Study: Biomedical Postdocs Might Not Be Worth It

January 11, 2017

Postdoctoral positions in the biomedical sciences are now considered almost a prerequisite for a permanent position in the field. But a new study published in Nature Biotechnology suggests that postdoc stints don’t yield positive returns in the labor market and likely cost graduates three years’ worth of salary in their first 15 years of work. “A majority of biomedical Ph.D.s enter postdocs that last an average of four years,” one of the study’s authors, Shulamit Kahn, professor of business at Boston University, said in a news release. “These scientists hope that the postdoc will propel them into their ideal career in tenure-track academia. The problem is that 80 percent of them are going to have made this investment for naught and will be sorely disappointed. … They would be much better off if they moved directly into the same industry or staff scientist jobs that they will end up working in anyway.”

For their study, Kahn and co-author Donna Ginther, a professor of economics at the University of Kansas, analyzed longitudinal data from the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates and its Survey of Earned Doctorate Recipients, from 1981 to 2013, comparing the later careers of biomedical Ph.D.s who completed postdocs with those who didn’t. The study suggests that opportunity costs of pursuing a postdoc are high over the course of one’s career, in that the median annual starting salary for postdocs four years after earning their Ph.D.s was $44,724 in inflation-adjusted 2013 dollars, compared to $73,662 for those who had entered the permanent work force immediately. And when postdocs did eventually enter the work force, they were not awarded with a higher salary for their experience. Controlling for various factors, the 10-year post-Ph.D. salaries of those with postdoc experience were $12,002 lower than those of their peers without it.

The paper offers suggestions for alleviating the problem, including that universities hire staff research scientists to assist tenured faculty members with research, paying postdocs more to reduce the reliance on “cheap” labor and creating more tenure-track faculty lines for new graduates.

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