Saturday, August 31, 2013

Let's Pay PhD Students More and Professors Less?

I just read a provocative post in The Guardian, titled "PhD: so what does it really stand for?"
The article focuses on the abysmal compensation of graduate students and recommends reducing salaries of professors in order to pay students more. Specifically, the proposal is to draconically cut the salaries of PIs:
A second option wouldn't hinder research, and might even enhance it: cut the salary of professors by half. If there are solid reasons for PhDs being paid half of what they deserve, then the same hold good for professors.)
What a terrible suggestion! Not terrible because students are paid enough  - what this article does not consider is that professors are already paid half.

In 2001, about to graduate from college, I turned down a programming position at a hedge fund.  Instead, I chose to do bioinformatics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for a much lower salary.  I was excited about the possibilities of doing biological research using computational tools.  Two years later, I enthusiastically entered graduate school in molecular biology, with my salary dropping by half for the next six years. As a postdoctoral researcher at MIT, I am not even back to earning what I did ten years ago as a junior programmer with no skills or domain-specific knowledge.  In a commercial setting, my compensation would have kept pace with my knowledge and skills, but in academia, there seems to be a complete decoupling of the two. There are many sacrifices that academia requires, and I can spend pages moaning about them, but the suggestion to pay students more and professors less would probably exacerbate the problems and create a ton of new ones.

  1. In my opinion, one of the biggest concerns for research right now is the crisis in funding. (I have a a separate essay that I wrote about this a few months ago, and I will be posting it in 1-2 months for a good reason.) The funding crisis is so bad that we are about to lose an entire generation of brilliant professors. One of the causes of this is the glut of research labs - we need fewer labs. The Guardian article calls for more funding for PhDs to get more better students and to be able to fund more labs, and would make the crisis that much worse.
  2. If the prospect of being a professor already requires an enormous sacrifice and we are in danger of losing the best people from academia, how does telling aspiring professors that on top of all the problems, they will also be paid half for the rest of their lives help? Academia and professor positions are already barely competitive for the best and the brightest, cut life-long renumeration in half, and you have a fully unmitigated disaster.
  3. I realize that I have a terribly skewed perspective on the student body. Still, doing graduate work in Berkeley and a postdoc in MIT, if anything, I always felt inadequate compared to all of the amazing students. It never for a second seemed to me that we are not attracting top talent into PhD slots.
  4. I am far from convinced that graduate students are underpaid. 
I realize that #4 is an incendiary statement. So let me elaborate. Back as a student in Berkeley, I did an interesting comparison to answer exactly the question, "Are PhDs paid enough?" My wife had just graduated from a Physician Assistant program. The program was two and a half years in length, and after graduation, she instantly was able to start work with a salary of $70K. It was amazing - she started her school a year after me, finished basically half-way through my PhD, and started getting a salary that I wouldn't see for many more years. And she treats patients; her job has as many intrinsic rewards as my job. She is not sacrificing satisfaction at work for a higher paycheck.

So why do I think it's fair? Let's do some simple math:

Assume 6 years of PhD training with a stipend of $30K per year. At the end, my net plus is $180K. Meanwhile, for my wife, the 2.5 years of school have no stipend and cost a ton of money in tuition and books. At $30K per year of training, over the six-year period of my PhD, she is looking at -30*2.5+$70*3.5 = net plus of $170K. So over the 6-year period, I got $10,000 more than her in my "underpaid PhD". 

As a final comment, I have had several discussions with friends who argue that the way to fix the healthcare costs in United States is to cut the salaries of doctors. From a purely selfish position, that is bad for us because high cost of doctors increases demand for physician assistants. But the real argument against paying doctors less is the same as against paying professors less - the demanded sacrifice to get to the final position is so great, decrease drastically the final long-term compensation, and no one will go into medicine. (Through medical school, residency, fellowship - it takes you so long to get to be a practicing physician, and many start with $300-500K student loans hanging over their heads - that to also not compensate the doctors after the decade of training is just preposterous.)


  1. "Assume 6 years of PhD training with a stipend of $30K per year."

    That's generous. You can get 30k as a doctoral student if (A) you're awarded an NSF graduate fellowship (funding rates for these are very low) or (B) you're at a top school - take a look at biomedical PhD stipends: (The data here is from 2009-2010, but it's not like it's risen much since.) Only the top 7 schools pay 30k or more. The rest of us are somewhere below that - I would speculate that the average is closer to 20k, and plenty of students in the sciences are making less than that.

    So, substituting in a more realistic 20k, at the end of the 6-year period we're actually down $50k relative to a PA and face significantly worse job prospects. After that, you'll wade through years of postdocs before having a chance at a tenure-track position, which likely *still* won't command a $70k salary.

  2. Yes, I was thinking of stipends at top schools. Still, my argument stands - as graduate students, we get paid for our training and do not need to take loans, in contrast to other degrees (medical, law, business). Also, going for a postdoc is optional. You can get the PhD and go into a biotech, consulting, law firm, pharmaceutical - all at good salaries.

    Most of all, just think about the Guardian proposal over an academic's lifetime. Let's pay students and postdocs more and professors half. Okay, let's double the graduate salary from $20K to $40K per year. That's an extra $120K over the PhD training. And let's increase postdoc salary from $40 to $80 per year for five years, that's an increase of $200K. Beautiful. But in exchange, for the rest of the professor's tenure, say 30 years of work, she will get half the income? What, $50K less per year for 30 years? You are then giving $320K more for student/postdoc time and cutting $1.5 million from the next phase? Thanks! I'll take the extra million in exchange for lower stipend.

  3. (Full disclosure, I'm an assistant professor and so I am of course biased.)

    I think the notion of lowering professors' salaries by half is completely ridiculous. I think professors' salaries are generally about as low as they could be without essentially destroying academia as we know it. I actually *know* that I could double my salary in industry, if not more. I, like many of my colleagues, work in academia because we love science, and because of that, we are willing to earn much less than we could otherwise. However, speaking for myself, I would not work this same job for half the salary I currently earn–it would just be too hard to live that way now that I'm older and have more, umm, "life obligations", and it would not repay the enormous amount of effort that I put into my job. Whether anyone would care if I was no longer in academia is not for me to say :), but I would guess that many other more esteemed professors would feel similarly.

    Another point: I think it's actually not good to base this conversation in cost-benefit analyses. One can argue endlessly about whether this earns better than that over xyz years, etc., but I think that that sort of thinking reduces people to dollar-producing automatons. Yes, money matters (see above), but only to a certain point, at least for me. I love my job and wouldn't jump to another job just to double my salary. In fact, if I won the lottery today, I'd still show up to work on Monday (even though it's a holiday!). How much is that worth? I was a graduate student in NYC earning next to nothing, and I loved pretty much every minute of it. It's not just me–I know so many people who later on have very fond memories of their PhD time, no matter what they end up doing. I also know some people who don't have good memories of their PhD time, but I don't think anyone's ever told me the reason was primarily because of the low pay. For instance, in the infamous piece in The Economist, the author really sounds like they have some other issues going on beyond just low pay.

    Anyway, I like to think that life is about more than a number in a bank computer somewhere. My hope is that I can create for my students a time where they got to do something at the very boundary of human knowledge, a feeling that they keep with them through their life and maybe can pass on to someone else at some time in the future. But whatever, I also want to point out that I have yet to meet a person with a PhD who does not have a job (except by choice), and typically a pretty nice job at that!

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  5. I cannot imagine not having spent at least a few years after my undergraduate education learning how to do science. Being able to do so as a PhD student was awesome, almost too good to be true. The sacrifice of my paycheck, no matter how large, is irrelevant because I could do the thing that I really wanted to do and the paycheck was enough to cover all the expenses that I needed. Every other career choice at that point would have sacrificed my first priority to a large degree and thus been inferior, despite providing potentially many more rewards/money that I do not value highly.