So, What Is a Post-Doc Worth?

One of the galling things about the possibility that current post-doc salaries might (probably will) run afoul of the Obama administration’s proposed overtime rules has been watching some PIs (I think they’re PIs; maybe they’re just post-docs who believe they’re special snowflakes) blow a gasket or three over the prospect that they might have to ‘give’* post-docs a raise from $21/hr to $25/hr. There are some who claim that post-docs wouldn’t be able to command similar salaries outside of academia. We will definitely return to that–with some data.

But first, over at Drugmonkey’s place, there have been several good responses to a post on the same topic. One of the smartest I’ve seen is by Colin Brinkman (boldface mine):

I think this discussion has lost sight of the fact the changes in overtime rules were neither proposed by postdocs, nor specifically targeted toward them. Postdocs just happen to fall into a category that will be affected if the rules go into effect. Now, obviously, the ramifications of the changes are made no less real by this fact, but I think we could do with a little less finger-pointing at the greedy little “disgruntledocs” who had very little to do with the proposed rules under discussion.

In the course of this discussion there has also been a lot of argument about what salary postdocs deserve. I’m not sure desert theory is the right way (or complete way) to determine postdoc salary. Postdoc salary is not set by a traditional labor market, postdoc salary almost certainly cannot be determined by direct economic output (nor can PI salary for that matter), and even comparing academic postdocs to similar positions in the private sector is probably not the best way to determine their salaries (See AnonNeuro above). Postdoc salary must be determined by considering and balancing what is fair to the postdoc (not completely objective), what can be supported by the average grant, as well as the effects of salary on quality and quantity of postdoc attraction and retention. The latter two factors are not only important in the short term, but also have long term effects on the scientific workforce. The challenge is to train enough postdocs to ensure a high quality pool from which to draw future PIs but not so many to make becoming a PI absurdly unlikely for a given postdoc. There are also non-salary means to regulate the size of the postdoc pool, but salary certainly has a substantial influence.

I think it should be clear that the various, (and sometimes competing), criteria do not result in a clear, simple way to determine salary. This is something that will always require some degree of empirical adjustment. The recent NAS report on postdocs and various other studies, including some internal to NIH, have argued for a reduction in the size of the postdoc pool, and also for an increase in postdoc salary (partially to achieve the former and partially on its own merit). If one agrees with these reports, then increasing postdoc salary above the overtime threshold is probably a good thing even if it causes some short term pain; PIs will lose some flexibility on whether to spend $ on personnel or research costs, some postdocs will be paid more, and some postdocs will lose their jobs. If one thinks there are no structural problems in the scientific workforce, then increasing postdoc salary is bad because it will reduce both the funds and the postdocs available to do science.

….I am disappointed at the evident distain many of the PIs who have posted in this discussion have shown for their postdocs. Can you imagine how this makes us feel? How far removed is this from Steve McKnight’s “riffraff” comments many of the young and mid-career PIs have (rightly) decried here on this blog. Similarly, some postdocs posting here and on twitter have also shown a lack of sympathy for the budgetary pressures PIs are now facing, and a lack of awareness of the possible (or likely) negative consequences of a salary increase. However, those of us who hope to become PIs share PI anxiety over minuscule grant success rates, and are well-familiar with the rapidly graying average age of first independent award. So, it would be great if all involved could display a modicum of empathy and respect for each other. Again, these rules are coming down from heaven, and are not the sole or deliberate product of the evil cabal of whiny, greedy, digruntledocs. We’re all in this together.

I disagree with Colin about the outside salaries–they are instructive, but we’ll get to that. Next, Dr. Becca (boldface mine):

In all honesty, if you’d ask me what a postdoc wage “should” be before this came out, I’d start with $50,360. Which is the median salary of a full time worker with a Bachelor’s. I look at what productivity friends with Bachelor’s degrees add and can confidently state that the median productivity from a postdoc is at least equal to that. That is, I believe strongly that postdocs *earn* at least that much, and in a less constrained job market, would be making it (albeit subject to more geographical variations and than are currently present in the NIH-defines-standard-pay model we’ve got).

I don’t know the last time any of you actually worked an hourly job, but the auditing is just not necessarily so onerous- for reasons legit and otherwise. It’s not like people won’t write in “40 hours” every week and just ensure they work that on average in academic labs. At least, this is what I’ve seen techs do (despite the legal implications, and despite a unionized environment… overtime pay is only as real as people make it).

Now, some data. If we head over to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we can see what the salary distribution of various life scientists is. For “Medical Scientists, Except Epidemiologists” (19-1042; essentially, people with advanced degrees), the 25th percentile has an estimated annual salary of $55,870. The tenth percentile is $43,150. Remember that the salary distribution includes all of the disgruntledocs making less than the tenth percentile overall. Furthermore, we can push a bunch more buttons and see how the data break out by sector (.xlsx file). In most non-academic and non-charity sectors, the tenth percentile makes more than your typical disgruntledoc; in many cases, more than the possible increase to $50,440. If we look at life scientists (19-1099), the picture is pretty similar.

This is arguably grounds for disgruntletudeness.

It certainly puts the lie to the notion that post-docs couldn’t earn a comparable or better wage outside of academia. It’s clearly not the money that’s keeping post-docs around. Might not want to shit all over them. Finally, one more good comment (boldface mine):

One thing I want to comment on is the whining about how the postdocs can’t don’t take into account hard this is on PIs. I know how hard this is on PIs. I also know that PIs can feed spouses and kids from a single salary and buy houses and cars that don’t fall apart. There is also no question that PIs are pushing postdocs into working to improve the PIs career more than their own.

Don’t you dare buddy up with us on this to make us feel bad about it. It’s *your* job to deal with that. If the pressure needs to go somewhere, then it should go up. So, go and ask for more money for your postdocs when writing grants, speak to *your* higher-ups, don’t tell *us* not do have self-esteem.

Or fire postdocs and hire less. I have no problem with this. I hear from many postdocs that they feel not at least threatened by it. No matter how this goes, a raise in postdoc salary will make everything better for postdocs. And I know because in my institution, we already fought for better salaries and the director ‘warned’ us this would mean fewer postdocs in future. You know how many were sad to hear that? Not a single one. This is again *your* problem and *your* responsibility to deal with, not ours.

Never any Marxists around when you need ’em…

*Contractually, it’s the university’s and the government’s money, not theirs.

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4 Responses to So, What Is a Post-Doc Worth?

  1. EvoStevo says:

    I recently left my postdoc for industry. On Monday I made 2x+ what I made on Friday, doing easier work and less of it.

  2. CRHayne says:

    Perhaps our kids aren’t getting enough propaganda.

  3. I agree heartily with what was written here, but I do question whether or not this is a red herring.

    “Back in the day” (before graduate school) I spent 4 years as a technician running a lab and doing experimental work. I was CLEARLY an employee entitled to overtime. I routinely worked from 55-75 hours a week. Did I ever get overtime? Nopers….The message was clear. We were pretty much told that we were to put down 7 hours even if we worked, 8, 9, 10, 11 more…If we insisted on our overtime, we weren’t going to get recommendations and eventually, we would find that we weren’t employable. All while being part of a union.

    Bottom line: if there is no enforcement of how much time is spent in the lab and jobs are scarce, the new “rules” regarding overtime don’t matter. Note that what I experienced was back in the mid-90s when worker protections were far stronger.

    I’m not denying that post-docs are overworked! I worked with enough of them as a tech and grad student to know that all too well. My point is the issue at hand might not be relevant if no one in authority is watching the hours the current post-doc population keeps.

  4. Anon says:

    It’s true. I know of employees in other professions who dodge reporting overtime for various reasons.

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