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Why Postdocs Are Paid Less Than Fast Food Workers

When I started my PhD, I had a figure in mind: $90,000. 

Whenever the days felt long or the research felt like it was going absolutely nowhere, this number was there in the back of my mind. 

It was the median salary for PhDs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The eventual reward made the weight of all the work and stress and barely scraping by feel bearable. 

With graduation a few months away, I decided to start dedicating my weekends to a job search. 

My biggest worry wasn’t finding work. I was actually afraid I’d have a hard time choosing between offers. 

But with just three weeks left before my defense date and no callbacks at all, I was starting to feel panic set in. Maybe, I thought, I should consider the timeless PhD fallback: a postdoc.

Maybe that would work out even better, I reasoned. After all, I’m already familiar with the work, and I could gain some valuable experience. 

And, most important, I could quit worrying about a gap in my income. Because I could not afford that.

I’d heard that postdocs are contract positions, so as long as I chose a short contract I could still start my real job by next year. 

All that was left to do now was a little due diligence. I messaged a postdoc friend of mine on LinkedIn to see if he had any useful tips for me.

Postdocs Get Paid Less Than Librarians, Fast Food Workers & Garbage Collectors

“Don’t do it.” 

I thought he was joking at first when I read his reply. But as I read on, I realized there was no punchline. 

“I make less than my roommate, am about 10 years older than him, and work longer hours by a long shot – and he’s a manager at KFC. 

My postdoc was only supposed to be a one-year thing. I’ve been at this now for three. 

There’s a woman in my lab who told me her original plan was also to spend a year as a postdoc, just  to get a little more research experience. She’s on her fifth year. 

I’m not sure why, but employers are not impressed by postdoc experience. 

Feel free to call me and I’m happy to chat more about this, but the TLDR is that I definitely do not recommend a postdoc to you unless you’re thinking of sticking with academia.”

Not a glowing review. I won’t say that I was skeptical or that I didn’t trust my friend, but I definitely needed a little more empirical evidence. 

And it turns out there was plenty. 

Librarians, garbage collectors, and, yes, even fast food workers actually do make more than most postdoctoral fellows, who have a median income of roughly $50,000 a year. 

No, not everywhere. And, no, not every one. There were exceptions. But I still found the paltry numbers pretty hard to swallow.

I also found that this is not news to those in academia – and I wasn’t the only PhD who was upset about it. 

So why was I only hearing about this alternate take on postdocs now?

5 Reasons A Postdoc Limits Your Current & Future Career Growth

If you’re staying in academia, a postdoc is a great choice after you defend. 

You can gain experience, build skills, and explore topics you’re passionate about – all while making yourself a more attractive candidate for professorship.

But if you’re interested in a career in industry, a postdoc position is a waste of your time and energy. 

The cons far outweigh the pros. 

This article from Science summed up what PhDs really miss out on when they opt to do a postdoc instead of going directly into industry. 

For the overwhelming majority of PhD holders who do not become tenured professors, spending time as a postdoc comes at a hefty price. Compared with peers who started working outside academia immediately after earning their degrees, ex-postdocs make lower wages well into their careers, according to a study published today in Nature Biotechnology. On average, they give up about one-fifth of their earning potential in the first 15 years after finishing their doctorates—which, for those who end up in industry, amounts to $239,970.

Still don’t believe me? Here are five reasons that doing a postdoc is a detriment to your growth and your success.

1. There Is A Serious Oversupply Of Postdocs

The biggest problem with taking a postdoc position comes down to supply and demand.

The supply of postdocs in academia far exceeds the demand for them.

More PhDs are awarded every year than the year before, and that number has been increasing steadily for decades. 

The number of tenure-track faculty positions, on the other hand, is stagnant. 

This means that there is a lot of competition for postdoc positions, and many PhDs end up taking roles that are not a good fit for their skills or interests just because they have nothing else lined up.

What led to academia becoming so bloated with postdocs? There are a couple of factors that have contributed to the oversupply of postdocs. 

One is the increasing cost of living combined with the limited income that goes with the territory of pursuing a PhD. 

University stipends have not risen in step with inflation, which makes it nearly impossible to set money aside to live off of while you search for a job.

Postdocs may not pay much, but they’re better than having a gap in your income – a gap that most PhDs just can’t afford.

Another factor that has contributed to the oversupply of postdocs is the increasing competition for research funding. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, has seen a consistent decline in its budget with little course correction. 

This has made it more difficult for researchers to obtain grants, and has led to an increase in the number of postdocs who are working without any funding. 

No funding means limited opportunities or, worse, layoffs.

2. Low Postdoc Pay And Benefits Set You Up For Failure In Industry

Postdocs typically have low pay and few to no benefits. 

As a postdoc, you are highly trained, intelligent, and an expert in your field. So why is the compensation that higher learning deems fit for your work so insultingly low?

I touched earlier on just a few positions that pay more than a postdoc, but there are many more. And most of them do not require education beyond a high school diploma. 

Customer service managers – $97,224/year

Office assistants – $65,447/year

Car salesmen – $84,823/hear

To add insult to injury, most universities do not consider postdocs employees. And we saw what happened to nonessential employees during the pandemic – they were the first to be dismissed when budgets tightened. 

A study reported in The Atlantic positions postdocs as a group separate from those who are employed.

Most postdocs, because they are contract employees, are ineligible for benefits or incentives of any kind. 

You may have thought that there was a trade off to this low wage – experience. But, as I mentioned early on, is that experience valuable enough to justify the $200K+ in lost wages that a postdoc will set you back?

If you compound your lost wages from the time you wasted in a low-paying postdoc position, you’ll find it cost you tens of thousands of dollars throughout your career.

But wait, you might be thinking, who’s to say that I’ll be in a postdoc beyond a year anyway? 

Statistics do. By the numbers, postdocs spend an average of 5 years going from postdoc contract to postdoc contract before they feel ready to begin their career in industry.

That’s five years of lost wages and missed opportunities.

3. There Is Little To No Job Security For Postdocs

Postdocs are temporary workers. 

Most postdocs understand that there is no guarantee that they will be able to find a permanent job after their postdoc is over. 

Postdocs are typically employed on one-year contracts, but there’s no set time period. Some are 18 months; others are five years. 

But not enough postdocs understand that their employment is contingent on the availability of research funding. This means that postdocs can be laid off at any time, even if they are doing good work.

Salaries for postdocs reflect the position’s expendable nature. 

Researchers are often paid based on the amount of funding that is available, not based on what someone with the same experience or education level would be making in industry.

This lack of lack of job security can make it difficult for postdocs to plan for the future. 

In addition, postdocs receive little institutional support in comparison to undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. This means pay and benefits, of course, but it also extends to professional development opportunities.

Think about that for a second. Isn’t the Number One reason to apply to a postdoc supposed to be career growth? So if you aren’t guaranteed even that, where does the value in your postdoc experience really lie?

4. Postdocs Have Very Limited Opportunities For Advancement

Postdocs are supposed to be a professional stepping stone. As such, it’s easy to assume you’ll learn new skills and get the chance to take on new challenges – to grow your skill set.

But you’d be wrong.

You will have more independence than you’ve had in the past, but the work you’ll be doing is very similar – if not the same. 

Maybe you’re operating under the assumption that more years of experience will look good to an industry employer. But if the goal is to position yourself as a mid-level hire who is above entry-level work, a postdoc will not help.

The truth is that many companies prefer to hire PhDs fresh out of graduate school. They see newly minted PhDs as fast learners and flexible.

On the other hand, these companies tend to see postdocs as narrow-minded and set in their ways. They see postdocs as having negative, preconceived notions of industry and, as a result, do not want to hire them.

As a result of these factors, many postdocs find themselves stuck in a cycle of short-term contracts, with little hope of advancement. 

Maybe you might think that doing an industry postdoc or internship will make a specific company want to hire you more because afterward you will have experience working for them.

And although that does seem logical, many companies have policies that don’t allow them to hire internal postdocs or interns.

So after spending time working as a postdoc or intern your chance of getting a job at that company may have actually decreased.

This can be a demoralizing and frustrating experience, and it will quickly lead to burnout.

5. On-The-Job Training Is More Valuable Than Postdoc Experience

The irony of all this on-the-job training that postdocs receive is that it is irrelevant in industry.

When you start a new position at a new company, you will be forced to learn everything you have experience with over again, along with anything you didn’t know.

Why? Because companies need assurance that you’re trained to follow their standard operating procedure.

That means that your one, two, three, or even five years of postdoc experience can be broken down to a two-week crash course in on-the-job industry training.

No amount of academic experience will help you avoid this. Regardless of what kind of experience they do or don’t have, most new PhD employees start out as entry-level scientists in industry.

But overall, the majority of any one company’s entry-level scientists have master’s degrees or bachelor’s degrees only.

If you read between the lines, what does that tell you?

These non-PhD scientists moved up, and they did it through action and productivity, not through seniority and academic titles.

What’s more, many private companies will subsidize costs for further education or training outside of work.

It is in their best interests to retain talent and they want to invest in people who express a desire to grow professionally.

In other words, companies will pay for their master’s and bachelor’s degree-level employees to become PhDs. 

This only further illustrates that companies are, at best, ambivalent about your postdoc experience.

Concluding Remarks

The longer you stay in academia, the more out of touch you’ll be with industry trends, prevailing tech, and in-demand skills. All that means, in a nutshell, is that you’ll be forced to work harder and harder to land the job you deserve once you’re ready. You probably applied to your postdoc to give you the edge over other PhDs for adjacent roles. The truth is, you have already gained all the essential transferable skills you need during your PhD. If you’re already in a postdoc, that’s okay – all hope is not lost. But don’t wait any longer to start your industry job search. As a PhD, studies indicate the average time to get hired can be anywhere from nine to 18 months. You can begin looking as soon as today, and a great place to start is with a strong industry resume and LinkedIn profile

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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