In recent days, there have been discussions of conditions for postdoctoral fellows, and about the ways that these conditions might make it challenging to tackle the problem of the “leaky pipeline” for women in science.
For example, in comments at DrugMonkey’s blog, bsci opines:
Most people start a postdoc between the age of 25 and 30. Even in the academic world, a substantial portion of people are married by that age and a smaller, but non-trivial, proportion have children. How these people are supported on post-doc stipends is definitely an issue even in the first years of postdochood.
When you consider, even in academia, women are more often the primary care provider, having salaries too low to support children forces researchers, particularly women, to choose between a research career and having children. If gender balance in science is your concern than wages that would be able to support childcare should be your concern (even if it means paying everyone more).
You’re right that this is market forces with pay. It’s say to say, but you’ll be able to fill a lab up with postdocs at pretty much any salary above minimum wage. That says nothing about their quality. It’s nice that you’ll hand pick individuals to pay more, but if you care about selecting postdocs from the best possible pool of candidates, you should absolutely be concerned with paying a wage that will discourage a huge chunk of potentially superb applicants (male and female) from applying for the job.
Later in the same discussion, Sab notes:
[R]elatively low wages can and do turn perfectly good researchers away from postdoctoral research. The need to support a family is simply the most common reason I have come across for fellow postdocs either leaving academia or turning toward other types of job opportunity.
But then Dr. Feelgood suggests (at least to my eye) that American Ph.D.s may simply be overly picky:
It is hard to find a US postdoc for any position. My department currently is advertising 3 positions at a Tier 1 MRU in a specific area of neuroscience (not too specific). The positions are fixed term assistant professorships (that can convert to tenure track based on predefined achievement of goals) with startup and full salary funding, lab and office space in a brand new building and in the first two weeks we have received 12 applications….Zero from American postdocs. Where are all of these sad jobless postdocs looking for faculty positions?
Dr. Feelgood follows this up with:
What do you think is a livable wage for postdocs with families? Are you geographically limited? I see alot of problems with many postdocs who have so many geographic requirements or limitations, that they are not going to pick a place where the pay and the living situation are a match for them.
Meanwhile, at Myrmecos, Alex Wild offers:
In my limited experience, I’ve seen more women than men decide to forgo the Lost Postdoctoral Decade. It isn’t that they aren’t capable of the work, or that the meanies on the hiring committees are sexist. When faced with an uncertain number of uprooted, poorly-compensated years, the men I know are somewhat more likely to plod along and the women somewhat more likely to seek more satisfying alternatives. In short, women opt out of the system more frequently.
It’s been more than a decade and a half since I’ve been a postdoc in science, but let me suggest a possibility worth pondering:
Women who have gotten all the way through their Ph.D. training in fields whose faculty and superstar researchers are still largely men are likely to have some experience of systemic inequalities. To the extent that they have noticed how such systemic inequalities waste a lot of the time and energy that one might otherwise be devoting to something fun (like doing science), they’re generally against them.
As well, these women may be highly resistant to the message that they need to choose between having a serious career in science and “having a life” (which might include having a partner and children). After all, the members of their cohort who are men are much less likely to be bludgeoned with this message.
But, if one is striving for a workplace that is more egalitarian, it is very very hard to believe that your personal relationship — especially with a partner with whom one intends to raise children — should not also be egalitarian. This, necessarily, means that your decision-making within such a relationship must take account of someone else’s interests, too, rather than being driven entirely by your own interests.
This is where geographical limitations come from. This is also where constraints around pay and living situations come from.
Male partners who decide to plod along may be taking one for the team. However, if they are always the ones taking one for the team, that’s not very egalitarian. Which means, frequently, that the women partnered with them are sometimes passing by opportunities that would be perfect for them professionally — otherwise one partner ends up doing all the giving while the other ends up doing all the taking.
There is an awful lot that committed early career scientists will do in order to stay in the scientific game and keep doing rewarding research, but asking them to forswear all human relationships outside the lab is unreasonable. And, as inconvenient as those human relationships may be for the PI on a budget looking to hire some postdocs, those relationships constrain the choices of a lot of early career scientists.
Maybe it’s easier to succeed as an unattached young scientist who doesn’t ever have to sacrifice her interests to those of anyone else (besides her PI). But that assumes that the goal is to find career success in the scientific arena as it currently exists.
I submit to you that there are many early career scientists whose aspirations aim for something higher than that.