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Posts Tagged ‘postdoc salary

How to Make a Valuable Postdoctoral Experience: Updating the Model

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By: Aparna Kishor, MD, PhD

       To an outside observer, the scientific enterprise in the US appears to be thriving. The 2016 budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was $31.3 billion. Of this, about 80% was distributed to research projects performed extramurally, pointing to the fact that hundreds of thousands of researchers nationwide, established scientists as well as trainees, benefit from the funding. Although the numbers are somewhat murky, it is likely that over 50% of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers (postdocs) receive some federal funds.

A more granular view of the reality of modern scientific training reveals its true complexity. In The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited, a report on postdoctoral training in the US, the National Academies argue that there are serious issues in the way we train our young scientists today, including those having to do with recognition and compensation, mentorship, and career advising. Fundamentally, although the US has more postdocs than ever before, does this serve the individuals involved?

First some context. For those committed to a career in the biological sciences, the first stage of training is graduate study to acquire technical and field-specific skills, culminating in a PhD. Traditionally, the second is the postdoctoral stage, which provides additional technical experience and preparation for a future career, ideally culminating in a research position. In the US, approximately 65% of those with graduate degrees in the life sciences continue on to a postdoc which is the field with the highest rate of entry. The second highest is in the physical sciences, with only 50%. Although the quotidian experiences of the two may be similar, the graduate and postdoctoral stages are actually quite different, particularly since graduate training tends to have formal requirements and expectations while postdoctoral training, does not. This framework also has distinct benefits for the principle investigators (PIs). A major one is economic: junior scientists are a willing, and in the case of postdocs, highly trained, source of cheap labor (more on this below). On occasion, the work may be done at no cost to the PI if the trainee has funding from another source, although this is becoming proportionally less common.

When the postdoctoral arrangement was established in the early part of the 20th century, the training periods were typically 1-2 year stints in a lab to learn additional skills and consolidate connections in the field. After this, the young researcher would generally transition into an academic position. In the 1970’s, close to 55% of postdocs held tenure or tenure track faculty positions 6 years after completion of their graduate studies. Now, when a postdoc plans for his or her next career move, the situation is not so simple and this has aroused the concern of the National Academies. Partly, the difficulty is due to the number of available academic positions being outstripped by the number of postdocs in the pipeline. Data from 2006 show that only 33% of postdocs had faculty positions 6 years after graduate school and only half of those were tenured or tenure-track. The rest of the explanation lies in the fact that the landscape of the scientific enterprise has evolved.

Most obviously, the demographics of the postdoc community are markedly different from those in the early 20th century resulting in different needs for trainees. As of 2014, women were receiving close to 50% of all life science doctorates awarded in the US. Gender parity at graduation has not carried through to the faculty level (where only approximately 25% of tenured faculty are women). Among the many potential causes for this decline, one is that many women leave the academic track due to the challenges in balancing a career with raising a family. Nonetheless, there are more women at all levels in the sciences than before, indicating that retention may be increased by supporting women during the time that their children are young. Holders of temporary visas comprise another important population, but there are very few concrete data pertaining to them. They obtain close to 25% of all doctorates in the biological sciences, and 80% of those who have jobs after graduation stay in the US. With this, there is significant flux into the system at the postdoc level. As a result, upwards of a third of all biomedical postdocs in the US are foreign nationals primarily from India and China. Since these people have never been counted, the best way to help them meet their goals and the role they play in the US scientific arena are undefined.

Another important change is that postdoctoral training periods have lengthened from 1-2 years to around 4 years. For those who want the training, this timeline extension is believed to be a necessary sacrifice in order to gain entry into the competitive world of academia. Unsurprisingly, the percentage of PIs under 36 has fallen from 18% from 1980 to 3% in 2010. For established investigators, the longer training times are advantageous. Postdoc salaries at research institutions generally amount to less than the combined tuition-plus-stipend package offered to graduate students. After a few years, a postdoc may conduct research at a level equivalent to that of permanent scientific staff but at a fraction of the cost – postdocs pull in anywhere from $40,000 to $49,000 a year, while staff will have full benefits and a salary closer to $80,000 a year. Given this, the challenge is to make a prolonged training period valuable, feasible, and non-exploitative for all who choose it.

Finally, there is growing evidence that a postdoc may not be the right choice for everyone. Most junior scientists feel limited by the now-classic dichotomy between pursuing research in academia and industry. The reality is that many other career options exist, although some are a step or two removed from pure research. These are in areas like consulting, intellectual property, and science policy. Some jobs will provide entry-level incomes greater than a postdoc, and may even lead to career prospects that are more secure than that in research. Entry level salaries for some careers in industry begin at $70,000 and mean salaries in industry can be $40,000 more than that in academia, and the age at first non-academic job is lower than that for academics. Critically, for those wishing to optimize some of these other aspects of their professional advancement, a postdoc may be unnecessary.

Taken together, these developments indicate a need to change the culture surrounding the postdoc. The essence of the National Academies’ recommendation to improve the postdoctoral experience is that the entire scientific community must treat it as a valuable training opportunity instead of basic employment. To this end, the minimum postdoctoral salary should be increased, even beyond the current $47,484.  The improved economics for trainees will have a number of benefits: it will place more value on these individuals, limit the number of postdocs an investigator may hire, perhaps encourage more women to stay in research, and make positions more competitive, lessening their use as a default employment option. Postdocs should also be encouraged to receive individual funds as proof of independence. There is some evidence that postdocs on their own fellowships are more satisfied than those funded by their lab, although it seems likely that people more committed to a career as a researcher are the ones most likely to apply for fellowships. Additionally, those who receive early career grants are more likely to receive independent investigator grants and faculty appointments. Finally, there is an argument for more staff positions as a measure to keep postdoctoral opportunities as dedicated training experiences.

For now, it is important for each researcher to decide whether it is in his or her best interest to embark on the postdoctoral route. Fortunately, career advising is increasingly available to trainees at all levels and the NIH and other groups have issued mentorship guidelines for postdocs. Overall, the entire scientific community must assist in returning value to a postdoc and in meaningful career development for all trainees.

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 10, 2017 at 9:56 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 31, 2016

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By: Emily Petrus, Ph.D.

Biomedical Research Salaries

Higher Salary for Postdocs Coming Soon

What do a Metrobus driver and a recent biomedical PhD graduate in have in common? Their salary! Although both positions are important to keeping society moving forward, figuratively or literally speaking, one can imagine the disparity between the educational time commitment between these two positions.

New rules set forth by the US Department of Labor dictate that employees with annual salaries falling below $47,476 must be paid overtime for hours they work beyond 40 hours per week.  Research scientists who have recently (typically within 5 years) received a PhD in biomedical sciences will undergo additional training before the next step in their career, similar to residency among medical school graduates.  These highly skilled postdoctoral researchers are called postdocs, and they fall below this threshold, with an average starting salary of $45,000.

This gives research organizations such as academic universities and the National Institutes of Health two options: track the hours their postdocs log at the bench and pay them overtime, or raise the base salary above the threshold.  Because scientific research rarely falls neatly into a 9-5 time table, NIH director Francis Collins is leading the NIH to increase postdoc pay to avoid logging hours for overtime pay.  Most academic research labs follow NIH guidelines for postdoc salary, so the NIH’s commitment to increase their pay should spill over into most other areas of biomedical research.  In a recent article penned by Collins and Thomas Perez, the U.S. Secretary of Labor, they called on the nation to “embrace the fact that increasing the salary threshold for postdocs represents an opportunity to encourage more of our brightest young minds to consider choosing careers in science.”

Although these salary increases will increase the pressure on labs already struggling with tight funding, it may serve as an incentive for future generations to choose biomedical research careers over driving a Metrobus. (Beryl Lieff Benderly, Science Articles)

Chemical Safety

United States poised to approve major chemical safety overhaul

Did you know that companies can use new chemicals in their products without demonstrating their safety for consumers or the environment? How about that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot ask them to remove it until they demonstrate toxicity, which requires a costly amount of research and legislative action? If this sounds backwards to you, take heart: the House of Representatives has approved a long overdue overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  This measure is expected to be approved by the Senate and President Obama with the next few months.

The TSCA was originally passed in 1976, and contains wording difficult for environmentalists, consumers, and even industry to follow. The original act required the EPA to consider regulatory costs during safety review, effectively reducing the importance of science-based research into chemical safety for consumers and the environment while favoring regulatory cost saving measures. It also made toxicity testing difficult by the EPA by requiring the minimal (“least burdensome”) amount of testing instead of full-fledged studies. The new TSCA will enable the EPA to order companies to prove chemicals are safe for consumers and/or the environment before introducing them to the marketplace, to hopefully avoid another issue such as the widespread use of asbestos in construction until the 1970’s.

Other components of the revised TSCA include an emphasis on reducing numbers of animals used in toxicity studies by replacing them with other testing methods when possible. The act also aims to identify and increase studies on “cancer clusters,” areas of the country which have higher incidences of cancer which may be due to environmental effects.

The revision of the TSCA is arguably the biggest environmental legislative success since the Clean Air Act amendment of the 1990’s. By containing clearer language, it makes the act “a careful compromise that’s good for consumers, good for jobs, and good for the environment” – said John Shimkus (R-IL). (Puneet Kollipara, ScienceInsider)

Mental Health

Children in Poverty at Risk for Increased Incidence of Mental Health Issues

Is it the chicken or the egg?  When it comes to mental health and poverty, it can be difficult to determine causation versus correlation: are mentally unstable people unable to provide for themselves, or is the stress of poverty causing mental health issues?  A recent study in children has determined a third genetic component to the puzzle, related to how the structure of DNA differs between poor and healthy children.

Although it has long been known that children from families below the poverty line have increased incidences of mental and physical ailments such as depression and diabetes, many have pointed to environmental factors such as relatives smoking or poor nutrition as the main culprits. New evidence suggests exposure to stress in utero and during childhood changes the very DNA of these children. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter important for maintaining “happy” brain chemistry and is often targeted for treating depression. New researchers found that the DNA for a serotonin transporter protein is altered in poor children, which may decrease the amount of serotonin allowed to get into brain cells. This was also correlated with higher levels of stress, indicating that growing up in poverty can change fundamental biological components and create lifetime mental health issues for these children.

Growing up in poverty is stressful for children; however there are ways to attenuate their suffering.  High quality, affordable, preschool and childcare is one way the government can step up to the plate.  “Headstart” is a program which enables children of families below the federal poverty line to enjoy a stimulating, warm environment and may reduce the burden of their families to choose between working and providing for their families or staying home to avoid daycare expenses. There are a multitude of issues creating stressful environments for poor families, but providing high quality child care and healthy meals for kids for part of the day is a small investment towards a big, epigenetic payoff in generations to come. (Sara Reardon, Nature News)

Have an interesting science policy link?  Share it in the comments!

Written by sciencepolicyforall

May 31, 2016 at 12:00 pm