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Postdoctoral Researchers—Facts, Trends, and Gaps

The National Postdoctoral Association defines External Web Site Policy a postdoctoral scholar (or a postdoc) as “an individual holding a doctoral degree who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing.” 

As the data show, postdocs are more prevalent in most of the top fields receiving NIH funding (genetics, biochemistry, developmental biology, and neuroscience) than in those fields that receive less NIH funding (nursing, public health, and pharmaceutical science). In light of this, the experiences and future paths of postdocs obviously are an essential part of any study of the biomedical research workforce. 

As we started delving more deeply into the data, however, it became clear that we lack reliable information about the postdoc population in the US. There are many reasons for this. First and foremost, we do not collect much information about foreign-trained PhDs who come to the US to do a postdoc, and we have no idea how long they stay or how many leave after their training. These foreign-trained postdocs comprise about 2/3 of the total postdoc population. In addition, postdocs have many titles, and some institutions require they change their titles after a certain number of years. That is why the PhD snapshot I presented last week includes a range of numbers, and they are colored red, meaning that we have little confidence in their accuracy. 

Again, we had heard anecdotal information suggesting that the postdoc training period has lengthened over time. However, data from the NSF Survey of Doctorate Recipients suggest that most US-trained biomedical PhDs spend fewer than 5 years in postdoctoral positions. Some do remain in postdoc training a lot longer, though. There is some indication those who do the longest postdocs are the ones who go on to tenure-track academic research careers. For example, in the figure below, the age at first non-postdoctoral job (many of which are in industry) has been consistently a year or two lower than the age of obtaining the first tenure-track job. Note that the latest data in this graph (2002-2003) may be underreported due to delays in reporting that result in a lag time bias.

Graph showing the age at first PhD, first non-postdoc job, and first tenure track job

With all that said, what can we glean from the data we have? 

First, data in the figure below from the NSF Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates (which includes all sources of support, not just NIH and surveys US degree-granting institutions about their US- and foreign-trained PhDs) show that the vast majority of basic biomedical postdocs are supported on federal research grants, and this number has grown considerably over the past decade. This is perhaps not surprising, as it parallels the growth of basic biomedical graduate students supported on research grants that I showed in the previous post. Similar to the data for graduate students, the numbers of postdocs supported on federal fellowships and traineeships have remained remarkably stable over the same time period. Once again, these data are supported by the NIH-specific data posted on the RePORT website.

As shown below, the other source of postdoc support that has been growing over the last five years is nonfederal support, defined as support from state and local government, institutions, foreign sources, foundations, industry and other private sources. 

Combining the average ~6.5 years of PhD training and 4-5 years of postdoctoral research means that it takes approximately 10 years before a person with a biomedical PhD is ready to begin his or her first or post-training job, and even longer if he or she chooses the academic tenure-track research path. 

So what does this postdoc have to look forward to? 

We looked at earnings potential as one (but by no means the only) attribute of the career path of biomedical PhDs and compared it to other scientific fields and professions. As can be seen in the table below, starting salaries of biomedical PhDs (pooled SDR data in 2008 dollars) are lower than in other fields. However, later in the career stage, 30 years after the PhD, this is no longer the case.   

table comparing biomedical salaries with other "hard" sciences during the early, mid and late career stages

Table 1. Salary Across Broad Fields by Years of Experience

Source: NSF Survey of Doctoral Recipients

A more comprehensive timeline of earnings is shown in the report and on the website, and Paula Stephan, who was on the modeling subcommittee of our working group, has a very interesting discussion of this in her recent book How Economics Shapes Science

The data I’ve presented in this and my earlier posts, and the information included in the working group report should be of interest to anyone considering a career in the biomedical sciences and those of us responsible for ensuring the availability of a well-trained biomedical research workforce in the future. They are important for making informed decisions about graduate training, sources of federal support, and institutional policies that will attract and retain the best and brightest in biomedical science careers.

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29 thoughts on “Postdoctoral Researchers—Facts, Trends, and Gaps

  1. The graphs show an amazing growth in temporary training positions over the past 30 years. I wonder whether biomedical academic positions and industry positions have paralleled that growth. I was disappointed that the data on foreign post-docs was incomplete, but it has appeared elsewhere (FASEB 19,1938). Here is a ‘free’ NEJM article (below) describing why high-paying health care jobs growth is not necessarily good for an economy/society. The same arguement applies to any future growth at the NIH, especially in research & training, and expansion at medical centers. Basically, health care (clinical/research) jobs, grant costs and salaries expansion without commensurate returns to the average citizen are not sustainable especially in difficult economic times. I suppose we could always argue that we are developing second and third world economies and health care by providing international training. There will need to be more evidence of societal returns on training and grants costs.

    “The Health Care Jobs Fallacy”
    Katherine Baicker, Ph.D., and Amitabh Chandra, Ph.D.
    N Engl J Med 2012; 366:2433-2435 June 28, 2012

    • @ “Citizen-scientist” I am in awe of your knowledge of the literature — you cite two different publications! In one argument! You should totally be the one to decide who gets federal dollars! Please refer to any of the following articles highlighting the expert quality of the publication you cite in your prodigious diatribe:

      Retraction: A Genomic Strategy to Refine Prognosis in Early-Stage Non–Small-Cell Lung Cancer. N Engl J Med 2006;355:570-80.
      March 24, 2011N Engl J Med 2011; 364:1176
      Free Full Text

      Retraction: Barlogie et al. Duration of Survival in Patients with Myeloma Treated with Thalidomide. N Engl J Med 2008;359:210-2.
      September 25, 2008N Engl J Med 2008; 359:1410
      Free Full Text

      Retraction: Gong Z et al. Injuries after a Typhoon in China. N Engl J Med 2007;356:196-7.
      August 7, 2008N Engl J Med 2008; 359:657
      Free Full Text

      Retraction: Hussain HM, Hotopf M, Oyebode F. Atypical Antipsychotic Drugs and Alzheimer’s Disease. N Engl J Med 2007;356:416.
      April 5, 2007N Engl J Med 2007; 356:1481
      Free Full Text

      Retraction: Guo H. Complication of Central Venous Catheterization. N Engl J Med 2007;356:e2
      March 8, 2007N Engl J Med 2007; 356:1075
      Free Full Text

      Retraction: Sudbø J et al. DNA Content as a Prognostic Marker in Patients with Oral Leukoplakia. N Engl J Med 2001;344:1270-8 and Sudbø J et al. The Influence of Resection and Aneuploidy on Mortality in Oral Leukoplakia. N Engl J Med 2004;350:1405-13
      November 2, 2006Curfman G.D., Morrissey S., Drazen J.M.N Engl J Med 2006; 355:1927
      Free Full Text

      Retraction: Shamim et al. Nonsurgical Reduction of the Interventricular Septum in Patients with Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy. N Engl J Med 2002;347:1326-33.
      March 6, 2003N Engl J Med 2003; 348:951
      Free Full Text

      Retraction: Barbaro et Al. Incidence of Dilated Cardiomyopathy and Detection of HIV in Myocardial Cells of HIV-Positive Patients. N Engl J Med 1998;339:1093-9.
      July 11, 2002Drazen J.M. and Curfman G.D.N Engl J Med 2002; 347:140
      Free Full Text

      Retraction: Reconstitution of Hematopoiesis after High-Dose Chemotherapy by Autologous Progenitor Cells Generated ex Vivo
      July 5, 2001N Engl J Med 2001; 345:64
      Free Full Text

      Retraction: Absence of Human T-Cell Lymphotropic Virus Type I in Cutaneous T-Cell Lymphoma
      June 10, 1999N Engl J Med 1999; 340:1837
      Free Full Text

      Retraction: Suicide after Natural Disasters
      January 14, 1999N Engl J Med 1999; 340:148-149
      Free Full Text

      Retraction: Stricker RB, Abrams DI, Corash L, Shuman MA. Target platelet antigen in homosexual men with immune thrombocytopenia. N Engl J Med 1985; 313:1375-80.
      November 21, 1991N Engl J Med 1991; 325:1487

      Retraction: Darsee JR, Heymsfield SB, Nutter DO. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and human leukocyte antigen linkage: differentiation of two forms of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. N Engl J Med 1979; 300:877-82.
      June 9, 1983Nutter D.O., Heymsfield S.B., Glenn J.F.N Engl J Med 1983; 308:1400

      Retraction: Darsee JR, Heymsfield SB. Decreased myocardial taurine levels and hypertaurinuria in a kindred with mitral-valve prolapse and congestive cardiomyopathy. N Engl J Med 1981; 304:129-35.
      June 9, 1983Heymsfield S.B. and Glenn J.F.N Engl J Med 1983; 308:1400

      Data on Insulin Binding in Growth Hormone Deficiency Are Questionable
      November 6, 1980N Engl J Med 1980; 303:1120

      Radioactivity in Organs of Patients Receiving Radioisotopes: A Retraction
      May 12, 1977N Engl J Med 1977; 296:1122
      Free Full Text
      No extract is available for articles shorter than 400 words.

      Proportion of E Rosettes Normal in Graves’s and Hashimoto’s Diseases: A Retraction
      July 3, 1975N Engl J Med 1975; 293:44

    • I think we have to be careful when talking about “salaries expansion” especially when talking about those researchers in biomedical sciences who also have professional degrees. When postdoctoral and Faculty salaries in research are far lower than comparable clinical positions (as they currently are), it is very difficult to convince extremely bright and hard working junior professionals with any interest in remaining in research to do so, especially as demands of family and looming retirement become greater with increasing age at first Faculty position – one might argue that the above figure suggests that age at first Faculty position is NOT increasing, but there is a big difference between median and mean.

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  4. I really wish this information wasn’t ten years old. Some very important changes to our economy happened in that period.
    Now many state schools aren’t hiring for tenure-track positions at all due to budget cuts and many private companies are in a huge pinch as well. In reality this information probably tells us very little about the job-prospects young scientists are currently facing and therefore very little about what to do.

    • Exactly. I don’t quite understand how you can draw solid conclusions from this data.

      But I think that’s beside the point as well. The real problem here is that it seems to be perfectly acceptable to the NIH to have someone spend a decade of their life working towards a position in academia when there are no job openings in academia anymore and, even if there were, there’s not enough grant money to go around anyway.

      Graduate programs need to be instructed to keep track of their former students and tabulate themselves just how many end up in positions paying $80k+ ten years after their PhD and, more importantly, just how many of them are earning that much doing biomedical science. Also each program should be required to make this information publicly available to any future applicants. I have a feeling this would substantially decrease the number of students pursuing a Biomedical PhD.

  5. I agree that it would be interesting to see what the mean age at first faculty position is, rather than just the median.

    As far as the anecdotal evidence of the postdoc taking longer, looking at the chart in the working group report, it seems more like what is happening is that the distribution of 3-4, 5-6, and 7-8 years post-PhD is remaining fairly static, while the other side of the distribution is changing more steadily. If I’m reading it right, in 1993, about 1/3 of the postdocs surveyed had been in their postdoc for less than a year. But in 2008, new postdocs accounted for nearly 50% (!) of all postdocs surveyed. And the percentage of 1-2 years is decreasing. That says to me that while the percent of long PhDs might remain relatively static, the percent that leave within the first year or two is steadily increasing. I did some rough calculations, and there were about 4500 <1 year postdocs in 1993, then 2200 1-2 year postdocs in 1995. Meanwhile, in 2006, there were about 6800 <1 year postdocs, then about 2000 1-2 year postdocs in 2008. These are incredibly rough, but there's a big enough difference there to notice between a 50%-ish retention in the 90's and a 30%-ish retention in the late 2000's. It just looks like the 2 year postdoc is disappearing, and a "short postdoc" is just no longer possible. Maybe the average length of a completed postdoc is still less than 5 years, but it IS increasing slowly… and the perception of its increase gets bigger when the idea of finishing in under 3 years seems impossible.

  6. Based on the discussion above, there is clearly a critical need for the pro-active and mandatory collection of information regarding postdocs. so that we can stop talk about anecdotal data. This is the only way that we will ever have a frank, candid and informed conversation about what is happening to the postdoc. population over time. Personally, I think that it is long overdue that this type of data acquisition occur.
    Regardless of the long-term earning potential, where the postdoc. goes after their training experience and/or their satisfaction with their career choice, we need to have data to correlate what is working, what is not working and the success of the training experience. This of course means that we also need to identify what success means. The only way to do that is to lay the cards on the table. It’s time the NIH and/or NSF take steps to make this data collection mandatory for all postdocs. [including ANYONE; domestic or foreign born, NIH-funded or not, and encompassing all ranges of postdoctoral training (ie. 1-10 years post-PhD)] that possesses the designation of postdoc. at an institution]. Ultimately, this will contribute to rational- and data-founded- decisions that ensure the sustainability and stewardship of the next generation of highly trained researchers, mentors and scientific community participants.
    Let me emphasize that I think your committee’s report was outstanding in their bullet-point recommendations for postdocs. I am firmly behind many of your proposed recommendations. However, and again, information is the overlord. We must prioritize the unbiased collection of data for all postdocs. as soon as possible.

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  8. I was unable to understand why you mentioned postdoc starting salary (0 year experience after PhD) as 51,594 USD. To me its not true at all ! starting salary for postdocs is ~39000 USD as per NIH scale. The salary you have mentioned here is equivalent to at least 6 year postdoc experience.

    • Only 70% of PhD recipients go directly into a postdoc. The rest pursue other careers, many of which pay much higher salaries.
      Furthermore, year 0 postdocs in industry related fields pay significantly more than the $39k in academic institutions.

  9. I think you should carefully consider the implications of Table 1. While the Biomedical PhD may earn slightly more 30-years post-PhD (around age 60 based on your prior statistics), the difference is insignificant relative to the income disparity between this and similar fields 0-10 years post-degree. In the first 0-10 years (or even 30 years) post-PhD, the Engineer has far outpaced the others in total income. And (s)he also has a much better opportunity to make contributions toward retirement.

    I agree with IndustryPhD that each institution should make similar information abundantly clear to students enrolling in PhD programs.

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  11. Move to Australia. I finished my PhD at 26 (only a little younger than average — I’d have been 24 if I’d finished in the minimum time), got a 3-year postdoc, then a 3-year research scientist position, and converted that to an indefinite research position (as close to tenure as we have) at 32. Twelve years since finishing my PhD, I’m now on a $126K salary package, which is pretty normal here (I’m average, not a high-flyer).

  12. 2/3 of all american postdocs are foreign? That’s quite a lot; it’s no wonder the payscale is so low: $39K, not $51K as the table indicates. Why should someone who is smarter than most go into science? To beg for pennies from the established NIH-funded PIs? We all know that these established PIs/reviewers do things under the table to keep their grants, and prevent new, young, competitors out of their field. You can’t even raise a family of three on this measly salary. Unless you are willing to struggle in science for 5-8 years as a postdoc for a worthless paycheck, to get to the level of assistant professor (which does not mean you will advance to full tenure because you cannot renew your grants), there is no reason to stay in science. Finding a new profession will be more rewarding, offer you more opportunities, and allow you to avoid the frustration of fighting the NIH system that caters towards biased reviewers. It’s easy to publish papers. It’s almost impossible to get grants and fellowships unless you are in the know. If we continue at this rate, expect 90% of all postdocs to be foreign; no one in america will care about science, and we will cease to be the innovation engine we once were. I tell my undergraduates and everyone I know to stay out of science. Spread the word!

    • This is true. I have worked alongside many PIs who would rather import all of their workers because they cost sub-$30K/year, and are willing to work at the PI’s whim. Some of these imports don’t even have a PhD or experience in research! The excuses these PIs tell me are that American PhDs just don’t work hard enough and want weekends off. Some of the most smart and imaginative PhDs have a hard time finding a postdoc right now. Bizarre.

    • I have to agree with your comments. The approach from NIH to pay their most valuable workforce resource at $39K/year, can be best described as slavery, and aims to discourage US born scientists from pursuing a career in the biomedical sciences. This article is misrepresenting the average salary of biomed postdocs at 51K and this is dishonest. Please state this accurately so as to make a fair comparison for those trying to decided how to continue their higher learning.

      Every other funding body DOE, DOD, etc pay their postdocs considerably higher salaries and even then it barely provides the basic requirements in areas where cost of living is very high. In all circumstances it is unsustainable and is difficult to remain competitive when our most educated members (PhD’s) of our society are expected to struggle near the levels of poverty. Time to get a clue NIH!

      • $39K/year, can be best described as slavery,

        You realize that you are utterly insane, right? This works out to something over $18 per hour. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour or about $15,000 per year. Have you ever held a minimum wage job? I’m pretty sure that most postdoc jobs are considerably more interesting and fun compared with “do you want the ginormous or supersized FunMeal”?

  13. A couple of people have noted that the $51,594 salary number on the table seems high given the NRSA stipend level for postdocs. This is because it includes more than just NIH-funded postdocs. This figure was derived from the NSF survey of doctoral recipients, a pool of individuals that goes beyond NIH-funded researchers and includes people who may not do a postdoc.

  14. Quote from today’s issue of science “None of NIH’s funding can be spent on “any economic research,” the bill states. Howard Silver, executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations in Washington, D.C.” (Science vol 337, page 399) does that mean if this bill is passed into law, The biomedical workforce related projects will be droped by NIH?

    • Good question. Unfortunately, we can’t comment on pending legislation. However, if the bill is passed into law, post your question again and we can discuss.

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  16. Dear Blog Team,

    I’ve been banging my head on the survey of earned doctorates all afternoon trying to find the data for the age at first tenure track job figure above, and haven’t had any luck finding it. Can you point me in the right direction?


  17. The hard facts about Table 1
    0-10 years the biomed PhD gets an average 5% pay raise per year (approximately)
    10 -30 years the biomed PhD gets an average 2% pay raise per year
    Total 30 yr earning potential – 2.75 million before taxes (correct me if I am wrong)

    Guess what in 30 yrs time you may need at least $2 million per person in savings to have a decent retirement. With 0% interest rate and negative stock returns … well you can make your own conclusions.

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  19. I have a question that came up recently in our institution.
    Are NIH funded postdoctoral fellows allowed to participate in seminars? Does the “time” involved in attending seminars violate their % effort policies?

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