Dr. Ginther and Paula E. Stephan, Ph.D., professor of economics at Georgia State University and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, said Ph.D. numbers ballooned during the FY 1998–2003 doubling of NIH’s budget, with President Obama’s “stimulus” or American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) prompting universities to build more labs, filled mostly by postdocs.
With ARRA now history, what is sustaining the postdocs? “That’s the big question. And I have to say that we don’t really have good data on this right now,” Dr. Stephan said. The latest data in the National Science Foundation’s annual Survey of Earned Doctorates, last released in November 2011, saw “biological science” Ph.D.s inch up 0.3% to 8,052 degrees in 2010, with stimulus funds available.
Addressing the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) in March, Dr. Stephan said universities depended more on grad students and postdocs in recent years as faculty investigators scrambled to pursue more grants once NIH funding flattened. Postdoc numbers also swelled after the 2007–09 recession and biopharma’s shift from external R&D reduced industry jobs.
Universities also encouraged postdocs, says Dr. Stephan, because they work cheaper. First-year postdocs earn an NIH-stipulated $39,264 for an average 2,650 hours’ work, or $14.82/hour before fringe benefits, compared with $37/hour for grads working up to 1,500 hours at stipends of $16,000 to $28,000, or staff scientists starting at $25/hour or $55,000 annually.
Mahadeo A. Sukhai, Ph.D., vice chair of NPA’s board of directors, told GEN universities have another economic incentive to crank out Ph.D.s: State schools can win more funding for grad students, while private institutions find student assistance packages easier to fund.
“A Ph.D. is taken as a degree in critical and constructive thought and strong analytical skills,” said Dr. Sukhai, research fellow and team leader, high-throughput biomarker assay development, in the Advanced Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory, University Health Network, at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre/Ontario Cancer Institute. “Except that the training doesn’t always match the expectation, and the student cohorts are taught to focus more on the technical aspects of the Ph.D. vs. the skill development aspects of the Ph.D. These factors combine to increase the number of Ph.D.s despite the paucity of available academic jobs, while at the same time narrowing the students’ focus to only those positions.”