Starvings Brains on Our Planet! Alas, Poor Post-Docs!

Dining with former colleagues who work in Neuroscience research tonight made me think about my past dream of becoming a mad scientist and holding the world hostage for wealth.  When I was a child, I had seen too many Nintendo cartoons (Super Mario or Captain N: The Game Master?  Can’t remember…) with “Mother Brain” among other villains and thought that it would be great to become a mad scientist.  After all, they always had the goal of trying to take over the world and had great hair along with super duper technology (except for Mother Brain).

CaptN-motherbrain

 I did give research a shot, working in labs that studied the plant arabidopsis thaliana (the model plant) and different types of cancers which grew in children.  The work was very interesting, but long and tedious.  The cycle was obvious – you have to do experiments, write the paper, beg for grants for money for more experiments and the circle is infinite.  All my bosses were females that were married w/o children or divorced.  They were tremendously dedicated to their work and experts in specific subjects.  There were no plots to take over the world or become billionaires.  Doing the work to expand mankind’s knowledge was their goal and a very altruistic one.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that affects about 1-2% of the population.  During my time in the labs, I found myself sleeping on the floor of the lab and becoming very upset when experiments didn’t work out.  As my OCD got worse, I decided to not go into research, but to try clinical work instead – which is how I ended up in Nuclear Medicine.  Here’s a video and quiz on OCD to see if you have it too!

Years later, speaking with friends who made it through the PhD programs alive and found post-doc jobs; I was shocked to find out what their salaries were.  They all accepted that low salaries were a way of life and those that wanted more stable income, left research for administration roles.  Speaking to one hospital administrator, she said that the highest paid post doc there made $65,000/year.  As my Viking husband dislikes anecdotal stories, here is some data to prove my point.

In the US, NIH Minimum Funding FY14 & FY13 for people with 7 or more years of research experience maxed out at $54,180 USD.  This was already an increase from 2012’s $39,264 USD.  Typically what happens is that the principal investigator (PI or the boss), applies for grants and a certain amount goes towards salaries for post docs.  If they are nice and smart, they would also get some money from the institute’s foundation or split some other grants to increase a post doc’s salary.  In Canada, the funding agency NSERC grants $40,000 CDN per year for two years for post docs.

Two blogs out there: 27 and a PhD  and Ever On and On are two blogs written by people living their dream in the science community.  They speak frankly about their choices and the reality of doing research in the US/Canada.  Why does this problem exist you ask?  Well, there are so many faculty positions available at the end of the day and many PhDs competing for them.

Not all hope is lost – they are forming union groups and organizations to increase their quality of life and wages.  But if you are a post doc, I suspect you are already looking at this list of the best places to work in the world as listed in a 2013 Scientist article.  When I told my about friend this list, he said that I should help him look for a list of where to get easy faculty positions!  Did a quick search, didn’t find anything to help him…

top10_crop

To add to the madness, you can only be a post doc (with no benefits) for so many years…then you are suppose to get a real job.  Alas, poor post docs!

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