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The wages of a life science Ph.D. (not high!)

Gene Expression
By Razib Khan
Jul 9, 2012 3:31 AMNov 20, 2019 1:17 AM


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A few people have emailed me about this article in The Washington Post, U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there. Other people cover this area well (for example), so I'm not going to say much. But first, ignore the article in the paper, and read the original survey which the article is based on: Science & Engineering Labor Force. What the newspaper article added in terms of value was interviewing a small number of people. This is fine I suppose, but it adds no real substantive value, because you can't really obtain a representative sample. Additionally, if you look at the employment data in the PDF I link to above you see that though things aren't peachy for Ph.D.s, they are often far better than for people with less education. In other words you can't just compare a science Ph.D. to some idealized full-employment world with 100% job satisfaction. In the real world everyone has to hustle now, and often it is better to hustle with a doctorate than not. What the PDF attached does illustrate is that the cost of forgone wages probably hits life science Ph.D.s in particular. The perpetual postdoc syndrome is probably what's depressing wages for this subset. Ultimately the problem here is that you are taking the category, "STEM Ph.D.", and collapsing it all together into one class. Institution matters. A Stanford Ph.D. is going to have a better prospect than a Ph.D. from the University of Mississippi. Field matters. Your lab matters. Your aims matter. If a tenure track position is your goal, and you aren't going to be happy with anything else,

then you should know that all things equal the odds are going to be against you.

Of course all things aren't equal. Some people get lucky, or are better placed by the end of their graduate education, or, they're smarter and more talented to begin with. One thing in the article though that I was curious about was this:

After earning her expensive doctorate in neuroscience over seven years, which she financed by working and drawing down her savings, Amaral spent a year counting blips on a computer screen for another scientist.... ... Salaries for university post-doc jobs start at about $39,000, according to the National Postdoctoral Association. They require a science PhD — which can leave the recipient buried in debt. Benefits are usually minimal and, until a decade ago, even health insurance was rare.

How common is debt for those who get Ph.D.s? Most of the science Ph.D.s I know have stipends or are teaching assistants. When looking around for hard numbers, all I found was this, Graduate Student Debt Matters:

But graduate students aren't necessarily seeking financial return on an investment. Many of them are simply trying to pay for their studies in the only way they can. Only a small percentage of graduate students receive full financial aid. Even if we keep that in mind, graduate-student debt levels are startling: The 2004 median figures are $28,000 for those who have master's degrees, and $45,000 for Ph.D.'s.Those totals don't even include undergraduate loans. (Note, too, that those figures are medians, which are more telling than averages in this case. Some graduate students, especially those at wealthy universities, finish with little or no debt, while others might carry $75,000 or more.) ... Graduate students in the sciences receive the most financial support. They also finish their degrees the fastest. Humanities students receive lower levels of support and, thus, pay more dollars into the system. They finish more slowly and take on more debt. (They also work longer for the university at apprentice wages, paying sweat into the system—without receiving any "sweat equity" in return—before they start writing checks to the banks that issued their loans.)

I'd like this issue clarified in regards to science graduate students. I don't know much about this, and querying around doesn't return specific results.

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