They didn’t see the whole system was going to sour so quickly
October 10, 2014 10:20 AM   Subscribe

The Boston Globe reports on the post-doc crisis in science research:
The life of the humble biomedical postdoctoral researcher was never easy: toiling in obscurity in a low-paying scientific apprenticeship that can stretch more than a decade. The long hours were worth it for the expected reward — the chance to launch an independent laboratory and do science that could expand human understanding of biology and disease.
But in recent years, the postdoc position has become less a stepping stone and more of a holding tank. Some of the smartest people in Boston are caught up in an all-but-invisible crisis, mired in a biomedical underclass as federal funding for research has leveled off, leaving the supply of well-trained scientists outstripping demand.
posted by Diablevert (47 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
Today, Ydenberg is pursuing a job that gives him real joy, building websites.

What is wrong with society when there is no reliable funding for anything but fixing people's damn CSS?
posted by johngoren at 11:26 AM on October 10, 2014 [15 favorites]


The NIH stipend ranges from $42,000 a year for a starting postdoc, up to $55,272 for a seventh year.

Yikes. The very fact that seven (7!!!!) year salary schedules are even necessary speaks volumes about this problem. The programs I use top out at three, and I'm a little guilty about how long that is.
posted by bonehead at 11:31 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


And the Globe comes through yet again with another well-researched exposé. Journalism is not dead.
posted by Melismata at 11:33 AM on October 10, 2014


What is wrong with society when there is no reliable funding for anything but fixing people's damn CSS?

Well, that's not really "funding". That's capitalism.
posted by the jam at 11:34 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


From the Mermaid's Tale: The post-doc glut: who's responsible? We all are!
The reason is that we have trained too many PhDs. But why is that? Some might suggest that the problem is that we've been doing our job but the country's inability to keep expanding the grant fund pool has failed us. That's a convenient way to look at things. But the truth is more sobering, and the finger of guilt needs to point not at the government, but at ourselves. This bottleneck to academic jobs is not just restricted to the snooty academic world of Boston. We are all the assassins of the hoped-for career path!
posted by ChuraChura at 11:40 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Wow, I had no idea that NIH stipends were that bad.

You accumulate student loans as an undergrad, you put family and relationships on hold, slog through 5 or 6 or 7 years of pitiless grad school while your classmates post Facebook updates about weekends in Vegas, get a PhD, your parents attend the graduation ceremony (who else would?) and pat you on the back for having made an original contribution to the sum total of human knowledge.

And then they pay you $42,000 a year? Really? Today? People start at higher salaries with an undergrad degree in any kind of engineering. At least in the physical sciences postdoc fellowships pay a bit more than that. (Not that much more, sure. But I didn't feel like I was living in poverty...)
posted by RedOrGreen at 11:54 AM on October 10, 2014 [6 favorites]


A good friend of mine has been half-timed recently. She was doing biochem research, and she's a good scientist, but there's just no funding for full-timers; her company is hiring recent grads to replace her for less pay. She worked so hard for her education and to get the experience she has, and now it's a liability.
posted by emjaybee at 11:55 AM on October 10, 2014


And that, my friends, is why I got out of biomedical research.
posted by Muddler at 11:55 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


I too would rather be studying anything about the natural world -- I probably wouldn't be a great scientist, but I can do graduate-level math and run an experiment -- but I'm also writing CSS for automobile manufacturers (and of course, doing an app on the side).

On the plus side, the web is a great medium in which to talk about the limits of capitalism (certainly better than cable tv).
posted by weston at 12:03 PM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


Is it bad that I see those stipend values and think "wow, I should totally go and get that doctorate!" 42-55k looks really good from the perspective of someone with a master's degree, although I bet NIH postdoc positions are really prestigious and hard to get.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:09 PM on October 10, 2014 [5 favorites]


@Mitrovarr, I'm a postdoc and I have basically the same reaction to my stipend level most of the time.

My stipend is a thoroughly middle class income in the midwestern city where I live, and it comes with other benefits, such as unbelievably cheap and good health insurance for my husband and I, an incredibly flexible schedule, an environment where people respect my ideas and expertise and I get to do things that I think are interesting, job security that far exceeds anything I could expect in an industry position, and guaranteed yearly raises. My husband is a civil servant with a similar number of years of education to mine, and he only makes about 15% more than I do. All in all, I think I have a fine deal here.

That said, there are frustrations. The university doesn't consider me an employee, which made getting my mortgage a total nightmare. I'm not eligible for many university benefits (like retirement). Also, NIH scale doesn't have locality pay, so there's no way we'd be middle class if we still lived in the bay area.

I tend to think of my postdoc as a job that I (mostly) like and have the privilege of doing for a while. I know at some point I'll have to do something else and its unlikely to be a tenure track faculty job. I am happiest when I let go of the idea that i'm being trained for that or that I deserve that, and just look at my job as a pretty good one, compared to many.
posted by juliapangolin at 12:22 PM on October 10, 2014 [6 favorites]


Ahem, perhaps there would be more money if the research hospitals didn't charge so much for overhead. Just saying that something is messed up when upwards of 78% of NIH money goes directly to the hospital and not the researcher.
posted by Gungho at 12:35 PM on October 10, 2014


I bailed out of grad school with a Masters, partly because of a lack of funding and partly because of things like this. In retrospect, maybe I should have stayed on, because making more than $40k per year sounds pretty sweet when you've been searching fruitlessly for a job for eleven months.

I heard recently that an old adviser of mine hired someone right out of college for $22k for a year as a lab tech.
posted by Noms_Tiem at 1:13 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


My SO just finished her Ph.D. Every time I hear about the academic system of postdocs, instructors, and all the other essential non-professor positions that create so much of the value in academia, it's horrifying. Like all the klaxons in my head are just blaring *SCAM*SCAM*SCAM*SCAM* as I watch these incredibly bright, super well-intentioned people throw their lives into the breach because they want to solve problems and they want to save the world and the system gladly eats their lives and gives them nothing in return. And it seems vaguely intentional- the educational system tells all our kids everywhere that STEM is the path to success, and academia is a really worthy goal, all the way up through college. And so there's this glut of people who have no skills in any other field fighting for jobs that are objectively shittier in terms of pay/hours/quality of life than, say, assistant manager of a grocery store.

And maybe I'm way off base in this (scientists, please correct me if I'm wrong), but it seems like the system has a real need for people to spend time working on things that just don't work. Those people are vital. Like, there's materials that seem really good for a whole number of reasons (e.g. "this hormone will really help neuron growth", or "this metal will make really great solar panels" etc. ) but those hypotheses aren't true for any number of reasons that literally no one could have predicted when the research is just starting out. And when grad student A and grad student B were choosing research, it was dumb fuckin luck that leads to A getting a paper in Nature and B getting a paper in a tiny journal saying "this material isn't good for reason x". And it's a service to Science and Humanity for people to go down these tunnels of investigation so that they can come back out and tell us "yeah, don't go there, they don't lead to anything". But those people don't get any reward for it, and the undergrads never hear about that kind of shit, and so you have 100 college grads applying for the 3 open Ph.D spots in a lab, and 100 Ph.Ds applying for the 1 postdoc spot.

And still, the only voices that people considering STEM hear are the professors who made it through the game, or the entrepreneur whose ph.d research got them a patent- and the lady who graduates with unspectacular papers after 9 years of research is just another casualty of the system, and I have to turn her down when she applies to stock shelves, because there's people who never even graduated high school that are more experienced than she is in the shit I need them to do.
posted by DGStieber at 1:20 PM on October 10, 2014 [33 favorites]


When people say "we need more STEM graduates", they really mean "TE".

We (I'm a final year biomed PhD) are telling all the new grad students, and any interested undergrads, to make sure they learn how to code.
posted by quaking fajita at 1:47 PM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


> It seems like the system has a real need for people to spend time working on things that just don't work. Those people are vital. [...] And when grad student A and grad student B were choosing research, it was dumb fuckin luck that leads to A getting a paper in Nature and B getting a paper in a tiny journal saying "this material isn't good for reason x".

Yes, absolutely. The only part you got wrong is the part where B publishes in a tiny journal - usually, a non-detection is just written off and never heard of again, leading to further wasted effort a few years down the line when some other unlucky grad student somewhere else does the whole thing again. There's repeated talk about starting a quality journal dedicated only to non-detections and null results, but well...

True story: professor and grad student A go observing at a telescope at a remote location. Interesting but not thrilling. 6 months later, A declines a second trip, so professor takes grad student B instead. They find something so interesting that 11 years later, they (literally) share the Nobel Prize in physics. Oddly enough, A continued doing interesting work in the same general area while B left the field shortly after the discovery. (I've heard most of this firsthand from A.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 1:49 PM on October 10, 2014


"objectively shittier in terms of pay/hours/quality of life than, say, assistant manager of a grocery store"

I'll argue with that.

Pay: Glassdoor tells me that an assistant manager at a Walmart in my area makes slightly less on average than I do. I can't confirm, but would bet anyone anything that a Walmart manager doesn't get a cadillac insurance plan covering his or her whole family for $120/month like I do, cheap gym access, a free bus pass, etc. I'm going to call that better compensation. That person is also an at-will employee, and can be fired (or have their hours cut to the point where they might as well be) tomorrow, for no reason at all. That is unheard of for postdocs.

Hours: I get to choose mine. It's 3:45 on Friday, I'm done accomplishing what I want to accomplish, and I'm leaving. Sometimes I go for a run in the morning and cruise in at 10 instead of 9. Nobody cares. Sometimes I work on weekends, but its when I decide I want to get something done, not when someone tells me to show up regardless of what else I was planning on doing.

Quality of life: I get to do work that I think is important and interesting, with people who don't treat me like dirt. Part of my job is learning stuff for god's sake! I also get to check my email for make personal phone calls whenever I think its convenient and appropriate, I can wear whatever I want (within the realm of safety) to work. Sometimes free pizza or pastries or even beer shows up for me to consume. There is a whole department devoted to walking around making sure my workplace is as safe as possible. My coworkers are, for the most part, nice, smart people who are interested in helping each other and doing a good job. I never have to interact with a customer.

100 Ph.Ds applying for the 1 postdoc spot
Not my experience nor that of my peers, nor is that supported by the OP. Scroll down to the infographic that shows 2/3 of PhDs doing postdocs.

The rest of what you said was right, though.
posted by juliapangolin at 1:56 PM on October 10, 2014 [8 favorites]


This is a shameful situation and it is stupid economically. I don't mean in the sense that it wastes the expensive training and valuable intellect of the post-docs. Those are certainly big wastes, but they pale in comparison to the dollars left on the table because we continue to spend money on things that are ineffective or worse. Scott Ramsey at the Fred Hutch in Seattle and others are looking at the value of information (VOI) for health-related research. In a recent talk I attended, he gave a few stunning after-the-fact examples. The Women's Health Initiative randomized trial of hormone replacement therapy, which cost $140M, has saved about $52B (pdf). About $3B per year was being spent on PSA tests alone for prostate cancer screening, not to mention the dollar costs of diagnostic biopsies and harmful therapy with no measurable benefit. The PLCO study that showed PSA screening to be of little efficacy cost about $300M and looked at lung, colon and ovarian cancer as a bonus. The list of other therapies that, when finally rigorously evaluated, turn out to be useless or harmful is very long. Not every study will generate huge saving, but it is clear there is a lot of savings to be wrung out of the healthcare system just by eliminating worthless or harmful therapies and identifying effective ones. However, as our austerity-crazy politicians tamp down spending on health research, they are being penny-wise and pound-foolish and wasting the most precious resource we have: intelligent people.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:59 PM on October 10, 2014 [8 favorites]


I tend to think of my postdoc as a job that I (mostly) like and have the privilege of doing for a while. I know at some point I'll have to do something else and its unlikely to be a tenure track faculty job....

Any time you are working for someone else and you think your job is a privilege, you are being scammed. This is something that's difficult to see in the white collar world, where everyone went to the same schools, has the same knowledge, the same degrees. Except that those professors you are working for are exploiting you as if their lifestyle depends upon your work... which it does. I mean, some of them are friendly, and helpful and seem to be in your corner, but the moment you are no longer useful to them, they will let you go, with a good luck and a great recommendation and you will feel grateful.

I mean, you are committed to working hard and doing good science... all of which generates research and dollars for the department. What commitment has the department made to you? Some nice words and a farewell party?

This is what I learned getting a STEM PhD.
posted by ennui.bz at 2:09 PM on October 10, 2014 [10 favorites]


As if looking into a mirror.

For what it's worth, my rose-colored glasses started to fog around 2006 and, ultimately, with great sadness, I left my research career for good. Beyond being paid horribly, I was also employed at a level that ensured I had no health coverage. Mind you, this was in an NIH-affiliated lab less than a mile from the White House (in the hospital where presidents are whisked). It was among the most godawful of my professional experiences, working there, and it tore me up to realize some of these things. The most horrifying, degrading, and stupefying realization in my epiphany wasn't so much about the distance from my own lab--it was recognizing without any hint of ambiguity that the PI was having us working on research that was flawed, to the degree that it had no hope of ever achieving its lofty stated goals, in order to keep the grant gravy train rolling at full steam. It was despicable, and part of the "breast cancer research buzz machine" that has thankfully been increasingly made public over the years.

Ugh, I get sweaty thinking about it. I remember having to call patients who had donated biopsies to collect annual histories and--since we were working with a type of breast cancer that is rare, aggressive, and has 5 year survival odds in the hundreths of a percent--more often than not ended up making a relative sob on the other end of the line when they were jarred into having to tell me that the person had died since the last interview. And they would tearfully ask me about our research, have you made any progress? Has my mom/aunt/grandma/sister's tissue helped you sort this problem out? And in my heart, and my brain, I knew we were doing nothing of the sort.

I'm not one to shout the "burn it down" line about academia, but... sometimes, I get really fucking close.

I ended up working in regulatory policy related to drug research and licensing, and I like to think I harness those memories into a sense of urgency that finally feels well-placed. I still don't make more than $45K/year, but I'm not being evil for the privilege anymore.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:10 PM on October 10, 2014 [7 favorites]


That person is also an at-will employee, and can be fired (or have their hours cut to the point where they might as well be) tomorrow, for no reason at all. That is unheard of for postdocs.

When your contract or funding term or statue of limitations runs out, they will absolutely kick you out the door. Except that you (the post-doc) just accept that the business you work (very hard) for has no long-term commitment to your support. You are temp labor with no chance of permanent hire, yet you have the responsibilities and more of a manager and expected to have 5-10 years of training.
posted by ennui.bz at 2:18 PM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


I keep thinking about quitting my IT job and going back to school to attempt a biology-related PhD, simply because the problem space is so fascinating.

But then I read stories like all y'all's, and I think to myself, "Maybe I should save up a wee bit more money on my IT salary for a few more years first..."
posted by clawsoon at 2:19 PM on October 10, 2014


I recently read a book that's related: Falling Behind (disclosure: I know the author's daughter).

It was really interesting, and makes some good points about how the cyclic funding growth/collapse is part of the problem. Earlier big increases in NIH followed by years of stagnant funding have helped create the problem in the OP.

So just asking for more funding wouldn't fix the problem, if it isn't continued indefinitely.

As a postdoc (I leave in 3 days to start my next position, for my 7th year of postdocing, although I'm physics and not bio), I wish we could instead come up with a system for academia that didn't rely on such a pyramid scheme. Any ideas?
posted by nat at 2:23 PM on October 10, 2014


Too bad? I have a hard time when gifted people who are getting paid a living wage to do something somewhat interesting and stimulating - although not EXACTLY what they want - try and group themselves in with oppressed blue collar laborers.

Being a post doc is not identical to managing a grocery store, even if you get paid the same. Social status compensation is real, and post docs have a lot of status compared with other professions. (try and look outside the elite circle of overachievers/world changers and six figure salaries that you grew up inside)

Scarce and valuable political energy is getting siphoned away from the poor and working poor onto this.
posted by Halogenhat at 2:23 PM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


I have a hard time when gifted people who are getting paid a living wage to do something somewhat interesting and stimulating - although not EXACTLY what they want - try and group themselves in with oppressed blue collar laborers.

The people you have little sympathy for have "careers" that are equivalent to minor league baseball players. Except that they are actually the people who produce the science our society supposedly depends upon, instead of producing down-market entertainment.

A Walmart manager has many more prospects to work in his or her field than a Ph.D. in any one of a dozen highly specialized research disciplines. These are temp employees who have convinced themselves that it is a privilege to be fired when they can be replaced with someone younger and more inexperienced.
posted by ennui.bz at 2:31 PM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


When your contract or funding term or statue of limitations runs out, they will absolutely kick you out the door. Except that you (the post-doc) just accept that the business you work (very hard) for has no long-term commitment to your support.

Yup. September 14, 2016. That is the day my current funding runs out. My 3 years of guaranteed employment is 3 more than the vast majority of Americans.

I make 3-5x what a minor league baseball player makes, fwiw.
posted by juliapangolin at 2:37 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Being a post doc is not identical to managing a grocery store, even if you get paid the same...(try and look outside the elite circle of overachievers/world changers and six figure salaries that you grew up inside)

I agree with you, but I wrote my comment from the grocery store employee side of things. Read about Mary Vojtko and try and tell me that this isn't about "the working poor"
posted by DGStieber at 2:50 PM on October 10, 2014


This is from the article:

“I don’t think we’re this oppressed minority or anything like that,” Ydenberg said. “But I think for science to reform and for science to become better at serving society, the issues facing postdocs are going to need to be addressed — otherwise nobody is going to want to go into research.”

Who the hell is comparing post-docs to "oppressed blue collar workers"? Is this really a necessary derail when it isn't based in the content of the article? I mean, it is pretty easy to win an argument when you can build a straw man.

I swear, this site sometimes......
posted by eagles123 at 3:46 PM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


If you listen closely, you can hear the humanities MAs and PhDs. They are on the other side of the river Styx, saying: "Welcome, brother."

And it seems vaguely intentional- the educational system tells all our kids everywhere that STEM is the path to success, and academia is a really worthy goal, all the way up through college.

As bitter as I am in general about the smashing of my academic dreams, the one place that I cannot lay fault is with my undergraduate and graduate professors. Every single one of them made sure that I realized that I would most likely not get a good paying job in the field. The field was too tight and I simply did not have the academic pedigree. One of my favorites actually said "I'm going to try like hell to dissuade you from pursuing this, and once I realize that I can't, I will try like hell to help you where I can."

I did it anyway and have never regretted it.
posted by eclectist at 4:00 PM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


I'm a postdoc and my saturday night plans are enjoying some reheated beef, barley and veggie stew and watching 2 episodes of ST:TNG on Netflix. Can't complain.
posted by fraxil at 4:05 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Some disjointed observations from my view to the physical sciences (chemistry) side of things. Many of my colleagues and friends (including myself) wound up in a postdoc after graduate school (a prominent non-Cal UC) due to a variety of circumstances. Some defaulted in because of lack of direction, some to pursue academia, some for other reasons. Only two have been hired as professors, one at Carnegie Mellon and one at Boise State. All the rest have moved on to industry.

In my case it was the two-body problem and the crash of 2008 leaving limited employment opportunities in the Ann Arbor area. My postdoc was great despite the relatively low salary because of the ancillary benefits, including amazing health insurance. It was incredibly fortunate, considering the state of the economy. Eventually I saw the writing on the wall for academia, and moved on to industry.

Industry which is beset with its own series of problems. For synthetic (non-pharma) chemists, there are a few major companies in specific locations (Dow in Midland MI; 3M in Minneapolis; some east coast areas like upstate NY) and all the rest have moved to overseas. I wound up in aerospace R&D, where I found that technical experts lead the development of new products but get backwatered career-wise. Real salary and career advancement is only possible on the management side, and to remain a technical contributor is to find yourself stagnating and expendable. I was pretty surprised. Pharma is worse, with contract hiring (6 months, 12 months) becoming the norm.

Every career track has its problems, but it's important to be aware of the ones awaiting you. And it's difficult to find these out before starting your graduate career.
posted by Existential Dread at 4:41 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm a postdoc in biomedicine in the Bay Area (AMA, heh).

I am actually getting paid more than I ever expected to be as a postdoc (around $6K above the NIH minimum, but $4k of that is a premium for being a bioinformaticist and only $2k is a cost-of-living increase, which is kind of black comedy if you've ever lived near SF). And I also agree that a postdoc can be a better gig than the salary alone would lead you to believe.

A lot depends on your advisor and the specific lab culture, though. Mine is totally reasonable, but in other labs, the PI may get angry if you skip a Saturday, or if they walk through the lab at 9 pm on a Thursday and don't see you there. (As one example of the thoroughly unreasonable work culture in some academic labs, I know one person who as a graduate student was compelled by their PI to personally courier a grant to DC, as in get in a car and drive for 2-3 hours, after they had both just pulled an all-nighter to finish it.)

This intersects with gendered pressures in a particularly bad way, too. I can deal with not making very much in an expensive city as a single ~30yo dude, though it's not what I'd call "fun", but if I were female and had/wanted kids, I would probably feel differently about my inability to find affordable child care or otherwise "buy time" combined with the pressure to work around the clock, in a position that was intended to be temporary but could actually stretch on for years, and the fear of getting "mommy-tracked" out of a TT position.

I agree, though, that the main problem is not so much individual postdocs being underpaid or exploited, but more with what this type of extremely-heightened competition and poor hiring prospects indicates about the state of biomedicine in the USA. I agree with Marc Kirschner that postdocs are the "canary in the coal mine" here, and I think the real crisis comes back to flatlining NIH funding, which isn't even keeping up with inflation, let alone population expansion. It's not just academic biomedicine that is threatened by this: without the basic research that academic biomedical research provides, the pharma industry is also screwed. While drug development itself is infamously risky, basic biomedical research is yet riskier, which makes it very difficult to do in the private sector -- even in a boom time, but especially given the current belt-tightening in the pharmaceutical industry. Plus I think there is a pretty good argument to be made that this intensely competitive environment is a perverse incentive for oversold, sloppy, and even fraudulent work.

Also, my palms started to sweat a little when I saw who was interviewed for this piece, since I went to grad school with Casey Ydenberg and was trained in the same program (Hi, Casey).
posted by en forme de poire at 5:07 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm on my 4th post-doc appointment (ecology/environmental science), and while I'm in Australia where the salary I'm getting is significantly better than the US numbers quoted above, I really can't complain. When I look at what the "tenured" positions above me, like my supervisor, are spending their time doing (writing grants 60% of the time, arguing with someone about money 30% of the time, trying to do some kind of supervision of the people who are actually doing the science 10% of the time), I have no desire what-so-ever to move up the ladder. I'm pretty good at what I do. I would hate to be doing that stuff. And, here at least, those permanent academic positions aren't really permanent anyway. There's no such thing as real "tenure", as traditionally understood. Permanent positions are all subject to research output reviews - publish less than the required number of papers a year, in the appropriate journals, and you're out on your arse.

As far as I'm concerned, I'm a scientist, I'm doing science, I'm making a contribution, I'm getting paid, and it's fun. I'm as happy as a pig in shit. People need to let go of their egos a bit and quit thinking that because they scored a PhD they can be the next Newton.
posted by Jimbob at 5:12 PM on October 10, 2014


I keep thinking about quitting my IT job and going back to school to attempt a biology-related PhD, simply because the problem space is so fascinating.

Bioinformatics may be one of the safer STEM choices at this time but if you’ve decent IT skills already, I wouldn’t waste time on a further bio degree. There are so many areas where a good understanding of the IT processes completely trumps the need to know the biological details.


Industry which is beset with its own series of problems….Every career track has its problems, but it's important to be aware of the ones awaiting you. And it's difficult to find these out before starting your graduate career.

Very true. My own specific field did not exist in its current form 20 yrs ago. While it is currently considered a highly desirable degree, I already see changes coming that prevent me from allowing others to expect the same career path I’ve had.
posted by beaning at 5:41 PM on October 10, 2014


Job opportunity and funding for the biomedical sciences goes beyond issues with the NIH. My university-based lab performs clinical assays as well as translational research. Hiring that could be supported by the clinical funding rather than the research funding is limited by declining reimbursments from insurers and escalating fees from the university. Not to mention regulations regarding crossing fundstreams. Also “everyone” wants to do research. Why do so few want to sign out routine clinical data?

And a side nod to those professors who refuse to retire, thereby limiting upward mobility and hiring through attrition.
posted by beaning at 5:45 PM on October 10, 2014


en forme de poire:

Bioinformaticists get extra money as a post-doc? I knew I liked the idea of doing that specialty. Did you cross over from the biologist side, or the comp-sci side?

My degree's in biology, but I'm specialized in mycology, phylogenetics, and evolutionary biology. I've thought about doing my doctorate in either evolutionary biology or bioinformatics, but I kind of like the idea of bioinformatics because not too many biologists handle computers well, and I do. On the other hand, most of the bioinformatics people I've met are computer scientists that crossed over into biology, not biologists, and I don't really have much (well, any) formal training in computer science. I'm not sure how much of a problem that would be.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:49 PM on October 10, 2014


Jimbob, it looks like Australian postdocs apparently get around an A$25K/yr bump in salary over their American counterparts. I think a lot of American postdocs would feel a lot better about not being able to get a faculty job if they were getting paid $70K/year instead of $45K and could continue in that type of position long-term (indeed, one of the proposed solutions to this crisis has been exactly this, to incentivize the creation of longer-term research scientist positions that pay better, but it's hard to do that given flatlining funding and a large number of trainees in the USA). Since you acknowledge that this is a "significant" difference I'm not sure why you came to the conclusion that people just need to "let go of their egos?"

Mitrovarr, yeah! It's not a ton and it's not necessarily going to be the case at every institution, but in both places I've worked as a postdoc (I did a very short one at my grad lab) it seemed to be around a $4-6K/yr pay increase to be hired as a bioinformatics postdoc vs. a regular postdoc. I actually got a retroactive pay raise at my latest position because I got put on the "wrong" pay scale initially (best surprise ever). I think this happens because CS-inflected grads tend to have more opportunities on the non-academic job market and it's actually still rarer for outright CS people to even do a postdoc, so there's less competition, but I'm actually not 100% sure what the main drivers of this difference are.

I definitely wouldn't sweat not having a formal CS background at this stage; both of my degrees were actually in biology departments and I took very little CS before grad school. I did around 50% dry lab work in my grad work and was co-advised by someone in the CS department. That worked out really well for me and could for you too; as I'm sure you're aware there is a ton of productive cross talk between bioinformatics and evolutionary biology. PM me if you want to get any more specific advice.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:05 PM on October 10, 2014


Admittedly, I've done OK: after 4 postdocs, I got a permanent job. The problem is that I'll never be able to retire. Too many years at low salary and no benefits.
posted by acrasis at 6:13 PM on October 10, 2014


yeah australian postdoc salaries are pretty awesome, but the cost of living here is way higher than almost anywhere in the USA. Renting a one bedroom apartment in most Australian cities where there is a university is going to cost you about $1600 a month.

I am in the social sciences, so my experience has been a bit different (postdocs are rare and magical things: the feedback I got coming out of a phd is that you shouldn't even bother applying for one until you have a book out. And even that will just get you on the shortlist - you need major grants, at least 10 papers in good journals and so on to be sure to find a postdoc in the humanities or social sciences. People see them as a special opportunity to get to out of teaching for three years to focus purely on research, not as the natural next step from a phd).

But anyway, what I was going to say was that talking to postdocs in stem fields, what I hear over and over is that they actually wish they could stay in postdoc positions for much longer (ideally with some job security, of course) because that's basically the last time in your career you get to do the actual science. Once you get a "proper" position it's all about managing and building a group, writing grant proposals, and doing the administration work that keeps your group functioning. It's like you take the most successful people in a field, and prevent them from doing the stuff they are actually successful at. What the hell, people?
posted by lollusc at 8:30 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


The amount of pay one receives as a STEM postdoc depends strongly on the lab, the PI's department/field, the institution, and -- most importantly -- the grant funding the work. It is by NO MEANS universal that bioinformaticists get a "premium."

[Bona fides: I was a computational biology postdoc, and am now a faculty member running my own comp bio group at a major research university, hiring postdocs.]
posted by Westringia F. at 8:43 PM on October 10, 2014


Renting a one bedroom apartment in most Australian cities where there is a university is going to cost you about $1600 a month.

Heh, I live in San Francisco, where that would actually be substantially below market rate. (Rents have actually gone up since that infographic was made, but still, in most neighborhoods here, the average 1br is $2-3K.)
posted by en forme de poire at 11:43 AM on October 11, 2014


Westringia F., definitely fair, I may have just gotten lucky there. There are literally different payscales at the institution where I work now, though.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:50 AM on October 11, 2014


Scarce and valuable political energy is getting siphoned away from the poor and working poor onto this.

The scientists want to help the poor and the working poor.
Most scientists are liberals, who support policies that help the poor.
Most science pays for itself (through better technology and economic gains).

From Michael Church's blog:
"The Elite has managed to convince Labor that the Gentry (who are open about their cultural elitism, while the Elite hides its social and economic elitism) is the actual “liberal elite” responsible for Labor’s misery over the past 30 years."

In other words: blame the capital-owning .1%, not the postdocs.
posted by sninctown at 6:07 PM on October 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


Westringia F.: The amount of pay one receives as a STEM postdoc depends strongly on the lab, the PI's department/field, the institution, and -- most importantly -- the grant funding the work. It is by NO MEANS universal that bioinformaticists get a "premium."

Yeah, I'm sure it's not, but the fact that they get one anywhere suggests there's high demand. I worry a lot about getting into a specialty with no demand, because I had an absolute hell of a time finding jobs with my master's degree, and that was after I specifically tried to learn skills I thought would make me more employable (PCR and qPCR reaction design, troubleshooting, and analysis). It was especially depressing when I found out that the wildlife/ecology guys, who I thought would have the worst odds of all, had the best opportunities in my area.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:43 AM on October 12, 2014


Too bad?

So postdocs aren't victimized *enough* to deserve your sympathy. Somewhere a Koch brother is pointing and laughing.
posted by kjs3 at 10:55 AM on October 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


This is only sort of on topic, but in all fairness I feel like I should point out that demand is a deeply weird and very trend driven thing in academic science. I really, really hope people continue to be hiring bioinformaticians in 3-4 years but it's entirely possible that we could have a renaissance of old-school molecular biological boolean-style reasoning driven by new techniques, who knows. I think one of the main advantages for bioinformaticians is that you learn skill/tools that are in demand outside of academia and pharma, and so you're not quite as tethered to those two areas.

But ultimately, doing any PhD/postdoc based on its current reputation is going to be risky because tastes can change rapidly, affecting not only current hiring but subsequent funding opportunities, etc. Bioinformatics used to be (and tbh, still is in many places) viewed with more suspicion than excitement by the molbio establishment, just like molecular biologists in turn were viewed as "practicing biochemistry without a license" by the biochemists of their day. It's cute at several decades' remove but much less cute when this type of stuff affects your present-day career.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:45 AM on October 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


I was just about to say something similar, en forme de poire. I hope I'm wrong, but I worry that what looks like a marketable skill now won't be as marketable -- esp outside of academia -- in five or ten years. One of my concerns is that bread-and-butter industry bioinformatics positions may end up going the same way as bread-and-butter coding jobs: it'll be cheaper to ship the raw data overseas for number-crunching than maintain in-house talent. (I do not think this'll happen to academic computational biology positions, but academia in general is contracting as well, making the existence of industry positions vital.) I hope I'm wrong about this, but it's hard to predict.

I hope I don't sound discouraging. If you (Mitrovarr or anyone else) are intrigued by computational biology, by all means pursue it! And feel free to MeMail me if I can offer any advice. I don't think bioinformatics is a bad bet to make, career wise; at the moment it's enjoying a significant heyday (of which the NIH BD2K initiative is a prime example), and the skills will certainly be transferrable even if that declines. Just be aware that the plethora of positions is far from guaranteed, and even now not all such positions are created equal (cf my comment in a previous postdoc crisis thread).
posted by Westringia F. at 1:26 PM on October 12, 2014


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