It’s all about choices. We make pro/con lists all the time. We consider X variables, make some assumptions, weigh options, and decide.
In a series of posts, I’m going to objectively decide a career after my PhD. I’ll have to ignore the subjective aspects for now. This is the Vulcan approach.
Odds of becoming a professor in the US after a 5 year postdoc: ~15% (data from NIH here).* Underlined items will be addressed in the future.
- The Return on investment depends on a) the average salary, b) the opportunity cost of pursuing a different career, c) the time it takes to secure a professorship, and d) satisfaction.
A) The average salary of a starting assistant professor depends on location and institution: I will use numbers from the University of California system as an example. UC faculty salaries are determined by peer review, and are “merit” based. Salaries range from 66k-150k for year 1 assistant professors. The average salary varies by location. This is something I’ll have to address later.
B) I will crunch the numbers on different career paths later.
C) If I use the numbers from the US: The average time to a doctoral degree in biomedical science is 5.5-7 years. The average post doc length is 5 years. So on average, an 11 year investment to gain a faculty position (not really, but I’ll address this later). During these years, I could be working in industry making x salary depending on my position. I’ll address this money problem below.
D) Is satisfaction measurable? Maybe there are job satisfaction numbers available for faculty vs industry vs government vs etc.? Does “prestige” matter?
- The odds are adjustable based on Career Capital (publication history, funding history, marketable skills, networking)
A) publication and funding history are a product of luck and work. MOST of the time, more work will yield more publications and funding. I will dive into this luck/work factor later.
B) marketable skills depend on projects and opportunities. Example: Most molecular biologists may understand the applications of mass spectrometry, but would not be able to perform or analyze mass spec data. I will also address this later.
C) The value of who you know is almost impossible to objectively calculate. Unless we can assign values to each person, and determine whether that connection can help you get a faculty position. I would need data showing tenure track faculty and who they knew prior to getting that position. I will have to find a way to objectively calculate this later.
Let’s first tackle the money problem. Here are some numbers:
The average academic postdoc length is 5 years until a faculty position. This means your salary for 5 years is NIH mandated and there are no rate adjustments for cost of living. IE Salaries in Bumsville, MN are the same as San Francisco, CA.
Assuming standard deductions/exemptions for single filer, these are the salaries for an academic NIH postdoc:
- Year 1: $43,692, take home: ~39,144
- Year 2: $45,444, take home: ~40,644
- Year 3: $47,268, take home: ~42,190
- Year 4: $49,152, take home: ~43,652
- Year 5: $51,120, take home: ~45,132
If we ignore state tax and assume standard deductions, after 5 years as an academic postdoc, you will have taken home $210,762.
Now, for a postdoc in industry, we can use the salaries for a biotech in California, such as Genentech (salaries here).
- Year 1: $65,000, take home: ~55,550
- Year 2: $67,000, take home: ~57,050
- Year 3: $69,000, take home: ~58,550
- Year 4: $71,000, take home: ~60,050
- Year 5: salary assumed same as year 4, none posted.
After 5 years as a postdoc at Genentech, you will have taken home $291,250. This even assumes you spend 5 years as a postdoc. It’s possible you will have become a staff scientist before then. If you become an associate scientist after 4 years, your 5th year you will make ~112k, and that number balloons to ~$340,000.
In summary, a postdoc in academia will make $80,488 less than a postdoc in industry over the course 5 years, or roughly $16,000 per year less.
So then why doesn’t everybody do an industry postdoc then try to move back into an academic position? Several possibilities:
- Who you know. In academia, you are probably more likely to meet other academics who will affect your chances of acquiring an academic faculty position. MAYBE knowing more academics increases your chances of remaining an academic. It’d be helpful to know how these correlate.
- What you know. In academia, you learn to apply for grants. In industry, that’s not so much the case. It’s possible faculty search committees favor academic postdocs because they believe that academics are better equipped to secure grant funding, or better for an academic job. I have no idea what kind of conversations happen at faculty search committees, but I’d love to get some data on this.
- Maybe industry postdocs are harder to get? Though I doubt this because postdoc salaries are basically half of permanent staff.
- It’s also possible that people in industry become accustomed to the lifestyle (by lifestyle I mean not being broke), and choose not to go back into academia.
*I am not sure how this 15% was calculated. Some postdocs may only need 3 years to acquire a tenure-track faculty position, and some require 7 years, but the average is 5 years and 15% of all postdocs become tenure-track faculty?? Or maybe after 5-years your chances are 15%, but each year after that 15% of postdocs become faculty?? Who knows. But let’s make assumptions that it will take exactly 5 years because it’s some kind of arbitrary prerequisite.
Up next: Salaries, satisfaction and prestige.
There’s a fundamental problem with students in the sciences. They don’t care about anything but grades and “getting a good job.” They don’t get exposed to research and simply have no idea what it means. It’s upsetting. Each of them seems to think they will simply go to medical school and become a doctor. Health care is sensationalized by the media, while the real life savers are in the background doing research. Doing real science.
There was a discussion on the ASM page of LinkedIn that I stumbled upon. The thread was about “the future of the Ph.D.” That’s when I saw this mind blower: “While it’s true there are some jobs that require the degree, there are a lot more that will consider you overqualified if you get it. If you want a secure career look elsewhere.”
WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? This is incredibly aggravating. You get a Ph.D because you absolutely love science. Not for fame, or money (there is none in science), not for some “secure career.” You do it because you can’t live without the thrill of the discovery. You have to love the chase, to be enthralled with the unknown. You have to know that with each thing you find out, there are a million more intricacies behind it.
It’s hard to believe that most people are heading into their adult lives seeking degrees for some sort of pay increase or stability. Look at what science has given us. We take it all for granted.
Food for thought: The US military receives roughly $680 billion per year. The NIH only receives $30 billion annually. How is this sustainable?
“The reason you do it, is because you can’t do without it.”
Don’t Become a Scientist!. Written by Dr. Katz, a professor of physics at Washington U. in St. Louis, MO.
He’s cynical, and why wouldn’t he be? After getting a PhD, you get congratulated with a salary just above the poverty line. Then what? Another 2? 5? 10 years as a post-doc? The practical thing (thanks M Wong) would be to go into industry and pay your dues, climb the ladder, and in 20 years claim some management position within the company.
But what is this PhD thing really about? I Googled “why get a PhD,” (you can do the same) and the first article is just as disheartening. “Officially, you get a PhD to demonstrate your competence at research, and this is partly true.” Partly true. He goes on to show that PhDs are not always the best researchers, they may be average and that each PhD has a different value (albeit relative) perhaps based on research relevance, mentor, school, etc. Discouraging much?
“Apart from mercenary motives, or ego gratification, or the desire to be taken more seriously by others for not altogether relevant reasons, go for a PhD only if you really want to do research, or teach in a university, or take a leading role in developing policy based on research, or some combination of these goals. The best reason of all to enroll in a doctoral program is because you want to become more intellectually engaged with and more critically sophisticated in the study of some issue or field.”
I don’t think the right question is “why get a PhD?” I should be asking myself “why not?”
What would you do if you had a million dollars? Maybe that’s what you should do.