Friday, July 14, 2017

The costs of academic science workers

This is a very enjoyable summary of a recent speech by minor-deity-of-the-blog Paula Stephan, written by Ken Chiacchia. It's a continuation of the themes she has written about in her book "How Economics Shapes Science." I think the comparison of the cost of graduate students, postdocs and staff scientists is interesting: 
The issue is stark in the decision of whether to employ graduate students, postdoctoral fellows or staff scientists to conduct lab research. Nationally, graduate students average a stipend of about $26,000 annually; in addition, they represent approximately an additional $16,000 or more for tuition and other student costs. Their hourly “pay rate,” then, can be between $19.50 and $27.50. 
Postdoctoral fellows are paid more. But they also have no tuition costs and at most universities have few additional benefits. Assuming a university follows the NIH benchmark of $43,692 for a first-year postdoc, their hourly rate comes to around $17 to $18, depending on the field. 
Staff scientists start at about $60,000 to $75,000, coming out to an hourly rate of about $30.00. But that doesn’t reflect their full cost, which includes much more extensive benefits than students or postdocs. 
Given this incentive structure, Stephan explained, it isn’t hard to understand the relative scarcity of staff scientists. Her own study found that at least 72 percent of academic research papers had postdocs or grad students as their first author. In the NSF’s annual survey, life science PhD graduates with definite job commitments have fallen from a peak of 70% in 1994 to 58% in 2014—and most of those are going to postdoc positions, not permanent jobs.
Stephan really believes in the ameliorative power of staff scientists, but that's because she believes that the best way to deal with the problem of "too many Ph.D.s" is to raise their price. She's an economist, so that's the tool for creating scarcity. (Makes sense, I gotta say.)

I am very curious, though, what the differences in output are between institutions that are student/postdoc heavy and those that are staffed by staff scientists. In addition, I am curious as to if the nature of the output changes, i.e. if the science gets more or less interesting, or more or less innovative. I have no idea what the outcome might be - readers?  

21 comments:

  1. I assume staff scientist is the same as what some places call a "research scientist"? I wasn't super eager to jump into tenure-track applications, and I loved my post-doc research and my group. My advisor was more than willing to take on a staff scientist but I had to get my own funding. I co-wrote a couple of grant applications with her but ultimately nothing was funded and I got an industry position.

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  2. I'm confused, where are staff scientists scarce?

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  3. I would love to see more staff scientists instead of grad students and postdocs. I think one reason why the culture of academia is so toxic is because grad students have no baseline to judge what is and isn't normal workplace/boss behavior. Middle-aged professionals who have worked in industry would push back a lot more than grad students do, probably complaining to university HR and department heads for the worst offenders. The Coreys, Denmarks, etc would be forced to treat everyone like human beings.

    At my first industry job, I had a boss who was an emotional roller coaster and used to scream at us whenever she was in a bad mood. My ideas of normal workplace behavior were so distorted by grad school that I saw absolutely nothing wrong with this. Of course, everyone else did, and she didn't last very long at the company.

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    1. In my opinion, it could go both ways. I'm a middle aged staff scientist at a university but was in industry before this. However, many staff scientists don't have industry experience. It seems that the profs who cultivate a more toxic work environment either don't hire staff scientists, or hire people who won't push back or will help enforce the toxic aspects.

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    2. Why would someone in industry switch to academia, with longer hours and lower pay even at the staff scientist level?

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    3. I did for personal reasons (gf's career was going much better than mine). Despite the fact I'm basically a real old post-doc, it would not surprise me with all the turbulence in industry that I might end up with better life earnings than many who lost there jobs in their 40's and had to retrain. At least that is what I tell myself.

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    4. My pay is similar to what I was getting in industry (after a few years of salary compression). Benefits are better and the cost of living is lower. It's not the right choice for everyone but it works for me.

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  4. Some of the faculty at my institution write grants to support professional B.S.-level technicians instead of post-docs, PhD students, or PhD-level staff scientists. It actually works out fairly well. Once the technician is trained, they become quite independent and reliable, with the advantage that they aren't taking classes, writing a dissertation, or putting together faculty application packages. They work a standard 40-hour week, but I'm convinced that they get as much done as the PhD students or postdocs. It reminds me a lot of my time in industry where we had many professional technicians supporting priority projects.

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    1. I'm glad someone is doing this. Basically they get the same grad school education anyway, so why not give them the PhD title after 5 years.

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    2. Well, because getting a Ph.D. isn't simply working in a lab for X number of years, for starters.

      In my opinion, the biggest hurdle to hiring staff versus having students/post-docs is the fact that funding is temporary and staff positions are not. Having a post-doc on a two-year agreement works better for funding ups and downs versus having someone that is a staff scientist. Unless, of course the staff scientist is on a year-to-year contract.

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  5. But you can't whip a staff scientist like you can a grad student/postdoc and force them to work 80 hrs a week. How are you supposed to motivate anybody to work if you can't hold their future career over their head? We all know productivity vs hours worked is a strictly linear correlation. Those weakling staff scientists might demand "work/life balance", whatever that is.

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    1. But there are 168 hours in a week, so get back in the lab and stop being a selfish nit!

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  6. If there is a surplus of chemists, as I believe, how do you "raise the price"? If one could do that wouldn't even more be attracted to the field? I think the only thing that will work is to create even more barriers to entry into the field. This would include wholesale closing of chemistry graduate programs.

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    1. If the price is raised (more staff scientists) there will likely be fewer jobs available as funding does not increase to accommodate them. So, policies that increase staff scientists by mandate would probably lead to a decrease in graduate students and postdocs. Then you could possibly get the best of the best grad students, or, more likely, those willing to suffer the most. Then again, it could play out very differently.

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  7. A few notes/comments on the above passage:
    1. I assume those "hourly rates" are based on a 40 hour work week. Based on the amount of time that grad students and post-docs put in, that raises the relative cost of staff scientists even more than those numbers suggest.
    2. Post-docs, with their additional training and experience, can generally get more done with their time than graduate students, especially beginning graduate students, making them a much better investment. This is countered by the fact that graduate students are eligible for TA positions and other departmental funding, which can completely offset their costs (for the PI, at least).
    3. Most of the post-docs I know/knew were acutely aware of their 1-2 year position and were very driven to build their CV during that time, in a way that graduate students (with a 5-6 year outlook) and staff scientists were not. I remain in awe of the productivity and focus of most of the post-docs I worked with and learned from. For me, the take-home is that the actual cost analysis is much more complex than a simple salary/benefits analysis.

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    1. On 3...I've also seen some major corner-cutting that a staff scientist would not feel pressured to do. The truth is, the scope of post-doctoral work has to be matched very carefully with the length of the appointment. Work for a doctoral thesis can be more meandering, but there's always a deadline. I agree with you, though, that the cost-benefit analysis is complex...and I'll add, not always intelligently made.

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  8. This whole thing is quite a good joke; thanks for the laugh this Friday.

    When in grad school, myself and a friend sat down to calculate what we made per hour; IIRC, it was something like $4-5/hr. Gotta love that 'salary' pay. I hope that new overtime law for salaried employees can affect future grad students for the better.

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  9. I am a postdoc at a national lab where staff scientists are a thing. They are mostly PIs who spend most of their time advising and writing grants, although they do some benchwork (some more than others). We don't have as many of them as we could, because partially because hiring a term employee--postdoc or research associate--is cheaper. There is an intermediate between career track research/staff scientist and a postdoc called a "project scientist" where they are also term, but typically that is a postdoc who has stayed past 5 years (thus ineligible at our institution to be a postdoc). Typically in that situation there is no opening for a career track position, but they are productive and the PI wants to keep them around. Sometimes this role works for people (they want to be bench scientists, but with higher pay than postdocs), but often it's just a higher paid holding pattern. Also, there are fewer of them than postdocs.

    I think the national labs would definitely benefit from having more permanent staff than the budget currently allows--they are structured for it. Because it's contingent on the federal budget, though, there are not a lot of new openings for permanent positions. Also, once someone gets a staff scientist gig, they usually are pretty happy to stay in it for a while--often their whole career. As it stands, a lot of postdocs end up doing work that is better suited to permanent staff--such as working on long term, high risk projects that don't lead to publications that can be completed in 1-3 years, working on highly collaborative projects where first authorship is unlikely, hitting milestones which are important programmatically but difficult to figure out how to spin into publications/credit for individual contribution, holding off on publications for IP reasons, working on an industry partner's pet project that is really never going to work but helps pay the bills to keep other projects going, etc. This sometimes can be hard to balance with the need to get concrete accomplishments so that you can give a job talk after ~3 years. And at least in the DOE office of science labs, it's not unheard of, but certainly not the norm for people to land a permanent position at the national lab where they work after a postdoc. Usually, that's a right place right time kind of thing. Mostly people go on to industry or academia afterwards. I love it here, and if the opportunity arose to get a permanent position, I would jump on it, but it's very unlikely.

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  10. postdocs are willing to take one half (or even one third!) salary of a staff scientist, and they often want to stay in US and have a visa problem - they are very easy to get rid off. And they don't endanger junior PIs because they leave.

    I have seen both biotech companies and academic institutions suffering from too many hungry young PhDs struggling for advancement like a can of worms crawling one over another - it is not the most pleasant environment because normal interactions between colleagues and coworkers (=you need someone's help or you offer to do something for someone, or even discussing the research results) become so politically charged. It is simply not possible for every PhD to have his own lab, his own project and 2 or more technicians reporting to him.

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  11. The above analysis (in the original post) ignores the fact that most academic funding is on a 3 or 5 year grant cycle. It makes more sense to hire a postdoc (who by definition is on a 2-3 year timeline) when funding is only guaranteed until the end of the current grant than to hire a research scientist who is looking for a longer term position/commitment.

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    1. It's not ignoring it, it's focused on a different problem- the perverse incentives that drive research institutions and PIs to rely on graduate students and postdocs to do research. This is a market failure that inevitably leads to an excess of people with PhDs and one or more postdocs.

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