On Friday we told you that the 6,500 postdocs of the University of California just ratified their first union contract, after 18 months of negotiation. The five-year contract requires that all postdocs be paid at least $37,740/yr, which is $340 above the current minimum at UC. (Postdocs with 5 yr experience must make at least $48K.) These salaries are floors; one-third of UC postdocs are already paid more than $47K/yr. 1.5–3% pay raises are built in, as are ceilings on health insurance premium increases. In return, the postdocs agreed not to strike.
This is a big deal because the ten UC campuses employ 10% of all postdocs in the United States. The 6,500 postdocs, spanning ten University of California campuses, unionized in 2008 as the Postdoctoral Researchers Organize, affiliated with the United Auto Workers (UAW). UC grad students are also unionized. Any UC astronomers want to share their perspectives from over there?
Now, context. As Kelle pointed out, astronomy postdocs…
get higher salaries than biology and chemistry postdocs. That’s true, though it’s a dubious distinction to be less badly underpaid than ridiculously underpaid colleagues. The US median salary for postdocs, in 2004 dollars, is $34,700. At their reported 51 hr/week, that’s $14.90 per hour — about what Harvard janitors make. (Reference: the report Doctors without Orders from Sigma Xi.)
I find the low bio/chem postdoc salaries particularly curious, because those fields have a direct connection to industry, where Ph.D. chemists 6–9 yrs from their B.S. degree have a median salary of $90K/yr in 2008 dollars.
I got interested in the subject of low postdoc pay because of an embarrassing experience at Caltech. At a mentoring event, a grad student asked a room of postdocs and grad students, “So, how much do postdocs make?” After an awkward silence, I tried to get the discussion started by volunteering a stipend of $45-50K for grants postdocs, and $56K for Hubble/Spitzer/Chandra fellows.* There was an audible gasp in the room. Then came a chorus of numbers in the 30-40K range. At an institute with a $1.4B endowment, $270M/yr in grants, and $106K/yr average salary for assistant professors.
A recent article, “The Real Science Gap” (Miller-McCune, via The AstroDyke) posits a root cause for these low salaries: that there are far too many junior science PhDs relative to the number of permanent jobs in science. The article suggests the “scientist shortage” is a myth that keeps the supply of young scientists high, and wages low. Definitely worth a read.
While I’m impressed that the Decadal Survey acknowledged the reality of this overproduction, I’m dismayed that it suggests we not worry because “training in astronomical research appears to be well matched in practice to much broader career opportunities.” This proposition seems highly dubious to me, especially presented without evidence or a control sample. I suspect that a selection effect is at work: people who go to astro gradschool are smart, so they’ll probably succeed in industry. It’s not at all clear to me that ~6–8 yrs in grad school gives any advantage, especially not compared to, say, a 2 yr MS program plus on the job experience. (Cosmic Variance and commenters suggest that 2 yr of grad school is a sweet spot that maximizes subsequent salary in industry.) The Decadal Survey’s assertion strikes me as well-intentioned but self-serving wishful thinking. While grad school teaches valuable problem solving and other analytic skills, so do a range of other industry experiences and (shorter) professional degrees.
So. Are there too many postdocs for the number of jobs? Is there a way to increase funding for STEM without creating a “lost generation” of junior researchers with poor job prospects in academia? Did the UC postdocs’ unionizing really achieve much? Is such organizing repeatable at other institutions? Why are chemistry postdocs paid poorly, while new PhD chemists in industry are highly paid? Do the NIH funding guidelines make sense? Why don’t fellowships come with cost-of-living allowances?
* Those were the numbers a few years ago. 2011 Hubble fellowship stipends will be $63K/yr.