Identical twins but not identical income

Recently Beth Halford over at C&EN wrote an article on the pains and gains of the postdoc life so I thought I would expand a little on my own experiences using my twin sister as a direct comparison to me…

The odds of becoming an identical twin are around three in one thousand and I am one of those lucky three. Throughout the twenty eight years of mine and my twin sister’s life we have constantly been compared to each other in looks, personality and brain power. Abigail is a trainee general practitioner (GP) which means that she has completed her medicine degree (5 years) and subsequent foundation training (2 years). I am an organic chemistry postdoc, having completed my MChem. undergraduate degree (4 years) and PhD (3.5 years) in chemistry. Considering that the training for our respective roles has been a very similar amount of time, you may or may not be surprised to find that our lives and career prospects are very different.

The MD

Abbie has recently given birth to her first child and a year before this she got married and bought her idyllic, village-based family home. This story is very similar to many of her doctor friends, most of who are married, have a mortgage and child. Her current salary is close to £50k a year for a five day a week, 8.30 am – 6pm job[1]. On completion of her GP training (her chosen specialism), her salary will significantly increase, although her work responsibilities will also rise.

As background, In the UK, you do your degree, which is very competitive to get into, and then do two foundation years[2] in a range of specialities. If this goes well, you then apply for your, sometimes very competitive, specialism. At this point there is a relatively small risk of not getting a job, especially in larger cities and for popular specialisms, but the odds of gaining a job are in your favour.

The PhD

In comparison, I earn £28k a year and am on an eighteen month contract (1 year left) with no guarantee of employment on completion. My working hours can be very variable as research is unpredictable, with late nights or weekends not uncommon. My job is not only laboratory based, but also involves helping students, keeping the lab running smoothly, writing up publications and liaising with industrial partners. I currently live in rented accommodation with my postdoc boyfriend and we can not afford to buy a house or get married. In the last three years I have lived in three different cities and settling down is still not possible if I want a career in academia, which I am not sure that I do. My next step would require a prestigious fellowship, which are harder to come by than a clean NMR tube in a synthetic laboratory! So do I stick it out and hope that I get more publications which would give me a higher chance of a fellowship or do I head into industry?

There is also the issue of having children and, whilst my university does have decent maternity entitlement for fixed term staff, it would not necessarily be a good time in my career to have a child. There are many women that have succeeded in both becoming an academic and mother but the statistics show that only 20% of professors employed in 2011 were women[3].

To conclude…

I earn almost half what my sister earns even though we have spent the same number of years in training. My sister has deal with potentially life or death decisions every day and I applaud her ability to do this. Apart from the higher salary (and therefore larger shoe collection), her education and training allows her to be confident of getting a permanent position, having career progression options and a work-life balance. I feel my education and experience should have more value than is currently given to it, with industry and academia giving more financial incentive to stay in the research sector. I want to work hard and reach the higher echelons of my chosen profession whilst having job satisfaction and a work-life balance. These job requirements mean that it is becoming more likely that I will leave research and change career paths. For now though, I am happy as a postdoc and I will continue to work as hard as I can!

18 thoughts on “Identical twins but not identical income

  1. Life in academia is hard and hardly valued; such is the price we pay for doing what we love. Nowadays I often joke that if I had really been half as smart as I thought I was back in college the I wouldn’t have gone for a phd. I wonder if its really a joke anymore.
    Now, take all you wrote and translate it to the context of a country like Mexico, where social inequality is higher, science has less penetration, resources are scarcer and politics in academia tend to take a soap opera like drama level, and the worst thin of all is we don’t publish in top journals so its pretty much all in vane.
    As I tell my wife: the thing I hate the most about my job is that I love it.

  2. Jess, such a familiar story. I see it from my own personal experience (although all three short-term contracts I’ve been employed under have been at the same institution) and from speaking to colleagues and friends. Not only is it stressful to constantly being in a situation of not knowing if you’ll be earning any money in 3 months time, there is the pressure it puts on personal lives as well. The lack of permanence and a constant feel of restlessness, particularly when comparing your career to others, I find most difficult to deal with.

    However, those of us in academia are not in a unique situation. I have friends in very different sectors who even when on permanent contracts live apart from their partners, worry about redundancy or are struggling to find the job they want. And many of them, although not necessarily poorly off, are not in the same financial boats as a medic. Except the ones who are medics…

    Still, Joaquin makes a good point, we tend to do this job for love not money and suffer the lower salary as a result. Strange though it sounds, I’d much rather earn 28k and do my job than 50k and be a doctor!

  3. Strange thing huh.. I went through 7 contracts the last three years, and signed the newest 4 days before the previous one ran out… Constantly trying to explain why I work as much as I do without getting paid for the extra hours.
    But Joaquin is right. I know industry would pay more, be more secure etc, but would I like it as much?!

  4. You didn’t mention the cost difference between your educations. Medical school in the US is not an inexpensive venture. Is is similar in the UK?

    Comparing the two tracks is difficult, at least in the US. There is a pretty hard cap on the number of physicians admitted to medical school each year, which helps in keeping the number of doctors without job prospects very low. As we all know, graduate schools have no such plan to keep the number of its graduates in step with the number of potential job opportunities, both academic and industrial…

  5. great report! As someone with a US Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry and eight years medchem experience I feel very comfortable saying I would not have been happy in Medical School. runner up careers would have been more technical ( Computers, trades, Small Business, cooking ect). I am a firm believer in following your passion…

  6. I’ll give you an n=2, although my twin is not identical.

    I have did a degree (4 years), PhD (4 years) and am 1.5 years into an organic chemistry postdoc in the USA. I also took a gap year.

    My twin did a degree in computer science (3 years), PhD (3 years), first job that he quit after six months because he hated it and subsequent struggle to find a job (1 year), postdoc in Germany (1.5 years) while struggling to find a job in the UK which would pay enough to support a family, moved other side of the world to dream job doing computery-science effects (0.5 years). He is paid much more than me. He probably has much more long term earning potential than me. He is married, has a stay at home wife and a small child.

    But, I think his job sounds the most boring thing ever. I’d hate to sit down all day, staring at a computer. I like that I am a scientist. He also has had to move a 24hr flight away to find the job he wants at a salary he is happy with. He spent about 2 years total worrying about finding a job (he actively didn’t want to be a programmer, and didn’t PhD at a prestigious university, hence job finding = hard).

    Our elder sibling failed out of their degree, has no PhD, and also earns much more than me. But he lives in a fairly grim town and sells a small industrial part to companies overseas. I wouldn’t want that job either.

    Like most of us, I also considered medical school. I pretty much spent my gap year in hospital and saw a lot of medical staff. Nothing I saw there made me want to reconsider my degree choice, although I have the greatest respect for my doctors who I think do an amazing job. I’ve also seen a husband of a friend making difficult choices about whether to pursue a specialty he was interested in, or take what was offered where he’d still be able to live in the same city as his wife. I think there are difficult choices everywhere – I’m pretty happy with how mine have worked out although

  7. Now retired but with over 45 years experience in Chemistry R&D, in mainly pharma and consultancy with a hint of teaching in further education, industrially-trained and part-time study to research MPhil, my views are based on experience, observations, and recent blogs.

    Some PhDs with similar problems or uncertainties have retrained mid-career to become patent attorneys or examiners, legal specialists, and accountants, using their specialist Chemistry and science knowledge, and have done extremely-well financially and career-wise; but to me, and hopefully everybody, it should be more about job satisfaction and pursuing what you love, how altruistic that may appear. I believe that there are exciting developments ahead (and ongoing) in medchem research in small fledgling academia-industry interface companies (SMEs) since large Pharma has had to cut back financially, and can either turn to overseas or use the existing expertise in our world class academic research universities. For example, I do know that organofluorine chemistry is vital in future drug discovery programs.

    • Also, I wonder if you had considered teaching in secondary or further/ higher education via a PGCE at Leeds or Durham ? There is a £20K bursary available via the RSC and I know from experience that teachers are far better off financially and in terms of security in teaching than in lecturing posts. It wasn’t for me in secondary but I think you may quite like the challenge,

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  11. My sister who has done nursing walked away with no uni debt and a stable job to start in… This is why I consider leaving academia pretty much once or twice a week after my PhD.
    Seriously considering a PGCE.

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