The issue is stark in the decision of whether to employ graduate students, postdoctoral fellows or staff scientists to conduct lab research. Nationally, graduate students average a stipend of about $26,000 annually; in addition, they represent approximately an additional $16,000 or more for tuition and other student costs. Their hourly “pay rate,” then, can be between $19.50 and $27.50.
Postdoctoral fellows are paid more. But they also have no tuition costs and at most universities have few additional benefits. Assuming a university follows the NIH benchmark of $43,692 for a first-year postdoc, their hourly rate comes to around $17 to $18, depending on the field.
Staff scientists start at about $60,000 to $75,000, coming out to an hourly rate of about $30.00. But that doesn’t reflect their full cost, which includes much more extensive benefits than students or postdocs.
Given this incentive structure, Stephan explained, it isn’t hard to understand the relative scarcity of staff scientists. Her own study found that at least 72 percent of academic research papers had postdocs or grad students as their first author. In the NSF’s annual survey, life science PhD graduates with definite job commitments have fallen from a peak of 70% in 1994 to 58% in 2014—and most of those are going to postdoc positions, not permanent jobs.Stephan really believes in the ameliorative power of staff scientists, but that's because she believes that the best way to deal with the problem of "too many Ph.D.s" is to raise their price. She's an economist, so that's the tool for creating scarcity. (Makes sense, I gotta say.)
I am very curious, though, what the differences in output are between institutions that are student/postdoc heavy and those that are staffed by staff scientists. In addition, I am curious as to if the nature of the output changes, i.e. if the science gets more or less interesting, or more or less innovative. I have no idea what the outcome might be - readers?