Postdocs Gain at Whitehead Institute: A Postdoc'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 an administrator's point of view, assess the change process and the effect it has had on postdocs. These two articles are intended to be a unit and as such should be read together.

Two years ago, the experiences of postdocs at the Whitehead Institute were similar to those of postdocs at many other institutions: Our compensation structure and overall situation did not reflect the fact that a modern postdoc is a long-term, professional undertaking. A survey of most postdocs at the Whitehead Institute at the time showed that the average postdoc salary was about $35,000 a year and that most postdocs benefited from health insurance. Although this level of compensation might have been sufficient for the brief training period of the 26-year-old postdoc of the 1970s, it proved a poor match for the reality of life as a postdoc in the new millennium. Two years ago, the average postdoc at the Whitehead Institute was more than 32 years old, married, and spending more than 40% of his/her income on rent. Only 50% of the postdoc population had dental insurance, and postdocs with children were spending an additional $1000 per month on child care. Very few of these 30- to 35-year-olds had any retirement savings or owned a home. This situation was discouraging and stressful for many postdocs and, we felt, devalued our graduate school training.

As part of a larger effort to address compensation at the Whitehead Institute, an ad hoc committee of postdocs, administrators, and faculty members was formed to identify and make suggestions that would improve the postdoc experience at the institute. The postdoctoral fellows and associates who chose to participate in this process did so for various reasons. Some felt strongly about salary increases, whereas others were more focused on improving benefits provided to postdocs. Some were concerned about the lack of consistent and transparent salaries and benefits for all postdocs. Some were frustrated about less tangible aspects of the postdoctoral experience, including mentoring, fellowships, and community. We all felt that it was time to make the common vision of the postdoctoral experience match the reality of today's longer and more involved undertaking.

Compensation was at the head of the list of issues that needed to be addressed. Many postdocs at the Whitehead Institute were paid on an experience-based scale that was set according to the stipend awards granted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to postdocs through its National Research Service Awards. Although this continues to be a common basis for determining postdoc salaries at many institutions, it has never been a goal of NIH to set national salary rates for all postdocs. Therefore, we used external factors as the basis to propose a new salary structure. These considerations included cost of living, comparisons with postdoc and graduate student stipends in expensive cities, and consideration of postdoc salaries at other institutions that had recently revised them. A significant aspect of the proposed structure was the inclusion of an additional year of salary increase; the old structure provided for only three annual increases, but in recognition of lengthened postdoc tenures, four annual salary increases were proposed.

As part of the proposal for a new compensation package, benefits provided to postdocs were also reviewed by the committee. There are two types of postdocs at the Whitehead Institute: those on independent fellowships (postdoctoral fellows) and those paid from grants received by the lab (postdoctoral associates). Most postdocs at the institute spend time in both categories, and the transition between the two states was often confusing or frustrating. As employees, postdoctoral associates were awarded full benefits packages, including dental care, broader choices in health care, retirement benefits, disability insurance, and access to pretax saving plans for child care and retirement. As independently funded scholars, postdoctoral fellows were guaranteed only basic health coverage. With significant help from the Whitehead Institute benefits office, we proposed changes that would give the same benefits to fellows and associates and make the transition from one status to the other transparent.

We submitted our proposal for changes in institute-wide postdoctoral salaries and benefits to the faculty and incoming director, and we were very fortunate to find strong support from both. At the beginning of 2002, a new salary structure was implemented. This structure guarantees consistent salaries to all postdocs at the Whitehead Institute, with grant and institutional monies supplementing fellowships where necessary. In addition, in mid-2002 new benefits were implemented to equalize support for all postdocs. Postdoctoral fellows now receive dental insurance and a $2000 annual supplement for retirement savings. These changes have furnished a sense of equality and have made the transition from one postdoctoral status to the other smoother.

Although we have not done a follow-up survey, the response from postdocs has been very enthusiastic, and there is a new sense of value and self-worth. When the first survey was done, almost all respondents suggested that they aspired to follow an academic career path, and yet most also said that they had low to moderate expectations of reaching this goal. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the straightforward (if expensive) decision to increase salaries and benefits has boosted morale among postdocs. The drive to produce and succeed that accompanies this positive assessment is critical to the success of individual postdocs, the institutions at which they work, and the entire concept of a postdoctoral training period.

Addressing salary and benefits was only the beginning of our work to improve the postdoctoral experience at the Whitehead Institute. A permanent postdoc committee has been formed to continue to identify aspects of our experience that can be enriched. We hope to promote communication and collaboration among postdocs, support identification and procurement of fellowships, help with job searches, and arrange more mentoring and connections with faculty members. Changing the culture of the institution in these regards will be more difficult than changing the compensation. However, these aspects of the postdoctoral experience are integral to developing a supportive and productive environment in which postdocs will thrive.

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