Federal research agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health tout postdoctoral positions as valuable for those pursuing scientific careers. However, a new study by Boston University Questrom School of Business (Questrom) and University of Kansas researchers has found that postdoc jobs don’t yield a positive return in the labor market, and that these positions likely cost graduates roughly three years worth of salary during the first 15 years of their careers.
“A majority of biomedical PhDs enters postdocs that last an average of four years. These scientists hope that the postdoc will propel them into their ideal career in tenure-track academia. The problem is that 80 percent of them will have made this investment for naught and will be sorely disappointed,” says Shulamit Kahn, a Questrom associate professor of markets, public policy, and law. “They would be much better off if they moved directly into the same industry or staff scientist jobs that they will end up working in anyway.”
The researchers say their study is the first to compare later careers of otherwise comparable biomedical PhDs, some with postdoc experience and those without. They examined biennial longitudinal data from the 1981 to 2013 waves of the NSF Survey of Doctorate Recipients matched to the 1980 to 2013 NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates.
“Ours is the first study to document the opportunity cost of taking a postdoc on the subsequent career outcomes of former postdocs. We show that the cost, in terms of foregone earnings, is very high,” the researchers say.
The problem is not just that the median annual starting salary for postdocs during their first four years after earning a doctorate was $44,724, in inflation-adjusted 2013 dollars, compared with $73,662 for those who directly entered the workforce. It was also that after they completed their postdocs, on average these scientists earn the same entry-level salary that they would have received if they’d skipped the postdoc altogether.
“We find a substantial financial penalty for starting biomedical careers in a postdoc. Those differences accumulate,” the researchers say. Controlling for all factors, the 10-year post-PhD salaries of those who started in a postdoc averaged $12,002 lower than those who skipped postdocs, the research reports.
Kahn hopes this information will help PhD recipients make more informed choices at graduation, weighing the 20 percent chance of tenure-track jobs against the financial and personal advantages of starting their careers four years earlier in life. She also expressed the hope that PhD programs and professors educate themselves and their students about the variety of research jobs inside and outside of academia that don’t require postdocs.
“The current system of postdoctoral training benefits the postdocs’ supervisors, mentors, their institutions, and funding agencies by providing them with highly educated labor willing to work long hours to produce cutting-edge science at low cost,” say the researchers. “Meanwhile, the present system entails significant foregone-income costs to individual PhDs and may discourage the best and brightest from pursuing careers in biomedical science in favor of alternatives like medicine and finance with shorter training periods and better pay.”