postdocs -- ask your mentor

aloisia schmid a-schmi at
Fri Aug 15 08:19:02 EST 1997

I was going to just respond to Judith via email, but I feel I need to
respond here too:

 Judith Gibber <jrg43 at> wrote:

> I agree with Bart, Alice, Paula, Kit, Deb, et al.: The current situation 
> for post-docs stinks.  Where I disagree is with your characterization
> of the postdoc as a "job", rather than as a "traineeship".
> In a job, you expect 
>         a. to be there long-term
>         b. to be hired because of what you can do for the boss
>         c. to be paid a decent salary
> Since you think a postdoc should be a job, you are understandably
> angry about c. -  not getting paid a decent salary.
> In a traineeship, you expect 
>         a. to be there short-term
>         b. to be there only as long as you are learning something new
>         c. to be paid a skimpy stipend
> Looking at it this way, c., the low pay, is okay.  Most trainees are 
> paid very little.  Undergrad interns here make $1000/month;  MD residents
> earn about the same as postdocs.  It's acceptable because of a. & b.

O.K., so first.  Do I agree with judith's characterization of jobs vs.
traineeships, in today's workplace?  No.  
In a job today:
          a.  you have no expectations for how secure or insecure a job will be.
          b.  you are hired for what you can do for the boss, but also
expect to 
              learn and to be able to make yourself more marketable
          c.  to be paid a decent salary.

in a traineeship:
          a.  the rules are carefully spelled out.  You know how long the
training period will be and you have a fair idea of what to expect even a
few years down the road.
          b.  you are there till the end of the traineeship.  Whether or
not you continue to learn new things is, in most cases, up to you.
          c.  you expect to be well-paid!

Judith mentioned as comparisons undergraduate internships or MD
residencies, both of which she thinks suffer from being paid in the low
20's.  But I don't think those are valid comparisons.  Undergrads in
internships are usually being recruited by firms anxious to get their
skills (e.g. computing science students, business students, engineering
students) and are paid alot of money!  My brother made $32,000 as an
engineering intern.  Furthermore, those students are usually 20 years old
and have virtually no experience  that they bring to the job/traineeship
whatsoever.  Post-docs, we have been pointing out, contrary to Judith's 
point "b" for a traineeship, are hired for what they can bring to the
lab.  (Let me hasten to point out that this was not true in my own case. 
I was damned lucky to be hired by my PI---I brought NOTHING to this lab at
all!   I am the major exception that proves the rule!)  MDs on the other
hand, are truly being trained in their residencies and get paid very
little.  And they have to work really hard.  But within a very short time
afterwards they more than recoup whatever financial losses they may feel
they suffer during that time.  AND!!!  MDs do not have to worry that there
will be no jobs for them!   PhDs have absolutely no such assurances of
prosperity in the near future.  Furthermore, just as a more minor point,
MDs during this training period are allowed to defer payments on their
infamous student loans.  PhDs do not have that option. 

> The problems today are a. - that you're "stuck" in a postdoc for a 
> long time with no real job in sight and b. - that you're spending lots of
> time doing more of the same, rather than broadening your exposure to 
> new techniques, ideas, perspectives.  It's a traineeship gone awry.

 If you think of a postdoc as a job, the only logical solution to the
> postdoc crisis is to demand that the pay be increased.  A fair increase
> would be, what?  $20,000?  And there are how many postdocs?  I'm taking 
> a wild guess here:  2000?  So that would be a mere $40,000,000 per year.
> Who's handing out that kind of money?

O.K., so if there are 2000 post-docs now, and they earn about $20,000 then
currently there is about $40,000,000 per year spent on post-doc salaries. 
That money is being handed out by the NIH and private funding agencies. I
am not being flippant.  If they need to come up with the money, or go
without the labor, they will come up with the money.  Admittedly there may
be fewer psot-docs available.  But is that better or worse than keeping
people scratching along, knowing full well there will never be enough jobs
for everyone?

> I think that the postdoc should be a training period, and we should 
> focus on changing it back to what it was:  a) a short-term position and
> b) a chance to broaden one's scientific skills by learning something new.
> Phrasing the problem this way suggests alternative solutions. For example, 
> 1. Scoring of PI's grant proposals could include a factor based on the
> success of their postdocs:  A higher score if a postdoc gets a permanent
> job after 1-2 years in the lab, a lower score if the same postdocs hang
> around for >3 years.  PIs would be pressured to make the postdoc a 
> short-term position.

So let's just say that we institute that change.  What's to say that we
don't then simply see PIs using post-docs as cheap labor for 2 years and
then pushing them out the lab?  And let's also say that the requirement
for the good score on the grant proposal is that the PI's post-docs get
GOOD jobs  in academics.  Then you reward PIs who are at the top of their
fields, politically connected and who can get their unproven post-docs
jobs after only a year in their labs!  Because it would be virtually
impossible in this day and age for a psot-doc to get a good job in
academics after two years as a psot-doc---mainly because the publication
requirements will not be met.

> 2. PI's could be required to show that postdocs they support will be doing 
> something substantially different from the area of their graduate
> research.  PI's would only get those postdocs whom they are willing to
> train, rather than taking those postdocs who already have the needed
> skills and can churn out the most papers.

So then once again, they get this intensive training in a field completely
unlike the one they have already been trained in, and are supposed to have
publications out sufficient for a job search after say, one year?  

> 3. "Additional solutions are obvious, and are left to the reader as an
> exercise."  ;)
> (NOTE:  I mean the above as an approach to the problem of postdocs
> in general.  I realize full well that for any individual postdoc, 
> batting around imaginary solutions like this may seem trivial compared
> to the more immediate problem of no money in the wallet.)

So on the whole, I respect your respect for the institution as it should
be in theory, Judith.  But practically, what we have is almost a
REQUIREMENT for a longer post-doc, in part because the job market HAS
gotten more competitive and it requires longer periods of time to become
competitive for a job search.  My bottom line all along has been that
post-docs should be paid a decent salary.  And quibbling over whether or
not to call it a salary or a stipend is nothing but semantics.  Requiring
that people change the way they THINK about their post-docs doesn't in the
least improve a bad situation.  I would be willing to bet that increasing
post-doc salaries would do nothing but improve the situation on all

Please note that i am not arguing for significantly shorter post-docs.  I
think there is a reason for longer psot-docs.  I also believe that
psot-docs ARE periods of training.  But I think it is only sensible that
post-docs be reasonably paid for their labor.


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