Hiring postdocs: the PI perspective

Yesterday NatureJobs published an article titled “Group dynamics: A lab of their own”. It talks about how research group size and composition relate to scientific productivity. This is an important question, which I spent a little bit of time thinking about. In particular, about two years ago I wrote this post which I provocatively titled “Is it morally acceptable to hire postdocs?” Because of this post, Chris Woolston, the author of the NatureJobs article, interviewed me and devoted whole three paragraphs of the article to my story, which can be summarized as follows.

Young and naïve postdoc Kryazhimskiy betrays his ideals and descends into unethical abyss after confronting the cruel reality of the PI world.

Well, this would be a pretty sad story, if it were actually true. Unfortunately Mr. Woolston misrepresented my position to make it fit into the archetypical story that he is trying to tell. He writes:

Sergey Kryazhimskiy, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, San Diego, was originally dead set against hiring postdocs.

He had a plan for avoiding his ethical dilemma: he would bring in staff scientists who were committed to their lab careers.

If Mr. Woolston bothered to carefully read my entire blog post rather than just its title, he would have seen that nowhere did I say anything that could be interpreted as “I am dead set against hiring postdocs”. Nor did I have a specific plan for how I would avoid the moral (not ethical, by the way) dilemma that I posed, if I actually got a job. Instead, I listed four possible solutions for junior faculty that other people suggested to me. (1) Hire postdocs jointly with senior PIs to improve the postdocs’ chances of getting a faculty job; (2) Do not hire postdocs just as labor, hire only those who already demonstrate very good promise to become PI; (3) Do not hire postdocs at all, run lab with graduate students; (4) Hire permanent researchers instead of postdocs. Moreover, in that same post I discussed the flaws of each of these proposed solutions.

Now, fast forward to the present day. I started my lab a couple of months ago and I am trying to hire a postdoc. Why? Are there no alternatives? Am I going against my principle of fairness? Does this make me an unethical (or immoral) individual?

The main reason that I am trying to recruit a postdoc is that I want to have diversity in my lab. Diversity in all kinds of senses but particularly I want to have both junior people who will look at problems with a fresh eye and experienced people who will know how to come up with tractable research projects and execute them. I hope that a diverse lab will be productive, healthy and fun. But why not hire a staff scientist rather than a postdoc?

Here is why. Here are two additional facts that I was not aware of two years ago.

Fact #1. The difference in cost of supporting a staff scientist versus a postdoc is huge. Here are the pay scales at UCSD: postdoc, project scientist, (all). An inexperienced postdoc would have to be paid a minimum of $42,840 per year in salary, an equivalent project scientist would have to be paid $60,500. Moreover, benefits (also paid by PI on top of salary) do not exceed 35% of the salary for postdocs, but can be up to 70% of salary for permanent staff. So, a staff scientist could be as expensive as two postdocs.

Fact #2. The UPTE negotiated such contracts for staff researchers at the University of California that it much more difficult for the PI to let such lab member go, even if they do not perform very well. Moreover, they cannot be laid off due to lack of funds, while postdocs can. For example, if a PI of a senior staff researcher runs out of funds, the University will lay off a junior staff researcher from another lab and move the senior research into that now vacant position. Thus, hiring a staff scientist is a major indefinite financial commitment that affects not only you but potentially other labs.

So, a junior PI who has no history of getting a steady stream of NIH grants has to be pretty insane to start populating the lab with staff scientists. I am now convinced more than before that a shift to staff scientist-based labs is impossible without systemic changes, some of which I already outlined in another post. While there exists such a big financial gap between postdocs and staff scientists, the laws of economics will push PIs towards hiring postdocs over staff scientists. In my view, there are two key changes that need to happen in the US. (i) Abolish postdocs as a class; instead, a PhD interested in a research career would either secure a very competitive super-postdoc position or become a staff scientist. (ii) Staff scientist positions should be funded through universities (probably by a separate stream of federal money) rather than through direct grant costs, for example like it is in Switzerland.

At this point, we are still far from solving the biomedical research crisis in the middle of which we find ourselves now. Nevertheless, I feel that several important steps in the right directions have been made in the past couple of years. My former Harvard postdoc colleague Jessica Polka and her friends organized the Future of Research Symposium which at the very least generated attention to this problem. People at the top have also started to seriously discuss solutions, e.g., here. Stanford raised its minimum postdoc salary to $51,600. Finally, this summer Department of Labor will consider whether to reclassify postdocs as employees rather than trainees, which would effectively force PIs to pay postdocs a minimum salary of $50,440 – a move that I support – which will likely lead to a reduction of the postdoc pool.

So, how is my moral dilemma doing? Well, it’s still there. In hiring a postdoc, considerations for their future career are at the very top of my list. To deal with it, my plan is to implement suggestions (1) and (2) above, and then do everything in my power to help transform the research enterprise to make it more fair and sustainable.

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5 responses

  1. I can imagine incorporating (4) in your approach. If your postdoc is awesome, but has no desire to get their own lab, would you promote them to staff scientist after a few years of success?

    (The approach that worked for me was to wait for a magical job to descend from the sky with solid funding, no grantwriting, four permanent researcher hires, and really smart colleagues. Thanks, Woods Hole!)

    • I think this is basically one of the two realistic ways in which one would hire a staff scientist. The other way is to “inherit” him/her from another local trusted lab.

  2. I was rather surprised to read in the nature post “But when he actually got his faculty position earlier this year, he realized that pragmatic considerations outweighed the ethical ones.”

    That is not what your post said, and I cannot imagine you ever selling out your ethical/moral convictions for pragmatic expediency.

    The nature post reminded me of the negative publicity around Stanley B. Prusiner and his proposal of prions, how often his published work and words were misrepresented and how averse he was to speaking to reporters.

  3. Pingback: The Postdoc « Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!

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