Postdocs Gain at Whitehead Institute: An Administrator's View

The Whitehead Institute undertook a major re-evaluation of its human resource policies in 2000. The institute initiated an internal compensation policy review for all Whitehead employees, including postdocs. This article and its companion piece, which is written from a postdoc's point of view, assess the change process and the effect it has had on postdocs. The two articles are intended to be a unit and as such should be read together.

The Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research is an independent, nonprofit research and educational institution. And although our educational programs are affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), we are in every other way independent.

At any given time, the Whitehead Institute has about 100 postdocs, pretty equally divided between fellows (supported by a variety of government entities--mostly the National Institutes of Health--and private foundations) and associates (funded with Whitehead money, which includes institutional grants). As do many other institutions, we treat postdoc fellows as nonemployees, whereas postdoc associates enjoy all the benefits of being regular employees. We based this decision on common practice and, more important, on IRS rules and regulations.

From the beginning, we have tried to introduce some equity into this system. But because you can't make an inherently unequal system equal without changing the core of the system, the best we were able to accomplish was to establish minimum starting salary rates for postdocs that don't depend on how postdocs are paid. The other very troubling situation we addressed was the difficulty postdocs experienced going from associate to fellow and sometimes back again.

In January 2002, we implemented a new compensation schedule for all postdocs and, 6 months later, a benefits program that mimics our employee program and that makes the transition from associate to fellow transparent.

How did we do this? In July 2000, Human Resources began what turned out to be a 2-year study of the institute's compensation and job-evaluation systems. Because postdocs are a component of the institute's HR system, they were included in the study. We formed a postdoc working group, which included fellows, associates, faculty members, and HR staff, to look at postdoc issues. The group's task was to make recommendations to the Compensation Review Committee regarding changes to postdoc salaries and benefits. We had three important reasons for doing this: We wanted a fair system for postdocs; we wanted to attract the very best postdocs to Whitehead; and we wanted to reduce our administrative burden.

The working group met regularly for some months and did much excellent work. I was especially pleased about the level of civility and cooperation that prevailed--these were difficult issues to address. We were weighing personal need, institutional need, and reality to come up with a workable, equitable program from a variety of systems, most of which were, and remain, beyond our control.

I think we did well. We have a compensation schedule that provides greatly increased salary levels and a benefits program. Although complicated, it is in fact easier to administer. It mimics the schedule for employees to the extent possible and, most important, eliminates the inequities between fellows and associates.

Was it difficult to convince the faculty and Board of Directors? In retrospect, given that we were estimating a cost of $1,370,000 in a time of real budget constraints, it wasn't difficult. We did our homework--a lot of it. The Budget Committee pushed us hard to justify our numbers--more than once--and our new director, Susan Lindquist, was passionate in her support of postdocs and their importance to the scientific endeavor.

Our program for postdocs continues to be developed. Human Resources has appointed someone to manage postdoc interactions with the administration and provide the kind of support we normally provide to all staff members, a permanent Postdoc Committee has been formed with a faculty adviser, the faculty is supportive, and the director continues to be passionate in her support.

That said, there is still much to be done. In many ways, the tasks ahead are more difficult to deal with than money and benefits, because they involve the relationships between postdocs and faculty. But there is a new energy now and an improved administrative structure that make the future look good.

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