Not Exactly Students, Not Exactly Employees 

For postdoctoral researchers at UC Berkeley, the years at school keep growing as the chances of landing a faculty job keep waning.

If you want to be a biology professor, twelve years of college aren't enough any more.

Connie Peng is a 32-year-old life-sciences academic with a Ph.D, whose goal is to secure a tenure-track professorship. She is a postdoctoral researcher — a postdoc — and like all of her kind, she must complete several years of research after getting her Ph.D before she can even apply to be a professor. It's paid work, but it doesn't pay a lot.

While most any postdoc would be excited to be accepted to an elite school like UC Berkeley, few would brag about the salary. Peng, a native of China, underwent sticker-shock when she arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area and compared her salary to the cost of living. With her Ph.D in biochemistry she earns about $10.58 per hour for her sixty-hour work week, less than the city of Berkeley has set as a minimum living wage for its employees. Shelling out $900 per month for a one-bedroom apartment in El Cerrito, Peng pays more than twice the rent she paid while attending the University of Iowa, but earns just $200 more a month after taxes.

She has no debts from college or graduate school, but she's not saving at all. "I am spending my savings," she said. "I don't feel good about that, but I need a car. ... I still think this is the right thing to do, but if I could change this situation, it would be good."

Still, Peng is luckier than many of her postdoc peers. According to a 2006 study conducted by the National Science Foundation, roughly half of life-science doctorates had debt after graduate school, and a quarter left owing $20,000 or more.

Peng has no regrets about choosing Berkeley or the lab in which she works, but is nevertheless worried about emergency costs, such as trips home to visit her aging parents. "What if I need a root canal?" she asked recently, only partly joking. "Sometimes I think I should change my lifestyle," she added. "I've been in school forever. I've never had a real job."

A look at the lifestyles of Peng and her peers highlights the changing nature of postdoctoral research. Few places offer a better look at this shifting academic culture than the University of California system, which is second only to the National Institutes of Health in the number of postdocs it hires. The Berkeley campus alone hosts about 1,000, with foreign postdocs such as Peng at the bottom of the wage scale.

Postdocs have long been a cheap source of labor for US universities, said Sam Castañeda, director of Cal's Visiting Scholar and Postdoc Affairs Program. Until recently many of them had no rights to benefits, counseling, time off, or a grievance procedure. Not quite employees and not quite students, they worked without the privileges of either. Many universities aren't doing better today, but Berkeley has been a forerunner in giving postdocs rights, and Castañeda said he is upbeat about the future.

Ever since World War II, the assumption underlying American higher education has been that an advanced degree was the ticket to a better life. But as the cost of a Ph.D has risen dramatically across the country, the short-term earnings potential of many graduates has decreased. Many are spending much more time — four years is the new standard — in the nether region between their own studies and long-term employment.

Meanwhile, the likelihood of winning that much-desired tenure-track position are getting slimmer.

When Peng and her bench-mates step off the elevator at the sixth floor of UC Berkeley's Barker Hall, they are greeted by radioactive materials warnings, a stunning view of the San Francisco Bay, and a lifestyle that has metamorphosed over the last twenty years. The academics in this building operate in a different world, one with its own set of expectations, archetypes, even language. Visitors encounter posters for an upcoming talk, "Olfactory Processing of the Drosophila Brain," and a notice reminds everyone to leave their gloves in the labs.

Peng works in the Barnes-Drubin lab, which is run by two professors who are married to one another, Georjana Barnes and David Drubin. Aside from having two bosses, the lab is not particularly unusual, and the postdocs interviewed here say they feel lucky to be a part of it and seem as happy or happier than postdocs in other labs at Berkeley.

Like her colleagues, Peng is glad to have a spot in the lab, soaking up the fluorescent lights as she participates in some of the world's most cutting-edge research. Stacks of colorful boxes of sterile pipette tips and plastic tubes distract from the fact that the systems studied here can't be seen with the naked eye. Neon tape identifies bottles of yellow broth and is stuck to nearly everything in sight: petri dishes, centrifuges, and otherwise indistinguishable bottles of clear, hand-crafted buffer and salt solutions.

The lab explores cellular systems like endocytosis, the processes by which cells absorb or engulf external entities like nutrients. It also looks at structural aspects of mitosis, the stage at which a cell duplicates its nuclear DNA before splitting into two cells. Most experiments are performed on yeast and have no direct application to medicine, though other scientists may ultimately apply these discoveries to fighting human disease.

Peng's postdoctoral research will be considered successful if she gets at least one significant publication in a well-respected scientific journal like Cell, Nature, or Science. The paper should be a "first-author paper," meaning that Peng's name will appear first, implying hers is the major contribution. Since life science is a collaborative endeavor, papers often have several authors, and the last author on the list is the supervising principle investigator. In Peng's case that's Professor Drubin.

Getting a paper published isn't easy and depends on various factors: years in the lab, scientific skill, guidance from a supervising professor, and just plain luck. The standards for publishing have risen over the last twenty years, in part from the impressive jump in human understanding of biological systems and in part because of increased competition. "You have more information," Peng said, "the sequences are all known." Reading old articles from 1992, she estimated that they required less than a tenth the volume of supporting data required today.

In academic life-science, professors like Barnes and Drubin — technically called "principle investigators" — start their own research labs. Most of their lab workers tend to be graduate students getting their Ph.Ds. But labs also include visiting scholars, salaried technicians, and the occasional master's student — although only getting your master's degree is generally frowned upon. To supplement this mix, professors hire seasoned researchers. By and large they are postdocs, impermanent workers who benefit the lab by spending the majority of their time doing pure research.

Principle investigators pay for instruments, chemicals, lab supplies, and salaries, through grants from sources like the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. However, postdocs often win grants, essentially providing their own salaries instead of having them paid by their professors. These grants, or "fellowships," almost always pay salaries higher than what a professor would pay.


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