This is a guest post by Future of Research policy activist, Adriana Bankston.
The biomedical research enterprise is driven at its core by junior scientists working at the bench. Postdocs are highly skilled scientific experts who provide a great deal of value to the scientific enterprise. In spite of this fact, they have historically been paid low wages, leading to professional dissatisfaction which may also cause them to leave the bench. Policy changes to increase postdoc compensation, as well as innovative incentives, may be very beneficial for retaining postdocs in science by creating an environment for them to effectively perform their work. Thinking about the biomedical research workforce from an economic point of view may therefore help us better understand the challenges faced by postdocs and facilitate solutions to these problems.
Critical discussions about the role of postdocs in the scientific enterprise occurred during the session entitled “Economic Implications of Scientific Training in the Biomedical Research Workforce” at the 2017 AAAS meeting. The three labor economists who presented in this session focused on the economics of the postdoctoral position and how it affects their career outcomes. Paula Stephan of Georgia State University and the National Bureau of Economic Research (also a member of the FoR advisory board) has served on a number of committees both in the US and in Europe, including the National Academies’ committee “On the Postdoctoral Experience Revisited.” The other two speakers, Donna Ginther of the University of Kansas and Bruce Weinberg of The Ohio State University, both have expertise in the STEM workforce and served on the NIH’s recent Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group. Paula Stephan is a member of the Working Group’s Modeling Subcommittee (and a member of the FoR advisory board). Finally, Michael Lauer of the National Institutes of Health, was the discussant in this session.
During the session, Michael Lauer talked about the number of postdocs and early career investigators. Paula Stephan discussed the incentives and costs both from the perspective of the postdoctoral fellow and the faculty member employing them. Donna Ginther talked about the effect of NIH F32 postdoctoral fellowships on career outcomes, and the effect of postdocs on earnings. Finally, Bruce Weinberg highlighted his research findings on early career outcomes of STEM PhD graduates, including the benefits and risks of proposed policy changes in this regard. Many of the points they discussed overlapped or converged into similar broader conclusions, which we summarize below.
General points on postdocs
- Postdocs are a very unusual market
- Postdocs have very little training (for example for job interviews)
- Very little data exist on postdocs (including the number of postdocs we think we are funding)
Postdoc tracking and value
- Tracking people can be used to measure the value of research (people are one of the primary outputs of the research enterprise)
- Lab productivity positively correlates with the number of postdocs in general
- The postdoc has no economic value except for obtaining an academic position (the majority of PhDs would be better off skipping the postdoc)
- For international postdocs this position is an incentive/means to stay in the U.S.
Postdoc earnings and cost
- Doctoral recipients in industry earned more than in academia and government, earnings in academia (<$50,000/year) suggestive of postdoc positions*
- Postdocs earned less than non-postdocs in specific sectors (non-TT academia, industry, government/nonprofit) soon after PhD completion, converged overtime**
- Each additional postdoc costs $10,000-16,000 in federal funding for the university
- Lower proportion of early career investigators are funded, and this trend starting to extend into mid-career
*1 year after PhD, examined PhD recipients across various sectors
**1-15 years after PhD, looked at postdocs vs. non-postdocs in individual sectors (TT-tenure track)
Other ideas and resources
- Are people skipping postdocs ‘superstars’? (already earning more)
- Can we quantify postdoc job satisfaction?
- NIH IRACDA programs
- Quantifying the evolution of individual scientific impact (paper)
- Systematic inequality and hierarchy in faculty hiring networks (paper)