The value of work
I recently saw a post on Twitter about the lack of postdoc applicants and it made me think about how little we really get paid. While inflation and the general cost of living (e.g., cell phone, transportation, housing, etc.) is increasing at an enormous rate, the amount we get paid as students or even postdocs is so low it’s almost insulting. Which highlights so many problems all at once it’s hard to figure out where to start the discussion.
On one hand it’s easy to point the finger at the people running the lab. After all, they are in charge, why can’t they give you a pay increase? But a lot of the standards for pay are set by the organizations that give out the funding. In particular for engineering or STEM fields, compensation is set by NIH/NSF and there’s no real way around it. In terms of funding a PI has to allocate funds for grad students, postdocs, and of course all the equipment, staff, and other things needed.
That isn’t to say the PI is completely helpless here and can’t do anything about it, but it does highlight how government organizations consider people actively obtaining an education to be less deserving than a regular employee. In fact, as a student you’re (mostly) not guaranteed health insurance, paid time off, or any of the other benefits you get as someone employed even though for tax purposes being a grad student is a job.
So there’s a mismatch right out of the gate between what you’re designated as (an employee) and how you get paid (a “student salary”). Moreover there are mechanisms in place that keep this unfair system operating even if a student decided to leave. For example, if I do not finish my PhD I would technically owe the cost of tuition for the time I’ve been in school. Which makes walking away, even in the case of serious health or life issues, near impossible without the risk of financial ruin.
Now one could argue that covering the cost of tuition justifies a lower pay, as if that makes it okay for a person to be on the brink of homelessness all because they want a better education. However, even if you argue that then that’s compensation paid for work done. Meaning that since I’ve already done the work and received “compensation” in the form of tuition coverage then walking away shouldn’t make a difference. I’ve done the work required, I should be able to walk away. But that isn’t the case and that’s because tuition coverage isn’t factored into compensation, it’s a benefit of working towards the degree.
In short, having people attempt and obtain a PhD makes the school look good so it’s beneficial to make sure that the attrition rate is low. That’s done by essentially forcing people to stick around to the end once you embark on the journey. Basically the system is rigged in favor of schools while students get the short end of the stick. And society is okay with this because we’re generally told that students are young people who still live with family, like the justification for low minimum wage is that most of the jobs are worked by high school students.
In both cases that doesn’t negate that the work is being done, it’s justifying paying people less than the value of the work because of the circumstances surrounding their employment. And we’re okay with that, in the general sense, because that’s how it’s always been. I mean the driving factor here is both greed and undervaluing certain groups of people. Lower cost of wages means higher profits for companies already seeing record high profits. Lower cost of wages for students means the federal government doesn’t need to allocate more money to cover research, because as we all know there’s always funding for war, but never for things that benefit people.
So going back to the postdoc issue, it’s not even a matter of not being able to find postdocs, it’s the fact that a lot of people would rather go directly to industry and be able to afford to live than to struggle for year(s) working in a position that isn’t quite a student, but is certainly not valuing them as an employee. And I need to highlight this one more time, student or postdoc, you’re an employee already and should be compensated as such.
Arguing otherwise only benefits the system, is the quality of work a grad student does less than a postdoc? Is the quality of work a postdoc does less than a PI? As someone who ditched the student role for a researcher job while I finish my degree, I can confidently say no. No one looks at a paper I’ve written to see if I’m a student, postdoc, or PI. My work doesn’t get a pass if it’s not up to the same standard as everyone else in my field. So why do we get paid so poorly?
The fact of the matter is, there isn’t a lack of postdocs. There’s a lack of respect for students in general, people want to be paid for the work they do. So if you’re in a position of power wondering why you can’t find someone to fill a job while offering pennies, maybe it’s time to look in a mirror and realize it’s your own damned fault and stop blaming everyone else.