What does it mean to be called a 'trainee'?

DENVER—At the second Future of Bioscience Graduate and Postdoctoral Training (referred to as FOBGAPT) conference earlier this month, a deceptively simple comment highlighted the complexity of what it means to be an early-career researcher today. During a plenary talk describing a planned update to the criteria for T32 institutional predoctoral training grants from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (an official announcement is estimated for September 2017), Alison Gammie said, “We have to get away from thinking of graduate students and postdocs as workforce. … We have to think about them as trainees.”

This perspective can certainly serve graduate students and postdocs well when it comes to developing training programs and empowering early-career researchers to spend time on career development activities and other training. But there are also very good reasons that the employee designation should not be neglected, as fellow speaker and labor economist Paula Stephan of Georgia State University in Atlanta noted.

For example, the graduate student unionization efforts underway at a number of private universities rely on the National Labor Relations Board’s August 2016 ruling that graduate research and teaching assistants are employees. Although unionization is contentious, there are some strong arguments that it is a useful mechanism to ensure that students (and postdocs) are treated fairly by their institutions, and that they have recourse if they encounter problems, for example with compensation or benefits.

For postdocs, being labeled as a trainee versus employee has a tangible impact on their bottom line. As Stephan pointed out, postdocs’ low salaries are typically justified by saying that they are still in training, despite their skills and the years of experience they have already accumulated. She calculates that postdocs cost on average just $16.50 per hour, as compared with approximately $30 per hour for staff scientists and between $21 and $34 for graduate students. Changing that math would be an important step toward addressing the real “social cost” for the many postdocs stuck in the current system.

To that end, Stephan put forth two proposals that are likely familiar to Science Careers readers: Postdoc salaries and benefits should be increased, as should the number of staff scientist positions. And the problems go beyond money, she added. “More funding would help, but it’s … not going to address the underlying issue,” she said. “We’re really going to have to address the incentives that have allowed the system to evolve to this current state”—though it’s not clear exactly what that would look like.

After this opening, the approximately 400 attendees—including deans, career development professionals, graduate students, postdocs, and others who are invested in the biomedical workforce—got to work brainstorming and discussing how to improve five specific areas: diversity and inclusion, mentorship, interaction between academia and industry, data collection, and curriculum. The final takeaways are planned to be published in an upcoming white paper. For now, you can check out the conference reading list and slides and video of the plenary session.

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