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Warning: Here's The Heartbreaking Truth About Postdoc Job Salaries in Life Sciences

1/30/2017 2:31:46 PM

Warning: Here's The Heartbreaking Truth About Postdoc Job Salaries in Life Sciences February 2, 2017
By Mark Terry, Breaking News Staff

There are many good reasons to take a postdoctorate position. Money—even future earnings—may not necessarily be one of them. Researchers at the Boston University Questrom School of Business and University of Kansas recently published a study in Nature Biotechnology that evaluated the impact of postdoctoral training on early careers in biomedicine.
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Focus of the Study

The study, conducted by Shulamit Kahn, of Boston University and Donna Ginther, a professor of economics at the University of Kansas, evaluated whether postdoctoral training led to higher pay in industry, as compared to scientists who joined industry immediately after completion of their PhDs, as well as how often postdoctoral training led to academic positions.

The authors noted, “During the past two decades, official bodies have raised concerns about the working conditions, long hours, lack of benefits, and forced geographic mobility faced by postdocs, as well as the effects of postdoc jobs on families.”

From 1980 to 2010, the number of PhDs in biomedicine in the U.S. grew by 132 percent, largely foreign nationals and women. Other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields grew by 76 percent in the same period.

The authors culled biennial longitudinal data from the 1981 through 2013 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Survey of Doctorate Recipients, as well as the 1980 to 2013 NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates. They excluded MD-PhDs, noting that their careers “develop differently,” as well as PhDs with missing data. Their remaining data included 10,402 biomedical PhDs who received their degrees in the U.S. from 1980 to 2010.

Financial Penalty

Based on inflation-adjusted 2013 dollars, the median annual starting salary during postdoc’s first four years after receiving their doctorate was $44,724. That is compared to $73,662 for PhDs going directly into the workforce. While that pay gap is bad enough, their study also found that, on average, the postdocs received the same entry-level salary as those who went straight from their doctorates.

“We find a substantial financial penalty for starting biomedical careers in a postdoc,” the authors wrote. “Those differences accumulate.”

The study compared PhDs with and without postdocs and their salaries 10 years after receiving their PhDs. Those with postdoc educations averaged $12,002 lower than those who started post-PhD.

To get to the bottom line: Is it financially worthwhile to complete a postdoc?

The answer: No.

Factors for Taking a Postdoc Position

There are undoubtedly good reasons for continuing postdoctoral position. One is increased focus on a specific subject of research interest. In other words, there may be more research on a specific area that a PhD wants to continue with, whether for scientific curiosity or other reasons.

The authors’ study also found a variety of demographic factors. For example, “People who were temporary residents when they received their PhDs (likely to be on student visas) were 8.1 percentage points more likely to take a postdoc than US citizens, all else being equal.”

Age and family status was also a factor. Older graduates were less likely to begin a postdoc. Single men and women and married men without children were about equal in their likelihood of a postdoc, but men who were married with children, and married women with or without children, “were each 6.5-8 (percent) less likely to do so than single men.”

That makes sense. People in settled relationships, with partners who potentially have stable jobs or children in school, are more likely to consider staying where they are, rather than relocating to another job. Particularly if they are hoping to gain a faculty position at the university where they’re doing their postdoc.

Klodjan Stafa, writing for Cheeky Scientist,, outlined three reasons to transition into industry post-PhD rather than apply for a postdoc in an article, “Why PhDs Should Stop Applying for Postdocs And Start Applying for Research Scientist Positions.

1. On-the-Job Training Is More Important.

Stafa notes that whether you’re fresh out of a PhD or have completed a postdoc, when you start in industry, they’ll train you anyway. “No matter how qualified, trained or ‘seasoned’ you think you are in a given protocol, when you start a new position at a new company you will be forced to learn it again, following their standard operating procedure.”

And it’s also possible you’ll have more training and educating than the person training you. Stafa also points out that many private companies, who have a vested interest in keeping talent, will subsidize the costs of further education or training outside of work.

2. Your PhD Skills Are Already Transferrable.

The private sector wants PhDs. It’s questionable whether the skills gained in a postdoc add to your employability. Stafa says, “But they’re only desirable if they can demonstrate both the technical skills and transferable skills necessary for working in industry.”

Stafa notes the six skills most likely to be listed on industry research job postings are:

* Creating and conducting experiments
* Processing and analyzing data
* Communicating results to the scientific community
* Collaborating with industry partners to apply the results of research anad develop new techniques, products or services
* Teaching or training other members of staff
* Devising or helping to draw up new research proposals.

Most PhDs will have that those in their skill set without a postdoc.

3. Academia is slow, stagnant, and biased.

Clearly Staffa is not a fan of academia, saying, “Growth in academia is slow. Academic progress is very hard to measure. This is not because academia is above politics or above needing money. It’s because the academic system has become lazy and one-dimensional.”

Well, that’s pretty harsh. There are pros and cons for academia versus industry that Stafa doesn’t touch.

For example, some scientists want to pursue their own research interests and have the flexibility to do so. That’s not the case in most industry positions. Philip Guo, an assistant professor of Cognitive Science at UC San Diego, wrote an article in December 2014, “Industry versus academia: A junior employee’s perspective,” and said, “It feels like your time belongs to yourself, not to your employer. That’s why academia wins for time flexibility.”

And, many academic researchers also enjoy teaching and interacting with students.

There can be other benefits in academia. Guo also pointed out that one of the things he liked about academia was having a private office. Junior scientists in industry tended to work in an open area or a “cubicle farm.”

As the Nature Biotechnology articles outlines, there are probably few financial incentives for taking on a postdoc. And, perhaps even more problematic, studies have indicated that only about 20 percent of postdocs lead to a tenure-track academic position. There are undoubtedly good reasons to pursue postdoctoral research, but the study suggests money isn’t one of them. So take into consideration other factors.

Some people, for example, just love the academic environment. And if your ultimate goal is academia, a postdoc is probably going to be a requirement.

Or, as Felix Moser wrote in a post on the MIT Biological Engineering website:

“There are essentially four reasons to do a postdoc:
1. Because you want to.
2. To get additional training (even though you may not want or need it).
3. To prepare for the next step.
4. Your PI kicked you out and the coffee shop next door ain’t hiring.”

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