More money, more jobs, and other fairy tale dreams

Postdoc salaries and benefits are something of a perennial topic in the scientific community. It’s no secret that postdocs would like to make more money and get better benefits, whether in the form of better health insurance or actually starting a retirement fund. I don’t think it’s something for which we should be faulted; after all, who wouldn’t like more cash or high quality healthcare at low out-of-pocket expenses.

In June*, Slate Hive was crowdsourcing ideas the United States could recruit and retain more** scientists. “Someone with a PhD currently serving my sentence as a postdoc for an undetermined amount of time” suggests that, to maintain and advance American scientific innovation, we need to clear the logjam of postdocs. To demonstrate the problem, the postdoc writes:

… we have more PhDs than ever before, and in an arms race to be the most competitive faculty candidate, there’s a new postdoc slave labor where appointments last upwards of another DECADE after the PhD (which are taking longer and longer as well) before applying for faculty appointments… we have a record number of PhDs in the sciences and engineering, but the jobs are not waiting for them to fill! Too many times have I seen 35 or 40 AMAZING postdocs compete for one faculty position, at a local state university!

The prisoner postdoc proposes:

Double the NIH funding budget, double post-doc salary, invest money to create formal training programs for an interdisciplinary PhD of science and politics/education/journalism, and provide enough funding to break the publish-or-perish mentality that stifles scientific growth and instead caters to whatever grant is written on the “hot topic” of the day.

tl;dr – So many postdocs, so few faculty positions. The system is broken. What to do? Throw more money at it!

Everyone, from the humble grad student to the PI on high, has contrived some great idea to fix the system. But they all require cash, generated either by miraculous influx of funds or by major cuts to the current workforce. This is the reality of what we are asking. Trainees want to create more jobs for PhDs, so the latter approach is counterproductive. Yet the former is highly improbable… at best. Closer to truth, it’s a fairytale dream in this era.  To pretend otherwise shows inherent disregard for and/or ignorance of the system and climate in which we operate today.

The postdoc workforce has expanded substantially over the past 3 decades (see graph below from Sally Rockey’s post on the postdoc workforce). At the same time, the cost to support a trainee continues to creep up – annual salary increases based on experience, plus annual cost-of-living increases, and some universities increasing the fringe benefit rates for postdocs. I have worked in medical school-affiliated organizations that at the very least recommend and sometimes essentially mandate paying postdocs according to the NRSA scale, which currently ranges ranges from $39,264 for a new PhD to $54,180 for a very senior postdoc (7+ years). I don’t know how common this is, but for the sake of argument, we’ll say that this is not out of the ordinary and that the average salary is $45,000. Based on a brief survey of the top search hits for ‘postdoc fringe benefit rate’, 25 to 30% of salary seems to be a typical rate, though they can run much higher. If we assume a fringe rate of 27%, then that’s about $57,000 to support one postdoc. Doubling postdoc salaries, even without increasing fringe benefits, would push that value over $100,000 a year.

Meanwhile, the purchasing power of the research grant dollar has declined, yet the modular budget cap (currently $250,000) hasn’t changed. Since the end of the NIH budget doubling, budget appropriations for NIH haven’t even kept pace with inflation. Just how far behind inflation is the NIH budget? I clipped the graph below from a Congressional Research Service report [PDF download], which shows previous budgets in terms of 2012 dollars. I made a few annotations to illustrate my point. The graph includes the FY2012 budget request; the final budget settled at $30.6B. If we track back, we find a comparable budget in … 2002. That’s right – a decade ago, in the latter half of the NIH doubling phase.

Across NIH, the success rate for the primary research funding mechanism (R01) is 15% for new submissions, just over 30% for renewals. Already many labs are struggling to stay afloat. Some labs are scaling down, whereas some PIs are cutting their own salaries so they can support their personnel and research. Considering plans for the next fiscal year, the budget will be essentially flat – at best. That’s provided Congress can come to an agreement on deficit reduction in the next few months. If they fail (and with the most polarized Congress in a century, it’s quite possible they will), the Budget Control Act will invoke automatic sequestration of federal budgets, effective Jan. 2, 2013. Most non-defense budgets, including NIH, could be cut by nearly 8%. That would slide us back to about the middle of the doubling era and could mean 20 to 25% fewer awards.

And yet… we still continue to campaign for larger salaries for postdocs, a position that is supposed to be a short-term, training appointment. I think, by and large, these arguments are born out of frustration with the system and without consideration for the broader consequences of such demands. I know that there are bad experiences and exploitative PIs, but I also think this is the exception not the norm. We cannot live extravagantly, but I wager that most of us are making a living wage (by which I mean we can pay the bills and eat). That’s not to say there are no challenges, especially for those who are starting families during at this career stage. There are ways that institutions and individual PIs can improve the postdoc experience; some require more money than others. If we want to have a serious conversation about the state of biomedical research training and potential solutions to improve it, if we don’t want the people supporting our training to dismiss our concerns and ideas out of hand, then we need look beyond ourselves and think about the impact of the changes we’re advocating through the lens of the funding reality.


* I know this is forever in internet time, but I’ve been otherwise occupied.

** This has been discussed in several forums lately, but here is Derek Lowe’s takedown of the assertion that more scientists are needed.

This entry was posted in biomedical workforce, budget, grants, money, politics in science, postdoc life, troubles of science. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to More money, more jobs, and other fairy tale dreams

  1. The solution from institutions seems to ban the length of training rather than the salary and benefits. If salaries dropped for postdocs precipitously do you think that would affect the number of postdocs, or is there an inexhaustible supply at this point?

    • biochembelle says:

      Hmm. I doubt that there’s an “inexhaustible” supply, but I think it will take quite some time to equalize. Part is due to the expansion of PhD programs through the past decade, which anecdotally has begun to slow or even reverse. I also suspect the continuing cuts and hiring freezes in industry have pushed more chem/pharm majors into postdocs. But I could be completely off…

  2. Doubling postdoc salaries, even without increasing fringe benefits, would push that value over $100,000 a year.

    The median salary for assistant profs (in physiology anyway) is about $84,000 ( so doubling postdoc salaries to be equal to or above the level of junior faculty won’t happen.

    As a postdoc, I worked my ass off for a salary that was slightly less than the NRSA but I had very little (ie no) responsibilities outside of my own experiments. As junior faculty, my salary is now double what I got as a postdoc but, thanks to the economy, I haven’t had a pay raise in the four years since I joined Teh Ivory Tower, even though I now support a chunk of my own salary through federal grants. My workload is now several magnitudes higher than it was when I was a postdoc and I also have a fuckton of rather heavy duty responsibilities that are typically dumped on senior faculty.

    Sigh. I don’t have an answer to the situation. It’s fucked up whichever way you look at it.

  3. Martyn says:

    I haven’t heard many of my postdoc colleagues grumble about the pay, maybe that’s a difference being in Europe. Besides, I think most could earn at least as much in industry. The main problem is fixed term contracts, which creates a real uncertainty at a time in life when many people would like to settle down and (God forbid) start a family. If you’re only on a two year contract and there’s so much competition for jobs in the sector it’s a very precarious place to be. In addition, moving people on so frequently plays havoc with knowledge retention in any given lab.

    I think the solution is to try not to push all postdocs into faculty positions, but create more long-term ‘expert postdoc’ positions. That would cater well for the good scientists who aren’t so good at all the admin that goes with leading your own group.

    • biochembelle says:

      I haven’t heard many of my postdoc colleagues grumble about the pay, maybe that’s a difference being in Europe.

      Coincidentally enough, some of the most boisterous protestations I’ve heard over postdoc pay in the US have been from European and Aussie postdocs, comparing pay to that in their home countries – and they’re not paying off school loans, as most USian postdocs are…

      We don’t have to deal with fixed contracts in the US, though more and more institutions are moving to a limit on postdoc appointments, 5 years being pretty typical in my experience. After those 5 years, though, there is often an option to move into a research faculty position, which is more or less a ‘super-postdoc’ requiring slightly better pay and benefits. Personally I think that the limit on postdoc appointments is a good thing from a professional and a personal life viewpoint.

  4. jbashir says:

    I haven’t heard (or done much) grumbling about the pay per se. The length of the postdoc yes. The shitty shitty health insurance, yes.

    • biochembelle says:

      As I mention above, some of the grumbling originates with foreign nationals who would have earned considerably more if they had taken a postdoc elsewhere. The benefits, and particularly healthcare, can definitely be a problem, and one of the major issues is the massive variability – no to crappy to good coverage. (For those interested, here’s a post on the topic, though unfortunately the comments from its previous incarnation are not available.) My colleagues and I are extraordinarily fortunate (at least through the lens of the US healthcare system) that our institution has committed to providing excellent coverage to trainees.

  5. Katie says:

    We have some of the same problems in astronomy/physics (relatively low salaries, ~ decade of short-term contracts, huge career uncertainty, too many postdocs for the available jobs). My feeling has always been it’d be better for the postdocs if there were *fewer* entry-level postdoc positions — that would move the bottleneck earlier so a lot of people would leave academia right after grad school, presumably going on to decent jobs in industry, etc, rather than pinballing around between institutions for years and years before finding out there are no faculty jobs to be had. The selection pressures would be focused more on giving the small number of jobs to the people who show the most promise early on, rather than to the people who are willing to put up with being underpaid and insecure for the longest.

    That said, fewer postdocs basically means less science getting done, since postdocs are cheap and highly productive. So I can see why institutions wouldn’t be interested in this kind of change.

  6. sivwatkins says:

    I would definitely agree with Martyn. I’m in the UK and I have seen so many puny fixed term postdoc positions advertised recently – many six months or one year in length. It’s a real challenge to do a project justice in one year, I can’t begin to imagine how I would tackle a six monther. I even saw one advertised at my University which was a two month contract.

    I was a technician before I started my current postdoc and it’s a heartbreaking decision to switch from a permanent scientific position to a fixed length contract, knowing that if you’re going to get another one, you’re probably going to have to spend a lot of your time applying for the money to fund it. It’s one of the aspects of ‘real-life science’ that we don’t really talk about with our undergraduates so much. I do think it should be a big factor in helping people decide whether or not to do a PhD – are you prepared to spend the next (potentially) ten years hopping around the country/planet on short term contracts?

    • biochembelle says:

      Another arising problem in the US is the expectation that postdocs will secure their own funding within one or two years. And since postdocs at most places can be terminated without cause at any time, there’s not much red tape to male that a reality.

      Institutional training grant support might be procured for a year, possibly 2 (this is the grantees’ decision). Then come up with your own cash or find another job. I don’t think it’s terribly common, but it seems I’m hearing about it more frequently. In some cases, the lab is simply strapped for cash, but in others, it seems to just be another way to promote competition.

      Since it typically takes 9 months to get a decision, that means starting a fellowship application months in, sometimes before even starting the position. Funding is a major challenge for foreign postdocs, as they’re ineligible for all NIH training and career dev awards except K99. And if you want to do anything other than independent academic research, you’ll have to lie or fail; even institutional training grants select for independent research track.

    • biochembelle says:

      I’ll add – 6 month contract positions for research? That’s ridiculous! Completely ignores nature of the work.

      • sivwatkins says:

        Absolutely, totally counterintuitive and the 2 month position is just laughable. Quite an incidence of unpaid postdoc positions being advertised too at the moment – all generally met with outrage.

  7. scicurious says:

    Great post, I definitely don’t think that throwing more money at the problem will solve it. I don’t think I need a raise, personally. What I need is…fewer of me around. I think to solve the postdoc glut, you’re going to eventually have to produce fewer postdocs. Even with alternative careers, I think there are just too many, lengthening the stay of the postdoc to TT transition. I have heard of the idea of increasing staff scientist positionins, but again, in the incredibly difficult funding environment, those soft money positions are going to be hard to come by.

    • biochembelle says:

      I think you’re spot on, Sci …

      Everyone seems to be looking for the solution that creates demand and improves conditions for a larger workforce. This ignores the fact that the *previous* task force from a decade ago reported that the rate of PhD production was basically at capacity. More people are listening only now that the money’s running out.

      Changes need to be made at post grad training level. But for those of us who have already passed that stage? Unfortunately I’m concerned many (more) of us will be left without chairs when the music stops… and none of us want to be the one.

  8. Yes I’m one of those Europeans who sometimes complains about how much post-docs get paid. In my home country I would have earned more as a post-doc, but on the other hand it is viewed as very beneficial for your career if you have been in the US for a while (at least that’s what they say). So it was a well-thought decision to come here.
    I think the relatively low salary wouldn’t be such a problem if you knew how long it would take and if there was a bit more certainty about getting a job after a post-doc. Also, the amount that we get paid only really started to bother me now that we have to pay daycare from it too…

  9. Dr. Aaron T. Dossey says:
  10. Dr. Aaron T. Dossey says:

    Ideas for expanding opportunity and innovation in science careers
    by National Postdoc Union on Sunday, July 22, 2012 at 4:30pm ·
    1) Put an annual limit on the amount of total federal grant dollars that one person (principle investigator) can be given for research (this would not include small business, education and other types of grants). This would allow more grants to be funded, which would benefit younger scientists – give us a toe in the door by spreading the funding a little wider. It would also incentivize institutions to hire MORE scientists (especially more independent ones who can apply for funding) and also incentivize scientists to pursue PRIVATE funding as well as commercialization (entrepreneurism?) of products resulting from their discoveries.

    2) Expand the number and size of common core facilities for various research needs (analytical chemistry cores, sequencing cores, animal facility cores, etc.) and the number of stable career staff scientists positions (‘permanent’ with benefits) – but have them report not to an individual PI or faculty boss, but to the department as an institutional resource (not the property of an individual PI).

    3) Make the identity submitter of grant proposals and manuscripts unknown to the reviewers and decision makers as much as possible.
    4) Create/fund a much wider variety of permanent/stable staff scientist career track positions at institutions geared toward Ph.D.’s – particularly for core research service facilities (which should be expanded greatly).

    5) End the system of tenure for faculty, it’s a concept whose time has come and went.

    6) Mandate twice per year surveys for trainees (students and postdocs) paid on grants to be sent directly from the agency to the trainee and directly back to the institution. These should focus on career outlooks, career services provided at the institution, human resources grievances/complaints, and especially (the bulk of the survey) should focus on the quaity of mentoring they are getting. Mentoring scores should be utilized to evaluate future grants in which a PI requests funding for trainees.

    7) Mandate that all institutions eligible for federal funding allow postdocs (and possibly graduate students) to be sole Principle Investigators on grants which they write if they choose.

    8) Forbid the hiring of scientists/researchers/faculty based on marital status. This practice is nepotism: it is deplorable, without merit, greatly reduces innovation and productivity in science and probably also violates equal opportunity laws – certainly in spirit if not in letter.

    9) Remove “trainee” (student and postdoc) salaries/stipends from research grants and make them all competitive fellowships, or (but this second one has some problems) give the money to institutions to pay student stipends with so that individual professors do not do the hiring or control the trainee’s employment/salary/benefits directly.

    10) Fund “Innovation Incubators” for postdocs (but with independent researcher titles) to work in common labspace, no offices, and using core facilities to pursue our research without a faculty boss. These researchers could do a lot with such limited resources, as long as we have independence. We could pursue our own funding and even stay in those positions if we don’t feel the need to seek higher titles – just remain productive in that job indefinitely. Those of us who want a larger lab of our own can use the position to create preliminary data and apply for grants to do it – either to “earn” more lab space at the same institution or apply for positions at other institutions.

    11) Limit the number of employees that an individual faculty scientists (or “permanent” scientists in federal agencies and national labs) lab can have – limit on grad students, postdocs, and technicians. Possibly only limit trainees (grad students and postdocs). This will allow faculty scientists to actually focus more on science and less on administration of large laboratory empires. Often the lab bosses are disconnected from much of the research going on in the largest labs. This causes an ackward situation whereby the indepdent scientist (postdoc, etc.) who conceived and conducted the research must add the boss to a senior position on the grant or publication artificially, thus making it impossible to distinguish whose ideas they were and who did the work, further exacerbating the difficulty for the employee to get their own independent position and lab. This situation has a severely negative impact on the innovation per dollar of federal funding.

    Like · · Share · Delete

    National Postdoc Union ALSO: all employees should be paid the full amount budgeted in the original grant. When they write grants, the ybudget X amount for a postech, for a studentech, etc. However, they don’t advertize the salary and try to negotiate it down. That’s a farce because the agency GAVE them that money FOR the person they hire, so that person should be paid all of it.
    July 22 at 4:31pm · Like

  11. Pingback: Let them eat persistence, as Chemjobber would say | 27 and a PhD

  12. I agree–postdocs should be a short-term position. The problem is that NIH doesn’t want to pay PhD researchers more: having cheap PhDs (i.e., postdocs) is in its budgetary interest. Until NIH (and other funders) think they should pay higher salaries, this crisis will persist.

    • biochembelle says:

      Honestly, I’m OK with getting what I’m paid now. Would it be nice to earn more? Sure, but I think the current payscale is not significantly far afield from the job description and responsibilities.

      But I also wonder – why do most ‘solutions’ look to NIH to fix the problem? Why aren’t we looking to our institutions to support and push change – improving healthcare coverage, providing childcare assistance …? Is it truly the responsibility of the NIH to shift the culture of science?

      I don’t mean that as a rhetorical question. I would like to hear what others have to say on this point.

      • We look to NIH to shift the culture because they have money.

        Institutions are increasingly hunkering down and entering survival mode.

        Yesterday, employees at our institution received an email from the university president that basically said, “Our finances are okay, but if you want raises, we need more new students, more continuing students, more graduate students, more research grants, and more fundraising. And we’re also going to look for ways to lower costs.”

        And we’re a university that has been faring reasonably well the last few years.

  13. ponderingfool says:

    If there is a problem of too many Ph.D. students and post-docs, you have to shrink the number. Right now as Mike the Mad Biologist alluded to the problem is caused by a cheap labor model allowing for a plethora of positions. If you increase the costs of hiring graduate students and post-docs relative to the available funds, the number of available positions will drop. It is basic economics. One way is increasing stipends and salaries with no increase in total budgets. Another option is to require benefits to be paid out of the indirects by the university not the directs. NIH could require a minimum level of benefits (health, vision, retirement, childcare and health saving accounts). This would increase the costs to the universities. Would probably cause the lower tier Ph.D. programs to contract. Of course a combo of both (increase in salaries and benefits) would really encourage fewer positions to be available. Right now I see mediocre students getting into Ph.D. programs. They are students who will work hard and do as they are told, basically cheap grading machines and lab technicians. According to ACS, the median starting salary for someone with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry/biochemistry is $40,000. Many of these jobs have better benefits than a grad student/post-doc receives. A newly minted PhD post-doc starting at $40,000 with fewer benefits than the technician is a great deal for a PI. When I was a technician ten years ago, I was paid about $42,000 in today’s dollars plus health, dental, vision, and retirement paid for while being limited to working 40 hours/ week. Keeping costs of employing post-docs where they are does nothing but continue the problem so many complain about: too many Ph.D.s and too few Ph.D. level positions.

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