22 November 2010

Mind the Gap

As postdocs applying for fellowships, funding, and tenure-track positions, we’ve heard it again and again: Find the gap in the literature and make your previous work applicable to the gap. Match that with the priorities of the funding agency and a well-written proposal, and you’re on the right track. But nothing is guaranteed. You might get a reviewer who isn’t familiar with your line of work, or another reviewer who has a grudge against your advisor’s past work.

But the gap is coming to mean a different thing for me as a second-year postdoc. With the birth of my second child, I’ve decided that I can’t afford to keep a job. This is not because  of the impending recession, the Economic Downturn, the Subprime Crisis, the rapidly rising price of food, or the fact that we live in New York City, where the cost of living is high. It mostly concerns the cost of child-care and the stipend of a postdoc. I am paid on the NIH payscale. For a second-year postdoc, that’s $38,976 a year, or a take-home pay of $1,282.56 every two weeks. At $641.28 a week, I will make just about enough to pay a nanny to take care of our new son. I could quit and stay home and we would be in a better financial situation without the tax-burden of my salary. As poor graduate students, my wife and I got by because we had the flexibility to juggle our schedules to avoid most child-care costs. I used student-loans to pay for pre-school. Now, however, we are both done with school and working full-time. My wife has taken a temporary (unpaid) maternity leave for a couple months, and when she returns to work, someone will have to watch the baby. She is paid a similar wage as me, and here in New York, that salary cannot sustain a family of four. 

My first instinct was to ramp up my search for permanent tenure-track assistant professorships. But how much more can I expect to make as a junior faculty? An additional $10,000 or $20,000? That translates into only a couple hundred dollars a week more. The nanny still makes a higher salary in the end. Is that enough to justify leaving my youngest child to be  cared-for by someone else? Everyone bemoans the poor pay that America’s teachers get, and yet I’ve been offered a much higher salary to work in a middle school than I can ever make as a postdoc. No one seems aware of the underpaid Ph.D.s fighting cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and so on. Currently, I earn about $18/hour for a 40-hour week, and a 40-hour week would be a short one, indeed. I can’t do the calculations to determine what my take-home pay is following a typical 50-hour week. It’ll depress me.

Mind the gap, but don’t fall through the cracks.
[note: this was originally published on May 19, 2008 @ http://bike-nyc.blogspot.com/2008/05/mind-gap.html]

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