Postdoc (Partial) Satisfaction

Most like their positions, but many have tight budgets and question whether they are actually being trained.
April 6, 2005

Most postdocs are satisfied with their positions, according to a new national survey. But the study also identified significant problems with the postdoc system -- including a lack of funds for some (especially those from outside the U.S.) and a lack of training for many.

Sponsors of the study said that they were concerned about the sense that many postdocs do not receive much in the way of training -- giving that an essential part of the concept of the postdoc is to provide training, not just another job.

The survey and a related report -- released today by Sigma Xi: The Scientific Research Society -- was answered by 7,600 postdocs, the overwhelming majority of whom (like the postdoc population as a whole) are in the physical and biological sciences. The postdocs surveyed were at research universities, biomedical institutes and government agencies.

Over all, 70 percent of those surveyed said that they were satisfied with their jobs, while 22 percent said that they were not satisfied, and 8 percent were neutral. While those numbers are positive, the report notes that only 11 percent of all Ph.D. scientists report being unsatisfied with their jobs, raising the question of why a larger share of postdocs aren't happy.

Money appears to be part of the problem. The average salary for postdocs is $38,000, a 10 percent increase over surveys conducted in the mid-1990s when adjusted for inflation. But even with these increases, postdocs lag behind average salaries earned by people of similar ages who have only a bachelor's degree. And the study notes that when you factor in the number of hours postdocs work in a typical week (51), postdocs' hourly average wage of $14.90 is only slightly more than that earned by janitors at Harvard.

Problems are worse for international postdocs. These scholars earn an average of $2,000 less than American citizens do, even when controlling for field of study, years of experience and other relevant factors. International postdocs are also less likely to have income from spouses. While only 28 percent of married postdocs do not have a spouse bringing home a paycheck, the figure rises to 43 percent for international postdocs, many of whom are in the United States on visas that make employment for their spouses difficult.

The conditions facing these postdocs and their families need to be taken seriously, the report warns, noting that 54 percent of postdocs in the survey are in the United States on temporary visas. And almost half of postdocs obtained their doctorates outside the United States.

Summing up the salary picture for postdocs, the report says, "Can postdocs live off what they are paid? Certainly. Can they live well? Probably not."

On the benefits front, postdocs generally have health insurance (97 percent), health insurance for their families (82 percent) and dental insurance (77 percent). But only 26 percent report having child care benefits. And for postdocs with children, adding such benefits are a top priority, the report says.

The survey provides yet more evidence that child rearing falls disproportionately on women in academe -- even among new postdocs who grew up in a more egalitarian era than did many of their faculty mentors. Among women who are postdocs, those with children report spending 6 fewer hours a week at work, on average, than do their childless peers. For men, the gap associated with being a parent is half that.

The area where the authors expressed the most concern was not a financial one. Far too many postdocs, the report says, are not getting the training that should be associated with the experience. About 43 percent of postdocs do not consider their position to represent training at all, the survey found, and 24 percent do not consider their advisers to be mentors.

Those who say they do receive training don't get much of it. "Our respondents reported spending, on average, only about an hour in formal training during the week before they completed the survey," the report said. "And it's clear they are hungry for more."

In general, postdocs are more likely to feel that they were getting good training -- and to feel satisfied with their postdoc experience -- if there is a formal structure to the program, the report said.


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