The wages of a life science Ph.D. (not high!)

By Razib Khan | July 8, 2012 6:31 pm

A few people have emailed me about this article in The Washington Post, U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there. Other people cover this area well (for example), so I’m not going to say much. But first, ignore the article in the paper, and read the original survey which the article is based on: Science & Engineering Labor Force.

What the newspaper article added in terms of value was interviewing a small number of people. This is fine I suppose, but it adds no real substantive value, because you can’t really obtain a representative sample. Additionally, if you look at the employment data in the PDF I link to above you see that though things aren’t peachy for Ph.D.s, they are often far better than for people with less education. In other words you can’t just compare a science Ph.D. to some idealized full-employment world with 100% job satisfaction. In the real world everyone has to hustle now, and often it is better to hustle with a doctorate than not. What the PDF attached does illustrate is that the cost of forgone wages probably hits life science Ph.D.s in particular. The perpetual postdoc syndrome is probably what’s depressing wages for this subset.

Ultimately the problem here is that you are taking the category, “STEM Ph.D.”, and collapsing it all together into one class. Institution matters. A Stanford Ph.D. is going to have a better prospect than a Ph.D. from the University of Mississippi. Field matters. Your lab matters. Your aims matter. If a tenure track position is your goal, and you aren’t going to be happy with anything else, then you should know that all things equal the odds are going to be against you. Of course all things aren’t equal. Some people get lucky, or are better placed by the end of their graduate education, or, they’re smarter and more talented to begin with.

One thing in the article though that I was curious about was this:

After earning her expensive doctorate in neuroscience over seven years, which she financed by working and drawing down her savings, Amaral spent a year counting blips on a computer screen for another scientist….

Salaries for university post-doc jobs start at about $39,000, according to the National Postdoctoral Association. They require a science PhD — which can leave the recipient buried in debt. Benefits are usually minimal and, until a decade ago, even health insurance was rare.

How common is debt for those who get Ph.D.s? Most of the science Ph.D.s I know have stipends or are teaching assistants. When looking around for hard numbers, all I found was this, Graduate Student Debt Matters:

But graduate students aren’t necessarily seeking financial return on an investment. Many of them are simply trying to pay for their studies in the only way they can. Only a small percentage of graduate students receive full financial aid. Even if we keep that in mind, graduate-student debt levels are startling: The 2004 median figures are $28,000 for those who have master’s degrees, and $45,000 for Ph.D.’s.Those totals don’t even include undergraduate loans. (Note, too, that those figures are medians, which are more telling than averages in this case. Some graduate students, especially those at wealthy universities, finish with little or no debt, while others might carry $75,000 or more.)

Graduate students in the sciences receive the most financial support. They also finish their degrees the fastest. Humanities students receive lower levels of support and, thus, pay more dollars into the system. They finish more slowly and take on more debt. (They also work longer for the university at apprentice wages, paying sweat into the system—without receiving any “sweat equity” in return—before they start writing checks to the banks that issued their loans.)

I’d like this issue clarified in regards to science graduate students. I don’t know much about this, and querying around doesn’t return specific results.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Evolutionary Genetics
MORE ABOUT: Graduate School

Comments (18)

  1. I also don’t have numbers of this. I do know that any top-tier psychology PhD program (top 20 or so) comes with a stipend. For less well-funded programs, I don’t know. You probably should consider how much required teaching comes with that stipend: the more teaching you are required to do, the longer your PhD will take, and the more deferred income.

    I would not be surprised, though, if there are many PhD programs out there, even in STEM fields, that do not offer stipends or offer very low stipends. These are probably also the programs that are less likely to lead to jobs that require PhDs.

  2. Regarding smaller institutions, my anecdotal experience is that the stipends *were* generally very stingy, although they’ve become better as funding agencies have set lower limits. Of course, if your PI loses a grant and you have to go on university support, anything can happen.

    What I have personally observed is that in high-cost areas which aren’t ‘university towns’, students have a very hard time keeping their heads above water (e.g., when I was at SUNY Stony Brook, which is in the middle of an affluent suburban community–rental prices for apartments were awful). Many STEM students, even supported ones, went into debt.

  3. Tangential to the topic of the article, but have you considered getting a Ph.D. yourself?

    I am by no means intending this as a criticism and furthermore, there are arguments for not reading for one, that go beyond mere credentialism, devaluation (cue the number of people with one, currently living on food stamps and/or in a trailer), opportunity costs etc. etc.

    If I were in your shoes, I imagine I might be tempted to do a “fun” one, say history instead of genetics if I was not inclined towards research. But I am curious if you were/are at some point considering it.

  4. David H.

    No surveys, but at top-tier mol. bio- and chem- departments, PhD students don’t pay tuition and get a stipend in the ~30K/yr range. I think <$15K/yr is extremely rare (in the US), but that may be based on a biased sample of people who end up working at top-tier bio/chem programs. Many departments will list stipend levels on their grad student admissions page, and a quick check from low to high didn't turn up anything below $20K.

    No student would end up owing money to the school (as long as they show progress towards a degree), but yes, low stipend + high-rent areas like Boston, SF etc can lead to people going into debt. Not typical, but not uncommon either.

  5. DK

    In every self-respecting PhD program in biology, no graduate student pays anything. Instead, they are paid. About $24-28K a year currently, depending on location. For a 60 hours a week indentured serfdom for an average of 6 years, this is not a lot of money. Just enough to survive and maybe start saving but not enough to have family, children or buy a house. Anyone who even considers paying for a privilege of being a graduate student in biomedical sciences is 100% clinically insane.

    Postdoc salary hit the bottom in the mid 1990s. It has since improved quite a bit owing to NIH push in the late 1990s. Of course the side effect is that fewer PIs can now afford having postsdocs, so it’s harder to get a postdoc job. But postdocs that come with their own fellowships are totally free – cheaper than graduate students. So the competition for NIH/NSF fellowships is ever more fierce.

    It’s an old news but things haven’t changed much since and some of the readers here may not have seen it:
    What’s of note is that the guy’s career had suffered no setbacks after publication of his letter. Quite the contrary – he is now a star scientist at the elite institution. Sure, he is a bit extreme but overall atmosphere hinted at by the letter is not that different from an average high stakes graduate program. (“High stakes” means having 30-50% chance of getting a postdoc job that will, with 40-70% chance, result in a tenure track job down the road).

  6. I suppose I’ll provide a bit of background on myself to add context to my thoughts. I did my PhD in 6 years at the University of Vermont (UVM) where I made anywhere from $17,000 a year to $30,000 depending on my grant funding and didn’t go into much debt at all. I currently work as a post-doc at the University of British Columbia (UBC) making a bit above the average salary. My work is in Eco-Evo, putting me no doubt squarely in the minority of people in this article. I have to agree with the last two commenters, you’re nuts if you pay to go to graduate school. Most universities in my experience guarantee funding for a certain number of years, at UVM it was at least 5 via teaching. If you’re going into any substantial debt as a graduate student you’re doing it wrong or you’re at a bad university that probably isn’t preparing you to go forward. Myself, I loved the life style. I did not put in 60 hours, I’d say 30-40, and I set my own hours. I sailed on my boat when the wind was up, I skied when the powder was deep and drank all night when friends were out because I never had anywhere to be before noon, ever. I think the true hit you take as a graduate student isn’t because you go into debt, it’s because you delay your earning potential.

    Here’s two paths. One, become an engineer, make $50-70K out of school, by the time you hit 30 you’ve had years of being a single person, probably no kids, saving money, maybe you have a house, an audi, etc… A scientist on the other hand, maybe you graduate, bum around for a few years taking lab (or field in my case) jobs to gain experience, not making much. Then you go to school for 5-7 years, come out the other end at 30 with a post-doc and you’re at 0. You’ve lost almost a decade of earning power. The problem is that all that training isn’t commensurate with your pay. Name another job where you undergo 9 years of training (6 to PhD, maybe 3 post-doc) give or take and come out the other end to make maybe $70k. I can’t think of any. But on the other hand, I get up every day and love what I do (or at least that’s what I tell myself every time I look at a bank statement).

  7. Lucy


    Regarding the “60 hours a week indentured serfdom”, this does depend strongly on where you work and for whom. Mostly, it depends on whether you have a PI who cares about the results you produce or a PI who thinks seeing you in the lab at all hours is evidence of something. In my experience, the latter are usually far more interested in using you to produce data to advance their career than in the future prospects of yours.

  8. bob sykes

    It is possible that Amaral was judged by her advisers to be unworthy. Lack of support is the usual way faculty signal students that they should drop out.

    By the way, well over half, maybe as much as three-quarters, of all STEM PhD candidates in the US are foreigners. And almost all of them go home. So, it could be argued that the US produces two to four times as many science and engineering PhDs as the economy needs.

    The reality is that we are an extension of the Indian and Chinese educational systems, and we provide the service for free. From a global perspective, this is probably a good thing. We also get to influence the Indians and Chinese who go home. Another good thing, as long as they leave happy.

  9. Karl Zimmerman

    Although I don’t have a graduate background in the sciences, I was an active member of my local graduate employee union when I was getting my MA, and our union represents graduate employees in another state, so I think I can provide some perspective on another aspect of this.

    Generally speaking, of course, graduate employee wages in the sciences are much, much higher than the humanities and the social sciences. There are a couple reasons for this, but foremost is that the sciences typically get a fair shake of outside money (largely corporate, with some foundations), whereas liberal arts typically rely upon university funding alone. Thus science graduate employee typically can lead somewhat comfortable lives (if they aren’t parents), while humanities and social science employees are generally in poverty if they don’t take out cost of living student loans.

    As a result, active support for graduate employee unions typically comes from the humanities and social sciences, with those disciplines which are most “professorial” (with few opportunities outside of academia, like PHDs in English or Sociology), the most supportive. In contrast, the sciences and engineering generally are not supportive of unionization, and seldom get involved in the union if it already exists. Typically the same spectrum exists, where programs with a lot of practical applications in the real world (Chemistry, for example, or Engineering) the most anti-union, and ones with few applications outside the academy (Astronomy or Paleontology) the most pro-union.

    There are a few reasons for this. One is the contracts typically bargain for minimum assistantship rates. This makes logical sense if you think in terms of egalitarianism, as it brings up the bottom to have wages more similar to those at the top end. However, it also makes solid political sense, as the lowest-paid assistants comprise the majority of those who are active in the union, and vote on the contracts. However, it also means that the contracts are largely irrelevant except in areas like health care coverage, fringe benefits like child care, and possibly things like the grievance procedure to most of the graduate employees in the sciences.

    There are also more intangible issues as well, but given they don’t relate directly to economics, I don’t think they are relevant to your question, so I won’t elaborate. But I do think there is a huge difference between STEM degrees with practical applications in the private sector, and those with little to no application outside the academy, both in terms of wages and professional disposition.

  10. Did AndrewV just say that genetics isn’t fun? And reading bad translations of ancient texts is? Just askin’.

    David H: Boston is certainly high-rent, but is it low stipend? And as a lot of the student population lives in the suburbs, the rent is … well, it’s still high, but a lot (most?) of major research schools are in expensive cities, it’s hard to know what to compare it to. I got a couple grad school offers from schools in cheaper cities, but the stipend just over half what I was offered in the more expensive cities, so it worked out.

  11. For what it’s worth, in my search for suitable grad programs I’ve found that some institutions list on their website that not all PhD students receive tuition coverage and a stipend, thus urging them to pursue outside funding, but upon actually talking to someone from the program I’ve heard that they don’t admit student unless they can offer them funding. Obviously, they want to make it clear that prospective students should try and bring outside funding for their studies into the program and so they make a cautionary statement, even though they wouldn’t admit an applicant for whom they have no funding. I’m speaking of some programs in biological anthropology, which still occupies a really weird space in academia (i.e., it’s not a traditional STEM discipline, but many science fellowships at many unis are available to students of bio-anthro).

    This is tangential, but I often wonder about any new careers that may become open to those trained in human genomics. I mean, we’re on the very cusp of the true genome age–or so it seems–one would reason that in a few years there should be a whole new swath of careers opening up for people who can interpret genomic data. I may be pipe-dreaming, but it doesn’t seem to so unreasonable to me that the private sector or even the medicine might place genomicists in high demand soon. Look on any genetics job listings now and you’re sure to find openings posted by companies like and 23andme–who’s to say this won’t increase greatly in the future..?

  12. #11, similar thoughts re: genomics. OTOH, it strikes me that it is also a field where eventually a lot can be ‘computable.’ e.g., today 23andme calculates your ‘ancestry painting,’ but in the near future there will be lots of apps which do this, and which you can input your type/squence in to. so ultimately the main avenue of job growth is probably turning this into a ‘service.’ genetic-counseling-turned-nerd?

  13. Razib (12), agreed: a consumer-driven bioinformatics for a new age, I suppose. I also think medical schools will begin to hire genomicists in greater abundance to educate the next-gen doctor who will need to be somewhat well-versed in the ins and outs of human evolutionary genomics; although, admittedly, this is probably a longer way into the future.

  14. @#10

    Did AndrewV just say that genetics isn’t fun? And reading bad translations of ancient texts is? Just askin’.

    A thousand times no! I said I may have been tempted, and I included the scare quotes because not everyone shares my perverse views on what constitutes “fun”

  15. DK

    In my experience, the latter are usually far more interested in using you to produce data to advance their career than in the future prospects of yours.

    That describes easily 90%+ of PIs. Which is kind of natural in a system that so clearly prioritizes research over education.

  16. IndustryScientist

    STEM PhDs have it better than PhD students in the humanities, who regularly go into serious debt for their education and have even a bleaker job market than anyone in the sciences. Science stipends are miniscule, but do offset the debt somewhat. But most students I know end up taking out some loans in graduate school to supplement their living expenses, especially in high cost-of-living areas.

    I took out about $8K in federal loans during a seven-year PhD. Not too bad. But it all depends on one’s situation – I was single for most of that time and lived like a hermit. It’s a different story if you have a family. Having $20K worth of loans for a science PhD I wouldn’t think would be uncommon.

    But it’s not the loans that are the killer, it’s the opportunity cost of 1o years of indentured servitude.

  17. zach

    I’m a PhD student in biology in high-rent NY. I don’t know anyone who’s in debt (even those in non-grad student housing). There are people who don’t save any money, but those are the people who typically drop $100 in clubs over the weekend. Even still, a grad student stipend in NYC is livable if you’re a bachelor without extravagant hobbies.

  18. OldCrockScientist

    Yep, even when I did my PhD ’82-’86, I was on a small stipend – a research assistantship so no teaching, and paid almost no fees (in-state fees). I lived very frugally but did not starve and didn’t have to get a part-time job. Oh, and I’m one of those foreigners (NZ) who got their PhD in the USA then went back to the Antipodes (Aus).

    Today science, or more specifically, plant biology, PhD students are hard to find, we’ve had a couple of very good scholarships – $30K/year go begging because we couldn’t find a student after exhaustive advertising and networking. I can’t think of any current PhD students who aren’t on some kind of stipend now.

    From what I’ve gathered, what puts people off now isn’t the salary, it’s a couple of other things. First, if you want to be an academic doing research in a university or similar institution there simply aren’t that many jobs and the competition is fierce, especially in small niche areas. My area, plant cell biology, was stronger in the past but is now a bit niche-y and it’s hard for our graduates to get longer-term jobs.

    Second, as someone has already noted, you come out with your degree and you may not be in debt but you also have no savings and probably a not-great credit history if you want to buy a house and settle down.

    But that said, musicians, actors and artists have much less secure lives. One of my neighbours is an actor but he only survives by having a day job as an economic consultant! Versatile to say the least!


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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