Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Postdoc (no)bargain

This was posted as a comment, but I thought it so good I should share it here.

Note if there is almost one postdoc per permanent researcher (or professor), it means that one 3-5 year cohort of PhDs could replace the entire pool of career researchers. If a career lasts 30 years it means there is a six or ten to one ratio between postdocs that leave the field and those who survive with permanent positions. Even if the postdoc to professor ratio is lower (as in physical science and math -- this number is smaller largely because they don't have much funding for postdocs in math), there may still be a big ratio between PhDs produced and number of professors. Unless the average professor produces no more than one PhD per 30 years, there will continue to be a big oversupply and a tough labor market for scientists.

See related posts here and here.

Thanks for the Great Postdoc Bargain
Richard Freeman
30 August 2002

Postdocs are at the heart of the United States?s extraordinarily successful biological and life scientific research program over the past two-plus decades. In this period, postdocs have produced most of the results in academic laboratories and have come to play an increasing role in industrial and government labs as well. Academic institutions, which engage some 80% of postdocs, aren?t sure whether postdocs are employees, students, or some form of apprentice. With responsibility for hiring and career development resting firmly with the principle investigators who employ the postdocs on their research grants, many universities don?t even know how many postdocs they have or what they are paid, much less how they are progressing toward ? whatever the future holds for them.

Whatever they are, however, postdocs are one of the greatest bargains in the U.S. economy. Where else can one hire Ph.D.s, whose training and smarts put them among the best and brightest in the world, to work 60 hours a week for $30,000 to 40,000 a year, with limited benefits and little power to influence their working conditions and pay? Given the long hours that postdocs work, their hourly pay is on the order of $10 to $13 per hour--on par with the wages paid to custodial and other low-paid workers that have spurred living wage campaigns around the country.

...Huzzah! Huzzah!

Two to three decades ago, the U.S. rewarded postdocs with a reasonably good chance of being hired as a principal investigator. Sorry, but we can no longer carry out that part of the bargain. As Table 1 shows, there are just too many postdocs for us to absorb them as tenured faculty. In 1987, the ratio of postdocs to tenured faculty was already too high at 0.54 for most to obtain faculty jobs at the rate of growth of academic employment. By 1997, the ratio had risen by 43% to 0.77. It has presumably risen further since then. As a result--and as many postdocs have learned to their chagrin--the U.S. does not have a place for them on standard academic tracks.

But don?t get discouraged, postdocs. We need you for our research. How about another postdoctorate--a few more years of long hours at low wages?

Table 1: Ratio of the Number of Postdoctorates in Higher Educational Institutions to the Number of Tenured Faculty, 1987 and 1997

% Change

Life Sciences

Physical Sciences and Mathematics


Source: The National Academies Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers, (NAS, 2000), table B-1 and table B-14.

The forces of supply and demand are unlikely to improve the economic situation of postdocs in any plausible time period. One reason is that the supply of postdocs consists not only of U.S. citizens and permanent residents gaining Ph.D.s but also of U.S.- and foreign-trained Ph.D.s from other countries. Indeed, U.S. scientific research could not proceed at anything like its current pace was it not for the influx of foreign postdocs. Roughly half of postdocs currently come from overseas, many from countries with low personal income rates such as China. Remove foreign postdocs from the nation?s labs and postdoc pay would zoom ... at the cost of short-term chaos and a long-term slower rate of scientific progress. Nevertheless, we should not forget to thank our foreign postdocs for their long hours and hard work on behalf of the rest of our society...
Posted by scienceguy11 to Information Processing at 12/05/2005 11:37:13 AM


Anonymous said...

At the start of the 20th Century, most Americans interested in pursuing careers in science (or academics more broadly) went to Europe to complete their training. That's where the action was.

The attempted suicide of European culture in the first half of the century drove an exodus of talent to the US as an up-and-comer economically with jobs enough for lots of smart people.

Now the inherently supranational scientific enterprise is beginning to show the same indifference to the US that it has always shown to other great powers. Biologists are starting to move from premier US institutions to places like Singapore because of strings attached to funding here (among other motivations).

Falling back from a position of inordinate preeminance isn't pleasant. But like your last post "Is Gravity Ergodic" -- the low-entropy state of having the US so far ahead of most other nations in wealth and scientific achievement is an anomaly to explain, not an inevitable equilibrium.

scienceguy11 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
scienceguy11 said...

Certainly there is no real reason for the US to remain dominant in the sciences. Recent years have driven home the point that this country has no monopoly on intelligence. However, I don’t see the link between this realization and the problem of exploitation of post-docs/PhDs in the US academic system as more than tangential.

What matters here is the supply of scientific talent with respect to the supply of permanent research positions. An imbalance in favor of the former will leave scientific labor cheap and abundant even as the US lead in science continues to erode. Indeed even if the US becomes a second-tier presence in science (like Australia or Canada), it might well remain a reasonably attractive place for international scientists for purely economic reasons… again like Australia and Canada. In any event, there are more than 5x as many qualified candidates as permanent positions in some fields. Then, the US could stand to become substantially less attractive to foreign talent and still maintain a glut of low-paid, overworked and desperate researchers.

scienceguy11 said...

The plight of the postdoc
By Jonathan M. Gitlin

Saturday, March 26, 2005

NIH reports on the postdoc condition
The postdoc is arguably the backbone of research these days. A state between working for a PhD and landing a faculty position, where once postdoctoral fellowships were less common and short lived, now it is common for a scientist to spend 5+ years as a postdoc before landing that prize, a research grant. First a few figures: In 1980, about 1/4 of all RO1 grants awarded by the NIH went to researchers under the age of 35. As of 2003 the figure was less than 4%, despite an increase in the total number of grants awarded.

The number of PhDs continues to increase, whereas the faculty positions for them to go into have not. In addition, the trainee status of a postdoc as opposed to being an actual employee makes hiring them cheaper than technicians, as well as freeing institutions from pesky things like severance pay, or in many cases, health insurance. Increasingly postdocs are working as underpaid technicians on their Principal Investigators (PI) projects without the time or necessary training to develop as independent researchers. A large number of postdocs in the US these days are from abroad, and for them the situation is even more difficult, as most of the sources of funding require US citizenship, making them dependent on their PIs.

The past few years have seen this issue become more prominent, especially in light of the moves to unionize by grad students around the US. 2003 saw the founding of the National Postdoctoral Association as an advocacy group for postdoctoral researchers in the US, and the NIH has recently published a report on current conditions and recommendations for the future of postdoctoral scientists in biomedical research. Amongst the recommendations are limiting postdocs to 5 years, creating new grants to allow postdocs to transition to faculty positions, altering the grant review process and allowing foreign postdocs to apply for fellowships. Dr Keith Micoli, President of the NPA, was cautiously optimistic about the report:

...overall, the recommendations in the report represent a tremendous step forward, first by actually acknowledging there is a problem with the way postdocs are being trained, and second by proposed several solutions to the problem. Every recommendation has potential, but several of them would be difficult to implement given the current budget constraints, and others would be difficult to assess the effectiveness of the change.

I don't think that every recommendation will be acted upon, and even if they were I don't think it would address the real pipeline issues facing the community. There are far more Ph.D.s being produced compared to the number of new faculty positions being created. This of course presumes that all postdocs are in training to become faculty, which we all know is not the case. These confounding factors were addressed by the committee in its preamble to the report.

That said, several of the recommendations have potential to positively impact the fate of large numbers of postdocs and would be relatively inexpensive to implement.

For example, the need for better data collection on postdocs is clear and having PIs identify their postdocs and include a statement of training plans and outcomes is simply common sense given the enormous amount of money currently spent to "train" postdocs and we currently lack any measurement of whether this investment is a worthwhile one.

At this point I ought to mention that I am UK postdoctoral researcher working in the US, and a member of the NPA, and the views expressed in this column are my own. I know that grad students and postdocs read this site though, and if you’d like to know more, the NPA is a great resource. As for the NIH findings, like Dr. Micoli, I think it’s a good start, but as to how many of them will be implemented remains to be seen.

The return of T-Rex
No, not zombie Mark Bolan reforming the band, but the 70 million year old walking death machine of a dinosaur. In a move straight out of Jurassic Park, and the Judge Dredd story Crichton got his idea from, researchers at North Carolina State University announced this week the discovery of an extremely well-preserved bone from a tyrannosaurus rex, recovered in 2003 from a site in Montana. Unusually, instead of the entire specimen being replaced by secondary minerals, upon close examination the bone contained transparent vessels, including red and brown structures that resemble cells, raising hopes that it might be possible to extract proteins or even DNA from the sample. While this is a very exciting find, I’m not so optimistic about the possibility of extraction. As anyone who works with proteins or nucleic acids can relate, extracting them can be tricky if the tissue isn’t processed quickly, and 68 million years doesn’t count as quickly in my book. But I’m ready to be proved wrong.

Fugly walks!
Longtime readers of the Lounge will probably remember the marvelous, but sad tale of Fugly the octopus and his favorite spatula. New findings publishing in the journal Science this week highlight just how amazing these strange creatures really are. In addition to being able to move by pulsing water with their bodies, some species of octopi use bipedal locomotion as a form of camouflage. Or, in plain English, they walk along the sea bed. Using two of their legs for motion and the other six as cover, it’s a cunning strategy devised to avoid the attention of their predators. You can find a video of an octopus walking here. It is thought that moving onto two legs allowed man to use his free limbs to develop tools. As soon as I hear word of cephalopods making axes, I shall be quick to draw it to your attention.

Fat, green, and musty-smelling.
Articles covering endangered species so often contain bad news, so it’s a rare delight to be able to bring a happier report. In addition to his Hitchhikers Guide trilogy and Dirk Gently books, Douglas Adams also wrote Last Chance to See, a journey around the world he took to see several endangered species. A charming and funny book, it’s also a rather sad look at a few species that aren’t going to be around for much longer. One of the animals he went to see was the Kakapo, a fat, green, flightless parrot that used to live all over New Zealand, but these days is only found on Codfish Island, off the NZ coast.

”Sadly, however, it seems that not only has the kakapo forgotten how to fly, but it has also forgotten that it has forgotten how to fly.” That was Douglas Adams on this musty-smelling bird. It may not have relearned how to fly, but it might one day get the chance. Conservationists in New Zealand have reported that an intensive program to try and restore stocks of the kakapo are working, slowly, with the birth of three new chicks bringing the total to a mighty 86. Here’s hoping they make it.

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