Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Better biologists?

Glenn Boyle previously reckoned that New Zealand's relatively flat academic pay structures mean less than stellar research performance in areas where American universities pay a premium - Seamus and I are paid peanuts, and so must be monkeys (though the same holds for Glenn as well, as he is first to admit).

I read today that new biology PhDs earn about $37-$40k in the US - less than the starting salaries for undergrads starting in industry. That has to be less than New Zealand starting salaries, even given purchasing parity adjustments.

More than 86,000 biology majors graduate each year, to compete for entry-level positions in research, environmental monitoring, health care and teaching. Salaries start at $40,000 to $50,000 a year, college placement offices say, compared with $55,000 to $65,000 for graduates in computer fields and engineering.
Spending six or more years to earn a doctorate doesn’t pay off, either. There is such a glut of biology Ph.D.’s that only 14 percent find tenure-track academic jobs within six years.
Younger Ph.D.’s face the biggest problems. Many entered graduate school when federal financing for health research surged a decade ago. But most of the money to fight cancer and search for other breakthroughs went to established researchers. At the same time, in the face of financial realities, universities are clamping down on tenure-track spots in all fields. As a result, many new Ph.D.’s are stuck in one postdoctoral research job after another, helping run laboratories set up by senior scientists, waiting to see if they can win permanent academic appointment.
Starting pay is low, $37,000 to $40,000, and more than a third of biologists are still working in these and other non-tenure track jobs six years after receiving their Ph.D.’s. Others teach at community colleges or high schools, jobs that would not have required as much training, or work for industry or the government.
Federal, state and local agencies employ 40 percent of biologists at all degree levels, and they are tightening their budgets. The pharmaceutical industry has laid off 300,000 workers over the last decade, and is outsourcing basic research jobs to India and China.
A PhD in biology starts looking more like an MFA in puppetry; Big Bang Theory's Bernadette waitressing while in grad school in biology also starts making more sense (though her subsequent hiring at high salary less so).

If we look to the QS rankings, New Zealand has, in economics, Auckland ranked 37th, Canterbury 51-100, Massey 101-150, Otago 101-150, Waikato 101-150 and U Vic at Wellington 101-150.

In biology, we have Auckland at 39th, Otago 51-100, Waikato 51-100, Canterbury 151-200, Massey 151-200, and U Vic at Wellington 151-200. Only Otago and Waikato match the expected relative rankings given salary differentials. I wonder why New Zealand universities' economics departments are so much better at recruiting, given salaries, than are their biology departments. Or is it that biologists require complementary investments in kit that New Zealand universities are less able to supply?


  1. Note the $37-40k is for post-docs. Since Bernadette managed to land an industry position six figures isn't implausible, although I think Wolowitz would probably be the highest paid member of their circle (thus helping to explain his flashy clothes).

  2. @Chris: Aha, noted. Thanks.

    As spiffy as Wolowitz's wardrobe is, I am most envious of Sheldon's t-shirt collection. Much of it is available for sale online; cursed fixed cost of shipping to New Zealand has kept me from putting in an order as yet.

  3. What are the lab costs of getting an Eric doing research (besides a copy of Stata)? I guess that you could experience a surge of productivity with the nice T-shirt collection.