Yes, postdocs are underpaid
A few days ago, Justin Kiggins wrote Postdocs will be getting a raise (based on Obama's proposed rule change for overtime exemptions, it's likely postdoc salaries will increase to $50,000). This prompted a vigorous discussion with many faculty complaining that they are already struggling and any such increase is going to harm them and their postdocs. Yesterday, the key question in this thread came from a professor on twitter:
.@andpru I am eternally curious why science doctorate types think they are underpaid.— Drug Monkey (@drugmonkeyblog) July 7, 2015
On his blog, there are countless comments on Justin's post with many professors arguing that postdocs are not in fact underpaid and any raise will hurt them as some of them are likely to be fired due to inability to pay. Here is a representative comment:
The truth is that answering the question of whether a group is underpaid is not trivial. It's similar to the question of whether we are training too many PhDs. What's too many? How many is there a need for? Similar to the question of whether grant funding is hyper-competitive. We don't expect 100% of grant applications to the NIH to be funded. Is 25% reasonable? Is 10% too low. Maybe 5% is best to ensure only the best science is funded?
It's not surprising that postdocs feel underpaid. Nor is it surprising that professors feel that postdocs are paid enough. And while the question is difficult and nuanced, luckily we can answer it. We can answer it thoughtfully, without basing the discussion on what postdocs or professors "feel is fair." Here is one such detailed answer - a 122 page study and report from the National Academy of Sciences, The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited. For those that don't have the time to read the entire report, the resounding answer is that postdocts are underpaid. The report's recommendation is that the starting salary should be increased to $50,000. Incidentally, that's exactly what it is likely to become thanks to Obama.
What does NIH think postdocs should be paid? Here's a clue from 2001 NIH Statement in Response to the NAS REPORT: Addressing the Nation's Changing Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists:
The NIH supports higher stipends for NRSA recipients and therefore announces tentative targets of $25,000 for graduate and $45,000 for entry-level postdoctoral stipends. Future budget requests will incorporate 10 to 12 percent stipend increases until these targets are reached. After attainment of these targets, the real value of stipends will be maintained with annual cost-of-living adjustments.
If we adjust for inflation, the $45,000 recommendation in 2001 would be $60,000 today.
And now, I'd like to see all of the professors arguing that postdocs are paid enough go through the above report and make an empirical argument for lower salaries.