Thursday, November 27, 2008

Postdoc Unionizing: what a strike would do

Someone wrote in to say she didn't want to have to go on strike if the UAW negotiations with UC should break down.

I have to agree that if it were me, I already resent any interruption to my experiments, and I could see why it would suck.

It would likely be, at best, very inconvenient, and wouldn't help current postdocs very much.

However. Look at what the UAW did for auto workers. Did you know that the average auto worker pay is $28 an hour? That's about $60,000/year plus benefits, quite a bit more than a first-year postdoc makes WITH A PhD (NIH minimum is $37,000).

Think about that for a minute.

Why is a science PhD given so little value in the US? It's equivalent to 5-6 (or more) years of on-the-job training. Engineers without a PhD but with equivalent years of work experience straight out of college make ~$80,000/year (or more).

Why? You can say it's about products and sales and limiting the number of engineers creates demand, etc.

But since science departments refuse to limit numbers of degrees awarded, here we are with too many PhDs and nowhere to put them. Or, lots of people qualified to do all the wrong kinds of things.

Okay, you say, so what, who cares how we got here. It's not about the money.

What about job security? That's what really makes me angry. You can go all the way down the pipeline and end up.... in the sewer.

The real problem with science is that it's a pyramid scheme. You buy in, but there's no guarantee of any payoff or moving up.

So you end up with a pile of stuff you can't sell, and no money. Goody.

Doesn't that piss you off? If it doesn't now, it will in a few years when you're looking at what I'm looking at: the realization that I might have wasted the best years of my life putting up with something that I KNEW was fucked up because I really believed it would eventually pay off if I just tried hard enough.

And I did, I really tried. But guess what? That's not enough.

So let's imagine for a minute what would happen if all the postdocs in California went on strike next week.

In this imaginary scenario, it would be impossible to hire any postdoc from anywhere, so you couldn't bring in foreign postdocs willing to work for less money or off the books (for example).

In the current climate, it seems to me that this would be a fatal blow for science in California. Accordingly, UC would be forced to negotiate. However, UC doesn't want to spend any money on postdocs. So it's hard to see how this would turn out, especially since CA is already in debt and Schwarzenegger has been trying to cut education funding.

However, if it somehow went on long enough, here's what would happen.

Some PIs would turn to grad students and technicians to pick up the slack.

And some PIs would be, eventually, screwed. With no preliminary data for their grants, and no papers coming out, they might lose funding. But that would take a couple of years to have much of an effect.

They would try to ask NIH for a bailout. Get it? Bailout! HAHAHHAHA.

Meanwhile, in the current climate, most postdocs (especially those with visas) would be begging someone to hire them on as anything just to pay the bills (and stay in the country). Even if they had to become technicians. If only UC would let them do that (there are some rules against hiring PhDs into certain staff positions, but there are loopholes).

Granted, the technician title would actually be a better deal for the average postdoc, since the salary is equivalent (or better) but the benefits are MUCH better. Technicians also have automatic union membership, so once you outlast the 6-month probationary period, you're officially a staff member. AND you get retirement, among other things.

But you probably would lose some of the privileges of publishing, and it's hard to see how universities could afford to hire faculty if they're going to have to pay postdocs more reasonable salaries.

Now let's scale up this little thought experiment. What if, just for the purposes of discussion, we imagined that ALL the postdocs in the US went on strike. Indefinitely.

First, if you've ever had an NIH fellowship, you could get in trouble for this. They have a payback clause, kind of like the military. You have to contribute to science somehow in order to fulfill this payback clause. I've never heard of it being enforced, mind you, but a nationwide strike might precipitate such a backlash.

However, assuming you don't have this particular complication (and only something like 1/10th of all postdocs do), what would happen to science in the US?

I'd like to think that NIH and Congress would quit pointing fingers at each other over whose job it is to deal with rewriting science policy in this country.

Maybe Obama would have his scientific advisory board step in (ha ha ha). Maybe NIH would get a bailout! HAHAHAHA.

In the ideal scenario, it would prompt a long, slow rewrite of ALL science policy in this country. Grants, tenure, all of it.

That would, I think, take years. In the meantime, all the current postdocs would probably have to go find something else to do.

Current PIs might be okay, probably the ones with tenure could last until retirement (retirement, get it? ha ha ha).

Young PIs, I don't know. It might depend on whether the grant reviewing continued. It probably would go on just as it has, for a while anyway.

But it's hard to see how any of this would make much of a difference.

Ideally, I'd like to see the entire concept of 'postdoc' go away. Other countries can keep it if they want, I don't care.

But I think the US needs to wake up and realize that a scientific slave class, even with the Stockholm Syndrome most current postdocs embrace, is eventually going to be the death of science in this country.

But it's going to require a lot of pissed off postdocs to grow some spine if we actually want to see a change. And I somehow doubt that's going to happen anytime soon.

If UAW drags postdocs into a strike, that's going to be even more interesting. Some postdocs will think nothing of it, but those are the ones most likely to be affected by visa issues (e.g. postdocs from countries where striking is an everyday occurrence).

American postdocs are more likely to be pissed off. We mostly already agreed to making a certain amount of sacrifice, making a lot less money than our peers who chose other careers.

When UAW initially tried to unionize postdocs, a group at Berkeley got together and contested it. Finally UAW realized they could unionize the foreign postdocs (now over half the postdocs in UC are foreign) and thus circumvent protests from American postdocs who were concerned about exactly what this commenter pointed out: it's going to disrupt our work at best, and at worst, end our careers.

But I think we might be screwed anyway. I had lunch with some postdocs in my department earlier this week, and I looked around the table. There were about 8 of us there, and I was the only American.

This is the face of science in the US: outsourcing.

14 Comments:

At 3:37 PM, Anonymous mudphudder said...

Wow! In case you haven't looked at it yet, there was an article in Science a couple of weeks ago that echoed your sentiments exactly. It's sad the way science training is trending these days...

 
At 6:12 PM, Blogger chall said...

speaking as a foreign post doc in the US. Yes, I would think that you are outsourcing.

Funny fact! I make less here than I would make back home.... which is something "noone" believes when I tell them. Simply said, that wasn't true 10 years ago, with the dollar being worth more and less post doc positions etc but now.... well, especially not considering things like unemployment benefits nad/or insurenace and/or 401K....

Something makes US PhDs not wanting to work as post docs as much as someone from say "Europe/india/China" and I wonder if it is that the job market over there is so bad that you can't even get a post doc position?

anyway, good post. And good luck with your things and making it! I enjoy reading your thoughts since they blend into what I am thinking every once in a while. It's nice to know I am not alone.

 
At 6:21 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

I can has bailout?

 
At 11:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems the only postdocs in the USA in near future will be those from countries like China,India where average salary is much lower than for instance in the US.

I am a EU citizen and I would not go to the US for a postdoc (I'll obtain my PhD in physics next year) under any circumstances no matter how fine the institution is. I will perhaps apply to the very best institution in my field of research (Caltech) but somehow I hope they won't choose me. It's only because I'm being encouraged by my boss who is already a full professor and doesn't really care about the money.

Right now as a PhD student I make sth like a postdoc in the US + I have full benefits (pension, health care etc.).
In other richer EU countries (Germany) one can make more.

It's always demand vs supply logic in the US. Everyone knows how bad it is in the US but still there is incredibly much demand for Postdoc positions in the US. Why? Because there are thousands of Chinese/Indian PhDs where average salary is a few k$ p.a. and 35k$ p.a. doesn't seem so bad.

Only when there is no demand, things might turn better for you.

 
At 6:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

re: enforcement of the 'payback' clause of NRSA's

They most definitely pursue this. However, the way it works is that you are only on the hook for the 1st year of the fellowship...the 2nd year basically takes care of the payback commitment. So most people will automatically not have to deal with this. However, I was on an NRSA for 12 months in grad school...no automatic payback, but I did do a postdoc. They sent me many forms about payback service, and at some point there was a paperwork foul up and the NIH told me that I owed them $50,000 (including 10% interest on the NRSA..or something crazy!).

I got in touch with a lovely lady at the NIH (seriously, she was great) and told her that I had indeed paid my service back and that I had a post-doc fellowship from the NIH for the past 3 years. The problem got solved...but in speaking with the nice lady at the NIH, she said it was very serious and they actively pursue people and money for payback. Kind of scary to get a letter from the NIH telling you that you owe THEM money..it was the opposite feeling of getting a grant (worse actually!) hah.

 
At 8:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"This is the face of science in the US: outsourcing."

And why not? If some poor guy in some poor country works 10x harder than you, and is a 10x better scientist than you, then he *should* get a 10x better job than you. Why should nationality come into the picture at all?

If you can't compete on merit, there is always wal-mart waiting for you ;)

 
At 10:55 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

mudphudder,

I don't think I read that one yet. Thanks.

chall,

This is something I still don't quite understand. If you can do better staying home in your own country, why come to the US? The adventure? The intellectual prestige? To get away from your parents?

I enjoy the international mix of colleagues, but some days I want to ask what they're all doing here. And it makes me mad because I know that some of them have more choices for getting faculty positions in the end, except for two countries I can think of, they can always go home.

UR,

Exactly! Much funnier.

Anon 11:40,

Of the 8 at my table that day, only 1 from China, 1 from India. The rest were from Russia, Germany, and other parts of Europe.

So it's not so simple as "Oh, those asians are willing to work for less." If anything, I think there's more appeal in hiring someone from Europe who comes with their own fellowship. They're usually happier anyway (because they're paid more!).

Anon 6:20,

Yikes. Good to know.

8:36,

I guess that's sarcasm?

 
At 1:03 PM, Anonymous Alex said...

As you say in your post, the root of the problem is too many Ph.D.'s chasing too few academic positions, leading to too many postdocs staying too long.

One solution for the people chasing those positions is to expand the range of jobs they're willing to consider. One option is looking at undergraduate institutions in addition to Ph.D.-granting departments--it can be quite rewarding, but even there you'll still find a lot of people chasing a small number of jobs. Industry is suffering from the bad economy, but even if times were good, not every industry job really needs a Ph.D. That's not to say that the jobs can't be rewarding and interesting, but maybe we don't need to train as many Ph.D.'s as we train.

I think most Ph.D. students are indeed told that the odds of getting a job in a Ph.D.-granting department are slim. However, many places then follow that with "Of course, if you do good, work, anything is possible, and our department has had a good track record of placement in recent years." The follow-up statement may or may not be correct (depends on the department) but even if it is technically correct a lot of people are going to pay more attention to the possibility than to the long odds. So just trying to persuade Ph.D. students to pursue something other than a faculty job is not enough. Harsh triage on limiting the number of Ph.D. students does not really appeal to me--There's a lot to be said for graduate education as a means of self-improvement and learning, even if it isn't the path to the faculty job that everyone thinks it is. However, doing some triage at the end of grad school, sending fewer people into postdoc positions, would help.

The only way to really bring about that triage is to make postdoc positions harder to get. And the only way to really limit the number of postdoc positions is to pay them better.

I used to be unsympathetic to these things: The postdoc is supposed to be a short-term position for people about to embark on fairly prestigious career paths. It's hard for me to get much sympathy for people with bright futures complaining that the training path is not very comfortable. However, seeing the pipeline clogged with perpetual postdocs drives home that it isn't really the final step to a bright future--it's a dead end clogged with desperate people.

One reason I used to have a different view is that it's somewhat different in physics: The pay is lower in physics, which drives more people to consider industry, and most postdocs are there for a shorter time. However, in biomedical research the postdoc positions last longer, and the pay is just high enough to attract more people but not quite high enough to reduce the number of positions offered.

So, basically, if you want to unclog the pipeline either the pay needs to be low enough to scare people away (a cruel approach that can only be justified if most people get hired into faculty positions after a year or two, which happened for a lot of physics postdocs that I knew) or it needs to be high enough that PIs will hire fewer postdocs and do more to get these expensive people into tenure-track positions sooner.

 
At 8:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

good post. I've often wondered what would happen if all of us unfairly treated postdocs stood up for ourselves and demanded fair pay, benefits, and better job prospects. I think what would happen is that we all lose our jobs and any prospects of a career, and the all-powerful PIs and institutions will simply hire a new generation of postdocs to fill our places and carry on their merry way as before. Then when the new generation of postdocs wisens up and also revolts, they too get fired and their careers ended and replaced by the next generation.

While postdocs who have been around 3, 5 or more years, really have lost their tolerance for such low pay and other mistreatments,
there will always be a newer generation of freshly minted PhDs for whom such low pay seems really good compared to the grad school stipend. So even if you are further along in your life and career (but still without real job prospects even though by now you may also have a family to support) and want to demand more, fact is you can and will be replaced by clones of yourself who are just starting on your path and will happily settle for what you won't tolerate, until they end up in your current position but by then the cycle will start over again.

Heck, this happens anyway even when we postdocs are not trying to stand up for ourselves. I'm of course referring to the common practice of replacing senior postdocs who no longer are on fellowship, with junior postdocs who still have their brand new fellowship so the PI doesn't have to pay their salary...and this replacement process is NOT because the senior postdoc has already found a real job because that often isn't the case. So this leaves the senior postdoc with no where to go - can't get a 'real' job because of a million and one reasons, yet can't stay in current job either no matter what a good and productive worker you have been...you simply cost too much to keep around if the PI has to pay your salary. And possibly by now you are too old to qualify for any postdoc fellowships anymore yet without the elusive formal faculty/staff position you're also not eligible for early-career grants either.

Meanwhile, the PIs continue to benefit and always have armies of postdocs writing their papers and their grants and bringing in money for their glory.

So in a nutshell, I think that if postdocs organized and went on strike, nothing would actually change. Except for the striking postdocs, whose careers are now ended.

 
At 9:51 PM, Blogger Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Wait, really? GM and friends are sitting in Congress begging for money to stave off bankruptcy, and you want to use the UAW as a good example of how wonderful unions are? Yes, they did do a good job negotiating salaries and pension benefits. So good, in fact, that they (combined with a giant fuckwittedness on the part of management, of course) helped destroy these companies. I'm mostly pro-union, but I don't think that it's a tool to be used lightly.

 
At 10:39 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Alex,

Expanding the range of jobs you're willing to consider- this is stupid advice. The problem is we're not TRAINED to WORK at undergraduate institutions. In fact, I'm hearing more complaints now from industry that they can't find people trained the way they want.

I totally agree that we train too many PhDs. Unfortunately industry isn't willing to take PhDs into non-PhD-requiring positions.

I think most Ph.D. students are indeed told that the odds of getting a job in a Ph.D.-granting department are slim. However, many places then follow that with "Of course, if you do good, work, anything is possible, and our department has had a good track record of placement in recent years."

First off, I think a lot of places do NOT tell their students this. Worse than that, I've sat in on these sessions where the faculty and deans get together and try to convince more undergrads to go to grad school! It's such a racket.

Harsh triage on limiting the number of Ph.D. students does not really appeal to me--There's a lot to be said for graduate education as a means of self-improvement and learning, even if it isn't the path to the faculty job that everyone thinks it is. However, doing some triage at the end of grad school, sending fewer people into postdoc positions, would help.

I guess I can see what you mean, but I would have MUCH preferred not having gotten into grad school at all. I think the younger you are when you have to face reality, the better.

The only way to really bring about that triage is to make postdoc positions harder to get. And the only way to really limit the number of postdoc positions is to pay them better.

This is my point to Dr. J&H. A union would in theory do one (and maybe only one) thing right: force salary increases.

It's already getting harder to find postdoc positions, or so I'm told anecdotally. Maybe not harder enough.

The pay is lower in physics, which drives more people to consider industry, and most postdocs are there for a shorter time.

This isn't true where I am. In fact, it's the opposite for physics and engineering. The postdoc pay is driven UP by the high salaries in industry. Nobody can get a postdoc to work in their lab unless they pay them somewhat competitively.

I think this is a MUCH better model, and makes more sense.

You wrote that in biomedical research, the pay is just high enough to attract more people but not quite high enough to reduce the number of positions offered.

I'm not really sure this is a logical progression, but it's an interesting point. Maybe raising postdoc salaries is the wrong way to go. But in the past, postdocs were only done by those who were already independently wealthy- the white male elite. That's why we have what we have now, a bunch of unsympathetic PIs who can't understand what we're whining about.

high enough that PIs will hire fewer postdocs and do more to get these expensive people into tenure-track positions sooner

I don't think this is logical, either. As it is, PIs don't care where we go after we work in their labs. Why would raising our salaries improve our options afterwards? I don't see the connection here.

Anon 8:57,

Well, this is why having a union and policies would potentially break the cycle. We would have to be martyrs to do it, but we could prevent future generations from being able to accept lower pay and no job prospects. It's kind of a crazy thing to do, really, so I don't see it happening. At least, not on purpose. But I'm not sure the UC Postdocs realize what they've gotten themselves into.

Dr.J&H,

I'm not talking about maintaining a company. In fact, I think science is royally fucked up I'd like to see it completely razed and rebuilt from scratch. My point is that pushing the union approach might be one way to speed up this process of decay and reincarnation.

I'm not really pro-union from the management standpoint, either. But I subscribe to the notion that if you treat people reasonably well and make sure they're happy, they won't make ridiculous demands for money and will be more productive and then the company will thrive and everybody wins. Naive? Maybe. But I don't think postdocs are treated fairly and I don't think science is as good as it could be if we were.

 
At 2:17 PM, Anonymous Alex said...

Ms. Ph.D.,

First, maybe some of my thoughts on how money will change things are naive, but I would say that if the biomedical community had a tradition of shorter postdocs then a lot would change. Yes, fewer people doing postdocs in the first place would help a lot, but I suspect that shorter postdocs are part of the difference in how physics views postdocs:

I did my Ph.D. in physics and my postdoc in a biomedical research group applying physics techniques to some of their problems. In physics departments, a postdoc is a person doing a job for a few years to build the CV before trying for a faculty job. I won't pretend that it's a fun and easy job, but it isn't hazing either. It's all about working to get the data to get the paper and get out. Yeah, biomedical postdocs want that too, but because the word "trainee" is used more frequently in the biomedical community (physics people use that word too, but not as often) I think there's more of a patronizing attitude and hazing atmosphere. Working your ass off to get data fast and get out is painful, and being treated like a trainee to be hazed while doing it is worse.

The problem is multifaceted: Too many people, too few positions, and too long in a hazing position.

Also, you are right that you aren't really trained to work in an undergraduate institution, but you're pretty close to trained--I work at an undergraduate institution, and the only thing that really sets an unsuitable candidate apart from a suitable candidate is teaching experience. No, not TA experience, even if you TAed for the laziest professor on the planet, it's still not the same. (I thought for sure it was, until I taught a class, and then I saw the difference.)

You've clearly got some good science going on, and you've mentioned supervising undergrads in the lab. Teach a class for one semester, and you'd be a prime candidate for an undergraduate institution. Now, whether you'd enjoy it is a question I can't answer--not everybody likes teaching, and not everybody would be happy in a lab of more modest scope--but you'd certainly be a strong candidate, and some people love it.

Finally, I agree that it's a bad idea to talk people into grad school. If a student expresses interest I don't try to talk him/her out of it, because I do believe that the education is valuable (as long as you go in with very realistic expectations about the career prospects) but I NEVER try to talk somebody into it. I was very disappointed when a recent conference had a session for undergrads with a motivational speaker making the case for grad school. I took my undergrad with me to a grant-writing session instead: If he wants to consider grad school, he should see what is waiting for him on the other side.

 
At 4:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've often wondered what would happen if all of us unfairly treated postdocs stood up for ourselves and demanded fair pay, benefits, and better job prospects. I think what would happen is that we all lose our jobs and any prospects of a career, and the all-powerful PIs and institutions will simply hire a new generation of postdocs to fill our places and carry on their merry way as before.

It's called being a fungible resource. If you are easily replaced earning what you earn now, aren't you being paid fairly? You've got to ask yourself what you bring to the table that the next guy(gal) doesn't.

 
At 11:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My advisor once told me that: You thought you work hard in grad school, wait until you do your postdoc. You thought you work harder as a postdoc, you don't know what comes after ya as an assistant professor.

At least as a postdoc, all I had to do was to do research. Once I became a PI, it is simply a job defined by how much federal dollars you can collect...
Everyday my job is to write grants and more grants.... My postdoc and students are simply tools that will help me get grants...

Enough complains. By the way one thing I really enjoy that comes with this position is job security, pension, and benefits. And yes, science, too.

 

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