Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Advancing a diminishing payscale

Yesterday, someone told me about a new, old idea. I don't know whose idea it was, and I wasn't sure how to find it online, because I don't know what it's actually called. I'm calling it a 'diminishing payscale' for discussion purposes.

The idea is, pay assistant professors the most, and senior soon-to-be-emeritus professors the least.

Here's the logic:
1. Assistant professors are the most energetic and work the hardest. They also need money the most, so they can buy a home and start having kids (assuming we think increasing the next generation of scientists is a good thing!).

2. Instead of actually increasing in productivity as we get older, our peak is when we're postdocs/assistant professors, and after that it's all downhill.

3. Maybe we'd give people tenure right away, or they'd never agree to a system like this.

4. Older people have fewer expenses, and if they're making less and less each year, it would encourage them to retire rather than hang onto their positions.

I think it's a great idea, but as usual, it's not obvious how it could be implemented at this late date. I've met a few older professors and while some say "yeah, we need to get out of the way so you guys can have lab space", most are terrified of retiring and wouldn't rather work until they die than take up golfing. Personally I can't imagine our generation feeling that way, I think we'll be more than happy to retire if money is not an issue, but maybe that's just my own preference. I can't wait to retire!



At 1:15 PM, Blogger dlamming said...

wow, what a terrible idea.

a)what is productivity? I've seen PI's working in other labs during a sabatical, and they are extremely productive. Just because professors don't work in the lab most of the time, doesn't mean they couldn't - it just means they have different work to do. Like getting money for everyone else.

b) you think someone who's 30-40 needs the money the most? the real money crunch comes when its time for college.

At 1:41 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Hmm. Makes me wonder how old YOU are.

Seriously though, PIs on sabbatical are not the same as what PIs do most of the time. All the PIs I've seen on sabbatical are way too out of touch with current techniques to get anything done besides learning to appreciate what their slave laborers actually do all day long.

PIs on sabbatical spend most of their time either a) trying to persuade other people in the lab to do things for them, or b) trying to remember how to do the most basic things, nevermind c) learning 'new' techniques like, say, how to use recombinant DNA and do molecular cloning.

And yes, I think someone who is 30-40 needs money. The benefit of this system, which you must have overlooked, is that if you have more money than you need early on, you can invest it. Whereas if you have less money than you need early on, you never invest it and you're always living hand-to-mouth. The idea with investments is that they gather momentum over time. No point in making lots of money right before you die!

In this system, senior people will have plenty of savings and interest and dividends earned by the time they're being paid less salary. It doesn't mean they'll have no money in the bank.

At 2:57 PM, Blogger dlamming said...

Younger than you, actually.

Well, the PI on sabatical in my lab is incredible. Expensive, but he's doing awesome work, and teaching other people how to do cool techniques. And he's not using anyone for labor.

I don't believe in living hand-to-mouth - but I do believe in living within your means. As I talked about a little, a family of two postdocs (unless they are very unlucky) makes well above the median salary, even in the Boston area. Now, I grant you, a lot of the country lives in poverty - so raising that minimum needs to happen. But two postdocs should be able to afford a nice apartment, even a car. Heck, one postdoc family I know bought a condo, a car, and are expecting their first kid. I doubt they'll be eating out all the time, but they will/are saving for retirement. 70k is plenty for starting a family, and if one or both of those people move over to a company or become faculty, they should be all set for the future.

So, a totally serious question - why are so many postdocs crying poverty?

At 3:18 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Ahh. I remember when I was like you.

I had it beaten out of me.

The reason postdocs are 'crying poverty', as you so disdainfully put it, is that we know what we're worth, and we know we're not getting it.

Yes, most of us went into science knowing we wouldn't make much money.

Then we watched our friends, one by one, decide they'd had enough and go off to industry where they're making double what we make for doing the same thing in academia, except we work longer hours and get less respect, no benefits, and no retirement. Oh yeah, and the length of time to get a job, even in industry, keeps being extended. So why don't we deserve to be treated well now?

Yes, the old guys got paid a lot less as postdocs, but they only had to do it for 1-2 years, and they spent less time in grad school. Most of the people I've worked for had already had their own lab for two years by the time they were my age, and I'm looking at a minimum of two more years of postdoc before I can really be competitive to have one.

Look at your friends from college who studied engineering, for example, and you'll see what I mean.

The other reason, as I've mentioned before, is that people are much more productive when they don't have to worry about maintenance issues. At work, we're stressed to the limit, so we have to wonder whether having zero stress at home would help. I think it would.

At 3:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! I'll tell you why postdocs are crying poverty:

As a postdoc, I make $36K a year, but I only see $23K of that because 33% of my income goes to taxes, social security (or flushed down a toilet), and health insurance premiums.

Near the prestigious scientific university where I work, it costs a minimum of $1000 per month to rent a crappy one-bedroom apartment in the ghetto. I doubt I could get a mortage for a condo- condos around here start at $500,000.

My food, bought at "Food for Less" (how ghetto is that!), costs about $5.2K per year. Maybe I shouldn't eat so much.

I have other expenses too: like car insurance, gas, utility bills, toilet paper, toothpaste etc.

Oh, about that happy postdoc family you know- I'm willing to bet that their parents are footing some of their bills because they want grandbabies.

At 4:53 PM, Blogger dlamming said...

Ms. Phd, I definitely know people my age who went into engineering and are making six figures. Heck, I knew people who graduated from college directly into jobs making six figures. And that's not counting the few people I know who worked for dotcoms while still in college, during the boom, who become millionaires because they cashed out before the crash. If anyone needs proof that the world isn't fair, that's an example for sure.

But on to Anonymous - as I said, I don't want to be preachy. But... everybody has to pay taxes. Social security payments are not down the gutter. Moreover, here are apartments near where I live. You won't find a studio for under 900, and you won't find a one bedroom for under 1200. So what should you do? What do I do, for that matter? Find a roommate or live somewhere cheap and commute. Better still, do both. Yea, I understand you might be a postdoc and you don't want to live with someone anymore, but seriously, a two-bedroom is so much more cost effective. It's a tradeoff, just like getting your PhD in the first place... or deciding to become a postdoc.

At 8:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the "we know what we're worth" comment is a little off. You know what you're worth to a company in an industry that wants PhDs, but that doesn't translate into worth as an academic postdoc. There's a huge offer of postdocs in academics and there's always someone willing to take your place at your current salary. You're in science because you love science... or is it because when you go through the system you're taught that anything else is failure and who wants to fail?

I also find myself agreeing with dlamming. Many people seem to want a lot more than they need. I live with my partner, also a graduate student, in a small comfortable apartment. We eat what we want, go out pretty regularly, and travel (not just to conferences!). That's not to say a serious illness (even with insurance) couldn't ruin us financially, but hey, this is the US afterall:

At 12:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also agree with the last anonymous comment. my partner and I are both science graduate students and get along fine on both our stipends in the boston area, renting a decent place, going out to eat occasionally, and doing some non-work traveling. we don't have expensive tastes in clothes, cars, or most other things and manage to put away money in our IRAs every year. yes, we could be making more money but honestly I feel privileged that we have the opportunity to be doing science at all. think for a moment what a historically unique situation this is- only about 50 yrs old in this country- where the government invests a tremendous amount in scientific research and allows us the freedom to have such an intellectually rewarding career.
having said that I do think class background can have something to do with whether you see grad student/postdoc salaries as enough to live on. my partner and I both have comfortably middle-upper middle class parents, so we do have that safety net. I might look at things differently if that extra layer of security wasn't there.

At 12:38 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

I'm with the person who makes $36k from the government on paper, but pays 33% of it back to the government in taxes, social security, and other bullshit. The effective take-home pay is actually not much.

I think it's deplorable that science is so classist and exclusive to individuals who can:

a) rely on their families to support them

b) be independent to the extreme of not having to worry about supporting their aging parents or sick relatives.

We're losing a lot of smart, incredibly hard-working people because they have to get jobs that allow them to send money home to their divorced moms to help put their little brother through college. And so on.

It's all fine and good to assume that we're being selfish wanting a living wage, but when you really think about it, you people who are saying we should 'make do' on shitty salaries are the selfish, spoiled lot who come from upper middle-class families. How nice for you!

At 1:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

value is the price determined between a willing seller and a willing buyer. if you agreed to your postdoc salary, you deserve it. end of story. there are always creative ways to 'enhance' any salary and stay within the rules of an institution, the NIH, ethical guidelines, etc. but these issues need to be negotiated before you start working for someone.

and besides, who said you have to be in Boston or California? That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. there are plenty of world class labs around the country (and throughout the world) where the cost of a starter home is within reach of a postdoc (or even grad student) salary. you have put so many constraints on what you think you need to be happy that you will end up miserable.

I think I suggested both children's books and the x-prize. If you look at the history of the first x-prize, you'll see that a lot of different groups entered - sure the guy who won probably built up the best support base, but so what? the other people found money to support their efforts, too. sure, none of the other groups got the big money, but none of them went bankrupt while they worked on their dream project. As for writing a children's book, you should try working in a totally different field - see how hard it is to make it there. Doesn't matter what the field is. Life is hard all around. At least you get paid to be at the bench.

defining productivity as the amount of data that comes directly from your hands is a surefire way to stay working 100 hours a week throughout your career. Especially if you want to be a PI. If you want to be at an academic institution you will have students, postdocs and techs to do the bench work and your job will practically cease to be at the bench as you become responsible for facilitating the work of others. Bottom line is I think you will hate that, so why continue to pursue it.

At 1:44 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

"there are plenty of world class labs around the country (and throughout the world) where the cost of a starter home is within reach of a postdoc (or even grad student) salary."

Working on what? Don't you think working on something you're really passionate about matters the most? Some of us are stuck with very limited real estate if we want to stay in our field of interest for all those 100 hours a week at the bench.

Which I don't do, btw, anymore. Frankly I don't enjoy benchwork like I used to, it gets tedious and repetitive and I'm ready to supervise people and move more into the idea domain of things. I'm not learning at anywhere the rate I should be, at this point. And I'm efficient enough, after all these years, not to have to put in that much time unless I really want to. And I don't want to if I'm not learning enough new things.

A postdoc should not be a glorified technician. But when you're spending all your time at the bench, what are you, really?

I've paid my dues. Certainly more than anyone I've worked for, in terms of years put in at the bench before they had their own labs. Our generation is getting screwed. We definitely have it worse than our parents did when they were our age.

I think it's in large part because scientists are always willing to sit back and take whatever is given to them and say "thank you sir, for the privilege" instead of saying, "I work hard and I contribute something to society and I deserve to be compensated fairly for it."

At 3:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous Coward, PhD said...

wow, what a terrible idea.

Wow, what a poorly articulated response.

[steps onto soapbox]

Why is this a terrible idea? Every scientist knows (or learns quickly) that you're never going to make lots of money doing science. You do it because you love it. If we're all working for the love of science, and we're not supposed to worry/complain about what we're being paid, then what is the difference between getting the money at the beginning of your career versus the end of your career? If you still love doing science, you'll still do it. Right? It's essentially arbitrary what end of your career provides more money. The benefit of getting the money sooner is that you can take better advantage of the economic infrastructure through investments.

In the ideal scenario, science is pretty close to a purely socialist concept. It reminds me of Gene Roddenberry's 'Star Trek' future, where we work only to better ourselves and our society. Unfortunately we don't live in this future society, and it's hard to retrofit the 'scientific ideal' into a capitalist market. As others have said, you're really only worth as much as people are willing to pay for your service/contribution.

The idea of capital reward only works well for systems that use capital as the currency. Science uses capital out of necessity, but the real currency is ideas. Innovative ideas are the driving force of our economy, but they are always initially under-valued.

What is the value of an idea like relativity, or natural selection? How do you put a price tag on innovation, on a concept that might change the world, but don't exist?

There are some things money can't buy, and for everything else, there's MasterCard.

[steps down from soapbox]

At 7:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually I think science is one field that is more friendly to those without money than some others. Grad school is often decently funded (compared to the funding my friends in humanities got in their doctoral programs I did pretty well) and post docs are paid, compared to the non-paying internships required in some mental health fields, the arts, and notoriously journalism. Also I think it is a mistake to believe that we missed out on some golden age of science. My father, a machinist, made better money in the 70's than my best friend's dad, a chemist at the university.
I'm debating whether to apply for another post doc or look into industry jobs. I've spoken wth a few friends in industry and it seems like there are some interesting opportunities. Your earlier post where you say "you have to go along, get along, etc" about fitting in, in industry makes it sound like some kind of stepford scientist thing. I did an internship at one biotech firm as an undergrad and can tell you it was not like that at all. I understand that you are uncomfortable with the profit motives of industry but the truth is these issues are there in academia too. There is no pristine place of pure scientists working for the good of the planet. There are only shades of gray, and you can find shades you like in different places, even when you aren't doing the one thing you thought you needed to do to be happy.

At 10:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look. Quit complaining and find a better paying job. Science is not "losing a lot of smart, incredibly hard-working people" simply because there is a long line of "smart, incredibly hard-working people" waiting to take your job in academics. Face it. Unless you are a peer with Albert Einstein, you are replaceable. Try this exercise: leave your lab. Come back in a year and see if the investigations have stopped and if the quality of research has decreased.

Stop believing that SCIENCE needs you and your life will improve.

At 10:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous has a point...

Ms.PhD definitely loves to revel in this matyr syndrome mentality.

At 6:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Working on what? Don't you think working on something you're really passionate about matters the most?"

Honestly, no. I think scientists should work on addressing critical unmet needs that other people acknowledge exist. At least if you're going to use public money. Academic and intellectual freedom means choosing which side of toast to butter and whether you want jam, not ordering off the menu.

At 7:42 PM, Anonymous chris said...

Ahem. Going back up the comments, it seems to me that a number of the real estate arguments hinge on "me and my partner can afford...". Which is great - if you have one.

The single folks obviously have to be relegated to sharing with others. And that's exactly what your average introverted postdoc who has just moved from elsewhere needs: the russian roulette of signing up to live with strangers.

Ok, so not all scientists are introverts (I am, so tough for me). Is it really too much to expect that after a decade or so in a career you can afford to live by yourself if you so chose? I don't think so.

Oh, and neither does the data analyst kiddie sitting at the next desk to me, who got hired with an MSc in stats and a year's pharma experience and can afford to pay more than half my salary in rent. Bitter? A little... But not enough to give up what I love doing.

At 10:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I agree that the wages could be higher and that you shouldn't have to live with someone if you don't want to. On the other hand, I was also doing quite fine before I was living with my partner. My main point above was that different people have different ideas about what they need and that I think many people draw the line too high. e.g. you might _need_ a car if you live in the suburbs, but do you really need to live in the suburbs? I do all my shopping/commuting on foot or bike and it's no great hardship.

I also agree that making so little money is hard in a country like the US that has a crappy safety net. Not being able to pay for aging parents might translate into a much lower quality of life for them and that's heartbreaking. Same goes for you if you have a serious medical condition even if you have insurance (see link above in my first post). But I consider these arguments for improving the social system, not for increasing post doc and grad student salaries.

And this brings me to my last point. What about all the students in the humanities who often only get support for two thirds of the year or not at all? Whenever I bring this up with scientists they mostly say some variation of "They don't get grants because their research isn't as useful (i.e. has direct economic impact that industry/government wants to support) so they don't deserve to make what I do (which is not nearly enough of course)." If you really believe that's how salaries should be determined why not just privatize research completely and let us all compete based on our "usefulness" for the big stipends. If you don't believe that's how salaries should be determined, where do you draw the line between those students and postdocs that should get living wages and those that shouldn't? Maybe psychology? (kidding...)


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