Over at the DrugMonkey blog, PhysioProf noted that a push to increase NIH postdoctoral fellowship stipend levels by 6% may have the effect of reducing the number of postdoctoral positions available.
To this, the postdoctoral masses responded with something along the lines of, “Hey, it’s possible that there are too damn many postdocs already (and fighting for those rare tenure-track positions in a slightly less crowded field might be better),” and “Being able to pay my damn bills might significantly improve my quality of postdoctoral life.” There were also the expected mentions of the fact that, given their education and experience, the pay in a postdoctoral position is often dramatically less than in private industry.
In a number of comments, though, DrugMonkey pointed out that it is not just postdocs who are paid “less than they are worth” (with respect to education and experience) and frequently living in regions with higher-than-average cost of living. Why should postdocs be singularly worthy of a 6% bump but not PIs, technicians, and grad students, too?
Of course, such across-the-board increases would bump up the budgets required to run research projects, possibly by quite a lot. And in case you hadn’t heard, times are tough for everyone right now.
Then, in that comment thread, becca puts forth a proposal:
Basically, if you are going to argue in favor of pauperizing your lab workers, pauperize them enough so they can get on public Welfare.
Call me an idealist, but when a comparison of academic science and Walmart starts making the big-box giant look like the more humane employer, academic science may want to take a moment to examine its course.
Let’s stipulate that it costs money to do science, and that a significant cost of scientific research is the salaries of the personnel who conduct the research.
As had been noted repeatedly, there seems to be an overabundance of skilled personnel available to conduct that research — not only postdocs, but also graduate students and technicians. No doubt opinions will vary on which category of scientific worker tends to produce the most research bang for each salary (and benefits) buck, but it would not be surprising to discover that PIs tend to minimize the number of higher-salary personnel on a research project in favor of lower-salary personnel.
These personnel, of course, are human beings with both career (and life) aspirations and material needs. They will need food to eat and a place to sleep (and not all will own vehicles in which it is possible to sleep). They will have bodies that occasionally require medical treatments. They may also have partners, children, or parents with material needs with which they must assist. To the extent that grad students and postdocs get something of value (training, experience, and one hopes mentoring) from their labors, perhaps there’s a reasonable argument for remunerating their labors at less than the corresponding private sector rate, but the landlord hardly ever accepts experience when the rent is due.
Ratcheting down salaries to the minimum level the market will bear, especially when that market seems to be awash with people questing for the holy grail that is a tenure track position, may have a significant impact on the ability of the typical newly-minted Ph.D. to pursue a postdoc. Unless one is independently wealthy, it could set up conditions where one has to assume a significant debt load — but where, unlike a medical student, for example, there’s not a well-established loan program to serve you.
Also, unlike medical school, the postdoctoral pipeline offers much lower odds of attaining one’s ultimate career objective. This means that incurring such a debt is a lot riskier all around.
Now, possibly what this means is that the average postdoctoral position is exploitative enough that people should just stop accepting such positions. Knowing that a postdoc is no guarantee that tenure track nirvana will follow, smart people should assess their options, and the costs associated with these options, and make a choice they can live with.
In this kind of climate, PIs would either have to pay non-exploitative postdoc salaries or learn to live without postdocs. And given that PIs don’t live forever, in the absence of conditions where scientists end up doing multiple postdocs as a matter of course, departments could hardly keep requiring postdoctoral research experience of candidates for tenure track jobs.*
This kind of change relies on collective action, though. If enough of the Ph.D.s in the pool decided that postdoctoral positions that pays really badly were still the best available option to further their goals, the PIs wouldn’t have to budge. (Unless those who postdoc for peanuts turn out to be of sufficiently lower “quality”, however PIs measure that, than those who decide that they are unwilling to postdoc under a vow of poverty — in which case PIs might increase salary just enough to attract the level of talent they think they need for their research projects.)
There is also the possibility, though, that PIs could decide that paying the people on their research teams a living wage is the right thing to do, even if the state of the market is such that they could get away with paying less. They might even have a hunch that paying their personnel a living wage could lead to better science — researchers better able to focus on the scientific task (and to do so with integrity) because their default state is not one of being stressed out by living on the economic edge. As we’ve discussed, there is research that points to personal and professional stressors as part of the causal chain that can lead to scientific misconduct. Surely, high baseline levels of fatigue, hunger, anxiety, and/or disgruntlement could result in suboptimal performance in a research group.
But times are hard for everyone right now.
Part of the pain the PI shoulders, then, may come down to figuring out how to get the research done with fewer people (or alternatively, figuring out how to make a persuasive case to funding agencies that their super-important research projects require more funding for personnel).
What if this slows down the progress of the research projects? What if this, in turn, irritates funders and baffles the committees making tenuring and promotion decisions, since those decisions usually turn on measures of research progress?
Well, times are hard for everyone right now.
*This kind of shift of Ph.D.s away from postdoctoral positions might be a real boon for the private sector. One consequence, however, might be a greater proportion of scientific knowledge produced by the private sector rather than in academic settings. This may put us in a position where we, the public, have to pay more to get any benefit from that knowledge. There’s no shortage of unintentional consequences.