Friday, December 30, 2016

Last post ever on postdoc pay

Original post, first follow up, this post

Short intro: wrote a post about how I didn't like how some folks were (seemingly) bragging about how high they pay their postdocs on the internet, got a lot of responses, wrote a post with some ideas about how postdocs and PIs could approach the subject of pay. That was meant to deal with short term practical consequences. Here, I wanted to highlight some of the responses I got about aspects of postdoc pay that have to do with policy, likely with no surprises to anyone who's thought about this for more than a few minutes. Again, no answers here, just mostly reporting what I heard. So sorry, first part of the post is probably kind of boring. At the end, I'll talk about some things I learned about discussing this sort of thing on the internet.

First off, though, again, for the record, I support paying postdocs well and support the increased minimum. I think a minimum starting salary of $48K (however inadvertently that number was reached) seems to be a reasonable minimum to enforce across the US. Based on what, I dunno, honestly. I just think we need a flat national minimum: it would be hard/weird for NIH to do it by cost of living across the US, but at the same time, relying on institutions to set their own wage scales is ripe for abuse. More on that later.

Anyway, it is clear that one of the top concerns about postdoc pay was child care. No surprise there, postdoc time often coincides with baby time, and having kids is expensive, period. One can get into debates about whether one's personal life choices should figure into how much pay someone "deserves", but considering that the future of the human race requires kids, I personally think it's a thing we absolutely must be considering. There are no easy answers here, though. Igor Ulitsky summed it up nicely:

I think Igor is absolutely right, an institutional child care subsidy is really the only way to do it. The problem otherwise is that the costs are so high for childcare that just paying everyone enough for childcare regardless of family status would quickly bankrupt most PIs' grants. But just paying more based on "need" has a lot of flaws. I think it was telling that at least some trainees said that they wouldn't begrudge their coworker with a kid if the PI paid them more. Well, what if your coworker had parents who lived with them? Or parents who could live with them? Or a spouse who earned a lot of money? Or was home from work often because of the kid? And how much extra should they be paid? Enough for "cadillac" child care? Bare minimum child care? I just don't think it's reasonable or wise for PIs to be making these decisions. If, on the other hand, the institution stepped in to make this a priority (as both my postdocs have argued), then this would solve a lot of problems. They could either provide a voucher applicable to local daycares or provide daycare itself at a heavily subsidized rate (I think Penn does provide a subsidy, but it's not much). This is, of course, a huge expense for institutions to take on, and I'm sure they won't do it willingly, but perhaps it's time to have that discussion. Anecdotally, I think there really has been a change—before, many academics would wait until getting a faculty position (maybe even tenure) before having kids, whereas now, many academics come into the faculty position with kids. I think this is good and important especially for women, and I think it's pushing this particular issue for postdocs into the foreground.

The other big issue folks brought up was diversity. Low wages mean that those without means face a pretty steep price for staying in science, potentially forcing them out, as this commenter points out from personal experience. I think this is a real problem, and again, no real answer here. I'm not convinced, however, that the postdoc level is where that gap typically emerges—I'm guessing that it's mostly at the decision to go to graduate school in the first place. (The many confounders likely make such analyses difficult to interpret, though I don't know much about it.) Which is in some ways perhaps a bit surprising, since unlikely medical/law/business school, you actually get paid to do a PhD (although I believe most analyses still suggest that you could earn more overall by just getting a job straight away, maybe depending on the field). Also, higher pay would mean fewer postdoc positions, making the top ones more competitive, thus potentially further hurting the chances for those facing bias, although my guess is that this latter concern would not outweigh the former on diversity.

Along these lines is the notion of opportunity cost, with at least a few people (typically computational) noting that the postdocs they want to hire can earn so much on the open market that if they didn't pay them a lot, it would be hard to get them. At the same time, interestingly, a couple trainees invoked the ideals of the free market, saying that people should be paid whatever they can earn. Hmm. Well, I think this gets into the question of what the cost of doing science is. All stages of scientist (from trainees to PIs) probably on average earn less than we could in private industry, with that differential varying by field and circumstance—that is the price for doing what we love. The obvious question is whether this sets up a system primed for abuse. There are some who are willing to work like a dog for next to nothing for the chance to keep doing science. For this reason, there has to be a reasonable minimum to ensure at least some degree of diversity in the talent pool. Beyond that, I personally have no problem with people paying above the minimum if they so choose (and institutional policies that prevent that strike me as pretty unfair and something to fight against). If this helps keep talented people in science, great!

The notion of a free-market approach to pay is an interesting one, one that led me to the following question about the cost of doing science. Let's say that I had a ton of money. Is there some amount of money I could pay to get a postdoc that I otherwise would lose to some big name PI? Like, let's say I paid my postdoc $1M per year. Well, I'd probably be getting a lot of top quality postdoc applications (although still probably not even close to all). But what about $100K? How much would that factor into someone's decision to do a postdoc with me? I venture to say that the answer is not much. How little would someone be willing to accept for the opportunity to work with a big name who could greatly aid their quest for a faculty job? All I can say is I'm glad there's a minimum. :)

I also learned a bit about online discussions on this topic. As I said in my first post, I was super reluctant to discuss this topic at all online, given the opportunity for misunderstanding and so forth. And sure enough, I got some of what I thought were unfairly accusatory responses. Which, of course, is something that I was guilty of myself (and I apologize to MacArthur for that). Hmm. I still stand by, sort of, my point that the original tweet from MacArthur came across in a way that was perceived by many as boastful, even if that was not his intent, and that that may not be the most productive way to start a discussion. That said, I also have to acknowledge that waiting for the "perfect" way to discuss the issue means waiting forever, and in the meantime, just saying something, anything, publicly can have an effect. Clearly the collective tweets, posts and responses on the topic (most are imperfect, though I particularly like this one from Titus Brown) are having the desired effect of engendering a discussion, which is good. And, as a practical matter, I'm hopeful that airing some of the institutional differences in postdoc pay may help both trainees and mentors (see some examples in my second post). It is clear that there's a lot of mystery shrouding the topic, both for trainees and PIs alike, and a little sunlight is a good thing.

All that said, I still think that in addition to online rants of various kinds, with an issue this complex, it's pretty important for us all to talk with each other face to face as well. After all, we're all on the same team here. Academia is a small world, and while it's important to disagree, personal attacks generally serve nobody… and might as well be transparent about who you're disagreeing with so they can disagree back:

(In my defense, the only reason I "subtweeted" is that I really didn't want to call MacArthur out personally because his was just the latest tweet out of many of this kind I had seen. And I suppose it worked in that many people I know who read the post indeed had no idea who I was referring to. But giving him the chance to respond is probably on balance the right thing to do.)

Anyway, while I have not met MacArthur in person, I'm guessing we'll probably cross paths at some point, at which point my main concern is that we'll discover we agree on many things and so I won't have anything else to write about… :)

No comments:

Post a Comment