Evidence? I don’t need no freakin’ evidence!

One of the most amusing data points I’ve seen in the past few weeks (aside from “It looked like a million, a million and a half people”) comes from our friends at the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA). As reported in their Institutional Policy Report 2014, nobody really has a firm idea of how many postdocs there actually are…

Historically, institutions have not kept accurate records of postdoctoral scholars, although more and more institutions are doing so today. As a result, it is not clear precisely how many postdoctoral scholars are currently employed in the United States, but the NSF estimates there are between 30,800 to 63,400.

That’s funny. Isn’t the NSF supposed to be all scienc-y and stuff, all about measuring things down to the nanometer? 30,800 to 63,400 is a pretty big range. Also, with that kind of imprecision, it seems disingenuous to have any numbers at all after the comma… I mean, 30,800? Really? If you’re going to be off by 100% or more, it doesn’t seem necessary to have that many significant digits. They might as well have said “an awful lot.”

Anyway, the NPA put forth a counter-number.

The NPA’s member postdoctoral offices estimate they serve about 79,000 post-doctoral scholars; this number is thought to be closer to the true total, though still incomplete.

“About 79,000.” Much better phrasing. The “about” there is crucial, because it lets us know that we’re still in the realm of ballpark figures.

One thing the NPA does know with precision is how many university offices of postdoctoral services there are: 167, up from “less than 25” back in 2000. And why does NPA know that? Because those institutions pay NPA dues, and therefore deserve recognition.

(To return to an earlier theme, this is another example of institutional money not in a classroom. Each office of postdoctoral services eats up at least one staff position, probably reasonably well paid; they might actually put on services, which cost money; each school pays an NPA membership fee; the annual meeting—March 17-19, in San Francisco—is a minimum of $400 per person to register and $240 a night for the hotel… the symbionts are feeding well, even as the host complains of anemia.)

Anyway, why don’t we actually know how many postdocs there are in the US? Why don’t we know how many adjuncts there are, really? (The fudging of those numbers will be its own small chapter in the coming book…) Because no one in power is served by knowing those numbers. We don’t collect data that we don’t want to know.

Policymakers are proposing all kinds of metrics for undergraduate institutional success, from retention and persistence rates to graduation rates to indebtedness after graduation to rate of return on investment as demonstrated by average wages. All possibly useful. But they utterly ignore metrics for graduate education or the experience of scholars after graduation. Almost 40% of financial aid goes to grad students (even more if you count institutional aid like TAships and RAships and waivers), but the status of the grad student, adjunct instructor and postdoc researcher are out there in the plus-or-minus 100% range, even as they account collectively for a massive component of our institutional landscape.

I saw a pair of socks in a shop yesterday, as my wife and I stopped on our way back from the Women’s March in Montpelier VT (with its own police estimate of 15,000 to 20,000 attendance). They were cartoon socks of a slovenly guy in a lounger watching TV, and the text on the foot read “Let her have her way… she’s probably right anyway.” And underneath, the care instructions for the socks said “Wash warm, tumble dry medium heat, or whatever.”

In our understanding of the adjunct and postdoc communities, we’re definitely relying on the vocabulary of “or whatever.”