Because academia needs to act MORE like magpies...

Feb 20 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

So Science Career mag has a nice article up on a AAAS working group’s rebuttal to NIH’s suggestions to fixing the biomedical workforce “situation”*.  Their suggestions were very similar to ones brought up on Drugmonkey’s blog (and others), limit the number of trainees. The AAAS workgroup’s proposed mechanism of action? Increase trainee and postdoc salaries.

This is something that has been argued extensively before on Sally Rockley’s blog (I can’t find the Rock Talk post that CPP posted on, can someone point me to it?) from the workforce side of the equation. However, hiking up graduate and postdoc salaries by simple arithmetic eats up grant award $$$ that would have gone to research. Add on top of that RO1 payouts not keeping up with inflation, on top of budget cuts upon award, investigator labs will have to contract, painfully, with likely decrease in productivity.  It’s a nasty discussion, how much is science worth compared to “trainee” quality of life, who’s probably been “training” for over a decade? But that’s not the point your favorite D-List monktress is interested in.  No, I’m interested in what the grad student/postdoc Hunger Games would look like in this post-payhike apocalyptic wasteland.

Academia already has a problem with “pedigree”it is. The number of times a person is introduced by their attendance of Yes We Rock and You Can Suck It Uber U, rather than their research, is mind boggling. MacArthur “Genius” grant profiles make sure to list all the Glamormag pubs their awardees have published in, so, you know, you can believe they’re legit. K99 awards heavily weight your “environment”, which is a politically correct way of asking how big your BSD advisor’s dick really is. A perfectly logical consequence (in my famewhorey mind), of making labs operate on ½ or ¼ of its normal workforce is that this shit will push downhill. Will a postdoc with a mediocre PhD, through no fault of their own, still have a chance to get picked up by BSD lab and “make up” for their prior underperformance? Will PIs, who watch their R01s get eaten alive by salary and benefits, pick up that 2.80 GPA undergrad who discovered they love research their junior year?  I think not, and why should they, when every hire burns a nontrivial percentage of their grant money?

Figure 1: I got pedigree upon pedigree yo

Ironically, said article went up near back to back with another focusing on a different working group (was this working group palooza month?) addressing the leaky pipeline for women and ethnic minorities. I’m sure it was unintentional, but comparing the two groups' suggestions feels exactly like a case of the right hand not knowing what the left one is doing.  The fall out from the AAS’s group’s suggestions are most likely to screw precisely those underserved populations , who often lack the shiny accolades that PI’s will start leaning on even more heavily. An investigator with limited funds will hedge their bets and go for the students who’ve been able to run full throttle their entire career. The poor woman who had to work at WalMart every summer instead of attending prestigious, underpaid, REUs, or the minority who fell off the research bleeding edge to have a baby, will have little to no place in such a system (as if there were a lot of space for us to begin with).

I’m not saying that increasing wages is the Worst Thing Ever and shouldn’t happen, but I think this is an important side of the coin that people are not considering in these discussions.

I dusted off the retirement boots to blog diarrhea on this topic, I expect uber e-whore pay (points at comments box)!!!!

 *It’s a nerd bomb that will tick to zero, leading to a swarm of deranged postdocs running down the streets, screaming about “20 years of my life!” and “10% paylines!!!”

14 responses so far

  • becca says:

    Yep. "Equitable access to academia" and "cull the herd *before* we have a mass Darwinian die-off of legitimately embittered disgruntled docs" do function in opposition. Solving both problems at the same time would be too disruptive (let's just not allow ANY white males to become scientists for the next 50 years to see how it goes!), so we're stuck with half-assed solutions that lack any coherent direction.

    • Hermitage says:

      Funny how scientists and engineers break down in the face of social progress issues. Maybe we need to import some social scientists to run the shit out of things for a few years, because Cthulu knows we're cocking it up.

  • scicurious says:

    Sadly, due to funding cuts, I'm actually seeing people right now having trouble finding post-docs, and those people are indeed the people you mention, overwhelmingly female or minority and those not from BSD labs.

    • Hermitage says:

      But jee golly willikers sci, we need those women and minorities to stay in that leaky pipeline, because, PROGRESS.

      • B Chappelle says:

        I totally agree with you. We need The minorites in this field to stay in and add more also. The overall progress will be just great if this was to happened.

  • KT says:

    Very nicely laid out thoughts. All of the talk on the job market and general dismal outlook for our careers certainly makes me worried about my future, as a 3rd year phd student in the life sciences. But when I asked my chair at a panel what he thought about the reports, he told us all (50-80 phd students at a conference) that we shouldn't worry because we come from "a great place". So what's that about? Is that fair or not? Similarly my PI says that because she's a big dog and we work hard, I shouldn't have to worry. But of course I still do.

    • Hermitage says:

      "It's them, but surely not me" is a classic compensating mechanism for unfair situations. The shit may catch up to the Blessed Ones last, but it will catch up.

  • PinkGlitteryBrain says:

    KT, its bullshit. Its like being told your sick, old pet is away at a farm upstate.

  • drugmonkey says:


    These people are in total denial. Their trainees' outcome had never been as good as they think but...confirmation bias.

  • drugmonkey says:

    sci -
    Meaning they can't find postdocs for whom they have funds?

    • Hermitage says:

      I would suspect they are unfunded postdocs. If people are already kicking the "lower tiers" out the door, even when they have money....*postdocalypse*

  • Anon says:

    I believe that someone online somewhere has suggested that an effective way to deal with the mistreatment of trainees would be to increase the number of T and F awards given by the NIH and to decrease the amount of money that can be used toward personnel salary on R01's, etc. The more that I think about this, the more that I think that this suggestion deserves more attention, with regard to its potential for reducing trainee mistreatment.

    I have noticed that there was an attempt in the discussions I've read so far online to minimize the importance of the differences in pay scale that exist as mandated by individual academic institutions versus the NIH (or NSF). One online commenter has suggested that most institutions use the NIH trainee pay scale to set their own institutional trainee pay scales. However, I would like to see data on that, because, in my observation, there is a lot of discrepancy between academic institutions as to how they set postdoc pay.

    What I have witnessed at my institution is that many postdocs are recruited to huge labs and subsequently paid off of R01's and other grants. However, salaries for postdocs as set by my institution actually vastly underpay in comparison with NIH recommended salary levels. A few years ago one of the school's Deans attempted to rectify the discrepancy for pay levels mandated by the college versus the NIH, but he encountered huge opposition from many of the BSD's simply because those PI's KNEW that, if the institutional postdoc pay scale changed, they wouldn't be able to afford as many postdocs off of their R01/other grant funding as they had been able to afford up to that point. So, it never happened - postdoc pay as mandated by my current institution, is approximately 50-60% what it is for the postdocs - at the same institution - that are currently paid off of NIH T and F awards.

    Since the NIH can't mandate how much an academic institution actually pays every postdoc or grad student, the best way that I can imagine to tackle the problem of differential pay for postdocs, across the board, would be increase the number of T and F awards and to eliminate postdoctoral and grad student pay through other NIH grants. There are, of course, other, non-federal funding mechanisms that can be used to pay postdocs and grad students, so taking such action doesn't necessarily completely rid ourselves of the problem with postdoc or grad student exploitation. BUT, I know that the many postdocs that I have seen receiving awards through societies and scientific/medical associations are given pay through those fellowships that is very close to NIH payscale.

  • Dennis Eckmeier says:

    In small steps reiterate until goal is reached:
    1. increase postdoc/grad student salaries in NEW grants
    2. increase money/grant (that is supposed to cover salary) by the same amount
    3. decrease number of grants appropriately
    4. make it (even) harder for PIs with several R01 or equivalent grants to get more

    You will have the same number of PD/GS per project, just fewer projects.

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