Biomedicine Postdocs: What you need to know

Shulamit Kahn

(BOSTON) – Federal research agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, tout postdoctoral positions as valuable for those pursuing for scientific careers.

However, a new study by Questrom School of Business 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 in their first 15 years of their careers.

“A majority of biomedical PhDs enter postdocs that last an average of 4 years.  These scientists hope that the postdoc will propel them into their ideal career in tenure track academia.  The problem is that 80% of them are going to have made this investment for naught and will be sorely disappointed.” said Shulamit Kahn, professor at the Questrom School of Business. “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 study by Kahn and co-author Donna Ginther, professor of economics at the University of Kansas, is published today in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

The researchers said their study is the first to compare later careers of otherwise comparable biomedical PhDs, some who had postdoc experience and those who didn’t. They examined biennial longitudinal data from the 1981 to 2013 waves of the National Science Foundation Survey of Doctorate Recipients matched to the 1980-2013 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 said.

The problem is not just that the median annual starting salary during postdocs their first four years after earning their 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 get the same entry-level salary that they would have gotten if they’d skipped the postdoc

“We find a substantial financial penalty for starting biomedical careers in a postdoc. Those differences accumulate,” the researchers said. 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 graduates make more informed choices at graduation, weighing the 20 percent chance of a tenure-track job against the financial and personal advantages of starting their career 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,” said Kahn. “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.”

The study suggests ways that universities and funding agencies could address these issues, including:

  • Universities hiring staff research scientists to assist tenured faculty with their research instead of postdocs.
  • Paying postdocs more to reduce the reliance of faculty on “cheap” labor.
  • Instituting term limits on postdoc positions to encourage researchers to start in permanent positions sooner rather than later.
  • Academic departments could consider tenure-track hires for the top new graduates allowing them to bypass conventional postdoc jobs.

“This may allow young researchers to direct their own research perhaps in more creative directions,” the researchers said.

The complete study, “The impact of postdoctoral training on early careers in biomedicine,” is available on Nature Biotechnology.


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