Economists find that former biomedical postdocs in the US earn up to 21% less over 15 years than those who skipped them after a PhD

A biomedical postdoc does not appear to pay off financially, new data suggest. Economists Donna Ginther from the University of Kansas and Shulamit Kahn from Boston University have concluded that a postdoc actually incurs a ‘substantial financial penalty’ for those starting a career in biomedical sciences in the US.

The median starting salary for biomedical postdocs during their first four years was $44,724 (£36,533) in inflation-adjusted 2013 dollars, compared with $73,662 for those who entered the workforce. Furthermore, over a 10-year period the salaries of those who did a postdoc averaged $12,002 lower than those who skipped them.

These differences in pay accumulate, and over the first 15 years of their career former postdocs in non-tenure track academic research positions earned about 17% less than those that only did a PhD. Meanwhile, former postdocs in industry were paid 21% less than their counterparts without them, and those in the government or non-profit sectors earned 17% less.

‘Based on these findings, the majority of PhDs would be financially better off if they skipped the postdoc entirely,’ the researchers concluded. They argued that the current system of postdoctoral training in the US benefits supervisors, mentors, their institutions and funding agencies by providing them with highly educated labour willing to work long hours at low cost.

To help address these issues, Kahn and Ginther suggested that universities could hire staff research scientists to help tenured faculty with their research instead of postdocs. They also recommended that postdocs be paid more to reduce the reliance of faculty on ‘cheap’ labour, and that postdoc term limits be instituted to encourage researchers to start in permanent positions sooner rather than later.