Federal Science Policy and the Postdoc: What Do Postdocs Want?

This is the first in a series of articles developed in anticipation of the Second National Postdoc Meeting. The Postdoc Network conducted an informal electronic poll using the Postdoc Network electronic mailing list and the Next Wave Forums. The majority of respondents were current or recent postdocs; their responses are the focus of this article. Subsequent articles will examine comments from postdoc office administrators, funding-agency representatives, and disciplinary-society officials; they will also discuss the potential for federal science-policy initiatives to enhance the postdoc experience.

The work of postdocs contributes significantly to the extraordinary productivity of the United States' science and engineering enterprise. Indeed, postdocs generally agree that their service is one of the most professionally rewarding periods of their life. Yet, as pointed out in a 2000 report of the National Academies Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP), many postdocs are unhappy with their situations. (See Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers.)

Why is this important? Well, not only does postdoc dissatisfaction have an impact on current research productivity, it may have far-reaching consequences as well. It can negatively affect the choices of students contemplating science and technology careers.

The Second National Postdoc Network Meeting will be held in Washington DC on 20 April 2002. This meeting will bring together postdocs, administrators, officials of funding agencies, and disciplinary-society representatives. It is a great opportunity to discuss policy initiatives to improve the postdoctoral experience. Register by 1 March 2002.

The COSEPUP report concluded that "Reform efforts will have to be collaborative. While the postdocs themselves must play a role, the major responsibility for change lies with those who have the most power." The report goes on to list the responsibilities of advisers, research institutions, and funding agencies. Since then, a lot has been happening. Postdocs have organized new associations. Research institutes and universities are becoming more interested in supporting these efforts and also in establishing institutional postdoc offices. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have pledged to increase starting postdoc salaries. And we at the Postdoc Network are busy organizing our Second National Postdoc Network Meeting.

Dr. John Marburger has agreed to be the keynote speaker for the upcoming meeting. He is the current director of the federal Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The OSTP not only advises the president on policy and budget issues but also is charged with fostering partnerships among federal, state, and local governments and the scientific communities in industry and academe. Marburger's attendance provides postdocs with a unique opportunity to discuss what federal science-policy initiatives may improve their working conditions.

Areas of Concern

In our electronic poll, we asked postdocs to identify two priorities for federal attention. Far and away, the most frequent responses were salary and health benefits. "My family wonders why I spent 4 years in graduate school to begin a postdoctoral position at less than 30k per year," wrote one respondent. Another commented, "It is a bit absurd that the most productive members of the laboratory workforce are relegated to second-class status: Obtaining benefits is often difficult, and retirement plans [are] impossible."

Respondents were also very concerned about their professional life after the postdoc. What can they expect in the way of employability and job security? Many respondents also suggested that there might be too many graduate students pursuing science Ph.D.s.

Other areas of concern included finding funding opportunities for senior postdocs seeking a permanent position, developing work-permit policies for spouses of nonresident postdocs, establishing institutional postdoc offices, and recognizing the contributions made by these individuals.

Here is a closer look at postdoc compensation, benefits, and transition grants, and some proposals for federal science-policy attention.

Compensation for a Job Well Done

The COSEPUP report indicated that "Postdocs are paid by a variety of sources, and their status as postdocs depends in a significant way on the nature of the source." Every institution formulates its own policy in this area, as exemplified by the respondent who wrote, "My salary is designated as 'laboratory equipment.' "

Many U.S. postdocs are supported by NIH grants, either directly though individual National Research Service Awards (NRSAs), or indirectly through grants to a principal investigator (PI). NIH salary scales are of great significance because most universities require that postdoc scholars, regardless of funding source, receive a minimum compensation that is equal to the NIH entry-level salary for postdocs. However, although the NIH payscale is the de facto standard for biomedical postdocs, institutions are in fact free to compensate them at less, the same as, or more than the NIH level.

The NIH has recognized the need to increase this compensation, and it has pledged to raise the minimum entry-level salary for postdocs to $45,000 per year in increments over the next 5 years. ( More information about this stipend increase is available from the NIH.) This is roughly equivalent to the salary of a trained lab technician at NIH. For awards made with fiscal year 2002 funds, the entry-level stipend is $31,092 per annum, up from $28,260. It is important to note, though, that retroactive adjustments or supplementation of stipends with NRSA funds for awards made prior to 1 October 2001 are not permitted.

Other funding agencies are pushing for reform of postdoc compensation. As recently reported, private philanthropies have long complained that the stipends are too low. They have worked to boost wages by sponsoring studies on salaries and by offering individual postdoc grants with levels of support significantly above the NIH minimum.

The National Science Foundation funds almost 5000 postdocs, most through research grants to PIs. The NSF has been pushing for increased funding for graduate students, but the foundation's budget request for fiscal year 2002 contains no formal policy statement on postdoctoral fellowship stipends. Federal policy may be useful in codifying NIH stipend scales as minimum standards for all federal agencies funding research and development.

The Benefits of Job Classification

A postdoc's benefits depend upon employment status or classification within the research institution. In actuality, these two issues are completely intertwined. The COSEPUP report documented the lack of classification standards: Postdocs can be employees, students, fellows, staff, or faculty. As one respondent wrote, "There are huge variations in the way postdocs are treated at different institutions. Often, they slip though the cracks, being classified as 'None of the above.' "

In the course of our Postdoc Network poll, a debate arose on whether postdocs should rally to become staff employees or faculty or to retain a "nonemployee" status. It was immediately clear that although a uniform status was desired, there is no consensus on what that status should be.

Those in favor of employee status believe that the NIH (and, presumably, all federal funders of postdocs) should stipulate employee status. As one respondent put it, "Once we are employees, we can argue that employees at our own institution (and NIH) with fewer degrees and less experience are earning more than postdocs are."

On the other hand, several people expressed concordance with the individual who wrote, "It would be ideal to classify postdocs as faculty for benefits and privileges, because our needs are most like theirs."

If job classification seems hopelessly complex, one can look to the benefits issue for cohesion and consensus. All postdocs want healthcare insurance coverage for themselves and, when applicable, their families. "We were paying a huge amount for health/dental/life insurance [for our family of four], which would have been paid for if I had been an employee." Subsidized childcare is also listed as a necessity.

What about planning for the future? Federal tax rules for nonemployees cause most postdocs to be ineligible to contribute monies to IRA retirement accounts; furthermore, no money is contributed on their behalf to Social Security. In addition, most institutions do not offer retirement plans for this group. One postdoc calculated that forgoing contributions during a 5-year stint would cost an individual upwards of $120,000 in lost retirement income.

What can be done at the federal level? Current federal policy debate is focused on graduate students (see OMB circular A-21 and see the AAU 1998 Graduate Education Report Summary). Federal policy might establish a uniform employment status as well as guidelines for assuring postdocs the fringe benefits worthy of their education and training.

Funding Career Transitions

There are few funding programs to bridge the gap between postdoctoral status and a career as a research scientist. The Burroughs-Wellcome Fund (which supports Next Wave's Career Development Center) sponsors a Biomedical Sciences Career Award. The NSF ADVANCE award is another such program, more limited in scope. Some NIH institutes sponsor K22 career transition awards and other transition awards aimed at postdocs, such as the B/START and R03 grants.

One postdoc commented, "There is a serious lack of grants to senior postdocs (and visiting professors), even short 1 to 2 year grants. We need something to help get us from the NRSA postdoc level to the tenure-track level, and now that a growing number of us are becoming senior postdocs, visiting professors, adjunct professors, instructors ... we need grants that are also transportable, so that we have a better chance at getting jobs."

Federal Policy Proposals

The COSEPUP report suggested that the postdoc population was stabilizing in response to "better information and opportunities in the nonacademic job market." What steps can the federal government play to move postdocs into leadership for the future of science and technology in the United States? The results of the Postdoc Network poll leave us with these questions for further discussion and consideration:

  • Should federal policy extend the NIH recommendations on minimum stipend levels to guidelines (or requirements) for all federal funding agencies?

  • Should federal policy establish a uniform employment status for postdocs, as well as guidelines to assure them fringe benefits worthy of their education and training?

  • Can the federal government play a more active role in helping postdocs move into positions as research scientists who will lead the future of science and technology in the United States?

  • Up next: Redux from administrators, funding agencies, and disciplinary societies

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