The risk of a long post-doc

On the heels of the recent announcement that the NIH will increase post-doc salaries, an article suggested that the proposed increase doesn’t go far enough. Leading the charge was a scientist in Boston who has been a post-doc for seven years. Maybe I was a bit of a troll for sending that Dr. Isis’s way. Seven years is too long for a post-doc, she posted, a post-doc should be no more than four years and a few people on line lost their minds at this suggestion. No way! Everyone is an individual! Different fields demand more time! Science doesn’t work on a schedule! You’re making our shakras come unaligned! Came the retorts. (I may have made that last one up.) Differences of opinion between intelligent people are fascinating, and I enjoy contemplating the roots of a disagreement. I don’t pretend to know the right answer, but I noticed a parallel with something apparently unrelated and I love making weird connections:

Extending your post-doc past four years is like going into debt. And I believe debt is a bad thing. “The borrower is the slave to the lender.”There is a fundamental disagreement amongst us about whether a post-doc is an employee and deserves a stable fair wage to send their kids to summer camp and have a nice place to live in a nice neighborhood with all the other fancy people. Or is it slavery*? I respect my post-docs tremendously and their professional and personal success is important to me. But they are more like slaves than employees. They are not paid enough for the work they do and that is as it should be because they a) receive training; and b) should be motivated to conclude their post-doc as soon as possible. We have staff scientist and technician positions that are straight-up get paid for the work of science, but a post-doctoral fellowship is not that.

Sure, some people spend 7 years and do just great. So do some people take on debt and pay it off without problems. But the hard nosed anti-debt philosophy is justified because the vast majority of people are victims while they are being swindled into believing they are the beneficiaries. Post-docs, like debtors, are victims in subtle ways like lost opportunities and a failure to build wealth. But more concretely, what post-docs are not facing hard enough is the reality of risk. Optimism is essential in science and in life and it’s difficult to put my own optimism on hold and contemplate the reality that things don’t always go as planned. Just like Dave Ramsey counsels “gazelle intensity” to get out of debt as fast as possible, post-docs should not get comfortable or chart an extended course, but should focus on getting their work done as soon as possible, like they were in a burning building. Because they are. There is the very real risk that the paper won’t work out, or the PI’s grant gets cut, or the imagined job opportunity won’t materialize, and this risk is real. Having debt assumes a rosey future path, that life will continue on without major interruption, but in the event of a crisis, the bank will be fine, but debtor is screwed. As a PI, I’m going to be fine. The primary job of the post-doc, for their own good, is to find a permanent job.

PS. The four years limit is of course arbitrary, but the number works because it is within the working span of many grants. A post-doc fellowship that extends beyond the scope of a single grant is also indirectly a violation of a promise to the granting organization.

* Addendum: Friends on line have expressed dismay and offense at the use of slavery in any way shape or form here. I know the missing and critical ingredient that differentiates slavery is consent. I agree wholeheartedly that post-docs are not slaves and it’s offensive to suggest that.

Saying that I should call post-docs “underpaid employees”or “exploited workers,” misses my point though, which was that it is not helpful to suggest we need a fix so post-docs can be contented workers. Post-docs are intentionally and consensually exploited workers and the fix is to wrap things up and get out ASAP.