole and neglectful helicopter PIs. Don't work form them and if you find out your boss is one, find a new job even if that means you work on protein prettyflowerY2a. Half of my best career moves have been getting out of screwed up situations.

    It is tough all over these days and perhaps even more so for PDs. Clarity is your friend.

  • MorganPhD says:

    There are folks out there making such an assertion, that PDs make plenty of $$$ and when they were PDs they only made $10K so we're being greedy or insensitive to budgetary demands. But like others have said, the point is not that PDs are actively lobbying for higher pay, it's that it may be necessary to adjust salaries in the face of new overtime rules nationally.

    I think the overwhelming majority of people on here are of the mindset that we need to either increase pay or change the training such that it leads to acceptable career prospects. If the increase in pay leads to a small cull, then so be it. It will probably help out the career prospects of those who "survive".

    My comparison to PI salaries was mainly to highlight (perhaps not elegantly) the notion that if academic jobs were truly shaped by market forces, some PI's would make less or have severely less stable jobs than they already have (and I certainly don't think jobs are as stable as "tenure" would suggest). And the world would likely keep turning.

  • qaz says:

    I think every PI here would gladly raise their postdocs' salary. Personally, I think we should all be making movie-star/rock-star/pro-athelete. salaries. (And I think we should fund science at the rates we did in 1960. I also think we should spend less on poorly-built fighter jets. And rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. And ... And ... And ...) Wishing does not make it so.

    The problem is that the money simply isn't there. Every PI is balancing their lab on tight funding. If NIH mandates increasing postdoc salaries, it will affect my calculations of the cost of a postdoc against the expected productivity and other costs in the lab.

    MorganPhD - faculty salaries ARE collapsing. Wages are notoriously sticky and deflation produces job loss long before it produces real decreases in salary. Soft-money jobs and adjunct professorships and even the tightness of the PI job market itself are all indications of an economic deflation driving wages down.

    Finally - to echo GaryMcDowell - the goal is to bring EVERYBODY up, not the privileged down.

    If congress were to increase NIH's budget sufficiently to cover the increase in all the postdoc salaries, I would definitely get behind that - that would be a very good thing.

  • JustAGrad says:

    @neuromusic

    Thanks for that post about janitor pay. I've found myself perusing the salaries of various employees at my university. Even the people who collect payments in our parking garages make a higher full-time-equivalent salary (they are pretty much all part-time students). Our lab techs make over $50k, sometimes with no more education than an associate's degree. Our undergrad and graduate advisors (staff members here, not faculty) all make over $50k starting.

    Just about the only job titles I see that routinely make less than postdocs are the food service staff.

  • JustAGrad says:

    I have a question to the PIs here. How much more does it cost (total cost) to pay for a postdoc at the 0-year salary versus a PhD student?

    I ask because it seems like most of you are implying that they cost more. But with the high cost of tuition, postdocs are cheaper at the low end of the NIH scale than PhD students. This, of course, creates a huge incentive to hire mostly postdocs.

  • Science Grunt says:

    @qaz

    "If NIH mandates increasing postdoc salaries, it will affect my calculations of the cost of a postdoc against the expected productivity and other costs in the lab."

    Yes. Being underpaid means, in other words, that the expected productivity does not match the income. If the NIH mandates minimum expense raises, there will be less money for experiments and there will be less postdocs and a fixed amount of monies *will* lead to less science.

  • Laffer says:

    Grad students are significantly cheaper than postdocs here. Some or most grad students get internal TA support, or internal fellowships, while postdocs are on their own.

    I still do not have a good sense as to whether it is fair for trainees to make less than a similar person who is not in a "trainee" position.

    Generally PhD students make less than their BS-bearing equivalents, even excluding benefits. Should postdocs follow that model or should we just declare them 'trained' and be done with it, paying them at market rates. Should we define what 'trained' means? I know some recent BS grads that are just capable than some postdocs are.

    Yes, increasing salaries would reduce the number of postdocs in the system, perhaps driving the market toward more stable pool of potential faculty and others in long-term research staff positions.

    But there is another option: reduce postdoc salaries to Grandpa Simpson 'back in my day' levels. What would that market look like? More international postdocs probably, even more competition for hard fellowships that pay better? Or maybe just cut grants until you literally cannot afford to have a postdoc that isn't paid by a fellowship. I wonder if that's how it used to be in the olden days? Didn't Watson and all the non-riff-raff guys have their own money?

  • GDR says:

    I know this is to no avail but I have to get this out of my system.
    I would like to show how your asking a "question" is, in fact, a desperate attempt to maintain exploitation.
    You "asked" why PDs should earn more. In response, you have received the widest array of compelling reasons I have seen in a long while on a twitter discussion. The reasons come from a large range of argument forms. Here are a few:
    1. Historical argument: In the past, low PD compensation was balanced with a high chance for TT position. Now that is no the case, hence the justification for increasing salary.
    2. The POTUS said so argument
    3. The cost-of-living argument: 2 current PD wages do not allow modestly supporting a small family in one of the major academic centers in the US (or perhaps all research should be done by single 25-year olds in Nevada?)
    4. The utilitarian argument: raising salary will reduce number of PDs, which anybody with eyes knows is essential
    5. The moral argument: As a society, the US should allow a reasonable salary to, on average, highly skilled, hard working individuals who chose to pursue a career which is at the core to benefit society.
    6. The PI responsibility argument: PIs churn out PHDs like there's no tomorrow because they get rewarded for it. They flood the market to the extent of a fierce jungle competition that there is now. It is only reasonable that PIs should also need to deal with the reality they keep creating.

    etc. etc.

    But. And here's the big point. You don't want reasons. If you did, you'd be satisfied long ago. What you actually want is PROOF. And even more than that, what you are actually saying is "if you can't PROVE to me that you are worth more, you are not".

    That is of course nothing more than an argumentative stunt aimed to stop this most justified and well explained demand. The reason is, it's impossible to prove it. In exactly the same way you cannot *prove* you should be getting more than half your current salary, or that labs should be allowed to exceed 10 members, or that the minimum wage should not be 5$ an hour. But in setting up this conversation you have actually brought to the surface some of the best arguments why PD salary should increase, so thank you, even if you meant the opposite.

    Still, I would reiterate one argument that may be the closes to the FORMAL reason you are looking for. And that boils down to one word. Training. Post docs are formally defined as being in Training. Training. Think about that word. It has a defined meaning in the English language.
    "the action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or type of behavior."
    It is agreed in modern society and in many lines of work such as medicine, law and Hi Tech, that if the employer is Training you, that has value, and therefore your compensation is lower.
    Well, on average, right now, A POST-DOC IS NOT TRAINING. It cannot be called training if 80-90 out of 100 PDs are thrown out by the system. It used to be, but not any more. And this point here, is in my opinion the strongest justification. A PD right now is most likely to be kicked out of academia and in most cases has to reinvent himself with little use of his "training" skills. Therefore, PD should be viewed, and compensated, not as Training, but as an extremely high-risk job with often a dead end. And THAT is not 40K/yr.

    Lastly, there IS one way to experimentally test how much a PD is worth, at least to PIs, and you are promoting that test, whether you know it or not. And that is a PD strike. I would love to see you discussing how spoiled PDs are in between gel runs because your PD is really not there. I think 50K/yr wouldn't sound that much then.

  • JustAGrad says:

    *At my university.

  • Established PI says:

    @JustAGrad - The answer to your question depends upon the university's policy on graduate tuition. Mine waives the tuition after year 2, when they come off the training grant, which means that students cost significantly less than postdocs.

  • drugmonkey says:

    You "asked" why PDs should earn more. In response, you have received the widest array of compelling reasons I have seen in a long while on a twitter discussion.

    It will come to you in a moment.

    But in setting up this conversation you have actually brought to the surface some of the best arguments why PD salary should increase, so thank you,

    oh. it DID come to you. fancy that.

    what you are actually saying is "if you can't PROVE to me that you are worth more, you are not".

    Nope. Try again.

    A POST-DOC IS NOT TRAINING

    We agree entirely. I am against the "training" scam of academic science as we know it. I think we should have PhD programs that enroll substantially fewer people, that 90%+ of them should finish in 4 years and we should treat everyone thereafter as real honest to god employees.

    I would love to see you discussing how spoiled PDs are in between gel runs because your PD is really not there.

    I've addressed how I have shaped my research program briefly in the past. It pertains to this. I would be delighted to see a lasting, general postdoc strike because I would be less affected than so many of my peers. Think of how I could kick their asses in grant applications, woot! But that would be....selfish.

  • Dennis says:

    "All of that said what systemic problems with the biomedical career ladder are fixed by increasing PD baseline stipends $8K? [...]

    I do not see a requirement that the NIH [...] conform to expectations [...] only a few, very few, will manage this. Not the oversize legion of grad and PDs being produced."

    There is the accepted notion, that these 'legions' of GSs and PDs are a problem. That there should be an incentive for them to leave earlier, or get payed more, or transfer more to them into actual permanent positions. -> (see http://www.nature.com/news/the-future-of-the-postdoc-1.17253) I personally think it should be a some of each of the above.

    To me, when I argue pro PD salary raise, I do this not only because I like to earn more. Actually, for several reasons I won't profit personally from the overtime rule change at all. But I see it as an impulse for academia to do more than that. I see it as the needed incentive, to reduce PD numbers over all. Making PDs more expensive may also make PIs more ready to transfer them into better positions, because the price gap isn't smaller.

  • Jonathan says:

    "Lastly, there IS one way to experimentally test how much a PD is worth, at least to PIs, and you are promoting that test, whether you know it or not. And that is a PD strike. I would love to see you discussing how spoiled PDs are in between gel runs because your PD is really not there. I think 50K/yr wouldn't sound that much then."

    You do realize that any postdoc on a J-1 or H-1B visa that went on strike would be out of visa status? That means they'll have a few days (14 or maybe 28) to pack their stuff and get out of the country. Gone, goodbye, probably don't come back again.

    It's one of the reasons why unionizing postdocs is a stupid idea that won't work (the other being that who, exactly, is someone on an NRSA supposed to bargain with? Congress sets those levels via appropriations...)

  • Dennis says:

    GDR:
    to be fair to DM, he did say he is for increasing the PD salary.

    I don't know which argument he wants to hear, he doesn't actually comment on the reasons formulated by the PDs.

    However, I agree that it looks like this question about worth of the PD is aiming for an 'objective' argument. But this is missing a certain basic principle, and excuse me if I am pulling out my inner German nihilism:

    Nothing has an inherent value, people have to assign value and the 'rules' behind it this has nothing to do with the physical world, but only personal values and societal agreements. It becomes even more arbitrary when we express 'value' in money, which in itself also has no value.

    Somebody demanding 'proof' of the value of a salary can always disagree saying that he simply doesn't assign the same value to the number, or the lifestyle that it buys, or the work that we do.

    But this certainly is taking the discussion to a useless level.

  • DM: "Reminder for those thinking they are oh so clever attacking PI compensation"

    I assume the postdocs in these comments saying, "PIs should be paid less" are not actually arguing for a reduction in faculty compensation. They are illustrating the absurdity of trying to say that postdocs are not underpaid.

    My personal feelings about calls to decrease PI salaries Let's Pay PhD Students More and Professors Less? http://anothersb.blogspot.com/2013/08/lets-pay-phd-students-more-and.html

  • drugmonkey says:

    Useless? More like one of the best bits of progress we've seen in the discussion! Well done.

  • Dennis says:

    "You do realize that any postdoc on a J-1 or H-1B visa that went on strike would be out of visa status? That means they'll have a few days (14 or maybe 28) to pack their stuff and get out of the country. Gone, goodbye, probably don't come back again."

    ... and all major research institutes would die horrible deaths. muuhahahaha >:-]

  • GDR says:

    Jonathan- so let me get this straight. To challenge my comment that PDs should be better treated/compensated, you are saying the reasonable PI would fire and report to the immigration a striking PD?
    #irestmycase

  • Rheophile says:

    Jonathan: "It's one of the reasons why unionizing postdocs is a stupid idea that won't work (the other being that who, exactly, is someone on an NRSA supposed to bargain with? Congress sets those levels via appropriations...)"

    A few notes: 1) unions let more stable postdocs help fight for the rights of international postdocs. I know that the UC postdoc union is currently asking for feedback about what they can do about international postdocs paid under the level - though no progress yet that I can see. 2) NRSA salary is set by the NIH, but things like health insurance are major issues. At UC systems, the postdoc union negotiated to make sure that postdoc fellows and postdocs supported on PI grants are both on the same health plan and paying the same fees.

  • Dennis says:

    DM: but doesn't this just bring us back to the discussion we were already having?

  • drugmonkey says:

    It is a step toward understanding our own personal obvious values may not be shared by others. And that is a step to understanding the strongest arguments are in the value space of those who need convincing.

  • BugDoc says:

    A modest proposal:

    (a) All scientists paid from federal research grants should be considered staff scientists and paid at level of experience, starting at $50K (or whatever the new overtime exemption level is). No "postdocs" can be paid off grants, and these PhD level staff scientist positions should not be considered training, but rather gainful employment, and should come with associated respect and benefits. There should be no implicit expectation of training, other than what individual PIs may choose to offer. Research grants pay people to get work done. Job stability depends on the grant, but this is no different than job stability in biotech or the auto industry, etc., where positions can be terminated at any time.

    (b) Ph.D. scientists interested in tenure-track faculty positions, should find a job in an academic lab and then apply for the limited number of external fellowships that are available (NIH, AHA ACS, etc). The salary support provided by those fellowships buys the fellow some dedicated training time and opportunities focused on the academic career track (overall salary level should still match the staff position). Does this provide an advantage to "elite" candidates? No more than these fellowships already do to a large extent. Does it prevent non-fellowship scientists from succeeding on the academic track? No, but it does mean they have to first be accountable to their employer, and figure out their own path to success....like most people do.

    This proposal has a number of merits:
    (1) immediately collapses the "training" pool of PD into staff scientists and signals intent to keep the postdoctoral training track limited to numbers closer to the number of actual available faculty positions. We will no longer be "misleading" PhD students into thinking that getting a post-PhD position in an academic lab is a clear path to a faculty position, but rather providing an opportunity to to be a valued part of the academic science enterprise.
    (2) provides a better level of compensation and benefits that will work with the new DOL position on overtime.
    (3) Uses research grant money for research, rather indirectly to support training.
    (4) Does not require any specific new NIH mechanisms with all the attendant rules, regulations and oversight.

    I am not in favor of just raising "postdoc" salaries in the absence of making other urgently needed changes to the system, because it creates a number of perverse incentives. However, I would be very glad to pay the PhD level scientists in my lab a higher salary, if we could come up with more integrated solutions to our crisis of training. Glad to hear thoughts about other pros and cons.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Nice framework.

  • jipkin says:

    This exercise is quite academic though (in both senses of the word). Postdoc salaries won't change unless forced to - which is precisely what could happen with the new overtime rules.

    And it's notable how at least around here (with the exception of Juan Lopez) most PIs don't seem too terribly fazed by the potential labor cost increase. Or if they are they aren't making too much noise about it.

    One also has to wonder if this debate would be substantially different or not if the exemption line was moved to $54,600, which is what some labor economists had been arguing for according the reports I read.

  • kalevala says:

    BugDoc nailed it +111!11

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    BugDoc FTW +1000
    This framework is so logical that, within 3 years of its adoption, people will look back and wonder how we did it any other way.

  • Newbie says:

    Whats the evidence that increased postdoc salary will bring down the pool of PhDs ?
    I see that presented above as fact, but I'm not convinced by available evidence. Do any other countries do this? I understand that there is x pool of money, but who is to say that a lab won't skimp on proper replication, powering an animal experiment appropriately, using orthogonal confirmatory experiments, investing in new projects etc. (real science) versus maintaining labor supply to push out western blots with dubious cheap reagents?

  • Sam N says:

    Yeah, BugDoc's modest proposal is something I could completely get behind. One of the important questions DrugMonkey has raised is would anyone other than some PostDocs and some PIs?

  • Sam N says:

    support it.

  • drugmonkey says:

    We have had prior major boosts in NRSA scale that did not push down the postdoc trends.

  • qaz says:

    The problem with BugDocs seemingly reasonable proposal is that it moves the decision of who gets to become faculty from the unviversities and institutes that are hiring the faculty to central planning at NIH. Do we really believe we can prevent the McKnights and Germaines from turning NIH's pre-faculty system into an elite selection process?

    If you like the K99, you'll love BugDoc's proposal.

    We don't need to pull the training out of the Postdoc plan to treat them as staff scientists. We can make it a reasonable job AND let them stay in the potential faculty pipeline. The idea that training is a necessary part of PD is bogus anyway. See my analysis the last time we had this whole discussion abou postdocs (about a year ago or so). PD is a holding pattern. It is not more common in harder fields. It is not more common in more mature fields. It increases when the economy limits faculty jobs. There is no major difference in faculty success for people who did longer (or any) postdocs.

  • kalevala says:

    Qaz, BugDoc's proposal would be the first step in eliminating the podstdoc, because as you say, the anointed ones would be selected straight out of grad school. Whether that selection would be based on ideas, pedigree, or whatnot is an entirely different discussion.

    We absolutely need to pull the training carrot out of R01-supported postdocs because that will always be used as the basis for labor exploitation.

  • qaz says:

    "Whether that selection would be based on ideas, pedigree, or whatnot is an entirely different discussion."

    I don't think that's a different discussion at all. What BugDoc's proposal does is shift the decision on who gets to be faculty earlier. It makes it harder to recover from stumbles. It makes it harder for people coming from non-academic backgrounds. It privileges the academic elite (like SonOfGermaine) who know what they're doing earlier. It will dramatically remove diversity.

    All we need to do is to make the postdoc a reasonable job. (BTW, we also need to do this for graduate students as well.) Lots of people work in one field for a while and then do something else. (The days of working at one company like GM or AT&T for a lifetime are long gone.) If graduate pay and postdoc pay were reasonable salaries, then we would be able to say "go ahead and do science for a few years, it'll be fun". Then people can say "I did a PhD then a postdoc then I went to work doing XYZ." the same way they say "I worked at company 1 then company 2 then I was self-employed for a while doing XYZ, but it didn't fly, so I went to work at company 3, etc...."

    The best way to make postdoc a reasonable job is to fix the economy. In specific fields, postdoc salaries and time are negatively related to economic opportunities in that field. (As are graduate school admissions, BTW.)

  • BugDoc says:

    @qaz: "it moves the decision of who gets to become faculty from the unviversities and institutes that are hiring the faculty to central planning at NIH."

    If you think this is not how things are working right now, you have not been on a search committee recently.

    "It makes it harder to recover from stumbles. It makes it harder for people coming from non-academic backgrounds."

    This is already a major problem in our current system (not the system as we remember it 15-20 years ago). One proposal will certainly not solve everything, and trying to make it so will paralyze us from making important moves forward. NIH already provides a fellowship mechanism to encourage underrepresented groups (F31). If we need to do workforce engineering, let's be more intentional and direct about it.

    "All we need to do is to make the postdoc a reasonable job" "The best way to make postdoc a reasonable job is to fix the economy."

    That is the whole point of the proposal. What we currently call a "postdoc" will in fact (not in wishful thinking) administratively, legally and conceptually become a job, with all of the same benefits and drawbacks as other jobs. As others have pointed out, on the job training may be provided by specific employers (faculty/universities) as a recruiting tool, but it is not an inherent expectation that the next step out of your PhD, whatever you decide to do, requires more "training". If you can find a way to fix the economy, Congress, etc, I'm with you. But in the meantime, let's not sit back and do nothing.

  • BugDoc says:

    @newbie: "Whats the evidence that increased postdoc salary will bring down the pool of PhDs ?"

    There isn't any, which is why I'm not in favor of it in that format. That idea is grounded in basic labor economics which don't really apply to postdoc positions in our current system. The number of postdoc positions does not depend on the number of long-term positions available, it depends how many much research grant money is available. We as a community should be extremely wary of indirect workforce engineering. Saying that increased postdoc salary will bring down the pool of PhDs relies on a lot of baseless assumptions (and is counter to available data). If we want to bring down the pool of PhDs, the reliable way to do that is decrease graduate admissions. As DM has said many times.

    @qaz: "All we need to do is to make the postdoc a reasonable job. (BTW, we also need to do this for graduate students as well.)"

    I don't agree with this. Unlike post-PhD research, graduate school is not and should not be considered a job. It is a highly unusual situation in which trainees get an advanced degree and do interesting work at high cost to someone else, but no direct cost to themselves (I acknowledge opportunity costs, so don't get distracted). This means there is a very low barrier to starting graduate school, even if students aren't really sure it's a good idea for them. Graduate school is not supposed to be easy- the intellectual and technical bar should be high. The more reasonable and comfortable we make it, the more the PhD pool will expand, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid.

  • BugDoc says:

    @Sam: "BugDoc's modest proposal is something I could completely get behind. One of the important questions DrugMonkey has raised is would anyone other than some PostDocs and some PIs?"

    More importantly, will you (all of you) get behind it? If you hear a good idea out there, bring it up to the next level - talk to other students, postdocs and faculty at your next department happy hour. Figure out who deals with grad/postdoc education at your institution and go talk to them. It's ok if they don't agree with it right away - it plants the seed. If there's an opportunity to comment at NIH (blogs, RFI, etc), do that and encourage your friends to comment too.

  • Sam N says:

    @qaz "It makes it harder to recover from stumbles. "

    I'm calling bullshit on this.

    I am currently someone who is doing just that, and NRSA is *not* available to me because of it. I am working the edges, and am succeeding at getting alternative grants, which is great, but makes my life more difficult because these are one off. Next year, I'll be writing my own grants again (not bad PI training, though).

    I will propose this addendum, which is not at all contrary to BugDocs proposal: that staff scientists be given equal consideration to transitional graduate students for the postdoc to faculty funding. Thus helping to ensure people who for one reason or another required several additional years to be ready for that transition are not neglected. I'm sure some of these people, and I count myself among them, would make great PIs.

    @BugDoc

    You can be damned sure I'll talk about good ideas with anyone who will listen when I hear them.

  • zb says:

    The right question, with Obama's new rule making, is not "Are post-docs underpaid, and can you prove it?", but whether post-doctoral work falls in one of the exemptions for the Fair Labor Standards Act. The question is, "can post-docs work more than 40 hours without overtime pay, while making under 50K per year? under the FLSA"

    Under the old rule there were three tests: 1) Salary >$23,660, 2) Salary not dependent on hours worked or quality of work, 3) Job duties (a list), but lab post-docs pretty much all fall under the "Professional -- Learned" job duty test.

    Obama is changing rule #1. So, now, the question is, are post-docs exempt from FLSA or not?

    http://www.northwestern.edu/hr/compensation/Exempt%20or%20Nonexempt.pdf

    My plain reading says they're not exempt (though there is the doctor/lawyer/teacher exemption, which is different, I think from the 3 item test). If post-docs are not exempt, then the solutions are 1) raise salaries to >50K, which will make them exempt 2) require them to work fewer hours than 40 hours, or pay over time 3) pretend/argue they work fewer than 40 hours. 4) pretend/argue that some part of their work is training, or not really work, so that hours are <=40/week.

    The discussion on what the "right" wage for post-docs isn't relevant to this new rulemaking. The executive rule sets the threshold for the right wage for non-exempt employees. So the real question is whether post-docs are some how inherently different from others who would be non-exempt under the new rule.

  • zb says:

    PS: Another alternative to dealing with the issue with respect to post-docs is to argue against the new rule-making, for everyone, not just post-docs.

  • kalevala says:

    I don't think that's a different discussion at all. "What BugDoc's proposal does is shift the decision on who gets to be faculty earlier. It makes it harder to recover from stumbles. It makes it harder for people coming from non-academic backgrounds. It privileges the academic elite (like SonOfGermaine) who know what they're doing earlier. It will dramatically remove diversity."

    Sorry, but the status quo is what precisely discourages diversity, as the only ones still standing after 10-15 years of lost income and protracted "training" are the academic lifers and chosen ones.

    At least by defining who's on the track earlier, you can provide certainty to those who need it, or a clear alternate path. Of course, we need to invest much effort in making sure there is diversity in either path, but the postdoc has long ceased to be a "second chance" or a "clean slate" as you imagine it.

  • Colin says:

    There is a lot to like about BugDoc's proposal. One interesting feature is that staff scientists who amass experience, publications, and seeds for independent projects could still try to become PIs later on but we will have reduced the opportunity cost associated with the intervening period by professionalizing their jobs (^salary, benefits). Would such candidates be at a disadvantage relative to younger PhDs with outside fellowships for faculty positions or when applying for R01s ? At first glance it seems unlikely. I'm actually not sure what the clear advantage of an outside fellowship would be to the staff scientists other than evidence on CV of ability to acquire funding, and reduced cost to the PI, because if the fellowship is buying "training time" that potentially means less productivity compared the the purely professional staff scientists. Then again, is the big advantage that PhDs with fellowships will get scooped up by the glamour labs, which will both further entrench the economic advantages those labs hold, and help the baby PhDs out with glam pedigrees? This is already a problem, but will this proposal make things worse? If so, how can we head this off?

    Also, upon reflection, if staff scientists start applying for R01s (or K05s, or whatever) after 7 years on the job, how will that be different from the current permadoc situation in terms of demand for these positions? We will be making it more financially viable to stick around that long. By making staff scientist positions more desirable than postdoc positions currently are, won't we exacerbate the problem on the PhD supply end? Bugdoc acknowledged that this proposal does little to reduce the supply of PhDs, and I think it is arguable that is might actually increase the incentive to get a PhD and for PIs to train them as they will be even cheaper than staff scientists than they are now relativ eto postdocs.

    Does this plan need to go hand-in-hand with reduced graduate school admissions? How bad is a continued oversupply of PhDs? Is it good to have people with scientific training out in the broader society who got to contribute something to science in their mid 20s, even if they do not go on to directly use all of the skills they acquired as students, as long as they know what they are getting into? Or, is the possible good of diffusing scientific training beyond academic science actually wasteful? Should we we expend time and resources to train these students only for them to go on to become venture capitalists, reagent sales reps, and patent attorneys? This is a serious question.

    Finally, while this proposal professionalizes non-PI PhD scientists, it does nothing to ease the pressure on all involved to be productive with still less than adequate funding for the research itself, particularly as the staff scientists are going to be more expensive than current postdocs. As far as I can tell, the only routes for improvement on that front lie in increasing the NIH grant budget or reducing number of PIs. I welcome any thoughts.

  • Newbie PI says:

    I think I've realized why there are so many postdocs that don't think they are being "trained." Postdoctoral training doesn't mean that your PI holds your hand and walks you step by step through whatever it is that you need to learn. Postdoctoral training involves the entirely new set of skills that you gain by being in a new lab. Not just scientific methodologies, but the new ideological framework from which the lab forms its hypotheses and designs experiments. But beyond these passive ways in which you are trained, a postdoctoral position gives you freedom to get yourself trained in whatever you want. I was in a big city with multiple universities within walking distance, so I can't even count how many job talks I attended in pretty much every field of science as a postdoc because I wanted to learn how to give a job talk myself. I attended multiple writing workshops every year. I got myself a position giving a few lectures at a local college to gain teaching experience. I went to seminars constantly. I asked a BSD from my university if I could attend and present at his lab meeting so that I could get yet another perspective. This was all training that was freely available to me because I had the title of postdoc. I just had to seek it out. So I would say that the postdocs crying that "nobody's training me" need to take some responsibility for themselves and realize that training comes in many forms, and that you will probably never again be so free and flexible to train yourself while you're at work. There's a value in this that goes beyond monetary compensation.

  • I-75 scientist says:

    I'm just going to leave it at your work experiences may vary drastically from others.

  • jipkin says:

    There's a difference in my mind between training and self-directed learning.

    In any event newbiePI, what are you going to do about the 46K technician you have? Do they already work only 40 hours etc? How would the overtime rules affect you and your lab?

  • neuromusic says:

    "There's a value in this that goes beyond monetary compensation."

    In principle, I get your point Newbie PI and I agree.

    But the Department of Labor has shown repeatedly that it doesn't.

    That said, if your PD is spending all their time going to job talks at multiple institutions, attending writing workshops, giving free lectures "for experience", going to seminars "constantly"... why does any of that need to be on your dime?

    Why not just pay your PD $42k for the 40 hours of work they do in the lab and let them find their own training on their own time?

  • Wait! Who is saying that increases post-doc salaries will decrease the PhD supply!?!?!?!? If you make being a post-doc more lucrative, how can that do anything other than increase the perceived value of a PhD, and thus increase the PhD supply???????

  • E rook says:

    Newbie PI, I think the situation you describe fits well with Bug Docs proposal. Why on earth should an employee be paid from the PIs R-type grant to do those things? If one has a fellowship, that pays a stipend to offset the cost of living during training, well, that would be the "post doc scholar." The PhD holding scientist engaged in intense laboratory (or whatever) work to meet the research goals of a lab is an employee. We should be honest about the distinction. The latter could apply for faculty positions or fellowships to transition to a trainee positions as much as they want. I think this type of system would allow for the career stutters that the system doesn't currently tolerate, too.

  • Newbie PI says:

    Jipkin: The staff scientist in my lab works 40 h per week. That was part of the reason he took the job. 9-6 with a lunch break, though that can vary depending on the demands of certain experiments. Any hours in the lab passing cells on the weekends can be subtracted from hours worked during the week. And actually, 46K was significantly higher than what is paid on average in my department for similar positions. Believe it or not, I had to write a letter to HR justifying such a high salary.

  • Colin says:

    "Wait! Who is saying that increases post-doc salaries will decrease the PhD supply!?!?!?!? If you make being a post-doc more lucrative, how can that do anything other than increase the perceived value of a PhD, and thus increase the PhD supply???????"

    I think people are arguing that we would expect a decrease in the number of postdocs due to fixed pot of $ to pay for them. However, the companion to this is a possible increase in the number of students earning PhDs due to increased desirability of postdoc/staff scientist position. A lot depends on what the graduate programs do, and how accurately prospective PhD candidates assess the non postdoc/staff scientist job market for PhDs (arguably they are currently not gauging it well).

  • Newbie PI says:

    neuromusic and E-rook: I wasn't spending "all my time" doing training activities. I was extremely productive in the lab, which allowed me to do these things without irritating my boss.

  • Juan Lopez says:

    "But the Department of Labor has shown repeatedly that it doesn't."

    That's not true. The DOL never said that.

    Jipkin, maybe we can ask differently: when the PD becomes fully a job, like all others, how many are going to complain that it is a dead end, that there is no training, that they want workshops and seminars and the chance to fail? How many will miss all that there is available during the PD? Maybe the trade off is worthwhile for PDs, but it is a trade.

    If we remove the training component and demand that PDs perform a job like everyone else, then it can happen in 40 hrs. There are easily two weeks a year of conferences that PIs don't have to pay for, plus all the associated times preparing abstracts, talks and posters. They would instead prepare my abstracts, posters and talks, of course since I can boss them around because this is a job, not training. Also, no using our lab equipment or time for any of your projects or ideas.

    I bet that most of the PDs here would not be happy to let go of those things. You want all that you get now PLUS the other things. Nice.

    I don't know what I will do if this law works the way you think it will. As I said before, I don't have a magical pot of money to pay PDs more. I am more likely to pay for 40hrs. If fellowships pay more, it will be an even stronger incentive for PDs to apply (on their dime, of course and not using my labs equipment!)

  • ImmunoPD says:

    Some postdocs have it pretty good, sure. Others have PIs that want 16 hour workdays, even that it's absurd and generally counterproductive. I heard a PI tell his foreign postdocs, beholden to him for immigration status, that they should work 24 hours a day because other labs are working 16. When SOME PIs act like they own all of our time, it makes sense that at least some postdocs would find 40 hour work weeks desirable even if that meant fewer of the good things about being a postdoc.

  • neuromusic says:

    if this law works the way you think it will.

    How many PIs contacted their HR department last week to ask for clarification on the Rules Proposal as it relates to their lab?

  • Juan Lopez says:

    "How many PIs contacted their HR department last week to ask for clarification on the Rules Proposal as it relates to their lab?"

    87.2%.

    Any other question?

  • jipkin says:

    Juan I don't know what would happen if most postdoc jobs become staff scientists, or if BugDoc's proposal became reality. It would be a massive shift in the culture of science! I don't think the overtime rules make postdocs into staff scientists magically. Postdocs are already employees in the eyes of law (if they were trainees they'd be due overtime no matter their salary!).

  • BugDoc says:

    I believe that trainees are not eligible for overtime - this is likely to be a key point for interpretation wrt the new DOL policy. Maybe you meant they wouldn't be due overtime? But I think you are missing my point - the DOL requirements may end up being a useful mechanism to leverage the massive culture chase you are talking about, which is one of the biggest barriers to many of the fixes discussed on this blog. It's easy enough to come up with all kinds of reasons why any solution won't fix everything. But the fact is change is difficult and people don't like to get out of their comfort zone.

  • BugDoc says:

    @Colin: "Does this plan need to go hand-in-hand with reduced graduate school admissions? How bad is a continued oversupply of PhDs?"

    It is my personal opinion that we can't fix the system without some decrease in graduate admissions. Seems like simple math. I've found this to be by far the most contentious issue within all of the proposed solutions. Faculty are deeply divided by it. My sense is that we will not be able to come to consensus on decreasing admissions unless there is an in depth analysis of the labor market that shows unequivocally that supply of PhDs far outstrips demand. Practically speaking, it couldn't really go hand in hand anyway since the postdoc solution lies with the NIH and the graduate admissions issue is solely the domain of universities.

  • drugmonkey says:

    We will not make progress with faculty on the topic of reducing graduate admissions until we force the recalcitrant types to recognize they are exploiting cut rate labor. That is their motivation. The high minded excuses about how we need doctoral educated people for [insert reason] need to be dismantled.

  • Dennis Eckmeier says:

    "Unlike post-PhD research, graduate school is not and should not be considered a job."

    That's because you have graduate schools. I didn't go to graduate school. I had an extended undergrad program and went straight into research. As an undergraduate I was employed as scientific staff. However, they did cut my salary to 50% (today it's 60-65%) of a full salary based on the infamous training argument. The European system as it is now, allows Masters to go straight into research. Graduate schools that include course schooling, are rare and usually for people who didn't go through the European Ms program.

    "I think I've realized why there are so many postdocs that don't think they are being "trained." Postdoctoral training doesn't mean that your PI holds your hand and walks you step by step through whatever it is that you need to learn. Postdoctoral training involves the entirely new set of skills that you gain by being in a new lab."

    Ah, growth! Let me put it industry terms for you: work experience.
    What you do is to apply what you should have learned as a graduate student in a new context and accumulate more experience. But basically it's the same thing as a PhD research: you dig into a new research context, define a research program with the PI, apply old skills and/or pick up the new skills necessary for the project, including all the scholar stuff.

    This is what you do in industry, too. I personally,since I underwent a proper thesis at the end of the undergrad and didn't have courses as a PhD student, already always viewed the PhD as that.

    "a postdoctoral position gives you freedom to get yourself trained in whatever you want."

    Yes, you are not at school anymore.

    "This was all training that was freely available to me because I had the title of postdoc. I just had to seek it out. So I would say that the postdocs crying that "nobody's training me" need to take some responsibility for themselves and realize that training comes in many forms, and that you will probably never again be so free and flexible to train yourself while you're at work. "

    Everybody can always seek mentorship for everything everywhere, there is nothing special about it in academia. But, I've had mentors giving me the wildest crap when I wasn't in the lab every time they felt like they should expect to see me there. I've had advisers setting labmeetings on holidays.

    "There's a value in this that goes beyond monetary compensation."
    Then why do we pay for it?

  • Dennis Eckmeier says:

    "As an undergraduate I was employed as scientific staff. However, they did cut my salary to 50% (today it's 60-65%) "

    This was supposed to mean "As a PhD student".

  • Juan Lopez says:

    BugDog. It seems like the PhD over/under supply is not uniform across disciplines. How do we deal with that? Computer science, for example, might oppose more strongly the reduction in admissions. Or this could be what large corporations use to get congress to increase the H-1B program.

    The definitive proof you are looking may not even exist. I bet that some PhD programs can point to their PhD alumni and demonstrate how well employed they are. They would question why THEY have to close shop.

    The only long term solution is something that increases opportunities after the PhD. Seems like simple math to me too. All the bright people going into PhD programs are there. Much better to find a way to incorporate them than turn them away. The lack of opportunities for young people has been one of the major issues in developing countries, or countries hard hit by the recession (Greece, Spain). I don't think this is easy at all, of course.

  • qaz says:

    I won't speak for anyone else, but for me my very negative opinion on reducing graduate admissions has nothing to do with exploiting cut-rate labor. I would be very happy to increase the costs of graduate students to faculty.

    My negative opinion on reducing graduate admissions is two fold:

    1. It will damage diversity. It is my contention that to get the diamonds in the rough who have "grit" and ability but haven't had a chance to show it, or who have stumbled but will be fine once you give them a chance, you have to include both the elite and the mediocre from advantaged worlds. I contend that limiting graduate admissions will limit the graduate students to SonOfGermaine.

    2. It plays into the Republican anti-community anti-society rhetoric. It's like all the Democrats who argued for cutting social security after the Greenspan budget games or austerity measures in the face of economic stagnation. What we REALLY need is more faculty positions (with the necessary money to fund them). Yes, I know that's going to be hard to do. But I believe that reducing graduate admissions is the first step in an anti-science death spiral.

    I would be very happy to enforce a reasonable salary on both graduate students and postdocs, making staff scientists competitive with them. For the record, my only contention about the new labor laws is the disaster of hour-counting. I would no longer be able to let postdocs work on their own projects or be flexible in their working from home. And I have no idea how I would handle the open-endedness that is writing.

  • Dennis Eckmeier says:

    IMHO, whether or not there will be more or less PhDs or more or fewer PDs or sufficient funding, is all not your problem.

  • physioprof says:

    We will not make progress with faculty on the topic of reducing graduate admissions until we force the recalcitrant types to recognize they are exploiting cut rate labor.

    You are assuming as fact something that is quite open for debate: whether graduate students pursuing their research and training goals in a biomedical research laboratory are being "exploited" as "cut rate labor". One could certainly argue that if you consider not only the stipend but also the free tuition (which is generally around $40,000 per year at ILAFs and their peers, for at least the first three years), then graduate students are far from underpaid.

    And then one would certainly want to take into account the future value of the training that PhD students receive--both in the classroom, seminar room, and in the lab--and the future value of the research accomplishments (i.e., published papers, positive letters of reference, establishment of reputation, etc) graduate students are given the opportunity to attain while every penny of the costs of those research accomplishments (i.e., supplies, reagents, equipment, animals, etc) are borne by others.

    From this reasonable perspective, spending five years getting a biomedical PhD is an amazingly good deal for the student, and is far from "exploitation of cut rate labor". It's a nice rhetorical flourish to make it sound like grad students are locked in a windowless room washing pipette tips and cleaning mouse cages all day every day, but you know that is complete bullshit.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Nice traditional defense PP but it is ridiculous nonsense and you know it. The risks / benefits are asymmetrical and you are in the exploiter class.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Which professional class job doesn't feature training at the cost of the employer?

  • drugmonkey says:

    What did the lawsuit against Fox Searchlight pictures say about "intern" exploitation?

  • physioprof says:

    You should come clean on how your own professional interests intersect with your casting of graduate student training as "exploitation of cut rate labor" and advocacy for limiting graduate enrollment.

  • Juan Lopez says:

    DM, what CPP said is not nonsense. As someone pointed out above, grad school is a low-cost entry. A non-trivial fraction of students go in while they figure out what they want to do. Many are bright and capable, yet are still uncertain what they want to do. They have done well in undergrad and know that grad school is an easy road while postponing tough choices and having to wear a tie early in the morning.

    No doubt PIs benefit, but a win-win is not exploitation. The students might later find out that their job options didn't get better and call it exploitation, but it is not.

    Indeed, many PIs abuse grad students and PDs. We must work to put a stop to that. But I am with CPP and call BS on taking for granted that grad students are exploited and the only interest of a PI is cut rate labor. Many PIs I know are truly interested in their students advancement, and not just to polish their own CVs.

  • JustAGrad says:

    Why don't we discuss more the idea about increasing the number of faculty like qaz mentioned?

    My understanding is that IDC rarely covers the full cost of research and therefore universities aren't profiting directly from research. So why is there an opposition to having research universities hire more faculty and/or increase the teaching load? Surely PIs can still do good science with a 2/2 load? And aren't enrollments going up in most STEM fields?

  • qaz says:

    JustAGrad - because increasing the number of faculty without increasing the NIH budget or providing other sources of income (states going back to funding state universities) or changing the rules (more university buy-in) or something is going to lead to even worse paylines. You think 10% funding is bad? Double the number of appliacnts, now you're at 5%!

    I think this is as likely as restricting the graduate student input pool. So if we're going to talk stuff that'll never happen, let's talk stuff that would actually help science rather than hurt science.

  • jipkin says:

    BugDoc, trainees for professional jobs, as defined in the regulations governing FLSA, are not exempt from overtime rules. However, postdocs almost certainly are not trainees by how this rule is written. See for yourself:

    § 541.705 Trainees.
    The executive, administrative, professional,
    outside sales and computer
    employee exemptions do not apply to
    employees training for employment in
    an executive, administrative, professional,
    outside sales or computer employee
    capacity who are not actually
    performing the duties of an executive,
    administrative, professional, outside
    sales or computer employee.

    Source: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2011-title29-vol3/pdf/CFR-2011-title29-vol3-part541.pdf

    Law: http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/statutes/FairLaborStandAct.pdf

  • jipkin says:

    Some random musings:

    If staff scis are to become the new majority labor force in science, then do we need as many PhDs? Why can't there exist a large parallel career pipeline that goes straight from tech to staff scientist? Does a person really need to do work on a single project and write it up and deal with a committee and publish papers in order to be an efficient, smart, and productive staff scientist?

  • Juan Lopez says:

    Jipkin, so what you want is a well-paid and respected position that does science, without having to do a PhD, deal with committee's or write? What exactly would that person be doing and still be productive, efficient and smart?

  • drugmonkey says:

    I did "come clean" PP. I make no bones about the fact that I have taken the hit to structure my lab so that it leans more towards paying people their worth and less towards exploiting "trainees".

  • E rook says:

    I've known many senior techs that fit this description, J & JL. They will also typically head over to a seminar if it fits their experiment schedule, they are a great source of continuity, too. I've found that many solid, good science, non-glam PIs have a senior tech work with them for >decade. These were the folks I felt for the most when I saw labs close.

  • Juan Lopez says:

    E-rook, I agree. However, every senior tech I know also writes. I never see papers by them alone, but often they do heavy lifting in several of the publications on which they are middle authors. J was questioning the need to learn/practice/polish your writing. In my opinion, writing is essential to being a productive scientist, staff or not.

  • jipkin says:

    Sure, I have nothing against learning to write as a tech or staff sci. Very useful skill to have if a PI wants you leading a project rather than just assisting one, for example. Reading is an essential skill to have as well. I'm just saying if we want staff sci's, do they really "need" PhDs. I feel like a smart person that has 5 years of lab experience working on a few projects is going to have a great shot at being a productive staff scientist regardless of the letters after their name.

  • physioprof says:

    So the fewer grad students your competitors have, the better you do exploiting post-docs. Sounds like a plan!

  • jmz4 says:

    "If we remove the training component and demand that PDs perform a job like everyone else, then it can happen in 40 hrs."
    -No, it can't. The average postdoc works 55 hours a week. I doubt "training" components take up 15 hours a week.

    While I've complained about the lack of training as much as anyone, if you look at the admittedly anecdotal history of the postdoc, that's not really what it ever was. More, it was a *somewhat* optional phase after graduation where you went to a big lab with lots of resources to tinker around and pursue an independent project. E.g. Cynthia Kenyon went to Sydney Brenner's lab and reportedly met with him 4 times in as many years (as did Marty Chalfie). Training in career skills was always second to the pursuit of a scientific inquiry.

    So, lets not confuse what we think *ought* to be with what, historically is actually precedent. With that being said, I think PIs would agree that the current funding environment doesn't allow for as much undirected ambling in the scientific landscape. Additionally, as has been pointed out, the chance of landing an independent spot is about 1/3 that of a PhD holder 30 years ago.

    As such, it might be time to revisit what postdocs are vs. what they should be. They should be a means for graduate students to shift research focus, gain prestige and recommendations, and hopefully prove themselves worthy, by dint of independent scholarship and creativity, to start a new lab. For PIs, however, they have become a cheap, under-regulated workforce that comes pre-trained and have become the standard workhorse for churning out benchwork. This is not because PIs are evil bastards, but largely because initiating or extending an RPG requires data, and there is very little wriggle room to allow a postdoc to expend time and resources on their own projects.

    To rectify the current state of affairs, all postdocs should be moved to independent support. The reason for this is threefold. First, independent scholarship is vital to the development of an innovative research plan at this point in their career, however, being attached to an R01 pretty much precludes this. No one is interested in PIs turning out clones of their own labs, answering the same questions with the same techniques. Second, as has been discussed, providing direct support to the PDs is a way of regulating their quantity, a vital aspect of any plan to improve research funding and workforce stability. Finally, by having a direct application process, unoriginal thinkers and people with poorer abilities to articulate thoughts in grant form will be weeded out earlier in the process.

    Ideally, there should also be some way for PDs to bring in actual research dollars to the lab. Perhaps a small award (25k) or so, for research funding, that they will administer, thereby learning some of the associated skills of budgeting for lab purposes.
    These could be submitted and subject to initial review online by panels of senior postdocs (late into their fellowships), and then go on to PIs/POs for final evaluation. This would decrease the burden on regular study sections, as well as provide another valuable training experience.

    If you give the PDs more autonomy they will be happier, and the PIs will be more supportive of salary and benefits increases.

  • dsks says:

    JustaGrad said,
    "So why is there an opposition to having research universities hire more faculty and/or increase the teaching load? Surely PIs can still do good science with a 2/2 load?"

    2/2 is a pretty heavy load, dude, let me tell you from experience. Even after you think you have your courses the way you want them. Folk that pull this sort of load are usually at institutions competing in a completely different (although still competitive) research environment from R1 institutions. Saddly a junior or even a midcareer PI with that kind of teaching and they'd be buggered in short order.

    "And aren't enrollments going up in most STEM fields?"

    I very much doubt this is the case in absolute terms across the whole area. Enrollment is starting to stall in many places due to demographic reality of a diminishing student population (people having less kids basically), and indeed based on how high schools are struggling with enrollment it looks like things are set to get a lot worse (and hypercompetitive) in higher ed.

  • L Kiswa says:

    "Surely PIs can still do good science with a 2/2 load?"

    My experience as a n00b PI with exactly this load:

    Depends. If I had the amount of funding flowing in needed to sustain my small group... absolutely, YES -- I would have plenty of time to work with my small group (current size 2 grad students, 1 postdoc, few UGs, -- have no intention of ever getting bigger than this!) and put out good quality pubs. The problem, as others have noted on this blog, is the amount of time one needs to spend writing grants to fund the work.

    I have found it very difficult to put out the number of grant applications needed to have a prayer of being competitive. It is frustrating having to spend so much time chasing relatively small amounts from various sources (foundations, industry). Unfortunately, given low funding rates I am finding this approach to be necessary to keep the lights on. I'll note that even these limited funds can help with getting enough data to put out pubs in good (aka non-glam, respected society level) journals.

    Related Q -- Thoughts on chasing R15 vs. R01 if one is at an R15-eligible institution?

  • JustAGrad says:

    @dsks, @L Kiswa, thanks for the perspectives.

    The reason I thought a 2/2 would still be doable is because my PI has a 100% admin appointment and still manages to keep churning papers out and receiving grants at roughly the same rate as before the admin position began (we are a lab about the same size as L Kiswa's. Granted, this could be because the PI is senior and has enough experience to be able to balance these demands. Surely it would be much harder for junior PIs.

    @jmz4, I like your idea of requiring PDs to have independent support. However, my concern is that this would lead to even more PIs writing the fellowship applications for their PDs, and would therefore make it even harder than it is today for PDs to write successful applications. What do you think?

  • jmz4gtu says:

    @Just a grad: Ideally you would write the fellowship applications before even joining the lab, but I'm not sure the logistics would work out well for that. However, if you could, the criteria for evaluation would be 1) productivity in grad work and 2) viability of proposal in the mentor's lab.
    I think more realistically, you'd have to have people apply sometime in their first year as a PD.

  • BugDoc says:

    @JuanLopez: "It seems like the PhD over/under supply is not uniform across disciplines. How do we deal with that? Computer science, for example, might oppose more strongly the reduction in admissions."

    I agree that there are still fields where PhD level scientists are in high demand. Calling for a measured decrease in overall PhD admissions seems like it should be able to accommodate this, i.e., if institutions started with a 15% overall decrease in biomedical sciences/biology PhD admissions, there's no reason that the decrease has to be uniform across the board.

    @qaz:"But I believe that reducing graduate admissions is the first step in an anti-science death spiral." Why so? If you look at the number of PhDs we have trained over the last twenty years, it has increased steadily. A 15-20% decrease would take us back to where we were 5 years or so ago, and science was still chugging along just fine. What is putting us in the anti-science death spiral is the NIH budget failing to keep up with inflation together with admitting too many PhD students (and appointing legislators with an anti-science agenda to congressional science & technology committees, but don't get me started on that).

  • Adam says:

    This whole business of pegging postdoc salaries nationally to whatever the NIH pays postdocs in Bethesda drives me crazy. When I worked in a major US city, someone offered me a postdoc position paying the NIH entry-level salary at the time, which was only a few hundred more than I made in a year waiting tables in that city before I started grad school (true story). At the same time, someone offered me the same stipend in the midwest, and I calculated that after adjusting for the cost-of-living difference, that same salary would go twice as far in the midwest as it would in the big city. So, I went back to the first guy and asked for more (not double, but maybe 1.5x), and he nearly choked from laughing so hard. I went where the money was better.

    Why is it that different institutions get their own indirect rate but NIH salary recommendations aren't scaled for different regions, etc.? A lot of the best research is being done in some of the most expensive cities to live in the US...

  • drugmonkey says:

    I agree, we should significantly reduce postdoc salaries in the flyover land University labs. That would save a ton of money.

    (That IS what you meant, right?)

  • […] in the US has ballooned into a public-health fiasco — and no solutions are in sight On justification of postdoctoral salary (my thoughts here) When the End of Human Civilization Is Your Day Job: Among many climate […]

  • jmz4gtu says:

    "Why is it that different institutions get their own indirect rate but NIH salary recommendations aren't scaled for different regions, etc.? "
    -See my comments above about two different ways to fix that.

    When universities plead their cases for their IDC rates, they submit a cost of living analysis for their region. The NIH should use these to determine base paylines for PDs.
    Alternatively, they can use established wage adjustment tables cooked up by the DoL.

    The real question is who should pay for the price difference?

  • neuromusic says:

    I agree, we should significantly reduce postdoc salaries in the flyover land University labs. That would save a ton of money.

    Not to mention level the playing field, what with the competitive advantage these labs have in recruiting postdocs.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Absolutely neuromusic. good point. that is totally unfair.

  • Min says:

    Pardon, but this is not a "very simple question". (BTW, on the internet when people say that something is very simple, it usually isn't. ;))

    "I am eternally curious why science doctorate types think they are underpaid."

    What does eternally curious suggest? Well, it could mean that, despite having a lot of data you are still undecided on an issue. It can also mean that you are not really curious, but are skeptical. People often say that they are curious when they are skeptical. They may be open to being convinced, but usually not very. The eternally suggests that despite having a lot of data, you are still skeptical, that you priors on that question are relatively impervious to change.

    Now, if you were really curious why "science doctorate types think that they are underpaid," a few months of investigation, or a number of years of casual interest would give you a pretty good idea. All you have to do is ask.

    The phrase, science doctorate types, is itself curious. It apparently means people with science doctorates plus some others who regard themselves as being like them. But usually it is a disparaging way of referring to people with science doctorates. It lumps them together with others who do not have science doctorates, for no apparent reason other than to disparage earning a doctorate in science.

    The phrase, think that they are underpaid, indicates what you are skeptical about, whether they are actually underpaid, even though they think that they are. And such skepticism is not unreasonable. After all, in a free market economy the price is typically right, especially over time. Perhaps you are eternally skeptical because the reasons that science doctorates have given you for thinking that they are underpaid have not convinced you of market imperfections which would make them actually underpaid. I will speculate no further.

  • […] time to read all the books I brought and some of the internet. On the internet, we had: #PlutoFlyby,  lots of debate about post-doc pay, overtime, etc (start here for more background), and a new […]