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.