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Thanks for the Great Postdoc Bargain

Postdocs are at the heart of the United States's extraordinarily successful biological and life science research program over the past two-plus decades. In this period, postdocs have produced most of the results in academic laboratories and have come to play an increasing role in industrial and government labs as well. Academic institutions, which engage some 80% of postdocs, aren't sure whether postdocs are employees, students, or some form of apprentice. With responsibility for hiring and career development resting firmly with the principal investigators (PIs) who employ the postdocs on their research grants, many universities don't even know how many postdocs they have or what they are paid, much less how they are progressing toward whatever the future holds for them.

Whatever they are, however, postdocs are one of the greatest bargains in the U.S. economy. Where else can one hire Ph.D.s, whose training and smarts put them among the best and brightest in the world, to work 60 hours a week for $30,000 to $40,000 a year, with limited benefits and little power to influence their working conditions and pay? Given the long hours that postdocs work, their hourly pay is on the order of $10 to $13 per hour--on par with the wages paid to custodial and other low-paid workers that have spurred living-wage campaigns around the country.

On behalf of the taxpayers who fund much of the postdoc-conducted research and on behalf of the PIs who are able to undertake more experiments and advance their careers with low-cost postdocs in their labs, I want to thank the postdocs in our country. The United States could hardly ask for a more cost-effective way to advance knowledge and ultimately improve our lives. In a world where former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay (an economics Ph.D.!) paid himself millions of dollars before bankrupting his firm, postdocs deserve a round of huzzahs for creating so much of value and charging so little that they themselves are the ones risking bankruptcy.

Huzzah! Huzzah!

Two to 3 decades ago, the United States rewarded postdocs with a reasonably good chance of being hired as a PI. Sorry, but we can no longer carry out that part of the bargain. As Table 1 shows, there are just too many postdocs for us to absorb them as tenured faculty. In 1987, the ratio of postdocs to tenured faculty was already too high at 0.54 for most to obtain faculty jobs at the rate of growth of academic employment. By 1997, the ratio had risen by 43% to 0.77. It has presumably risen further since then. As a result--and as many postdocs have learned to their chagrin--the United States does not have a place for them on standard academic tracks.

But don't get discouraged, postdocs. We need you for our research. How about another postdoctorate--a few more years of long hours at low wages?

The forces of supply and demand are unlikely to improve the economic situation of postdocs in any plausible time period. One reason is that the supply of postdocs consists not only of U.S. citizens and permanent residents gaining Ph.D.s but also of U.S.- and foreign-trained Ph.D.s from other countries. Indeed, U.S. scientific research could not proceed at anything like its current pace were it not for the influx of foreign postdocs. Roughly half of postdocs currently come from overseas, many from countries with low personal income rates such as China. Remove foreign postdocs from the nation's labs and postdoc pay would zoom ... at the cost of short-term chaos and a long-term slower rate of scientific progress. Nevertheless, we should not forget to thank our foreign postdocs for their long hours and hard work on behalf of the rest of our society.

Huzzah! Huzzah!

Postdocs, we appreciate deeply your working so hard for so little and making science go so well. We beneficiaries of the great postdoc bargain hope that you are happy to be part of this great endeavor and will do nothing foolish to disturb the status quo. Don't support the efforts of the major funding agencies of the U.S. government, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), to raise their postdoc stipends significantly. It will add to our budget deficit. And if NIH and NSF awards rise, universities may have to match those increases with moneys that they may have trouble finding. Don't listen to the committees of the National Academy of Sciences or the leaders of professional societies or those scientists in the university world who tell you that you should be getting a better deal. Science is advancing wonderfully thanks to your hard work at bargain-basement pay. Who knows what might happen if your economic situation were to improve?

But above all, absolutely, positively don't form organizations to make your case to the public and to represent your interests within the university or science worlds. Don't become another special-interest group. Our heartfelt thanks should be enough. You don't need clear and mutually understood contracts, stipends that pay more per hour than custodial help, health insurance and other benefits for your family, and all those other things that recent reports by the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy and the Association of American Universities think you should have. Postdoc organizations might just gain the power to get you those things and destroy the great postdoc bargain. Isn't it enough to know that you are indispensable to the science and engineering endeavor? Wouldn't you rather just have some more huzzahs?

Hip-hip hooray for bargain-basement postdocs! Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!

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