economics of science?

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economics of science?

Postby Emil Chuck » Fri Feb 18, 2005 4:23 pm

Well, the stipend levels being so low for postdocs is justified as the fact we as postdocs are being "trained." After many years of fighting the terminology that postdocs are really "apprentices" or "trainees", what postdocs really want is to be appreciated as "peers". Granted, junior-level peers, but peers and researchers nevertheless.

"I remember when we had to run our HPLC on this rig that took up half of the room... and we liked it." :)

Actually low salaries are truly justified in what is perceived to be a buyer's market. Postdocs in engineering for example can be paid up to $50-60K (we have a max report here at Duke of a postdoc paid at $72K) because if they paid engineering postdocs the same level as the NIH standard, no one would fill the spots. Granted it ought to tick off the assistant profs at Duke that a postdoc would be paid higher than the minimum assistant t-t professor (I think high $50 low $60K).

It has been debated for the last few years, is it good to chop down on the number of postdoc positions? What effect would this truly have on the research enterprise?
Emil Chuck
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economics of science?

Postby Emil Chuck » Fri Feb 18, 2005 4:41 pm

I think we're preaching to the converted when we vent our frustrations that others need to snap out of the "Ph.D. entitlement" mentality. Maybe in some cases things did "come easy" when it came to discovering a new finding, presenting it, and publishing it. What bugs the heck out of me is that neither postdocs nor faculty do anything to really help promote awareness of the difficulties of the academic job search or career. We say so much about how the postdoctoral period is "the best period of one's scientific career", but clearly we don't promote the postdoc as a career (and we shouldn't). So what is a postdoc? It's basically being a "teenage" or "tweener" scientist. You're not "old enough" to be a tenure-track scientist and write your own grants, but you're not a graduate student either and be an exploited teaching assistant.

How many of us really liked the junior high/senior high years of our lives when we wanted to assert our independence from our parents/guardians but couldn't because we weren't mature enough? Unlike the teenage years though, there is potentially no time limit for you to stay in the "teenage scientist" world of a postdoc, but I think that's what many postdocs expect. I don't think any of us want to be treated like teenagers for more than 4-6 years.

Personally I think that whatever powers that be in each department and program that wants to truly train postdocs for academic careers should make it possible for postdocs to be more involved in department administration. What is it really like to sit in on a faculty meeting? How about a discussion looking at potential job candidates? I outright ask why postdocs are not included in university committees governing the policies on research here (we got someone to be on the libraries usage committee back at Case). If you begin to treat postdocs as colleagues both finanically and culturally, you can truly train and develop high-level talent that would be competitive for the few t-t spots that there are. Postdocs are only warm bodies as long as they are treated and considered such.
Emil Chuck
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economics of science?

Postby Ken » Fri Feb 18, 2005 4:51 pm

I don't think the answer is to chop the number of postdoc positions, but the number of graduate student positions.

Graduate school is the bottom of the pyramid. Basically, Harvard can pay a BS level person 20 K per year despite the fact that that person's earning potential may be somewhere around 35 or 40 K if they did somthing else with their degree. What Harvard gives to the BS level person in return, is the degree (20K stipend + Harvard degree = 35-40K), which is the credibility to continue on the research tract. What Harvard gets is decreased cost of labor to carry out experiments.

Now, since it is no skin off Harvard's (sorry to pick on Harvard) back to give a degree, they can employ 100 graduate students for the same price as about 60 or 70 technicians. So, Harvard has an incentive to "hire" graduate students to carry out its researcher's experiments.

But, wait, there are non-Harvard level schools as well that want to put out research as well. They can't attract the same students as Harvard because what they give in return (the degree from the sub-Harvard school) is of lesser value. So, they get decreasingly qualified students. And the further down the chain of graduate schools you go, the lower the value of the degree, and the lower the qualifications of the students (also sorry for the sweeping generalizations which obviously have exceptions).

The point of this is, that there is a falsely inflated size of the workforce of graduate students out there because the universities are able to give degrees in lieu of salary. Degrees are essentially costless to the university. While obviously it costs something to educate graduate students, adding an additional 20 or 30 graduate students per year doesn't add much to the total cost.

This allows the academic system to employ more graduate students than they would be able to if they were forced to pay market value for that BS level scientist. So, there is a falsely inflated graduate student workforce; there are too many graduate students. That leads to too many postdocs.

Now, I agree with Dave that there is no conspiracy. There were no elderly men sitting in a room, tenting their fingers and thinking of ways to hinder the careers of young scientists. But, when the universities agreed to take X number of graduate students, it has a responsibility to make sure they are qualified. If a lower tier school can't attract qualified students, it should not be able to issue degrees.

Long post, I know, but I've been thinking about this all day.
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economics of science?

Postby Madison » Fri Feb 18, 2005 6:03 pm

I agree with Ken's post. I interviewed for faculty positions at several schools that didn't have "biology and biomedical sciences" grad programs funded by university training grants, but they were still departmental-based and students were funded by the PIs. These departments were crawling with grad students! We're talking 4-6 grad students for each PI. And because there were so many, all the faculty had to teach grad-level classes each year. It was terrible - like they were admitting students just to get warm bodies in their labs. Why didn't they just hire techs? Anyway, there is little hope that 1 student per year would eventually become tt faculty. So, what will happen to all these Ph.Ds? Perhaps the solution is to stop admitting foreign citizens to US grad programs. This would certainly decrease the total number of people doing science in this country. But would we really be worse off? The PIs would have more time to spend with each student, so perhaps the quality would go up, and maybe there would be little change in the amount of productivity per lab.

economics of science?

Postby Kim » Fri Feb 18, 2005 7:36 pm

I think we need to define Asian Americans here to have any meaningful discussion. I would define here the first generation of Asian American as: he/she was born in the US and at least one of his/her parents was born overseas. I am not sure if the US government has a different definition.

Keep in mind that Asian Americans are relatively new immigrants in the US. The Immigration Acts under Lyndon B Johnson administration brought waves of immigrants from Asia and completely changed the demography of the US population. In our current population, there are very few Asian Americans who have been here for more than three generations.

I think the phenomenon Emil talks about is not necessarily and specifically Asian Americans. The issue has to do with the dynamics in a community with mostly recent immigrants. In any community of recent immigrants, financial security is the first priority. The pursuit of personal fullfillment and happiness are the luxuries that are treated with comtempt and indifference.

Foriegn Asian students, however, are in a completely different category. For them, coming to the US as a science/engineering students is the easiest way to realize their American dreams.
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economics of science?

Postby AR » Fri Feb 18, 2005 7:45 pm

Not only are universities able to give degrees in lieu of salaries they also are able to offer visas and the possibility of the almighty green card to international workers.

Issuing visas are essentially costless to universities. Whatever cost they do occur they simply pass on the visa holder in the form of lower salaries which the visa takers will gladly accept because? well let?s just say they do.

This allows the academic system to employ far more post docs than they would be able to if they were forced to pay market value for that post doc level scientist.

I too do not believe in a conspiracy. I do think that the university system and the business community that profits off of them know where their bread is buttered, cheap foreign labor. This necessitates an endless supply of ?uniquely qualified? ummmm ?scientists? lobbied to enter the work force.

A word to the wise, I?m able to post this due to the anonymity of the forum. Saying anything like this in a university setting will have you instantly labeled as a racist/xenophobe.


Sociology of science!

Postby Jeanne » Fri Feb 18, 2005 8:27 pm


I think you're see a position effect at Duke as to Asians and Asian-Americans in research science. In the U. California system, there are a good many Asian-Americans on undergrad and grad student levels.

Though it is telling that with the very true emphasis Asian families have on job security and income, there are a heck of alot more Asian-Americans in professional school (med, dental etc) .. which essentially means that they don't pay scientists enough to attract alot of the top-scoring people.

Science used to be full of Jewish students; now the'ye professors. But I look around and I am maybe the only Jewish student of 65 in my umbrella program. It's simple: science doesn't pay.

As I have said previously, yes, if you're not a professor or a top-flight postdoc or grad student (most of us are not), you're a peon, a robot. It's all about economics.

The real question is: Why does society pay for science?

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economics of science?

Postby Ken » Fri Feb 18, 2005 8:45 pm

I just wanted to follow up, and post the upside to the current situation in science. As has been noted, graduate school has increased in time over the past fifteen or so years and the postdoc has gone from an optional year or two to a mandatory 4+ years.

But, we also have many more options now than we did twenty years ago. With the advance of the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, you don't have to choose between that academic life or working at Walmart (as has been alluded to on this forum). At any point after graduate school, you can cash in your chips, and leave the ivory tower. You give up your shot at the Nobel prize, but the jobs are there.
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economics of science?

Postby E.J. » Sat Feb 19, 2005 1:19 am

Thanks for clarifying the situation more clearly. Actually, the last portion of my post was not very clear since I was writing this around midnight. I'm not saying the "conspiracy theory" is a product of industry, but that of academia. I think a few of the later post support this perspective (e.g. Ken). Also, I didn't mean to make the post sound negative, it is more due to a response of shock in learning how the system works after spending the past couple weeks learning about career paths for PhDs.

In reply to Kevin's post. I totally agree with you that one of the benefits of being in the program is the enjoyment of learning and developing the systematic thinking process. However, from personal experience I believe that many grad students are entering the programs with the hope of financial success and job stability rather than for the challenge of learning. They also seem to be oblivious to the career path in academia. Here is an example of two encounters I have had with students:

1) A student is complaining about the overwhelming difficulty of her project. She complains to me that she could've went to work under a less established faculty member (the PI in our lab is well respected in his field and established) and worked on an easier project and still get the same degree with less effort. She believes the degree itself will entitle her to a good academic position. She is unaware of how everyone with a Ph.D. degree is in the same boat and the only thing that distinguishes you from the pack is which lab you did your research in and what you publish.

2) During lunch another student discusses her future career plans. She would like to go the academic route and obtain a research staff position, but not do the post-doc. It took myself and another grad student half an hour to explain to her that this "research staff" position is the post-doc!

So yes there are students in the programs who are unaware of the need to do a post-doc if they plan a career in academia.



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