The Postdoc Scam
This is going to be the first of what will surely be many posts addressing the biggest scam in all of academia – the postdoc.
Now, there are lots of little ways you get taken advantage of in academia, but few are as egregious as the postdoc. Typical postdocs in the hard sciences will generally pay in the $30-40k range. That’s with a PhD. As in, “I spent ten years in college working my butt off, and my salary is less than a manager at most any retail chain store who started fresh out of high school”. It’s sobering. Typical starting salaries for those who leave academia for the private sector are quite literally double what they would be making as a postdoc. Yet, for some reason, people still suffer through those terrible salaries, because the system has built up this complete BS notion that it’s somehow more “noble” or “pure” to sacrifice yourself in this way. Let’s be perfectly clear here – there is nothing noble about letting a broken system rip you off.
“But you should go into science because you love it, not for the money” is usually the standard response here. Which would be great, if getting a college degree in this country didn’t usually involve crushing mountains of student loan debt, which must be paid for upon graduation. Lump a large loan payment on top of other living expenses, and many postdocs can barely scrape by. We aren’t talking about the desire to become rich and famous here, we are talking about working as an indentured servant and having a standard of living barely above that of someone at the poverty line.
PhD’s are supposed to be our best and brightest, the young minds who have not only the inherent skill, but the work ethic and drive to contribute original thought to the sphere of human knowledge, and this is how they are expected to live their lives. It’s a travesty. Tack on the fact that there is such a glut of students who have been lead to believe that they will move on to faculty positions sometime in their lives, and you’ve got a system that is so exploitative of incredibly skilled highly specialized, disturbingly cheap labor. It’s appalling.
And that’s not even the worst part.
In addition to being expected to provide cheap labor for their advisers, to often work 60+ weeks with no overtime pay, little vacation, and a salary that’s little more than a pittance, many postdocs are required to find their own funding. As in, “sure, I will give you a job where I work you to the bone and you may or may not actually get anything out of it, but I sure as hell ain’t gonna pay for you out of MY grant money”. So, now not only are you being taken advantage of for your cheap labor, you have to actually fight to get your own money to support your position. That process often involves massive amounts of work – grant writing takes up a huge chunk of a typical researcher’s time, and postdoc fellowship grants are no different. I defy you to name one other job on the PLANET that pays less than $40k a year and requires you to spend several weeks writing and researching before you’ll even be considered for the job. Not only that, but these fellowships are generally extremely competitive, such that your chances of actually getting the funding you need are quite low. So, you end up wasting weeks of your life, trying to desperately snag a crappy low paying job, and you still don’t have all that good of a chance of getting it.
And that’s still not the worst part
Depending on the source of the funding, there can be all kinds of strings attached – requirements that you teach for a certain amount of time after you finish, or that you must produce a certain metric to gauge your research progress, or that you must remain in the position for a certain amount of time. And if you don’t complete these milestones – some fellowships even require you to pay back the salary you’ve received if you don’t meet their criteria. As an example of this, see the following NIH fellowship requirements. Of course, no one tells you about these things while you’re applying for the fellowship, unless you do the digging through the mountains of paperwork and find it yourself, or if a friendly blogger warns you.
So before you go the postdoc route, think long and hard about it. There is a massive oversupply of PhD’s fighting for those faculty positions, and it is not at all uncommon for your competition for a tenure track faculty position to have anywhere from 4-10 years of postdoctoral experience. Ask yourself if you’re willing to live on $40k a year for the next decade, putting up with long hours, little personal freedom, and potentially even more ridiculous and restrictive conditions, for a slim shot at a faculty position. And if you have no interest in a faculty position, why the hell are you even thinking about a postdoc? Unless you’ve already snared one of the rare high-paying government postdocs, run – run far and fast. And if you’re already in a postdoc, find a way out. Don’t sit around twiddling your thumbs waiting until your contract is up – break away as fast as you can. Don’t let some misguided sense of guilt tie you to your adviser – even if it’s unintentional, even if your adviser is the nicest person in the world, that adviser is a part of a system that is using you. Do not be a victim – take a stand for yourself and move on.