Monday, May 20, 2013

3 true things in that Beth Halford article, and one awesome industrial inconsistency

3 true things and one awesome inconsistency that I was glad to see in Beth Halford's article on the current state of the chemistry postdoctoral fellow in this week's C&EN:

It's the job market: From Kelly O. Sullivan, a very, very good point:
“The challenge that postdocs are facing is probably the same that everyone is facing: a weak job market,” says Kelly O. Sullivan, who manages the Linus Pauling Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellowships at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and is the current president of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society.
I wonder if the senior industrial executives quoted in the article would be willing to admit that they were (or at least "the industry" or "the economy" was) part of the problem.

Hey, these salaries aren't so great: It's great to see a look at how inflation affects postdoc salaries:
Salaries reflect another disturbing development: Postdoc chemists seem to be making less money than they used to. According to the ACS survey, in 2005 the median salary for postdocs was $36,000. In 2012 it was $40,000. 
Although those numbers suggest that salaries are edging upward, they’re not when adjusted for inflation, says Gareth S. Edwards, senior research associate with the Department of Research & Member Insights at ACS. “Unfortunately, real dollar value—what that salary will buy you—is slowly decreasing, meaning that postdocs are earning less each year,” he says. From 2005 to 2012, salaries increased 11.1%, while the Consumer Price Index rose 16.1%.
I'll put my cards on the table and say that I am not one of the people who really buys into the "inflation is killing us!!!" theory of the post-recession economy and the Federal Reserve's activities. That said, inflation is still there, and it is interesting to note that like senior citizens, postdocs and other folks who rely on a stipend (that's not tied to merit, or subject to regular raises) are basically on a fixed income. Huh.

Life milestone opportunity costs: I found Jessica Breen's comments about her twin very interesting and true:
Because of the transient nature of the position, many postdocs end up putting off major life decisions, such as getting married and having children, until after they’ve finished their studies. “I have a twin sister, who I think is a good example of a normal person my age who is exactly like me but who isn’t a postdoc,” says Jessica Breen, a second-year postdoc at the University of Leeds, in England. “My sister is married. She’s got a mortgage and a house. She’s just had her first baby. I haven’t even thought about buying a house. I can’t even think about getting married because I don’t have money to do so.”
I wonder what would happen if people said, "if you do this postdoc, you're going to delay getting married or buying a house for another couple of years?" (For the most part, the answer would be, "beats starving, or continuing to be a graduate student.")

Check out this massive disagreement between Dow's Banholzer, DuPont and Vertex: Remember the Banholzer Award, where Dow's William Banholzer said this?:
But you'll notice that a history of postdocing is not among the characteristics that appear in Banholzer's description. "I don't think I need to hire postdocs," he told PCAST. A Ph.D. earned under an excellent professor is sufficient education, he says, because Dow provides newly hired scientists its own training for the work that they will be doing. "They sort of get their postdoc on the job," he notes. 
Here's what other industrial executives think:
Industrial employers’ opinions are more variable, but they still give postdocs an edge. “It is a slight positive but by no means necessary for our jobs,” says Gary S. Calabrese, senior vice president at Corning. “If there is a particular technical need we have and someone has the right skills, it does not matter if it came through their Ph.D. or a postdoc. Having said this, of course those with postdoctoral experience are by definition broader and have a greater chance of being a technical match for us.” 
Pat N. Confalone, vice president of DuPont Crop Protection, tells C&EN that although a postdoc isn’t a requirement to get a job at DuPont, it is a definite plus. “All things being equal, someone who has a postdoc is going to be more attractive to industry than someone without a postdoc,” he says. 
“The majority of applicants that we see have postdoctoral experience,” adds Mark Namchuk, senior vice president of research for North America with Vertex Pharmaceuticals. “A postdoc is not essential, but it is becoming the norm. Aside from the additional experience, it often provides diversification of a scientist’s skill set.”
First, I think "those with postdoctoral experience are by definition broader" is a potential stretch. What is the evidence of this? I think that graduate students and their doctoral and postdoctoral advisers are well-served to make sure that's true.

I think the true test is this: are chemists with postdocs paid more in industry or hired faster than those who do not? I think I have made the case before that there is a potential opportunity cost in salary to taking a postdoc; as I said then, if it helps you get you hired, then it's worth it.

Readers, what do you think? 


  1. I think it can be true that ppl with pdf experience can have broader experience, but it's really up to the individual. Not sure that a pdf in heterocyclic chemisty after 5 years of grad school is broadening, but certainly a pdf in polymer or organometallic chemistry would be.

    To play DA on Dr. Breen's opportunity cost: what if doing a pdf stopped her from marrying a jerk who would eventually run off with the nanny after absconding all her savings? Not marrying him would have been a benefit.....

    "They sort of get their postdoc on the job," that's a nice idea, but smacks of "long term thinking". For a startup btech with a year's cash, that may not be the best approach if they can get an equal candidate who's already done exactly what they need to do.

    Not everyone gets to play in the NHL: many players have to make a career in the ECHL or AHL....

  2. CoulombicExplosionMay 20, 2013 at 1:07 PM

    Back when I was given the overview of titles/ranks of positions within my company, I was told that a post-doc got you hired in "one level higher" than a fresh PhD (like me at the time). I don't know for certain if that necessarily results in a higher salary (it's cheaper to give a title than a raise!); still, I would suspect that to be the case.

  3. For what it's worth, one of the industrial sources did tell me that they hire postdocs at a higher pay scale than chemists fresh out of their Ph.D.s. Also, one of the postdocs interviewed for this story just started a job at Dow.

    1. 'Twould be fascinating to know what the "postdoc premium" is.

    2. From my experience at multiple companies, a post-doc of X years is worth about the same as X years on the job. Often fresh PhD's are hired at the top of one band with the expectation that they will receive a bump in the next couple of years, while those with post-doc experience get hired at the bottom of the next band up (often the top "individual contributor" band) and face a longer road to the next step, which is usually team-leader or first-level management.

  4. I understand the "I can't buy a house, I'm a postdoc" idea because of the high probability that you will be living somewhere else in 5 years combined with the low salary. I don't understand the "I can't get married, I'm a postdoc" idea. Unless your future spouse is disabled and you will have to provide all financial support, it really doesn't cost money to get married (it costs money for a bridezilla wedding, not to get married) and shared household expenses are a hell of a lot cheaper.

    1. Good point. I think for some being able to postpone major life commitments is (as they say) a feature, not a bug.

      FWIW i've managed to get married while i've been on my postdoc. A nice but modest wedding can be had for well under the American average (which i think is about $20K?). But a house, even in a good market... hasn't been worth it so far.

    2. The marriage is a red herring for something else in a lot of cases. We got married for $2K and we were living in the same household before anyways. It didn't change much, but I do enjoy saying "my wife". Makes me feel finally grown up.

      What about the "I can't have children, I'm a postdoc" idea, because you have dodgy medical insurance that is tied to your job that can disappear at any time and the wife doesn't want to give birth in the kitchen?

      This insurance thing might change in the States, but is still true if you do a postdoc in another country and everything depends on your visa. The medical insurance recently even said, "foreign workers: don't get preggers. We probably won't cover it (unless someone makes a big deal, and most of you can't speak the language so you won't)".

      Plus the boss won't be too happy with their postdoc on a 2 year contract disappearing for a few months to take care of that parasitic being that is sapping their desire to spend time in the lab.

    3. With respect to marriage and postdocs, it's not necessarily about money. When I left graduate school I was single and moving to a new location was not an issue. Starting a postdoc in a completely new place, it required time and energy (not abundant for most postdocs) to make new friends and start romantic relationships. Knowing that my postdoc position was only for a few years and the uncertainty in my life after that definitely discouraged some potential partners. I wound up dating a nice guy for a year, but the relationship ended when I got a new job. He was already established in his career there, and the best career move for me was elsewhere. This sort of thing isn't impossible to overcome and absolutely happens to people who don't do postdocs. But it seems like it is easier to overcome earlier in one's life/career.

  5. Personally, I think the "I can't get married, I'm a postdoc" mantra is less about the actual expense of getting married and more about finding the opportunity to date. Grad schools can be very sheltered and insular places where students become accustomed to spending most of their time in an isolated lab or with a small group of people. Finding the time to get out in the broader world for social events & actually meet new people is challenging, especially for science geeks who may be a little socially shy at best. The vast majority of people I knew who were married or got married during grad school met their sig fig before starting grad school. The number of marriages who met during grad school can be counted on one hand with fingers left over.