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Insights From Funders: A Discussion of Postdoctoral Support

Have you ever wondered how funding organizations determine stipend levels for postdocs? This topic, and many others that are near and dear to postdocs? hearts, were discussed at the second annual Postdoc Network National Meeting, which was held on 20 April 2002. Over 150 postdocs, administrators, and funding program officers gathered for a day-long meeting to identify and address problems encountered by postdoctoral fellows across the country.

In an afternoon panel session called Postdoc Funding Sources: A Vanishing Pot?, program officers representing private and federal funding sources (see sidebar) offered a glimpse into how they make decisions on fellowship guidelines.

Network Nugget

See GrantsNet for a wealth of information on funding sources.

The Participants


Timothy Coetzee, director of research training programs, National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS)


Jerry Bryant, program director, United Negro College Fund (UNCF)

Richard Harshman, associate director, Associateship Program, National Research Council

Marc Hurlbert, associate director of research, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation

T. J. Koerner, director of research information management, American Cancer Society

Victoria McGovern, program officer, Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF)

Walter Schaffer, research training officer, National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Michael Teitelbaum, program director, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

So, how are stipend levels set? Surprisingly, the decision is sometimes little more than an educated guess. Michael Teitelbaum said that his organization has, in the past, set stipend levels "arbitrarily." For instance, in the mid-1990s, the Sloan Foundation declared that its neuroscience fellows would receive $32,000 a year--an amount that was well above NIH's National Research Service Award (NRSA) guidelines at the time.

Timothy Coetzee also noted ambiguity in establishing funding levels at his organization. Years ago, stipend amounts depended on how much the postdoc requested in his or her application. Now, NMSS adds 10% to current NRSA guidelines. Others stated that their organizations also use NRSA levels as a starting point--the panelists? consensus seemed to be that their stipend amounts are all "a little higher than NIH," as Coetzee remarked.

But it isn?t always as simple as raising the bar a certain amount over NIH?s NRSA levels. Teitelbaum pointed out that new awards for interdisciplinary research pose a particularly difficult conundrum for program officers. "Which field?s norms do you apply [in that situation]?" he asked. Biology postdocs generally receive stipends that are tens of thousands of dollars lower than those of computer scientists, he explained. So when Sloan designed its computational molecular biology fellowship, a program intended to bring computer scientists, physicists, mathematicians, and engineers into the field of molecular biology, foundation officials "guessed" at a number that would be appropriate. Now at $50,000 a year, the stipends are "still low for computer scientists, " Teitelbaum admits, but the fellows report being comfortable with this funding level.

Government funding agency program officers face similar challenges. Richard Harshman, who places postdocs at government labs across the country, said, "each agency has its own stipend rate." Here, too, funding varies according to discipline. Harshman said that whereas a biologist might be offered $35,000 a year at one laboratory, a photonics scientist in a different lab might make $61,000 a year. Market forces are in play here, and Harshman has found that "in some cases, the lab will pay a bonus for skills in short supply [such as] electrical engineering. "

But discussion about establishing stipend levels prompted Victoria McGovern to state that although money is important, there are other things that postdocs should look for in a fellowship. McGovern said that the goal should be "the career development of the next generation of young scientists. " She said that because career development is about receiving long-term direction, the BWF?s Career Award includes hands-on networking opportunities. A second way postdocs can receive BWF funds is through grants awarded to new assistant professors. "Assistant professors must provide us with a training plan for their trainees," McGovern explained, thus holding PIs accountable for the career development of their postdocs and students. And Jerry Bryant said that fellows in the UNCF-Merck and UNCF-Pfizer fellowship programs are mentored in multiple ways--there is a formal mentor from either Merck or Pfizer, and fellows mentor each other. And if that proves insufficient, Bryant also says that he is always there to serve as mentor to his fellows.

In the question-and-answer period, Coetzee asked panelists to consider the idea of instituting a "national standard" for postdoc pay. Panelists seemed to agree that a national minimum standard was acceptable, but they were not keen on establishing an across-the-board standard. And McGovern added, "I?d rather not see a ceiling." T. J. Koerner agreed. "I don?t think holding postdoc stipends to a national standard will work," he said, citing regional cost-of-living and overall career field differences in expectations. Marc Hurlbert suggested that cost-of-living adjustments should be made to stipends. NIH?s Walter Schaffer, who had earlier joked that he was "wearing his Kevlar," said that setting such influential guidelines as the NRSA stipend levels is an "awesome responsibility." However, he pointed out that NIH is dependent on the community and on recommendations made every 4 years by the National Academy of Sciences.

Attendees responded to issues brought up in the panel discussion and raised new topics as well. Discussion centered on cost-of-living adjustments and whether postdocs should be worrying about increasing their pay at all. Trevor Penning, associate dean for postdoctoral training at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, illustrated the complexity of setting postdoc stipends with an example. Penning said that because NIH is on course to increase stipend levels for beginning NRSA postdocs to $45,000 a year, new equity issues will surface--not necessarily among postdocs, but between postdocs and faculty. Penning pointed out that assistant professors at the University of Pennsylvania?s College of Arts and Sciences start at $42,500 a year--$2500 below NIH?s proposed starting postdoc stipend!

Although no policies were changed and no major decisions were taken, the panelists, postdocs, and administrators in the audience had plenty to mull over on their journeys home. Postdoc compensation is likely to be a key issue in the years to come. Follow the developments by checking in with the Postdoc Network Web site for updates and other articles on the postdoc experience.