Another Futile Call to Remedy the Post-Doc Problem

Our various national academies have published yet another report on the outrageous state of post-docs (post-doctoral researchers, typically in STEM), a perfect example of the principle that powerful interests won’t solve problems that even they admit are severe, if it would mean compromising the financial well-being of those interests.  In this case, those powerful interests are universities and research institutes, hiring cheap labor, both domestic and foreign.  And yes, the latter typically hold H-1B work visas, and according to one figure, about 60% of the post docs are foreign.  The salary and working conditions tend toward the Dickensian, clearly showing a huge surplus of labor — and yet Congress wants to give all foreign STEM students earning U.S. degrees automatic green cards.

As the article at the above link points out, this is hardly news.  Many national science organizations have noted it for years — see my Migration Letters paper for some references, for instance — and anyway, isn’t the problem obvious?  These scientists work for years at low wages, which are years of painful limbo, as they have no idea whether a career awaits them at the end of that time.  Imagine being age 35 and still working as a temp.  Most people have families, homes and so on by that age, and you’re still a low-paid temp with a highly uncertain future.

Of course, the spin placed on this by the universities is that national science research is underfunded, hence the labor surplus. Look at the way the article puts it (emphasis added):

All that [the good old days, when being a post doc was so pleasant]  changed, of course, since the 1970s, when Petsko was a postdoc, he said, “and not in a good way.” The plight of postdocs worsened in the last decade in particular, he said, due in part to the failure of federal science agencies to have budgets large enough to keep up with demand. Recent Ph.D.s also face a much tougher tenure-track academic job market, even in the STEM fields.

Interesting word, demand.  Let’s put that word in perspective:  Universities want research dollars.  To maximize the dollars, they maximize the number of researchers.  Producing more research brings in more dollars, which in turn requires more researchers to spend the money on, etc.  And cheap researchers are best, to “get more bang for the buck.”  That’s why the National Science Foundation has been so supportive of the H-1B program; even though the foreign workers are paid the same as the Americans, swelling the labor market reduces wages, in fact so much that not many Americans are interested in pursuing science research.  What I wrote in the 1990s holds even truer today:

Indeed, Massy and Goldman point out [in a Stanford-RAND Corp. study] that production of Ph.D.’s in science and engineering is geared not to labor market needs, but rather to the “needs'” of university faculty to produce Ph.D.’s! A faculty member’s rise in the ranks will depend to a great degree on how much federal and private grant funds he/she is able to attract, and how many Ph.D. students he/she produces (the funds are used to provide financial support to the students). Massy and Goldman quote a chair of a major Computer Science Department as saying that he sets the enrollment level for his department’s graduate program by simply multiplying a per-faculty quota for Ph.D.’s by the number of faculty in the department; this is standard practice.

There is an interesting postscript concerning that Massy-Goldman report.  In 1995 some academic computer scientists found an apparent error there, due to a change in NSF definitions of CS, and announced that Massy agreed.  But in that announcement, CTO Forest Baskett of the then-high flying firm SGI said, “A trend I do find disturbing and counterproductive is the trend toward postdoctoral fellows in computer science…We’ve had a fabulous 30 year history of great relations between our computer science departments and a vibrant industry without postdoctoral fellows gumming up the works…This is a good model. Let’s not break it.”  Well, since that time the number of post docs in CS has grown tremendously; see my Migration Letters paper for references.  (Baskett also said that his firm didn’t need PhDs but said they are smart people.)  Again this illustrates academia’s addiction to cheap labor, and the surplus of PhDs.

Ah, but doesn’t our economy and society benefit from all that research, you ask?  I would be the first one to say that society should indeed invest in research.  But the huge emphasis on money has major perverse effects that actually reduce the societal/economic value of the research work that that money supports; see a related essay I was asked to write on “machine learning” and the like.  Here is a concrete example:

I once attended a talk by a very famous computer science professor whom I’ll call X.  He was presenting the results of his main research project at the time, a very complex and powerful computational system.  During the talk, in response to a question from the audience, it became clear that he really didn’t know his own project very well, not too surprising as he was at the top of a pyramid:  He had some Associate Professors run things, and they in turn supervised the post docs, who in turn supervised the doctoral students and so on.  In other words, the prodigious talent of Professor X was not being put to good use; his “job” was just to bring in the bucks.  The reader comment at the first link above says it well:  “I bet you dollars to donuts that the average quality of research would improve dramatically if (1) it wasn’t being carried out mostly/entirely by people who were still in the midst of their ‘apprenticeships’…”

And, most important, what became of that highly funded project of Prof. X’s, at one of the top five universities in the country?  The answer, as far as I know, is “basically nothing.”  Today, 20 years later, I am not aware of any major findings from the project that have been incorporated into practical systems today.  Indeed, a quick check in Google Scholar shows that even in the research world, X’s work on that project has rarely been cited after 2000.  Even accounting for the likely fact that some papers today might contain references to a chain of papers going back to X’s in the mid-1990s, it’s pretty clear that X’s project just hasn’t had much impact.

Again, I love doing research.  But today’s “business model” (an apt term) is just wrong, in myriad senses, including the sad plight of post docs.  And since so many of our government policy makers are so obsessed with competing with China, let me ask this simple question:  Why doesn’t China have a post doc system?

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5 thoughts on “Another Futile Call to Remedy the Post-Doc Problem

  1. After a whole career directly competing with post-docs from other countries for jobs and salaries, I earn $50,000 per year. My wife, once a foreign post-doc for 17 years, saw the folly 5 years ago and crawled off the treadmill never earning more than $40,000. Would I ever counsel anyone, foreign, or a US citizen to go into academic research? NEVER! I have seen and heard nightmare stories from others of acts committed to post docs. Did anyone ever rise-up and complain? Only once did I witness such a thing. A Chinese post-doc was upset because of the hours he was required to work, weekends/holidays, pressure to work 60-80 hours per week for $26,000 per year. He was fired and sent back to China the very next day!

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  2. I was amazed to find out how little time is required of a “principal investigator” on a project. This seems to vary by solicitation; I saw one with a 1% commitment or 0.4 hours per week. This is barely time to have a cup of coffee with the grad students on the project much less accomplish any meaningful work. Numerous others had a 3% time commitment – a half a day a month. Add to that the extensive travel of some faculty means that there is little or no input from the PI on an ongoing basis.

    I have found another disturbing practice – the hiring of a PI’s family member to work in the PI’s lab. In the cases I have found, the family member has fewer academic credentials than the post docs in the lab but have a higher salary (public university so salary data is available). This is especially troubling when there have been individuals working in the lab and suddenly the PI’s spouse is hired on a nepotism waiver as the “best” qualified person for the job at a significantly higher salary as a “staff” member. The post docs deserve better.

    Add to this the use of faculty labs and university staff to conduct the business of the PI’s personal company both in the university facilities and using the students as “interns” at the business.

    The problems are much more than one would expect.

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      • Then they should quit giving grants for essentially the same work! I am tracing grants to a PI over 8 years for millions from both NIH and DOE for what appears to be either no or incremental progress. His contributions include being on sabbatical outside the US for a semester during the award. He received another million for determining that he needed to take a different approach which he determined to be the case one year into a two year time period based on filing dates for other grants for the project from state agencies. Why he did not do this during the one year remaining on the award is beyond me (this is the time when he went on sabbatical).

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