I just read a provocative post in The Guardian, titled "PhD: so what does it really stand for?"
The article focuses on the abysmal compensation of graduate students and recommends reducing salaries of professors in order to pay students more. Specifically, the proposal is to draconically cut the salaries of PIs:
A second option wouldn't hinder research, and might even enhance it: cut the salary of professors by half. If there are solid reasons for PhDs being paid half of what they deserve, then the same hold good for professors.)
What a terrible suggestion! Not terrible because students are paid enough - what this article does not consider is that professors are already paid half.
In 2001, about to graduate from college, I turned down a programming position at a hedge fund. Instead, I chose to do bioinformatics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for a much lower salary. I was excited about the possibilities of doing biological research using computational tools. Two years later, I enthusiastically entered graduate school in molecular biology, with my salary dropping by half for the next six years. As a postdoctoral researcher at MIT, I am not even back to earning what I did ten years ago as a junior programmer with no skills or domain-specific knowledge. In a commercial setting, my compensation would have kept pace with my knowledge and skills, but in academia, there seems to be a complete decoupling of the two. There are many sacrifices that academia requires, and I can spend pages moaning about them, but the suggestion to pay students more and professors less would probably exacerbate the problems and create a ton of new ones.
- In my opinion, one of the biggest concerns for research right now is the crisis in funding. (I have a a separate essay that I wrote about this a few months ago, and I will be posting it in 1-2 months for a good reason.) The funding crisis is so bad that we are about to lose an entire generation of brilliant professors. One of the causes of this is the glut of research labs - we need fewer labs. The Guardian article calls for more funding for PhDs to get
morebetter students and to be able to fund more labs, and would make the crisis that much worse.
- If the prospect of being a professor already requires an enormous sacrifice and we are in danger of losing the best people from academia, how does telling aspiring professors that on top of all the problems, they will also be paid half for the rest of their lives help? Academia and professor positions are already barely competitive for the best and the brightest, cut life-long renumeration in half, and you have a fully unmitigated disaster.
- I realize that I have a terribly skewed perspective on the student body. Still, doing graduate work in Berkeley and a postdoc in MIT, if anything, I always felt inadequate compared to all of the amazing students. It never for a second seemed to me that we are not attracting top talent into PhD slots.
- I am far from convinced that graduate students are underpaid.
I realize that #4 is an incendiary statement. So let me elaborate. Back as a student in Berkeley, I did an interesting comparison to answer exactly the question, "Are PhDs paid enough?" My wife had just graduated from a Physician Assistant program. The program was two and a half years in length, and after graduation, she instantly was able to start work with a salary of $70K. It was amazing - she started her school a year after me, finished basically half-way through my PhD, and started getting a salary that I wouldn't see for many more years. And she treats patients; her job has as many intrinsic rewards as my job. She is not sacrificing satisfaction at work for a higher paycheck.
So why do I think it's fair? Let's do some simple math:
Assume 6 years of PhD training with a stipend of $30K per year. At the end, my net plus is $180K. Meanwhile, for my wife, the 2.5 years of school have no stipend and cost a ton of money in tuition and books. At $30K per year of training, over the six-year period of my PhD, she is looking at -30*2.5+$70*3.5 = net plus of $170K. So over the 6-year period, I got $10,000 more than her in my "underpaid PhD".
As a final comment, I have had several discussions with friends who argue that the way to fix the healthcare costs in United States is to cut the salaries of doctors. From a purely selfish position, that is bad for us because high cost of doctors increases demand for physician assistants. But the real argument against paying doctors less is the same as against paying professors less - the demanded sacrifice to get to the final position is so great, decrease drastically the final long-term compensation, and no one will go into medicine. (Through medical school, residency, fellowship - it takes you so long to get to be a practicing physician, and many start with $300-500K student loans hanging over their heads - that to also not compensate the doctors after the decade of training is just preposterous.)