Down And Out In Academia
    By Jane de Lartigue | September 22nd 2010 03:38 PM | 46 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Jane

    I'm a postdoc at UC Davis in California, having received my doctorate degree from the University of Liverpool and my undergraduate degree from the...

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    A postdoc's view of the changing world of academic research

    'What's on your mind?' These are the four words taunting me on my Facebook page as I wind down from a long day at work. Today that may be a tough one to answer in a witty one-liner. The postdoc union this week reached a tentative agreement with the University of California to help implement a whole host of improvements to postdoc working conditions, and I was obliged to vote for or against its ratification. 

    Negotiations have been ongoing over the past two years since I arrived at the University and over the course of that time I've heard numerous arguments on both sides. Things came to a head recently, after much feet dragging by the University, with an interesting piece in the Daily Californian by a somewhat rare supportive faculty member ( A key aspect to the contract is better wages, in line with the National Institute of Health's recommended scale for postdocs. This, along with a rather ironic advert I came across on a webpage the other day, inspired me to write a piece about why scientists, particularly postdocs, get paid so little. 

    Are scientists the poor struggling artists of our time?

    Well, maybe it's not quite as dire as that, but one thing that my husband and I have to admit to ourselves these days, and it seems we are not alone, is that this profession we have chosen is preventing us from starting a family. What's more, when we meet up with non-scientist friends, it is becoming increasingly clear that our lifestyle is quite different and our combined salaries don’t match even one of theirs.

    So, back to this aforementioned advert that prompted my soul searching: "Do you make less than $54K?" it exclaimed. "You could be eligible for government assistance to go back to school". I nearly choked on my bitterness! Precisely what would they suggest that I go back to school to do? Another PhD? Now, I can just hear the condescending scoff from many a fellow scientist, wondering precisely what I was expecting. If I don't like it I should just get out, right?

    Don't get me wrong, I did a PhD and stayed on in academia knowing full well what to expect, and the martyr tucked away inside tells me to shut up and just get on with it, I should just thank my lucky stars that I even have a job in the 'current economic climate' (three words that instil fear in me!). What's more, there are things about academia that are really fantastic, and that you wouldn't get in any other job, that keep me somewhat hooked.

    Part of the reason I did a postdoc after my PhD was the opportunity to live in California for a couple of years, you really can't complain about all this sunshine, even if you're British and a culture of complaint is etched into your bones! But just because a poor wage is something we've come to expect as scientists, doesn't necessarily make it right, right?

    There is, in fact, the potential to earn a decent amount of money in academia, maybe not as much as you might earn in other professions, but a healthy 'love of science' and some of the other perks of academia (essentially working your own hours and guiding your own work) mostly outweigh that. But that requires pursuing the academic career path and securing a tenure track position. Something that, these days, is easier said than done. The crux of the problem is job security; there are an increasing number of newly trained PhD students entering a much tighter job market.

    PhDs used to enjoy the lowest unemployment of any professional group and the postdoc period of a career was much shorter, with a more rapid progression to tenure track positions. Nowadays it is not uncommon to find PhD graduates in postdoc positions for 5-10 years. A rather shocking statistic suggests that after 5 years, only about 20% of PhD graduates hold tenure track positions. Those who wish to pursue higher education to help them stand out from the crowd seem to be getting chased further and further down the garden path. Previously, an undergraduate degree was sufficient to get you a good job, as time went on a graduate degree has become the new sought after qualification. I can't count how many times I was told, "You can do anything you want with a PhD; the World is your oyster".

    That's not to say that I don't believe that still, and in fact that is sort of the point (and I'll come back to this later on), that even though tenure track positions may be drying up, there is still a wealth of opportunities for grad students.

    Why have things gotten so bad?  An excellent article in The Scientist probes further into this problem ( In this article, the author speculates that many faculty members, dependent on the 'cheap labour' of postdocs and grad students, may be in denial of the problem, though this may be a disservice to many excellent principle investigators (PIs; the lab boss) who go above and beyond the call of duty in cultivating the careers of the members of their lab. My own PI believes the situation, at least in the U.S., may actually be set to deteriorate. With many labs taking up the NIH stimulus funds that will all run out at exactly the same point, the competition will be increasingly fierce for available research grants and larger labs may be forced to slim down. But there may be some truth in the denial of the problem, not just for senior faculty members but for everyone, including newly enrolling graduate students.

    In an article in the April 9 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education this year, David D. Perlmutter, professor at the University of Iowa, asked the question "Were tenured professors to blame for your career prospects?" Here he suggests that many of the advisors we rely upon to guide us through our graduate careers are out of touch with the current job market, often not having had to persuade anyone to hire them in decades. He says the failure rests not with any ill intent or desire for slave labour, but with avoiding acknowledgment that the academic dream is dying. It is difficult to deter a graduate student from the career path they themselves pursued and often cherish.

    But I think it is more than just denial. I mentioned this idea of my own martyrdom being partially responsible for keeping me on the academic track. The real question for me is why is it still seen as a 'failure' to pursue alternative, non-academic careers? In my own experience it is incredibly difficult to talk to your academic advisors about anything other than an academic career. In light of all of the current problems, however, it would seem as though the majority of PhDs are set up for 'failure' from the beginning if we all stay on the academic path.

    Speaking with other graduate students and those involved in promoting alternative careers, it seems that the reason for this is likely that academics are so invested in the career path they are trying to promote. Coming back to acknowledging the death of the academic dream, many academics are unwilling to admit to themselves that the career path they have hiked so far along, and have been hoping to lead you down, might not be so amazing after all. It's easier to call your bluff and make you feel like a failure than to admit that there are excellent alternatives. It's sort of like a parent who always hoped their child would follow them into the family business, even though the business is struggling.

    It seems that we need a complete rethink of the post-PhD career path. Many universities are already starting to understand this and encouraging graduate students to think about alternative careers and teaching them to value the 'transferable' skills earned through grad school as well as the scientific knowledge and experience.  My personal experience with my postgraduate studies in the UK and my postdoctoral experience in the US have been excellent. Both Universities encouraged development and understanding of the skills gained through higher education. However, although many universities are coming around, most senior academics are not.

    During my PhD there was a real sense from those running the research labs we worked in that the skills workshops we were required to take were a complete waste of time, and took us away from our important work unnecessarily. This is another part of the problem, I feel, many academics are unwilling to see the benefits of these kinds of programs, they didn't receive any thing like this themselves.  We should also remember that PIs aren't our own personal careers advisors, they chose a particular career path and aren't necessarily aware of all the other options out there.  But a little encouragement at least would go a long way. PIs should be pushed to undertake their own skills development training, to teach them about the current problem and show them what alternatives are available, perhaps that would steer us away from this culture of 'failure'.

    Another potential reason I've seen suggested for the academic bottleneck is a lack of funding due to a decrease in public support of science and a failure to educate the public on science. In fact a whole movement began on this very premise. Although I agree there is a real need for improved communication of science to the public, talking with my science-writing mentor on the subject convinced me that the idea that this is the reason for decline in funding and available jobs is a fallacy. In some respects the 'poorly educated public' have become a scapegoat in this argument. Non-scientists often understand science a lot better than we give them credit for.  What's more, scientific research still has the highest level of public trust of any area of research.  It seems we are already getting as much reverence as possible.

    However, one area where science communication might in fact be influencing funding, is at the level of more basic research. It's easy these days to secure funding if you work on climate change or a highly publicized biomedical problem, but if you work on basic cell biology, for example, it's much more difficult. Basic research is certainly vital to providing the answers we need to support clinical and biomedical research further out in the field, but some academics could benefit from understanding that communicating this research more effectively is essential.

    Indeed, an article from the latest issue of Cell targets just these issues ( I strongly agree, based on personal experience, that most cell biologists wouldalign themselves with the thoughts of Edmund B. Wilson, the American zoologist and writer of the most famous of cell biology textbooks, The Cell, "the key to all ultimate biological problems must, in the last analysis, be sought in the cell". However, they take their arrogant attitude one step too far and wonder why we should have to pander to all these idiots who want to know how it relates to some disease or other, just to get funding.

    So what can we do about it? The steps toward postgraduate career development taken in some universities should become universal and mandatory, and further built upon so that our grad school and postrgraduate experiences adapt to the changing environment and are not necessarily just geared towards an academic career. Both universities I have worked at held career seminars, where former academics that had gone into alternative careers came to give talks about their individual career paths, such as journal editors, science journalists, postdocs in industry, patent lawyers, science policy advisors. My university in the UK also worked with an organisation called Researchers in Residence, putting PhD students into science classrooms as support staff, as well as organizing a professional development series that included a business skills workshop. I felt that all of these courses gave me a taste of other kinds of careers and allowed me to decide whether it might be something I wanted to pursue.

    Universities may also benefit from undergoing more structural changes, placing more emphasis on better paid and supported lower level positions, and moving the key focus away from tenure-track. Perhaps they could also begin to offer alternative, hybrid positions, with a combination of academic and industry or teaching experience, guiding some people into other areas they might want to work in, relieving the narrow focus purely on academic research.

    Whatever the answer may be I certainly don't have it all worked out, but I believe it's safe to say that the 'times they are a-changing' and the typical university and graduate school experience may be quite a different entity in years to come. To quote George Orwell in 'Down and Out In Paris and London', "There is only one way to make money at writing, and that is to marry a publisher's daughter".  Perhaps my 'alternative career ' aspirations of science writing are an even worse idea then. Thanks Facebook, that's what's on my mind; bet you're glad you asked…


    fantastic!!! great insight and, considering i'm in the same boat (even down to the UK PhD and US postdoc), i see all these same issues and same denials to address them. guess it's up to us to pay attention to what's happening and refuse to drown. great job, perhaps that science writing career's not so far away...

    I have been thinking about the possibility that no one ever takes seriously.  Getting together with a couple dozen other PhD's and starting our own institution of higher learning. 
    Right off the bat that sounds risky.   Like something only people who could not get a job at an established prestigious university would take etc. etc.   Well how did the first institutions of higher learning start?

    Sometimes a very learned person simply held courses in their house.

    Sometimes it was a religious setting , like a Mosque in which a learned person held classes. 

    Basically folks just set up their own schools.   There is no law that says that a PhD. cannot create their own job like anyone else.  You are a Doctor (Teacher) of need no further qualification at that point.  

    Personally I am thinking I may have to do something like that to get a academic job.  I am certainly not going to hold my breath and wait for the establishment to cut me any slack.  If that means dancing for money to pay the bills and get the investment money so be it.  

    50 years latter when Farmer Institute of Theoretical Physics is a established, accredited, respected institute of higher learning and I'm a Millionaire ... while the people at the prestigious old universities are loosing their pension... who will be laughing?

    There is no reason you could not do that.  

    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    Jane de Lartigue
    I love the idea of a bunch of disgruntled academics starting up their own institute for higher education! Fabulous! I firmly believe we really need to start taking things in a new direction within universities as well.
    Every other profession does this.   
    How much money would lawyers make if it was not standard for them to go into private practice at some point?  Suppose lawyers were only considered successful if they worked for a few large well known firms, and were considered mediocre if they worked elsewhere.  I think they would be in the same position... JD's doing Paralegal work.  

    The same for MD's.  They can just set up an office advertise and bingo their in business.  Often they set up a clinic with a few other doctors they know.  

    I don't see why more PhD's don't do that.  We have to start going out and making our own work.  Take on students, tutor or teach them... then use that money to finance your own life and research.  It's not like their are a ton of PhD's either  about 1% of the population has that degree... about 3% has the Masters.  (Credential inflation... whoever came up with that concept is a fool....  Perhaps too many women and black folks with those degree's made them seem worth less?)
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    I completely agree that if doing science is not a great way to make money, writing about it is a poorer way still. In the current environment, most news organizations are firing their science reporters, not hiring, and freelancing is becoming even more competitive as a result. Science writing could become more lucrative if news organizations could find a sustainable business model, but so far they've failed to do so. My advice to undergrads: at the end of the day, if you really want to get rich, forget about science and writing and go to law school. Of course, while we're talking about how little science writers and postdocs make, I suppose we should probably remember that plenty of other people are earning much less, and many others just wish they had a job. So there it is. Who said life was fair? :) 

    I also agree about the funding issue. People often argue the problem is basically a lack of funding; I don't know, however, that science is likely to receive more funding in the near future, or that it would create more tenure-track positions if it did. It's generally acknowledged there is a fundamental imbalance in terms of the number of PhDs we turn out here in the US and the number of tenure-track positions available. How to remedy that problem is, naturally, a very difficult question.
    It is unfortunate that the current generation of science journalists have been hurt by the prior - instead of being the trusted guides they became cheerleaders or, even worse, advocates, and lost the trust of the public and now young science writers are saddled with that.    News organizations cut them because no one pays attention to mainstream science journalism any more, even though science readership is way up.  People just stopped using mainstream sources.

    There is a sustainable model that works in publishing - the top people at Discover Blogs and Scienceblogs both went there because they already had big audiences and it was a better way to monetize them (Discover at least seems to pay its people on time, Scienceblogs rep is crap about getting paid - we go further than both and pay people even though we haven't collected from advertisers yet)but they treat it like a job and work at increasing their audience every month; no one here does it as a career so people don't make their livelihood doing it.  We have journalists and book authors, of course, and a lot of researchers, but those things are their careers - not the online writing.

    Print will never die, it will just become more niche.   The company that bought Discover magazine has two magazines devoted to beads and five about trains - and other stuff just like that.  People will pay for niche but the age of general purpose magazines is slipping away and a magazine on beads doesn't require a Vanity Fair personality like Graydon Carter to edit it, so they spend money on content instead.   There will always be great general magazines like Esquire, for example, but Scientific American has been dying for years and now are starting a blogging network because they fired all of their online columnists so they hope people will write there for free because of the brand.

    Journalism, like research, has seen a glut.   A more competitive environment will just shake out the people who wanted to go into academia because they don't like competitive environments.   But the corporate world is not as bad as some academics think it is - it's not like scientists are sitting in meetings talking about how to make produces marketable, though basic research jobs will only be for the best who have proven themselves, which is likely a good thing.
    Maybe. It's also possible that scientist will be attracted to the Money that the corporate world can offer that the academic world cannot leaving only the "worst" to do basic research.  
    Like I pointed out above the % of people with any advanced degree is tiny. 

    Here is a good Graphic 

    The "Worst" PhD is still in the top 3% in term of education attainment.  A little perspective here, these people with PhD's are not failing due to lack of knowledge of their field.  If anything it's an inability to see beyond the box.  I know "outside the box" is overused... but if you are unable to find a job in academia and all you can do otherwise is go bankrupt and get food stamps... that's a failure of the imagination. 
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    At a Winter AAS (2010) a key talk raised this point: most senior scientists began their careers when there were fewer PhDs and more tenure-track positions, plus a growth in science industry (WWII, Cold War, and Apollo).  So their thinking even today is still "if you are good, you'll get a job just like it worked out for me", with the nasty corollary "if you don't have a tenure track position, you must not be good enough".

    But, of course, the numbers argue otherwise.  There's at least a 4:1 oversubscription of "PhDs to faculty positions" alone.

    Here the stats and juicy pull quotes, for astronomy at least.

    next door as the Daytime Astronomer
    Mark Changizi
    Nice piece. -Mark
    Here's reality responding to the ivory tower folk: Have you considered creating your own business? Ultimately, you must contribute something of value to society - which is then typically measured by your income. Or are you just going to stew about life's unfairness while burnishing your resume? Higher degrees don't necessarily correlate with financial success. Bill Gates, pursuing his computer ideas, dropped out of college as have many other entrepreneurial souls. I do think you need to be worried; the NIH gravy train is about to derail. (How many years now having we been throwing money at cancer research?)

     ivory tower folk
    Ivory Tower is humanities, not sciences.   People who want to explain the world according to natural laws and work for peanuts doing it are not the same as those who want to rationalize crosses dripped in urine as art.

    However, since your comment seemed to be a cultural rant waiting for a place to be posted, I recognize I am wasting my time.   It's rare that someone endorses the idea that everyone should be less educated in America, so you at least have originality in your favor.
    Dear me, Hank, you seem to have a rather limited (let's say concrete) understanding of metaphors. Ivory tower thinking can certainly include individuals who in some very fundamental ways are out of touch with reality. Your example of the difference between people (scientists?) explaining natural laws for peanuts - and those who want to rationalize crosses dripped in urine as art - is interesting, itself, as specious comparison. Perhaps, if you had directly compared your peanut workers to the artist who first dipped a cross in urine, Maplethorpe; you would have had a more valid comparison. Maplethorpe has done quite well for himself financially in his business enterprises - and this was exactly the point I made in my comment. If a scientist is not making enough money in academia, they should consider going out into industry. Consequently, the inference you made regarding my comment, "that everyone should be less educated in America" is remarkably off course. In fact, I think a fair assessment of our comments would seem to indicate that you may have more natural talent for cultural ranting.

    No, you showed up here to slam everyone who works for a research institution as being part of some 'ivory tower' and, when you were showed not to even know what the term means, you extruded it out to some personal, colloquial definition of yours.  

    Basically, you hate everyone in academia.  Fine, we get it, but don't candyass around it and pretend your prejudice is part of some higher discourse about science, society or logic.
    Hank, I like your use of the word 'extruded', and frankly I am damn proud of my extruding. However, I don't see how your comments constitute a counter argument to my observations. Furthermore, I would like to warn you about jumping to conclusions based on insufficient information; for example, I am in academia - and despite appearances, I don't hate myself. Also, not I, but one of my family members works at a research institute. In Zen, what might be perceived as a slam - a swift cane slap - might be an invitation to enlightenment.

    Value to society, hmm.  So you've never used a cell phone or anything with a CCD in it?  Don't know any cancer patients who survived due to treatment?  Never ate food that you could afford because NOAA weather reports saved the crops?  Heck, ever use the internet?

    I'll agree 'higher degrees don't necessarily correlate with financial success' and go one further: financial success doesn't necessarily correlate with value to society.

    It does seem very likely that NIH/NSF funding is not, how shall I say, facing a bright future. I recall speaking with a research training officer over at NIH back in January for an article I wrote (actually covering the same subject as this post). He was very pessimistic about the future of NIH funding and believed it would be slashed. As it happened, the budget turned out to be generous where both NIH and NSF were concerned, but that kind of thing can't last forever. The federal deficit is too large to be sustainable - I think most commentators would agree on that - and something's got to give.
    And I do also agree there is a supply-and-demand issue here. We are looking at basic economics - there are more PhDs than tenure-track positions, so yes, we're going to have a problem. I think we need to start routing people interested in science careers into industry at an earlier stage - i.e. at the master's degree level and not the PhD level. If we could also re-gear grad student training towards careers in industry that would also be helpful. The professional science master's degree program could well be a step in the right direction.
    Jane de Lartigue
    Firstly, I hate the phrase 'ivory tower', it's so damn patronising, that's not at all what this piece or the comments following it are about.  The whole point of the article is that I don't intend to 'stew about life's unfairness while burnishing your resume', I don't expect to be handed life on a platter just because I have a higher degree. In fact I mentioned that I am thankful just to have a job and a steady income.  But on the salary that I make as a postdoc, certain essential things in life just aren't feasible for me, like starting a family as I mentioned. I firmly agree that 'having a higher degree doesn't equate with financial success', I did in fact point out that I was well aware of how poorly academics get paid when I went down this path. My point was that the academic world is changing, and even the best scientists aren't necessarily guaranteed to achieve career success in this day and age, which is a huge shame, and remaining a postdoc forever is not feasible. I simply believe that academics need to wake up to the fact that things are changing and stop treating people who chose to leave academia as if they have the plague.  Furthermore, I don't necessarily think that having your own business is the best way to contribute to society, there are plenty of other meaningful ways of doing it, including performing the cancer research that 'we have been throwing money at for so long now'. I'm not quite clear why that is such a bad thing!

    I of course disagree with your assessment. First, 'ivory tower' was quite successful in capturing your attention and that of several other readers. In regard to what your article is about, sometimes its difficult to see outside your own fish bowl. It's very easy to view oneself from the standpoint of being a privileged class or observer. As an educated person, myself, I used to get mad thinking about NFL and NBA players receiving millions of dollars - and teachers getting - well, lets say peanuts. Or take Wall Street tycoons getting billions of dollars of taxpayer bonuses. Yes, it just isn't right. Or how about the millions losing their homes and their jobs. In seeing, your fate separate from theirs - you are making a big mistake. Your expertise services can and will be outsourced to those who can be forced to do the work for much less. In fact, its happening right now. You may have your advanced degree, but you are (no damn patronizing intended) also a commodity. If we are going to change things, we must begin to look - and more importantly think, outside our own 'ivory towers'. In the present world system, there is little distinction between a knowledge worker and a lettuce patch worker.

    Jane de Lartigue
    You're perfectly entitled to disagree with my assessment, that's why the comments section exists.  I think you'll find what has 'captured everyone's attention' is the fact that your being so obnoxious about it under an 'anonymous' pseudonym.  Perhaps if you had the balls to actually come on here as a real person with an opinion rather than an anonymous troll casting judgement on everyone else, we might be able to have an educated discussion about it.

    Contribute something of value to society? I think the spirit of your response is right, but it's philosophically, factually and technically wrong. The scientists actually are (in principle) trying to contribute value, except it's very long term value, and that's why it's being funded by philanthropists and governments. There's no pay off in the immediate term like a piece of operating system software that can be sold at Best Buy or over Amazon.

    Moreover, you're conflating the long term problem with a short term problem. Regarding your advice that we should be worried about NIH getting derailed, I think both will indeed happen. And I believe market forces will prevail in that Ivory tower folk will jump off the gravy train in the long run. The question many are asking is how do we fix it or get off in the short run.

    Jane de Lartigue
    Thanks for all the comments!  It's great to hear from other postdocs in similar situations, but also to get some perspective from those on the science writing side of things.  It's funny because this started as a piece about postdoc pay, given how I've watched the union fighting tooth and nail over recent months just to secure a 3% pay raise, and wondering why postdocs seem so undervalued given that we are responsible for generating most of the research in universities, and that the typical postdoc position has extended beyond what it used to be.  But then it extended into a piece about how the changing nature of the postdoc position and loss of tenure track positions is going to affect postgraduates in years to come and what we should be doing about it.

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    French men and women are in the streets today on strike over their government’s proposal to raise the entrance requirement for retirement benefits from an age of 60 years to 62.

    I read the opening essay at top and didn’t think much about it while sitting at my desk. Later I went outside and got some work done protecting the siding on a home. And then I got to thinking that the reason why Jane is feeling the wind in her face is because the whole post-doc system, as it is practiced today, is against the rewards of longevity …

    To paraphrase Mark Twain, “education is wasted on the young.”

    It is only through the taxing of private enterprise and benevolent donors that Universities and Governments can honestly exist. The days of raping far away places and bringing back the spoils are over. Excuse me for belaboring the obvious, but I feel that almost no one between the ages of 25 and 45 should be a professional student, unless s/he is a monk. Let the whole post-doc dream be for AFTER men and women have raised their children. Call it post-partum education. With a lifespan of 80 to 100 years, where’s the problem in that?

    Have you noticed the caliber of students in continuing education programs?

    The French favor having a young age for retirement because it is these people, just
    turning 60 (or is it 62 now?) who really appreciate the museums and arts that their government has provided for them.

    ... just trying to think out of the box here ...
    The French favor having a young age for retirement because it is these people, just 
    turning 60 (or is it 62 now?) who really appreciate the museums and arts that their
    government has provided for them.
    I am not sure that is a description of their motivation.  Like the US, France is based on an ideal.  They would love to change it but the people who benefit the most while doing the least riot every time they try.   Trying to crawl out from under the yoke of their nationalized energy industry, for example, got electrical workers to cut electricity to the Presidential palace.  Not really possible in America.

    Regarding general age, folks like Jane will soon have an opposite issue in science.  Because science in America is solely about excellence and therefore age is not a data point in cultural engineering, there will soon be more funded researchers in America over the age of 70 than under the age of 30.  The average age for the first R01 grant is already 43.   The freedom for vibrant, intelligent older people to keep working if they choose is making America a lot harder for young scientists.    Obviously quotas are not the solution since a young researcher who gets a first grant and then loses it in a competitive system has effectively ruined their career - but the glut is not just more PhDs, it is also fewer older people becoming infirm, dying and retiring because they physically do not have to.

    P.S.  The summer when all of France was protesting American involvement in Iraq they let 10,000 old French people die in a heat wave, so I don't think the French are thinking in the same box you are.  :)
    Good discussion. I like Anonymous' point about trying to start a business. 

    The low salaries of most academics is certainly a difficult situation. But it's important not to overlook the obvious interpretation: That their salaries - as in any field - represent the value that they are adding to society.

    This is further concerning when you consider that academic research can be insular and protected in ways that other industries aren't. You have academia veterans encouraging students to remain in academia, who are publicly funded by places like the NIH, which consists of other veterans of academia as well, judging their work by peer review publications with academia editors and reviewers...large portions of it all are rather self-reinforcing. The ivory tower metaphor embodies this, but the process goes far and beyond what we refer to as ivory towers.

    I think the most frustrating aspect of it all is that there is a strong value in learning, studying, tackling problems in the world, and increasing general knowledge. It's just that - more in some fields than in others - the practice of this is often shielded from adding value to real world problems. Understandably every system or profession has its kinks and inefficiencies. But it would be nice to see some of these barriers somehow overcome. Part of it might have to do with in-built incentives, and reconsidering how this work adds value.
    This is true. Much as I hate to add another comment, given that I already gave my two cents' worth, I think that ultimately the real problem is that too many would-be biologists or physicists are encouraged to go on to a PhD and try to enter academia when there aren't enough jobs in academia for them. You don't see this in most other career fields -- people don't go to law school to become law professors, for example, they go to law school to become lawyers, and the same is true for engineering, business school, medical school, etc. So why are life sciences any different?
    What we really need to do, then, I think, is encourage more aspiring scientists to consider careers in industry, and we need to do so sooner - at the undergraduate level or before they earn their master's degree. Lots of great research goes on in the pharma&biotech industries -- in fact, that's where most of the applied science research takes place. Jobs are a bit thin on the ground right now, of course, thanks to the recession and outsourcing, but hopefully that should only be a temporary problem (let's keep our fingers crossed, anyway). The professional science master's degree program has been adopted by a number of colleges recently -- it's a master's degree program that blends the same kind of science education you'd receive in a traditional master's program with some business training to make graduates more attractive to potential employers. I think that's the kind of direction we need to take in future.
    - people don't go to law school to become law professors, for example, they go to law school to become lawyers, and the same is true for engineering, business school, medical school, etc. So why are life sciences any different?
    You made an excellent point.  The life sciences have the highest contempt for the private sector of any scientists I deal with, and obviously I talk with and meet a pretty good cross-section of researchers.   Not sure why that is.   The life sciences culture in America is like academia in general in Asia - you are more prestigious being a professor and something of a failure if you work in the corporate world.  

    In the physics/EE analysis companies I was at, when a new PhD interviewing even mentioned he was also interested in an academic position, it was a pretty glaring disqualification.   You're already second choice and paying twice as much for the privilege so it's better to just find someone who wants to monetize their expertise.
    What we really need to do, then, I think, is encourage more aspiring scientists to consider careers in industry, and we need to do so sooner - at the undergraduate level or before they earn their master's degree. Lots of great research goes on in the pharma&biotech industries -- in fact, that's where most of the applied science research takes place.
    Although that might help, I think the solution is more elusive. These difficulties in academia aren't just structural, but relate to the ambiguity of the underlying content - that's what makes it interesting. 

    If you decide to enact a brand new education program to meet real-world needs, then it will take a few years to develop and hone, a few more years for students to graduate from it, and - still assuming the best - a few more years for those students to start adding value. And by that time, will their skills even be relevant?  

    You can't simply decide what to study for the best pay-off - as if from an alogrithm. There are personal factors working against this - such as the time it takes to discover what you're good at - and societal ones - particularly the accelerating rate of both innovation and career turnover. As things move forward, it is a genuinely difficult process to match skills with societal needs, despite the high payoff when that does occur. There's no surefire way to get around the difficulty - particularly as we more more into a service-based economy, which begins to make even practical and rigorous German-like apprecitanships look outdated.

    I would argue that the solution is more flexibility in the educational system. They need to be more in line with real-world needs, but combine that with the foresight that those needs change all the time. What are the critical areas that students can always use? How can specific classes be taught so that students take away general life lessons as well? How can students learn from more real-world experience? What abilities do freshman have, and how are they met by their university? Are individual students placed in the right classes to succeed? Are students progressing smoothly enough from a 101 class to a 102 class? Do professors know how to teach - or are they hindered by other responsibilities? 

    It's a focus on these fundamentals that count. How often do you hear someone recalling a particularly influential professor that they had in college? And even when you do, why - given 4 years of undivided attention - don't you more often hear of 2 or 3 or 4 inspiring mentors?

    Despite the downturn in employment, there are still niche industries in which managers complain that there are no qualified candidates. Furthermore, the latter constantly fall in service sectors - which increases the need for higher education, and it leaves plenty potential for more universities to really step up to the plate.
    Maybe we need a new model for science. The model we have in the US is a Cold War invention that is showing its age. Other models should be possible.

    One example would be to work for a company, helping them solve the hard problems they face. I know of many companies that have open technical positions that have not been filled for months. Many PhDs could easily fill those positions (they basically require good problem solving skills; the specific knowledge can be learned along the way). The pace of work in a company is faster, one deals with a wider variety of problems, often just to the point of I-could-give-a-talk-on-this, but short of publication. Not the same as a postdoc, just different.

    Once you prove yourself to one of these companies they will pay you well enough that you could ask for a few months off (with a proportional salary reduction) to pursue some academic topic and they would go for it. Once your skills are appreciated, even at half salary you would earn more than many full professors in the sciences. With six months per year you would have more time for research than most faculty that have to teach and write grants. Some PhDs I know apply for grants and if they get the award they take an internal leave. The company pays them a smaller salary and gives them lab space,. The grant goes to outfit it. I'm sure there are many other arrangements like these out there.

    Maybe we need a new model for science. The model we have in the US is a Cold War invention that is showing its age. Other models should be possible.
    Because I am that kind of person, I have argued for prizes instead of grants and also a return to the model used prior to the late 1940s you mention here.   America did its greatest science when the ratio between corporate and government science was flipped compared to what it is now.

    There is a rather insidious perception that the only ethically pure research is now government-funded, which is not the case but perceptions become reality after a while.   So it will be a hard transition.  But in an inflationary economy you can't have taxpayer-funding that both increases in dollar amount and in volume because the ratio is not dollar for dollar - and taxpayers can't earn magically earn $1.50 compared to $1 more to keep increasing tax revenue.
    The biggest travesty is that a lot of menial jobs pay better than a post-doc/assistant professorship. A high school janitor makes more than most post-doc positions. With some experience and a decent union, he will make more than most professors will.

    I'm already regretting getting a PhD because it feels like it closes so many more doors than it opens vs. a plain master's degree. It almost feels like I'm forced into a post-doc to qualify for any job, which still pays less than a Master's with equivalent experience. The PhD is one of the biggest traps in America I feel; which goes to show that being smart does not automatically mean success. I mean, idiots can sell mortgages for 150k/year while you literally slave away in a lab earning less than minimum wage. I put in 60-75 hours a week and bring home less than a janitor. Plus the janitor has holidays, weekends and vacation time. I am guaranteed none of those. Whoever said that academics has more freedom is full of shit. Every post-doc I see in our lab and in other labs is here longer than I am. The only person who seems to be able to set their own hours is the PI.

    That's what's wrong with America. If people really knew what went into a being a scientist, then we'd see some change. Translate all those hours spent in the lab and you find out you make minimum wage? That's downright disheartening. Stocking boxes in a warehouse should not be comparable in any way to what a post-doc/PhD student does. And yet, that person stocking boxes probably makes more with more benefits than either group.

    What a joke.

    When I first graduated college, while waiting for the time to roll around when I would ship off to do Army officer stuff, I took a job at PIRG, an environmental advocacy group.   I did quite well, for them, being that I knew it took money to get stuff done where a lot of my enviro-hipster peers thought talking about the environment made the difference, so I raised more money than anyone else - and they offered me a job as the manager.  Pay: $12K per year.   I already had a job waiting so I had a graceful way to decline but I would have anyway.

    Anyone going into an academic field and then lamenting it doesn't pay enough is missing a crucial bit of information available to everyone.   Should the fate of the environment be worth only $12K a year?  Of course not, but if you pay only a little you get people who want to do it versus someone who is doing it for the money.   So it goes with academia.    Low pay shakes out the people who don't want to do it beyond a casual interest.   Does it also perhaps shake out the very best people?   Yes, some great people are going to monetize their expertise, but you will still get plenty of great people who will do the job because they like it and the money is less important.

    Moving boxes and driving trucks is direct commerce whereas most PIs do not want to have an applied science metric stuck on their funding so they aren't really comparisons.   Obviously corporate PhDs make far more than post-docs in academia.
    yes, I understand that, but when academia does not pay a living wage, then you are effectively turning that career choice off for thousands of people who would otherwise do so. That's one of the reasons why America's post-doc and PhD programs are dominated by foreigners. They know when they return home, they can get a prestigious job. For foreigners, this beats the hell out of rice farming or sand pounding.

    Sure does, though we have another problem there; student visas are easy to get but work visas are not.  So for the past 13 years, supposedly to halt foreigners undercutting domestic people, we have been training great people and then forcing them to go home and compete with us.

    I think that if research went away from being considered part of academia and work visas were not impossible to get (when I ran a different company that had to hire the smartest people, it was a real thought process to see if I wanted to spend the money on attorneys for the paperwork) the best researchers would make more money, just like the best people in most industries do thanks to competition, and then the best people would go into the field.

    The common denominator in all these issues is not the post-docs or the pay scale but rather the government holding the money that pays people.
    IMO, it's not just a government problem, the private sector also undervalues PhDs. A new hire at a company earns around 60-65k, which is the same starting salary as a bus driver in the CTA or a UPS driver with similar experience (eg 5+ years). Other professions with less schooling earn double what PhDs can do. I believe this has to do with a glut of PhDs. Sure, there may be <1% PhDs in the population, but in reality, there are only enough jobs for <0.5% of the total population. When there's a glut, there's severe undervaluation of the commodity.

    In no financial circumstance does it make sense to get a PhD. Unfortunately, no one really says that to you until you do the research yourself. In my case, I should have done it before I enrolled not after.

    You may be onto something.  If I were to get a PhD it would be because of interest, not finances.   I am a bit older than most in the comment thread but when I grew up a PhD was less essential than intelligence and experience.   Even today, if someone has a bachelor's degree and 5 years of experience selling, say, lab equipment, I am going with experience when hiring over a PhD - which means the PhD is a minimum threshold mostly for just research jobs.

    After I went to college one of our political parties saw that people with college degrees made more money than those without and decided college educations were a 'right' and put up unlimited loans to make it happen.  As a result, today a BS is like a high school diploma when I was young and that has cascaded up the chain.   Now students have monstrous debt and degrees that have less value because everyone can get one.

    It isn't just science.  All those MBAs who get sold a program with the belief someone will turn over a company for them to run get disappointed too.   But when people are in it they only listen to the big success stories.
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    I think that the real problem is that American CEO, sport and entertainment superstars salaries are out of control, and everyone else’s salaries both in and out of industry, including PHDs are seriously undervalued in comparison. See

    ‘The average CEO of a major corporation in the U.S. was paid $15 million in 2005, and the figure has climbed dramatically since then. The average U.S. worker's salary in 2005 was $40,000 and it has actually declined during the recession. ‘

    ‘Jesse Fried, a law professor at Harvard University and co-author of the book 'Pay Without Performance: The Unfulfilled Promise of Executive Compensation', argues that much of CEO pay is not based on performance.’..’One study compared CEO compensation for the 20 worst performing companies in 2000-2001 to the 20 best, measuring return on equity. The results? The companies with the lowest CEO compensation levels did had better business results than the companies with the higher CEO compensation levels.’

     ‘The United States is the most economically stratified society in the western world. As The Wall Street Journal reported, a recent study found that the top .01% or 14,000 American families hold 22.2% of wealth, and the bottom 90%, or over 133 million families, just 4% of the nation's wealth’.

    'The new data also shows that the top 300,000 Americans collectively enjoyed almost as much income as the bottom 150 million Americans. And American society covets the superstars in athletics and entertainment, many of whom make millions and millions of dollars in comparison to their co-workers.’

    ‘Recent legislation enacted in the U.S. will circumscribe some aspects of executive compensation, particularly the provisions allowing shareholders to have vote on compensation plans--although it is non-binding-- but it remains to be seen whether the continuing widening gap between top executives, out of step with the rest of the world, will continue.’
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at
    The average CEO of a major corporation in the U.S. was paid $15 million in 2005, and the figure has climbed dramatically since then. The average U.S. worker's salary in 2005 was $40,000 and it has actually declined during the recession. 
    You have to calibrate those numbers, especially because they are averages, with two factoids.    First, those numbers are only for publicly traded companies and Congress passed a ridiculous set of laws in the early 2000s that made it extremely dangerous to run a public company.

    Second, if the 'average' worker incorrectly signs a piece of paper, he does not go to jail.   If the CEO of a public company signs a piece of paper that is wrong, under Sarbanes-Oxley he is going to jail.  So the risks of being a CEO are much higher now, which means better CEOs now run private companies instead of public and that has caused the very top level of CEO to command a lot more money, which drives up the average.

    Very few people want to trade money in return for jail time.   I wouldn't run a public company because it used to be if a subordinate made a mistake, it was a mistake - now it is a jail sentence and no one can personally monitor and re-check everything they sign.  Basically, there are a lot more available workers than competent CEOs today and that demand inflates prices.

    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Gosh, I see what you mean Hank. I just came across this article in Capitalism Magazine called ‘Law Requiring CEO Certification of Financial Statements is the Work of Idiots’ by Don Luskin at

    Quote ‘When bad laws make criminals of innocent CEO's, innocent men won't want to be CEO's anymore -- only corrupt men will. And when bad laws confer arbitrary power upon federal bureaucrats, the bureaucrats will become as corrupt as those CEO's. Is this any way to ensure accountability and restore trust in markets? No-- this legislative cure is worse than the disease.’

    No wonder the financial world has gone topsy turvy, the knock-on effects of these crazy laws and in particular Section 906 explain to me how in the US, PHDs may have become so underpaid and undervalued and why both corrupt and any ‘innocent’ CEOs that remain, have become so overpaid and overvalued to take these kind of risks. With these laws corrupt individuals can end up running Big Business which in turn influences the Government which in turn decides on the value of academia and academics and their pay and grant structures.

    These articles one called Top 10 CEOs in Prison Why’d They Do It? see and another called Top 10 White Collar Criminals at are also pretty interesting.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at
    Jane de Lartigue
    A piece today in EMBO journal seemed somewhat relevant to the discussion (  Regarding ERC grants to young researchers, helping them to gain independence at a younger age and changing the face of some academic institutions.
    Quotas for young researchers have been bandied about for a while but the big issue will be what happens after that.   

    If you spend 15 years doing post-docs before getting an R01, okay, that is longer than the previous generation but you still survived and learned the ropes without pressure, whereas others may have dropped out.  If you get a special young researcher pool of money grant, though, and then have to apply for a real one against everyone to continue the work and don't make the cutoff, your career is over.
    Jane de Lartigue
    I agree it's definitely still problematic, I'm not sure it really solves the problems we are talking about here, either way, you do 15 years of a postdoc or you get a young researchers grant, if you don't get an R01 at the end the outcome is the same - game over.  But at least this way serious researchers can get their teeth into the experience of establishing their own lab and doing independent research at a younger age and potentially earn more and garner more respect than a typical postdoc.  Having that special grant and the experience on your CV will also make you more competitive for the R01s than someone who comes from 15 years of postdocs, if both are comparable in every other respect of course.
    Excellent article.

    "sense from those running the research labs we worked in that the skills workshops we were required to take were a complete waste of time, and took us away from our important work unnecessarily.'

    I work a lot with postdocs, most of whom complain a lot about how unfair life is and how they have no opportunity anymore. but when you offer options like these they immediately cry foul and talk about how it takes them away from the bench> Right after admitting they have no future at the damned bench.

    fear or apathy?

    Jane de Lartigue
    Thanks Tideliar! I recognize you from Lab Spaces!  I agree apathy is also a potential problem.  In the quote that you've mentioned there though I did actually mean the PI's and senior members of the lab who were irritated with us being away from the bench and felt that the courses were a waste of time.  I can only speak for myself when I say that I take advantage of every opportunity the university throws at me to improve and learn about my skills and potential career opportunities, though perhaps this is because I have always felt that I might pursue a career outside academia and am trying to keep my options open.
    Hi Jane, I followed you here (e-stalker LOL) from your LabSpaces profile. Great writing!

    I know what you meant in your comment, I was just extrapolating to the postdocs I work with (not all, I have to admit). I wasn't so rushed when I commented i would have made myself clearer.

    it's common to hear from senior lab staff, as you point out, they won't admit the system is broken (and sometimes in their eyes it isn't - "I made it didn't I?"). But then to hear it from the postdocs themselves is very frustrating. I hate apathy I guess...

    I am a scientist, 56 years old and have been observing and thinking about the plight of scientists for many years. I am a native born American and most of my high school classmates who pursued careers in archetecture, medicine, law, business, etc. have stable careers now and are well off financially. Not so with those who went into science or engineering. A couple became professors, many have since changed careers. Here are a couple of my observations: Scientists do not have the freedom of career choices or location os other professions. Very few can strike out on their own and establish their own consulting company etc. or join a firm like other professions that are scattered all over the country, In others words they are by and large dependant on the system. If the system becomes corrupted and acts not in the interests of scientists then the only choice people have is to either not go into science or leave science. This forms a natural feedback loop. If conditions are bad then they must be improved to attract more people. But this natural feedback in the supply/demand aspect of labor has been short circuited by people who have gamed the system, by allowing unlimited numbers of people from outside the country to be sucked in as graduate students and post-docs. In any situation where there is an oversupply of labor there will be a race to the bottom in salaries, benefits, job security, etc. All i can say is that there are individuals who have profited enormously by this broken system. It is to their benefit. These individuals have influenced government policy to their benefit, that is how they did it. But in recent years I have seen signs that conditions are getting so bad in the US that students from overseas are becoming more chosey. I say this because it used to be that half the graduate students in the physics dept. were chinese, now there are practically none. Better opportunities are arising for scientists areund the world and the US is no longer the only option. So the feedback loop may eventually restore itself but it is still going to take it a long time. It was revealed on a webstie ten years ago by a Harvard professor whoes name I can't remember(maybe Weinstein) that in the eighties the NSF comissioned an independant economic study on the effect of a shortage of scientist and engineers on the professions. In the NSF congresstional testimony they mislead congress by not revealing or mentioning this study. The study basically revealed that the concensus of the economists was that labor shortages are self correcting and nothing needs to be done. If there is a shortage in relatively short time by improved working conditions more people will be attracted to the science and engineering professions. The NSF suppressed this report and congress went with the unmanaged labor oversupply approach to basically drive the working conditions to the lowest level. The one thing that kills me is when I hear academics or gov. officials say that people in the US are not going into science or engineering because of their poor education. No the word has gotten around.

     officials say that people in the US are not going into science or engineering because of their poor education. No the word has gotten around.
    Apparently not, academia can only afford 16% of the PhDs it produces in a good economy and post-doc wages are low because there are far too many.  Science academia has terrific PR - people are sold on the notions of 'independence' and the ability to do research for the public good rather than some pesky bottom line.

    There is also no poor education; the people criticizing US education are criticizing test scores and then resisting an educational system that teaches test material, like countries in Asia do.  Generally, lamenting science and education is a well-funded industry that has to keep the negative output to keep jobs.