Salary gap data analysis raises post-doc career concerns

A new analysis of PhD graduates’ salaries shows that significant differences in salary exist between PhD holders six years after graduation, demonstrating that experience gained outside the university does not place the PhD holder at a higher level of pay within the university sector, and, likewise, further university experience after the PhD is not rewarded outside the university.

The analysis by DEA, the Danish think tank, looks at the impact of the trend for many young researchers to try to establish a foothold at universities after completing their PhD degree, typically through time-limited post-doc positions. Many of these graduates do not succeed or decide to leave their research career at university, taking work elsewhere.

While most PhDs do not have a salary gap 12 years after starting their degree when compared with masters degree holders who take salaried jobs straight after obtaining their degree, a key group of PhD holders, those staying behind in the first years after the PhD, who try to embark on a research career and then leave, are paying the price with a lower salary. Among this group, degree holders in health sciences suffer the biggest salary gap.

Lena Lindbjerg Sperling, the economist at DEA who carried out the analysis, told University World News the findings “underline the precarious career conditions that many young researchers face”.

The key findings are:

  • • Lagging in salaries among PhD holders six years after graduation is only found among those with a broken career path at universities. Those PhD graduates with a stable, unbroken career path either at universities or elsewhere in the workforce, both in the private and public sector, are not experiencing a salary gap.

  • • The average salary for PhD graduates with a broken university research career six years after graduation is approximately 20% lower than that of PhD graduates working either outside the university or at university for the whole period. This salary gap is found across all academic fields but varies from 12.5% for humanities PhD graduates to 31.4% for PhD graduates in the health sciences.

  • • Those PhD graduates with the biggest gap in salary are those who started their career at the university and after one year or more left the university to work in the public sector. In the sixth year after graduation they earn 27% less than those who left the university immediately upon graduating with a PhD. This group has increased with the increasing number of post-doc positions at Danish universities.

The DEA report is based on registry data from Statistics Denmark for graduates who were graduating between 2000 and 2011, and DEA categorised them based on whether they started their PhD studies before or after 2007.

Only PhD graduates who have participated in the Danish workforce in at least one of the six years after graduation are included. This makes it possible to compare those PhD holders who were admitted before the doubling of the number of PhD students due to the increased funding from the Globalisation Fund from 2006 to 2012 with those who were admitted during that period.

The report focuses on a population of 12,000 PhD graduates six years after graduation. Of these, 10,300 started their PhD studies before the Globalisation Fund payments were given to the universities and 1,710 after.

A comparison of the smaller cohorts with the larger ones makes it possible to see if the increased intake has changed conditions for the PhD students and thereby to measure what the effect of the Globalisation Fund has been.

Furthermore, a wider perspective is warranted on the career options for PhD holders seen in light of the increased number of post-doc positions at Danish universities following the increase in the number of Danish PhD graduates.

The analysis found that the increased number of PhD graduates has increased the proportion of them having to take up temporary positions and the increased proportion of external funding has contributed to reinforcing the proportion of post-docs in temporary positions.

University World News asked the DEA’s Lindbjerg Sperling if she would be reluctant to advise PhD graduates to take up post-doc positions at universities upon graduating.

She said: “I understand why you ask that question, but my answer would be no. However, our study calls for greater focus on how we ensure good career options for PhD graduates, particularly for those who move between academic and non-academic employment sectors in the first, important years after their PhD.”

First year after graduation is important

She said in Denmark there has been a discussion on the greater salary gap during the first years after a PhD compared to that for masters holders from the same field.

“Our study shows, however, that this effect does not apply to all PhD graduates, but only to those who in the first six years after completion of their PhD are employed both in and outside of the university sector. Those who immediately after their PhD move to another sector, and those who manage to remain in academic employment for all six years, experience no negative effect on their wages.

“In other words, mobility between sectors – whether by choice or necessity – in the first years after the PhD is associated with lower wages relative to other PhDs and masters graduates from similar educational backgrounds.”

She said this underlines the “precarious career conditions” that many young researchers face. But while the prospect of lower wages for those who, for example, remain in academia for a post-doc position before moving to another sector, or who return to academia after a period outside the university sector, is noteworthy, wage prospects alone are unlikely to shape young researchers’ career decisions, she said.

This is because continuing in a post-doc position may be useful from a career perspective. The PhD programme in Denmark is relatively short with only three years, including teaching duties and coursework. This means that to establish yourself as a researcher either in Denmark or internationally, most PhDs will need a post-doc period. For those who later transition to a non-academic position, the post-doc period can still bring strengthened research competences and networks, both of which may be an asset in their later careers outside academia, Lindbjerg Sperling said.

“The significant wage disparities, however, indicate that mobility between university and the remaining job market is imperfect. The qualifications gained during a post-doc do not seem to be rewarded outside the university. Unfortunately, our quantitative analysis cannot answer why, but it seems like employers outside the university are not aware of the extra qualifications that a post-doc gives the PhD. We also find differences across subjects indicating that the job markets are different, for example, between PhDs with an arts degree and PhDs in health.”

Abortive post-doc not good

Lindbjerg Sperling said many of the PhDs in the group with lower wages embarked on a career in academia, then for various reasons later pursued another sector.

“It is well recognised that the current career and working conditions for young researchers are problematic in large parts of the academic sector. A post-doc position that does not bolster further career options is not desirable in and of itself, and we need to maintain focus on how to improve career options for the large number of post-docs in the academic community. Among other things, we need better career mentoring for PhD students and post-docs, who often must rely on academic mentors for guidance into the wider job market.

“However, mobility between the university sector and the remaining job market should not be discouraged, for example, for financial reasons, and particularly not for young researchers, who for various reasons may take a few years to explore different, relevant career options in the first years after their PhD.”

Universities should ‘clarify career paths’

Karen Skytte, chief advisor at Akademikerne, the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations, told University World News: “The analysis underlines the growing challenge at Danish universities that there is a layer of young researchers who are desperately trying to get tenure, but instead they’re facing a long row of time-limited positions and the prospect of their salaries lagging behind. The risk is that it is the most talented who, facing these bad working conditions, choose other careers outside the universities.”

She said: “Universities should be better able to present and recommend other possible careers outside university for the young PhD graduates at an early stage, because not all of them will be able to stay in university positions anyway. Fortunately the analysis also show that the ones who do get stable careers either at university or elsewhere don’t have salaries lagging behind.”

Professor Jens Oddershede, chair of the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy under the Ministry of Higher Education and Science, told University World News that a more formalised tenure track system could solve some of these problems.

However, he said, in all Nordic countries there is a tendency to “employ graduates from your own university, which brings little new blood into the faculty. In order to have a more diverse academic staff at our universities, the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy has proposed that tenure track primarily should be used for recruiting faculty that comes from universities other than your own.”

He agrees that limiting the number of times a researcher may hold a post-doc position at the same university would be a step forward.