July 2010

The Current Postdoctoral Experience

 

An overview of current postdoctoral demographics and the challenges faced by many of today’s postdocs. (Titled "Uphill, Both Ways, In the Snow" in print version.)

 

Education
Table 1. Purchasing power of $37,740 in 2010 dollars in 5-year decrements.

The current generation of postdoctoral fellows is often reminded what it used to be like “back in the day.” Just as postdocs tell graduate students how it was when they were in their shoes, mentors and principal investigators like to remind postdocs how things were when they were postdocs. These discussions bring up several questions about the demographics and the current challenges for today’s postdocs.

Postdoc Salaries — For Love of Science, not for Love of the Benjamins

The number of postdoctoral positions has expanded greatly over the past few decades— before 1972, 31 percent of people who graduated with science and engineering degrees did a postdoctoral fellowship, while 46 percent of 2002— 2005 graduates did one (1). The number is especially high for postdoctoral fellowships in the life and physical sciences, with approximately 60 percent of graduates in these areas doing a fellowship. The number of postdocs in the biomedical sciences has grown from approximately 7,000 in 1972 to over 30,000 in 2002 (2).

Organizations such as the National Science FoundationSigma Xi and the National Postdoctoral Association constantly are compiling data on the postdoctoral population. In its 1995 survey, the NSF found postdocs had a median salary of $28,000. In 2005, a Sigma Xi survey found a median salary of $38,000 (3). Similarly, the most recent data from the NSF lists median salaries for academic postdocs at $40,000. Currently, the National Institutes of Health’s minimum guideline for entry-level postdoctoral stipends is $37,740. To put this in perspective, we can evaluate purchasing power using the consumer price index. Table 1 shows what the estimated purchasing power of $37,740 in 2010 dollars would have been in 5-year decrements, back to 1975.

The current stipend level is too low. It is refreshing that the Obama administration has recognized this disparity, and the NPA and other organizations are pleased to support the current proposed 6 percent increase in NIH postdoctoral stipend levels. However, even with these changes, the postdoc is underpaid, one-third less than equivalent recent doctoral degree holders (1), compared to any workforce with a similar level of education.

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