New Overtime Law Could Mean Pink Slips for Postdocs … and Maybe That Isn’t Such a Bad Thing

A version of this post was originally published on the Wayne State University BEST blog

On May 18th, a new ruling by the US Department of Labor makes overtime pay mandatory for workers making less than $47,476 per year. The change goes into effect in December 2016. Rather than pay overtime, many universities are expected to raise salaries to meet the cut-off.

With the average annual compensation of a postdoc hovering around $45,000, and many making far less, the 30,000 to 40,000 postdocs across the nation are counting this as a victory.

But does throwing a few extra thousand dollars at highly trained scientists really count as a win, or more as a consolation prize?

In their December 2014 report The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited, the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine argued that postdoc salaries should be raised to a minimum of $50,000 a year, and that many postdocs should be reclassified as staff scientists, with a pay increase appropriate to their education and expertise.

Originally intended as an extension of graduate training, the postdoc is supposed to be a temporary position – a time of skill refinement, critical thinking enhancement, and above all else an apprenticeship.  Apprenticeships, historically, are poorly paid.  But they are so because the benefits of such experiences — extensive mentoring, the bestowing of skills and strategy to novices — are supposed to launch lifelong careers.

Over the years, however, the postdoc has morphed from a brief, guided stint into a directionless, holding pattern.  Many “superdocs” work indefinitely,[1] managing the lab and doing far more than the the position warrants, especially for the pay.  Some do so because they are unable to find positions (on the academic job market or otherwise), but also because they do not receive the mentoring from lab directors who are either stretched too thin or fail to recognize the importance of discussing career plans with their mentees.  Others remain in order to maintain a work-life balance or for family reasons.

Between 2000 and 2012, the postdoc population swelled by 150%, a consequence of newly minted PhDs pouring into such positions by default, as the number of tenured and other full-time faculty positions plateaued and, in some places, waned.  As a result, there is a large pool of “superdocs.”  (For a snapshot of trends in doctoral education in the sciences, see “What shall we do about all the PhDs?”)

As the laws of supply and demand dictate, postdocs are in high supply and consequently, they are cheap.  Many postdocs are trying to raise families on less than what the average college graduate earns.

But if postdocs look outside the academy for employment, they may find that scientist positions in industry are also scarce – the result of stalled drug discovery, expired patents on so-called “blockbuster drugs,” and outsourcing of jobs.  Even the better postdoc positions, at the top end of the pay scale at R1 institutions, are becoming increasingly more difficult to snag.

Further complicating the situation, many doctoral graduates accept postdoc positions even when they are unsure they want to continue doing bench work. According to one study published in Science in May 2016, nearly 80% of life-science graduate students reported that they were planning on doing a postdoc. The reason most cited was that doing so would increase the chances of getting a desired job, even among those looking for nonresearch-oriented careers. Of those who hadn’t planned on pursuing postdoctoral research but ended up doing so anyway, difficulty finding a job was the most commonly reported reason. The study’s authors, Henry Sauermann and Michael Roach, conclude that a “significant share of junior scientists proceeded to the postdoc stage without sufficient information to evaluate nonacademic career options.”  The report urged students to start thinking about their careers before even applying to doctoral programs and called for graduate schools to require applicants to analyze career alternatives and justify why securing the doctorate was the most appropriate way forward. Sauermann said in an email to Inside Higher Ed, “I think that everybody who considers doing a Ph.D. should think about the subsequent steps as well, i.e., the potential need for a postdoc and the possibility of not getting a particular desired job (even with a postdoc).” He noted that “Rather than thinking short term and going step by step (‘Let me do the Ph.D. first and then I’ll think about the next step’), long-term career planning is likely to result in better outcomes.” For example, Sauermann said, a master’s degree may lead someone to work that is just as satisfying as what that person would find with a doctorate.

The new Dept. of Labor ruling may mean that some postdocs can expect a small increase in pay. However, since many labs continue to struggle to maintain funding, there may also be downsizing.  According to Paula Stephan, who studies the economics of scientific research at Georgia State University, “You can’t just say everybody’s going to get more money.”  In a recent article in Nature, she predicted that “There will be fewer postdocs.”

But perhaps thinning out the postdoc (and graduate student) herd is exactly what is needed. Nobody wants to be laid off, but postdocs could benefit from figuring out if they are at the bench because it is part of a bigger plan or because it is the path of least resistance. While the new ruling will only mildly alleviate one symptom of the larger ailing system, it is a sobering indicator that awareness of the problem exists; in the very least, it will ignite a conversation.


[1] Of the more than 40,000 US postdocs in 2013, almost 4,000 had been in their position for more than 6 years (‘The postdoc pile-up’).