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The Postdoc Scam

September 4, 2010

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.

NIH Payback Reporting Requirements

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.


From → postdocs

  1. Jonathan permalink

    Very interesting stuff here! A couple points that spring to mind:

    1.) A tenured physics professor still seems an awesome job to me, but it really is a *rare* thing. I can’t think of a single person from college or grad school (who I’ve kept in touch with, anyway) who has obtained it. And for those who are absolutely committed to research, there are professor-like positions (“industry experts”) at many engineering/scientific corps where you can pursue your interests and publish papers, working on very theoretical or applied stuff. Of course your work has to in *some* way contribute to making a product or service that is profitable directly or indirectly (you can’t buy an ASIMO robot from Honda but it’s still a worthwhile project for them).

    2.) I think some grad school can be worthwhile training for technical work in the private sector. I don’t regret getting an master’s—it was hard to finish it and work full-time simultaneously, but I think the rigor and challenging classes has made me a better analyst/programmer/engineer. It just comes down to solving lots of hard problems…spending several hours a week for 3 years honing your math and programming skills is going to benefit you, whether it’s on the road to getting an MS/MA or just personal enrichment. I suppose one could just study the technical topics they find interesting on their own but not everyone has the discipline for that.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. James permalink

    After spending a lot of time talking to tenured professors, I do think it still sounds like a pretty awesome job, but not nearly as awesome as I once thought it was. I’m not a fan of the idea of spending most of my time writing grant proposals rather than doing actual research.

    I also agree that the skills you get from grad school can be very worthwhile – I learned a ton while getting my PhD, and I did interesting work, too. The problem is trying to get a return on those dollars and hours down the road – some employers understand the value of graduate work, but many don’t. I think your approach, getting the master’s part time while continuing to work, is probably the best way to do it. That way, you’re pulling a decent salary to give you a better quality of life, and you’re also gaining the real-world work experience, which is probably more important on a resume/CV than the degree, to many hiring managers.

    One more thought – it sounds like your master’s program was difficult/challenging, and therefore more useful. I know others who’ve gotten a master’s and said the programs were pretty much a joke (and at top tier schools, too!). It’s a hard thing to judge from the outside, and no one wants to trash their own educations, for fear of devaluing themselves. It’s always going to be a bit of a gamble going in to it, which is why working at the same time is such a good idea – you’re still gaining that experience, so you’ve got some backup if the master’s work doesn’t benefit you as much as you’d like it to.

    • Jonathan permalink

      Yeah I’ve heard about other master’s degrees that weren’t so worth it. I think one thing that made mine worthwhile is that I was the only one in most of my classes who wasn’t a PhD student! So almost all of the courses were at least reasonably tough, some extraordinarily difficult. I think I pulled more all-nighters in 3 years of part-time grad school than 5 years of college.

      It was also geared as a “research degree” and I insisted on a lengthy thesis project (well, 3+ months) even though I could’ve written a glorified book report and graduated. I wanted my diploma to mean something.

      I remember my brief time as a grad school TA, how it was impossible to get ahead. I would try to save a couple hundred dollars per month (the stipend was what, $17k?) but then if something big came up (car repairs) it could wipe out the savings.

      Good point about finding an employer that values what a PhD is worth…my engineering experience is limited to the defense industry, but I know people with doctorates at Lockheed are very highly regarded.

      One really important thing I’ve noticed is to be as easily manageable as possible. If you are really smart/good but require a lot of supervisor energy in finding you work and keeping you focused, you’ll get a reputation as that smart but difficult guy who isn’t worth approaching with new work. Some people will be intimidated by your degree but if you can be really easy-going and work well with everyone, a PhD can only help you, and hopefully in significant ways.

  3. Chris permalink

    The postdoc job is the most ridiculously ridiculous job ever invented, only a small percentage of those square-headed who were born to be academicians might have a chance to get a tt position. The other 99.99% are completely wasting their time working for such low wages and – what is worse- doing work which in most cases is completely irrelevant for the society. Conclusion : i) finish your bachelors and get a career in industry, or ii) finish your bachelors and do an MBA, or iii) finish your bachelors and go for a Ph.D., or iv) finish your bachelors and apply directly to tt positions (e.g. play the lottery), but NEVER go for a postdoc. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Yes so true permalink

    I’m not a post doc but my family member is and I know it’s terrible. One key note is to review what the students say about the prof. on rate my prof. Big clues! The colleges don’t fire them because they bring in dollars, but they are caustic to their students and postdocs! One student described the prof. as a paper cut, it’s so true!

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