Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Postdoc vs Research Engineer

In one of my last posts, I mentioned that my group has grown excessively large to 10 graduate students. I do not think I am writing anything that is not obvious to everyone in my group: it is very hard to manage that many people and write grants and write papers and perform the level of university and national service that I do. One of the things that I pride myself on is explaining the status of my group to the students. They know, e.g., the current financial situation (whether good or bad), know when I am hiring or not, and whether they can ask to attend conferences they would not normally attend. One of the recent things that has become apparent to me as a result of my participation in a faculty search committee is whether the candidate understands from where his/her funding comes. Now, most of my students are likely to end up in industry so this may be a moot point but I want them to at least understand where their funding comes from, even if they are not responsible for bringing it in.

Lately, I have been debating whether I should bring on a postdoc to help me advance my group. There are numerous reasons to do this: a postdoc can focus more on research instead of classes, can understand a higher level of applications, can write journal papers, and [hopefully] can manage graduate and undergraduate students. Now I know most STEM folks in the blogosphere are in the biomedical fields which have different expectations and funding mechanisms than those of us in engineering. When I talk to folks in the biomedical fields, they say that 40k is sufficient for a postdoc, maybe 42k if they are really good. But in engineering, you can easily make 10k-15k more than that with a BS, with stock options and a 401k so why would any engineer looking for a postdoc accept that salary??! The numbers I'e seen are more like 55k and when you factor in the 33% benefit rate and then 53% overhead rate, a postdoc costs me 112k/year. And that is for an average postdoc. To be honest, before I came to SnowU, I had a postdoc offer for ~73k/year. That's close to 150k/year if I wanted to hire someone at that salary. 

So this begs the question: is a postdoc worth the 112k-150k per year that I need to bring in to support them?

The basic (and more in-depth) answer is: NO. That same amount of money can get me ~2-3 students who will at least be here for until they get their degree, whereas a postdoc will jump at a TT position if offered. (And I'm not blaming them for that!) But I think the bigger question that needs to be asked is why would I hire a postdoc when (assuming) I could hire a research engineer. 

True, a research engineer would cost more than a postdoc but the big difference between the two is a research engineer (or research faculty depending on how you look at it) is able to be PI on their own grants. Other than NIH, which has its own shit-storm of a competition, there is no other mechanism where postdocs can submit their own proposals. However, a research engineer can submit their own proposals to NSF, DoD, DoE, NASA, etc. And if I, as a PI can land a big grant, I may be able to offset most of those costs for the research engineer and then have them help the finances of the group. 

But why would anyone choose to be a research engineer? Wouldn't they just jump at the first TT offer? I don't think that is the case if the right person is found. I know of several groups at SnowU where the lead PI has their research engineer helping them run their group, takes part in the management of students, helps write papers, and is content with trading the TT rat-race for no teaching duties, no service, and the aspects of soft money. Over the long term, especially with the current trends in academic funding, it is likely not sustainable unless you have NIH/DoD/DoE funding but they may be able to help me, as the PI, sustain a group and output level needed to maintain that level of support. 

I'm still not 100% sold on the idea but it has been something I've been thinking about lately. At this point, I think I would take all the help I can get but if I had my pick, I'll probably go with the research engineer rather than a postdoc at this point.


  1. I've had a postdoc for 4 years, he happily landed a faculty position this year. He wanted to be faculty, and had to have a postdoc to achieve that. For him, industry was not an option until he exhausted all his chances for a TT position.
    I would have paid him $40-45K as that's what my university allows. (He did get a couple of fellowships so I ended up not having to pay him at all except for his travel.)
    As for a research scientist/engineer, that's a great option too, but I suppose I wouldn't do it until I know I have stable funding for several years (i.e. good relationship with some DoD program managers). These people help more than a postdoc as they are not focused on leaving for TT. But they cost more for sure.

  2. So your Uni puts a cap on postdocs? Is it per field because that seems very low (for engineering, for instance).

    As it turns out, the people that I was considering for this all took jobs (with much higher pay I assume) outside of the university.

    I agree that you generally need a DoD program manager to really support this for a long time but I don't think it is a requirement to have a postdoc for a tenure track position.

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