Postdoc Issues and Solutions: A Report From the AAAS Meeting

One of the goals of the Postdoc Network is to bring together constituencies interested in improving the postdoctoral experience. In our ongoing effort to foster communication and a frank discussion of challenges faced in developing postdoc policies, we organized a discussion at the 2002 AAAS Annual Meeting, held in Boston over President's Day weekend. Panelists included Mildred Dresselhaus, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP); Roslyn Orkin, Assistant Dean of Faculty Affairs at Harvard Medical School (HMS); Dorothy Berkoben, who staffs the nascent HMS Office for Postdoctoral Fellows; Jaime Mancilla and Cullen Jackson of the Brown University Postdoctoral Association ( BUPA); and Shari Spector of the MIT Biology Postdoc Association ( BPA).

That postdoc policy needs to be amended was affirmed by the 2001 COSEPUP " Guide to Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers." Dresselhaus presented an overview of the action points recommended by the committee.

"In our focus groups, we found that many postdocs didn't know the purpose of doing a postdoc," said Dresselhaus. "The primary responsibility of the postdoc is to decide whether and why to pursue postdoctoral training, and to determine expectations for the experience." Next, Dresselhaus turned to the responsibilities of institutions. The list was long for institutions, "mostly because they had not done much" prior to the COSEPUP investigation. Among the committee's recommendations, institutions should take a census of their postdoc population, establish a uniform classification of postdocs, and establish policies regarding training, benefits, and career guidance.

The discussion then turned to what some institutions were doing to respond to the COSEPUP postdoc recommendations. Orkin spoke about postdoc policies at HMS, where, 90% of postdocs fall into one of two categories: employees or trainees. Those supported on an adviser's R01 grant are considered employees and can contribute to a tax-deferred retirement annuity. They also receive a choice of health plans available through the employee benefits pool. This is possible because R01 proposals are designed to include funds to cover fringe benefits. However, postdoc trainees who have been awarded an individual National Research Service Award (F32) or a nonfederal grant, or are supported by institutional training grants (T32), do not receive these benefits, as these awards do not include the necessary funds. Trainee postdocs and their families are covered by the Harvard student health plan. Due to federal rules, trainees are ineligible to contribute to retirement plans. Although being awarded an individual grant may look great on a CV, Orkin commented that a postdoc would be forced to choose between prestige and restricted employee benefits.

"These issues are being discussed at the highest levels," said Orkin. "There is a desire at HMS to equalize benefits across all classes of postdoc." She added that she hoped there would be a nationwide effort to get the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to change the employee/trainee guidelines. "Those in high positions in academic research, as well as the national professional societies, need to lobby for these changes." However, even with the desire, "there will be a tremendous shortfall of funds." Difficult decisions must be made, as something will have to give. Should there be fewer postdocs? Should fewer research grants be awarded? Should university endowments be tapped? Should principal investigators be expected to cover all employment-related costs?

Berkoben--another career scientist with experience as a postdoc and in running a lab--outlined the services offered by the HMS Office for Postdoctoral Fellows. Among other issues, the office is trying to work with postdocs, faculty, and administrators to establish written institutional policies governing postdoc appointments, evaluations, and termination. Berkoben echoed the frustration expressed by Orkin: "It is very difficult to get postdocs involved."

"Should services depend upon postdocs developing them? Shouldn't these services be established by the institution on behalf of the postdocs?" asked one attendee. A look at successful organizations suggests that encouraging postdoc involvement is critical. Both Berkoben and Orkin realize that there are only so many hours in a day and understand the pressure on postdocs to focus on their research. However, Orkin put it bluntly: "There is only so much that can be brought about by trickle down from the top."

A session attendee asked, "Is there something about the culture at Harvard that is different from places like [the University of California, San Francisco] and Johns Hopkins, where postdocs are involved?" One explanation offered had to do with who initiated the formation of the postdoc organization. The Harvard postdoc office was organized at the administrative level, whereas the other groups were formed by postdocs themselves. Along these lines, an attendee commented, "Has the HMS administration made an unequivocal statement in support of the postdoc office?" If there is resistance on the part of faculty to allow postdocs time for professional development activities outside the lab and encourage them to participate, it may help to make it official policy that service on academic committees is an important part of postdoc career training.

So, what is the postdoc view? Mancilla and Jackson reported on the history of BUPA and some of its current projects. Brown postdocs have taken a census--going door to door, because no master list was available. They also have administered and analyzed a survey. The survey found that the top three concerns of postdocs at Brown were salary (70%), career development (60%), and employment benefits (33%).

BUPA has accomplished--often at the request of the administration as a prerequisite for recognition--many of the COSEPUP recommendations for institutions. Although the administration has given BUPA encouragement and official recognition, it has not yet contributed financial, administrative, or office support. BUPA continues to work for equal employment benefits regardless of title, postdoc representation on university committees, and the establishment of a postdoc office.

Spector of BPA presented a different view of a postdoc organization. BPA was initiated when a new department chair noted, "We have a graduate student office; why is there not a postdoc committee?" The chair handpicked postdoc representatives from all the departments within biology, and thus was formed BPA. BPA offers programs on careers, benefits, and social events. To date, the most popular events have been seminars on postdoc status, with over 200 in attendance. BPA has worked to increase awareness among postdocs of available campus services and facilities, including the career office and family services.

In the quest to improve postdoc compensation, BPA hopes to use the Whitehead Institute as an example. Susan Lindquist was appointed director of the Whitehead Institute in August 2001. Lindquist, who was moving from the University of Chicago, was unable to transfer her Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) funding. As a result, the postdocs working in her lab refused to move because they would have been required to take a pay cut from $36,000 under HHMI to $28,000 (the NIH minimum at that time) at the Whitehead Institute. Lindquist worked with the postdocs and administration at Whitehead and got the stipend policy changed. Whitehead now uses its endowment fund to supplement starting postdoc salaries to $36,000. Postdocs with 4+ years of experience earn $45,000.

Whitehead's actions are having a ripple effect in the postdoc community. Not only is BPA using it as an example in its attempts to improve MIT postdoc salaries, but the HMS postdoc office has been telling their faculty about the developments at Whitehead. An HMS letter to medical school faculty members reminds them that incoming postdocs must be paid at least the NIH minimum and mentions that Whitehead postdocs are getting paid substantially more. "They have to be aware of the competition," said Orkin.

For postdocs, the take-home messages include: Be aware of what is going on around you, for it may help you; establish communication among postdocs within your institution; and get involved in your institution's postdoc association or office to improve your situation. Getting involved while you are a postdoc is a great way to develop organizational skills and networks. Most postdocs don't realize how valuable even social events can be, "but that's how I met the CEO of a top biotech company," says Spector. There was a take-home message for institutions as well: Postdoc involvement is strongly influenced by their adviser's support. Encouraging faculty support may require a shift in how community-service activities are valued, a task in which faculty, administrators, and postdocs all must be involved.

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