Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Just think a happy thought...

There are a lot of people chiming in on this article in Science encouraging postdocs to "think happy thoughts": Happy Thoughts May Help Postdocs Handle Stress by Rachel Bernstein.

The hashtag to follow on twitter is, #postdochappythoughts. Really, go check it out.

Certainly there is something to be said for trying to be optimistic, and realistic about the challenges in academia. It is useful to realize that we may, regardless of status, often feel like impostors. But that doesn't mean that there aren't real problems with the academic machine that need to be addressed. There just so many things that you can't "happy thought" your way out of in academia, during graduate school, postdoctoral work, or even as a PI.

Just a few:

I'm at a transition point now. I am finishing my postdoc, and will be starting a tenure track position this Fall (yes, I realize how very lucky I am to be in this position). As I'm preparing for my position as a PI, I'm working to recruit postdoctoral researchers to work with me. I've already talked about making expectations and responsibilities clear for all parties involved in my lab, starting with a clear set of expectations on my web site.

But, there's another aspect that that I am surprised to have run into. Talking with several PIs about recruiting postdocs, I have received this advice (paraphrased):
"Don't offer to pay your postdocs too much. I'd suggest going with the bare minimum. You want to make sure you save money for other projects and other people."



I think this is exactly what @27andaphd is talking about here:
So, what do I think about it?

As a PI, I either have enough funding to pay a fair salary to my lab members, or I don't have enough funding to hire them.

This includes paying for health, dental, and vision insurance. It also includes budgeting money for moving expenses. Why would I want to hire someone, who I view as both a trainee and a colleague, and not care about their well-being?

That brings up a bigger question, though, "What is a fair salary?" Partly what constitutes a fair salary is dependent on location. I think a good rule of thumb, and what I plan to do, is to, at a minimum, follow the NIH salary guidelines. In an area like Berkeley, however, the NIH salary guidelines would still be too low.

No, happy thoughts cannot make postdoc life better. PI's and administrations who give a damn about quality of life will make postdoc life better.


mathguy said...

"Don't offer to pay your postdocs too much. I'd suggest going with the bare minimum. You want to make sure you save money for other projects and other people."

That one floored me. Wow. I cannot believe how cruel people can sometimes be.

mathbionerd said...

I was surprised. It seemed like it was genuinely intended to be good advice. :-/

Amit said...

Do PIs think they will attract the best people if they pay the minimum? Also, if you live in city with high living expenses, the NIH pay scale is not enough.

mathbionerd said...

1. I think established PIs don't have to offer more than the minimum to recruit people.
2. Agreed completely. Funny that the NIH scale would be difficult for ppl working at the NIH.

Mark P said...

Living with limited means is a challenge. However, as a calibration--I sometimes wonder whether most scientists understand how the majority of folks in the US live.

Median household income in the US in 2012=$51371

NIH Stipend year 0=$42,000

NIH Stipend year 4=$49,128

I also used an online inflation calculator to get the 2014 equivalent of the value of my $34,000 starting salary as an assistant professor = $58,200

Likewise my year 0 NIH NRSA stipend of $16,500 in 1988 = $33,857 in 2014 dollars so postdoc salaries have increased significantly faster than inflation.

Dylan B Storey said...

This all comes back to the mindset that that post-docs are just graduate students who you don't need to let go to class or train.

Until it becomes common practice for PIs to train and hire Junior specialists instead of using PhD holders as lab technicians this will continue.

Amit said...

See this story on postdoc policies: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v511/n7510/full/nj7510-500a.html

"Less than two-thirds of US institutions say that their postdoctoral researchers earn at least the US National Institutes of Health-recommended minimum of US$39,264, a survey has found. Health-care benefits are available to postdocs working as employees under a principal investigator's grant at some 95% of responding institutions, but less than two-thirds offer such benefits to those classified as trainees or on fellowships."

Mark P said...

PS Dylan's point is a good one--these should be required. Our institution mandates paying NIH minimum and I have done so since before this was required. All of my postdocs have their health insurance covered by their own fellowship of my grant.

Adam Retchless said...

As a selfish issue, PIs/universities need to pay postdocs enough that they aren't distracted by making ends meet. Every minute spent clipping coupons or dealing with sub-par housing is a minute not spent thinking about science.

But just as important as the $ amount is to have an administrative system that allows postdocs to get on with their lives and their work -- no forgetting about raises that are due, no dragging feet on making the employment offer official, no health insurance plan that fights patients at every step, etc.

Regarding the comparison of post-doc salaries to the US median -- scientists are not average workers. First, they have often payed a lot of money for their education (either directly or through not working at a real job). Second, the job requires a level of commitment that the most median-paying jobs don't -- constant attention and a willingness to relocate for the next job.

Regardless of whether the pay is fair, if academic science is going to continue to be a profession (like engineering, medicine, law, accounting, etc.), the institutions need to pay postdocs enough that they don't have to worry about making ends meet, even if they have kids. Otherwise, academic "careers" will be limited to people who are independently wealthy or willing to live like a monk.

Fun fact: with Seattle's new $15 minimum wage, a full time minimum wage worker will make more than most grad student stipends around the country (including those at UW in Seattle)