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Postdocs Are Not All Created Equal--Postdoc Status, Part 1

You and your labmate have been working side by side at the bench for a year. And you are both postdocs, right? After all, you both have Ph.D.s, and you work on similar projects in the lab. But what are your official titles? If you are a "postdoctoral researcher," then your institution may consider you to be a type of employee. As such, you may have access to health benefits and even a retirement plan. By contrast, if your labmate won a fellowship from a private foundation, he or she will usually be considered to be a "postdoctoral fellow" and may have to pay for health care benefits out of pocket. So, although the two of you may consider yourselves equals and peers, the titles and status bestowed upon you by the institution at which you work profoundly affect your salary and benefit options.

Next Wave's Postdoc Network is giving prominent coverage to the "status issue," because it underpins many facets of a postdoc's existence--from the basics of health care coverage to access to grievance procedures. Here, we'll begin to tackle postdoc status at academic institutions, leaving government postdocs for Part 2. But keep in mind that because practices and policies can vary enormously by institution (or even within an institution), we'll really only be able to offer some general principles and guidelines.

So, What Are You Anyway?

One medical school cited in the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy's recently released guidelines listed 17 categories of postdocs. Most institutions have a shorter list of possible titles, but you still might find yourself termed a postdoctoral scholar, a research associate, a laboratory instructor, a contract employee, a research fellow, a visiting scholar ... or any of a number of other titles. And although you may consider yourself simply a "postdoc," your official institutional title is important, because it denotes your status and, as a result, defines many of the benefits you may receive (see box).

Status and Benefits

Depending on your institution, your title and status can determine the range of benefits to which you are entitled. Examples include:

  • Health care plans (for both individuals and dependents)

  • Dental care plans

  • Parental leave policies

  • Child care benefits

  • Retirement plans

  • Grievance procedures

  • Disability (short- and long-term) benefits

  • Vacation/leave options

  • Parking privileges

One major cause of the postdoc name game quagmire is the fact that postdocs are usually hired by the principal investigator (PI) of the lab in which they will be working; the university's administration has limited involvement in the process. And having gotten off to a detached start, many universities continue to offer little oversight of postdocs on their campuses.

Confusion Reigns

Compounding this lack of involvement in postdoctoral appointments is that there may be no obvious person to turn to for answers or, if there is, that there may be no standard procedures. Take Bill, a postdoc at an East Coast medical school. Arriving on campus to begin his postdoc, he headed to human resources (HR) to fill out the necessary paperwork. At the HR office, he told the staff that he was "a postdoc." Blank stares greeted Bill until he mentioned the word "fellow," as in "postdoctoral fellow." With that, HR gave him a stack of paperwork, and he was on his way. The following week, Bill's friend and fellow postdoc, Monica, went to HR to get her paperwork. It was only later that Bill and Monica realized that HR had classified him as a clinical fellow--with benefits that continued after he received a National Research Service Award (NRSA) fellowship from the National Institutes of Health (NIH)--and her as a typical temporary employee postdoc, with benefits that stopped when she got her NRSA grant.

Changes in Sight

This lack of standard procedures is beginning to change at some institutions, as postdoctoral offices are being created by university administrations. These offices often track postdocs as they enter the university system, ensuring that newly appointed postdocs are given one of a small handful of standardized titles, each with clearly defined entitlements. Many times, postdocs going to these institutions are informed of their titles and the benefits that come with them in a common appointment letter.

But even this can be a challenging and arduous task for an institution, and after years of confusion it requires a great deal of effort to standardize titles, benefits, salaries, and appointment procedures. Newly created offices usually begin to sort out the mess by determining who the current postdocs are and what titles they hold (check out Profile of a Postdoc Office ). But at most universities, this information is not usually available directly--there is no database of postdocs and, with the many varying postdoc titles, payroll/personnel records are often of limited help. Additionally, postdocs who receive outside fellowships--fellowships that come directly to the postdoc as opposed to being funneled through the university--do not appear on payroll records.

A Postdoc Status Primer

Although the titles given to postdocs can vary widely, it is possible to make some general statements about status based on the postdoc's funding source and residency status. Consider this, then, a short primer on postdoc status, but please bear in mind that the details at each institution--including yours--can be different. Nevertheless, we hope that by explaining the fundamentals, we will provide you with enough information to help you ask your institution any questions you may still have.

We'll start with U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Most likely, you are supported in one of two ways: out of your PI's research grant or out of a training grant or fellowship. At most institutions, if you are paid out of your PI's grant, your status is that of a temporary employee, and you are typically termed a "postdoctoral associate" or "research associate." As such, you may be eligible for some of the benefits given to regular employees of the university, such as a health care plan, maternity leave, vacation, and a retirement plan. But it is important to keep in mind that if you are considered to be a temporary employee, you may not be eligible for all of the benefits enjoyed by regular employees. Additionally, although some institutions have adopted the NRSA stipend levels as the appropriate compensation level for "temporary employee" postdocs, there is usually no requirement for a PI to pay you at a minimum level. Last, because your income is a salary, you will have to pay both income and Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes. (Proceeds from FICA taxes fund Social Security and Medicare.)

If, on the other hand, you are being paid out of an institutional training grant or were successful in winning your own fellowship from a government agency or private foundation, your status is usually defined as "postdoctoral fellow." With these fellowships, you are guaranteed a certain level of compensation based on your years of experience. However, for some nongovernmental fellowships, this compensation level may be low. Some PIs choose to provide these self-funded postdocs with some additional compensation to bring their salaries to appropriate levels. This additional money can come from other grants, as supplements or as compensation. (See box below for an explanation of NIH guidelines regarding this issue.)

Supplement Versus Compensation

Perhaps in asking your PI for a raise, you have been told that the salary of a postdoc on an NRSA fellowship cannot be supplemented out of the PI's NIH grant. This makes the situation difficult when a PI would like to provide a postdoc with extra funding to cover costs such as health care premiums. But a postdoc actually can receive additional support from a PI's NIH grant. How? Well, an NRSA requires that a fellow work 40 hours a week, but the PI can compensate the fellow from an R01 or other NIH grant for any hours worked beyond that, provided that the grant does not support the training experience (as a training grant, for example, does). Have more questions about this? Then check out the Institutional Research Training Grants (T32) announcement.

As a "postdoctoral fellow," you are not considered to be an employee (or a student) of the university. Generally, you have access to few if any of the institutional benefits enjoyed by postdoc colleagues who are defined as temporary employees. In particular, your health care coverage varies by institution: For example, you may have to pay the entire premium yourself, you may receive the same institutional health benefits as the temporary employees described above, or your PI may pay for your health care plan. One potentially bright note is that, although as a postdoctoral fellow you do have to pay income tax, your stipend may not be subject to FICA taxes. Again, though, this will vary from university to university, depending on the decision of the institution's tax office.

So, where does that leave foreign-national postdocs, who make up some 50% of the U.S. postdoctoral workforce? Or postdocs with student status? We'll cover the issues affecting these individuals, as well as government postdocs, next week. Stay tuned!