Postdocs Are Not All Created Equal--Postdoc Status, Part 2

Last week, we began our discussion of postdoc status with a primer on two categories of American academic postdocs. This week, we'll cover the status issues of foreign national postdocs, "student" postdocs, and postdocs working in government labs.

Foreign Nationals as Postdocs

According to the National Academy of Sciences' COSEPUP guide, over 50% of postdocs in the U.S. are foreign nationals. These scientists must contend--like their American colleagues--with the status and general quality-of-life issues that all postdocs face. But they also must deal with visa issues and their potentially complex tax status, topics that, because of their breadth and complexity, we'll be covering elsewhere in the Postdoc Network.

As you may recall from last week, academic postdocs fall into two general categories. Postdocs whose salaries come out of their advisor's research grant are generally classified as some form of "temporary employee," whereas postdocs who are supported by their fellowships are considered to be nonemployee fellows. The situations of foreign nationals mirror, to some extent, those of their American counterparts in that they also fall into two basic categories: "employee" and fellow. (For simplicity, in this article, the terms "American postdocs" and "U.S. postdocs" will refer to both U.S. citizens and permanent residents (green card holders); "foreign nationals" or "foreign postdocs" will refer to nonimmigrant visa holders or temporary residents.)

Most foreign postdocs are funded from their principal investigators' research grants, making them "temporary employees" or similar in the eyes of most institutions. At the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, for example, an American and a foreign national, both funded by their advisor's R01 research grant, also both have the title of Postdoc Researcher. Similarly, at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), postdocs funded from their PI's grants are dubbed Postdoctoral Employees. Most of the foreign nationals in this category have J-1 visas (approximately 70% at Penn), with a number holding H-1Bs (about 20% at Penn).

As the Postdoc Network pointed out last week, some institutions have set minimum salary guidelines for "temporary employee" postdocs. Depending on the institution, these guidelines may not be followed for all postdocs, foreign and domestic. However, the authors of the COSEPUP guide found in interviews with both American and foreign postdocs that non-U.S. postdocs are sometimes paid less than their U.S. colleagues and that some foreign nationals have worked without compensation.

Foreign nationals can also be funded by fellowships. Although foreign postdocs are ineligible for training fellowships from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the National Science Foundation, they are eligible for many of the fellowships offered by foundations. ( Curious? use GrantsNet's search feature to find biomedical fellowships available to non-U.S. citizens.) Like their American colleagues, these foreign postdocs will likely be classified as "fellows" (at UAB, however, they're termed Postdoctoral Trainees). Additionally, some postdocs come to the U.S. with fellowships from government agencies in their home countries. Because this funding will usually come to the postdoc directly, the institution at which they are working may not have a personnel/payroll record for the postdoc and may have little idea of the postdoc's presence on campus.

Postdocs as Students

One institution--Stanford University--has bypassed the array of funding sources, the laundry list of potential titles, and the confusing benefits situation by assigning all Stanford postdocs the same status. Regardless of their funding source or their nationality, postdocs at Stanford are considered to be nonmatriculated, nondegree-seeking students. Like undergraduate and graduate students, Stanford's postdocs are obliged to register each quarter, allowing the university to keep better track of them--who they are, where they are, how long they have been postdocs, and what their salary is.

Another plus: the postdocs' "student" status has allowed the university administration to offer a unique benefits package that they feel is appropriate for postdocs. These benefits include short- and long-term disability insurance, health care, dental care, deferment of student loans, and the ability to audit Stanford courses. The university has also set minimum salary guidelines.

However, along with the student status comes a recurring tuition fee. Depending on the postdoc's lab and funding source, this fee can be paid by the postdoc, the postdoc's advisor, the grant, or the institution. Stanford is still working out the details, but currently, for many postdocs, the tuition fee is calculated as taxable income, regardless of who pays it. Originally, the fee was set at $995 per quarter, but it was reduced this summer to $125 per quarter. In addition to advocating a lower tuition rate, the Stanford University Postdocs Association is campaigning to have the university create a new nonstudent status (e.g., "postdoctoral fellow") that would apply to all postdocs, including postdoctoral fellows, visiting scientists, and research associates, and that would better reflect their education. Stanford's administration plans to investigate this option.

Postdocs in Government

Many postdocs chose to perform their research outside of the academic arena, turning instead to government research facilities. A graduate student considering a postdoc at a government lab has a range of options--NIH, NASA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Department of Energy (DOE), and more. Unlike in academia, where a PI can hire a postdoc with little involvement from the university in the appointment process, the government labs offer a more regulated environment. There is a defined appointment process that is carried out by dedicated administrative personnel.

Depending on the research facility, a postdoc may or may not be considered a government employee. For example, postdocs at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) receive Intramural Research Training Awards (IRTA) and are considered IRTA fellows, not government employees. These IRTA fellows at NIEHS and those at the main NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, make between approximately $25,000 to $50,000 a year (see appendices on the IRTA program page for a full stipend schedule) and have some benefits, including health care. Foreign postdocs at the NIH are classified as "visiting fellows" and are on the same stipend schedule (details of the program can be found on the Fogarty International Center Web page). By contrast, postdocs at NIST are considered government employees; they receive a 1999 base salary of $50,000 per year. But there are no foreigners; NIST postdocs must be U.S. citizens.

In some instances, it is possible to work at a national lab and yet be considered an employee of an another institution. For example, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Los Alamos National Laboratory are managed by the University of California (UC) for the DOE. Postdocs are considered employees of the University and receive some of the same benefits as other UC employees. But because these national labs are independent of the academic UC campuses, the employment status held by postdocs in the national labs is different from that held by the postdocs on the academic campuses.

Regardless of your nationality or where you do your postdoc--academia or government--it is important to ask questions about your status and what it means. While this article and last week's provide a primer on postdoc status, they are not exhaustive and cannot cover all of the ins and outs that may exist for postdocs at your institution. So, remember to ask questions! Your quality of life could depend on the answers you receive.

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