Monday, May 23, 2016

2013 SDR: 13% of postdocs in the physical sciences are 6 years or longer

Around these parts, I tend to focus on the Survey of Earned Doctorates, just because it's an annual survey and it's considered to be quite accurate. The National Science Foundation also administers the Survey of Doctoral Recipients, which is a longitudinal study which surveys the same group of Ph.D.-holders year-after-year, with a new batch of Ph.D. holders every year. It surveys about 40,000 Ph.D.s a year. 

I am happy to find that the SDR collects data on postdocs, and appears to track how long postdoctoral appointments last in this table, with the title of "Table 76. Status of postdoctoral appointments among doctoral scientists and engineers, by years since doctorate and broad field of doctorate: 2013." From this, I was able to extract that there were 5400 postdocs in the physical sciences in 2013. Here's their respective years since their doctorates: 

Physical sciences postdocs: 

≤ 5 years since doctorate: 87.0% (4700 postdocs)
6–10 years since doctorate: 9.3% (500 postdocs) 
11–15 years since doctorate: 3.7% (200 postdocs) 

And for the comparison that everyone is wondering about: 

Biological/agricultural/environmental life sciences

Total: 15,100 postdocs

≤ 5 years since doctorate: 80.1% (12,100 postdocs)
6–10 years since doctorate: 17.2% (2,600 postdocs) 
11–15 years since doctorate: 2.0% (300 postdocs) 

You can check my work here. Worth noting a couple of things: 
Readers, this is relatively new data to me, so I invite you to offer your interpretations. 


  1. I wonder what % of the post-doc clearance is due to no longer science-ing? Take me for an example, at the end of my first and only post-doc I stopped science-ing. I saw the writing on the wall for being a total synthesis person. Given that the only solid job offers I could come up with were regulatory, I stopped. All of my cohorts who went on took up numerous post-docs and then a few went to CROs. The ones who got jobs at CROs all got fired and then rehired as independent contractors. They get evaluated twice annually to see if they're staying. Many are losing employment now in the upper 40s and will not be able to find a job.

    I feel that many of us just stop, but I have no solid numbers on this. I just have a long list of people from graduate school and post-doc who do not science anymore. All have PhDs, and all stopped. I know radio personalities, HR types, IP law, help IP lawyers, USPTO (a lot here), public school teachers and underemployed; but the number of academic and company scientists I know I can count on one hand. This covers two graduate schools in different countries. I know a lot of PhDs covering the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, France, Canada and US, and it's the same in every single country.

  2. I'd like to know if there's a breakdown in the <=5year cohort. A year or two is one thing. 4-5 is something else. It's a time frame that starts to matter for things like kids, or shopping for school districts for the kid you had near the end of grad school, or significant deferred interest on the retirement savings that you haven't been able to do much to build up yet. It's the difference between being a short-term visitor and starting to put down roots.

    If the job market is such that most postdocs can move into the private sector or some decent academic/government position in 1-3 years, well, great. I guess that PhD was a worthwhile investment of the student's time and society's financial resources. If, OTOH, it's starting to take 4-5 years to find a position, I have a lot more questions about PhD training.

    1. I pretty much agree with this entire comment. Sadly, there is no 1-5 year breakout.

  3. My view as postdoc (organic chemistry, total synthesis + methodology):

    About half the postdocs in my lab are kicked out by a year (they are not renewed for more time), unless they have their own funding. If they are pretty productive and don't have their own funding, the PI seems to try to convince them to stay longer, until their productivity declines or they get the guts to finally get a job and ignore the false advice/criticism to not find a job until they publish some more...

    If they do have their own funding, their time is maxed out and the PI will try to milk another 6-12 months to take advantage of their increased experience, especially if the idea they are on is working. So it is not that uncommon to hit the 3-5 year range. The smarter and more funded a postdoc has been, the more they seem to be penalized in terms of time. That is my interpretation.

    I don't want to say this was intentional, I can never truly know. But there is a pattern.

    After being a postdoc in this situation, I think one result of the overtime rules will be similar to the way overtime works for clerks at some grocery stores: Those productive clerks that want more overtime will get it over those who are checking their phone all the time. It may also become more apparent who puts in more per unit time into a project and maybe settle some authorship disputes.

    1. I did 4, and I'd do it again. Funded for 3, but market forces, impending publications, and family choices dictated that year 4 was the best move for me.

      Not everyone who does a long postdoc is getting screwed. We're not talking about graduate students--these are adult decisions made by adults. If you take a postdoc at a place that pays crap, or for a sociopath PI, that's *your* decision.

    2. I'm not trying to second guess adults. I am asking whether the job market is such that there is substantial opportunity in the private sector that allegedly needs lots of PhD scientists (according to umpteen million reports from federal agencies, professional societies, and industrial lobbying groups). If the private sector really needs lots of PhDs then there will be lots of opportunities and the best choice for many (not all) adults will be a move to the private sector. If the private sector isn't in dire need of PhD scientists and the true "need" is for postdoc labor then postdoc positions will be the easier things to find and the best decision for many adults will be to go with that.

    3. Oh yes, the ol' impending publication....just could not get done any sooner!

  4. At some institutions they have a separate tier of jobs labeled "Research Scientist". These people are basically glorified postdocs who get "binned" to keep their costs down (since postdoc salaries are pegged to NIH-scale, which escalates with experience). I bet the numbers of people who go from postdoc to research scientist after year 4 is also fairly high.

  5. If I understood the table correctly, it only shows the time since PhD for people who are currently postdocs, not necessarily the time spent in a postdoc position. I think some of the postdocs with many years since PhD are people who were in industry, but have decided to return to academia for whatever reason. It may sound unbelievable, but such people do exist.