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Strategies to Benefit Postdocs: A Guide to Best Practices

Beyond career development programming, a persisting concern of administrators--and postdocs--has been the need to equalize postdoc compensation and benefits across status categories and funding sources. Addressing compensation and benefits concerns requires both specialized knowledge and the commitment to seek workplace equity. As academic administrators and postdoc associations focus their attention on these issues, it has become clear that the sharing of information and practices between institutions would be very helpful, both to avoid reinventing the wheel and to learn from the experiences of seasoned innovators. Common questions transcend institutional boundaries: How do institutions classify postdocs in their human resource systems? How do they fund benefit programs? What strategies have been successful in overcoming obstacles? And who knows what has been accomplished?

To learn the answers to some of these questions, the Postdoc Network e-mailed a questionnaire to all the attendees at the 2nd National Postdoc Network meeting, the Postdoc Network listserv, and the Association of American Medical Colleges Group on Graduate Research, Education, and Training listserv. Thirty-three institutions (16 private, 15 public, and two governmental) responded.

The survey asked three questions: What is the first-year stipend/salary for biomedical postdocs at your institution? What employee benefits are available to postdocs? What institutional support is available for postdocs and how is it funded?

As with the 2001 Postdoc Network poll of offices, the responses reveal substantial variation in postdoc personnel policies. Many institutions are establishing salary policy structures similar to those that have been in place in government labs and at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for many years. Vanderbilt University, the Medical College of Georgia ( MCG), St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, the Sackler Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at New York University School of Medicine, the J. David Gladstone Institutes, Rockefeller University, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC) have all instituted a minimum salary at the NIH Level 0 amount or adjusted it for local living costs. Like the government labs and NIH, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and Gladstone have developed for all their postdocs a clear salary step policy that is based on the number of years of service.

Employee benefits presented a much murkier picture. On the bright side, several institutions have decided to treat postdocs as a single class regardless of funding source. For example, Emory University, The Sackler Institute, MCG, FHCRC, Gladstone, and McGill provide all postdocs the same benefits (health, vision, dental, disability, and life insurance), regardless of funding source or title. Most of these institutions have also arranged for postdocs to be able to buy into a portable TIAA-CREF pension plan. A few have leave policies for birth or adoption of a child, sickness, and vacation. It is interesting to note that each of these institutions has a dedicated postdoc office with a staff or is in the process of forming one.

What are some of the strategies these institutions use to provide benefits for postdocs? As it turns out, the approaches are as varied as the institutional culture. Here are some examples of creative and innovative solutions brokered by postdoc offices.

Roger Chalkley

Vanderbilt University

Solution 1: Negotiate a special rate for all postdocs. One problem faced by all institutions is finding commonality among the various funding sources and corresponding fringe rates, state and national laws regarding employee status, and international tax treaty agreements. One way around this is to create a special category into which all postdocs are placed, regardless of funding source. The office of Biomedical Research Education and Training at Vanderbilt University negotiated a specific health plan for postdocs. In addition to benefiting the postdocs, this benefited the institution, because the per-policy cost was "less than that for other employees, as postdocs are a younger, healthier group than employees in general," said Roger Chalkley, senior associate dean.

Karen Peterson

Fred Hutchinson

Cancer Research Center

Solution 2: Treat all postdocs as employees. Some institutions are exploring ways to offer full employee benefits to all postdocs, regardless of their funding source. At FHCRC, only certain postdocs are actually categorized as employees, but the center provides all postdocs basic employee benefits. "All postdocs are pretty much considered employees and are eligible for all benefits except retirement," said Karen Peterson, associate for interdisciplinary training. "If the funding source for postdocs does not provide funds to pay for benefits, or if the funds are not sufficient, the center provides or supplements the funds to pay for benefits." FHCRC or the University of Washington pays for 100% of the medical, dental, vision, disability, and life insurance benefits earned by postdocs. Postdocs must, however, cover family members or domestic partners from their own salaries.

L. D. Newman

Medical College of Georgia

At MCG, "[A]ll postdocs are eligible for the same benefits as other employees, with the exception of institutional contributory retirement programs. They are eligible for a tax-sheltered annuity program through TIAA-CREF or Valic," according to L. D. Newman, director of MCG's International and Postdoctoral Services Office. MCG covers roughly 75% of the health and dental insurance fees and fully funds some life and disability insurance. The costs for this program are covered by a reallocation of institutional indirect funds.

John LeViathan

J. David Gladstone Institutes

Gladstone has established policies governing starting postdoc salary, yearly increases, cost-of-living adjustments, and benefits, including retirement. Postdocs are classed as limited-term employees. "With few exceptions, our postdocs receive the exact same benefits as everyone else at Gladstone, which includes employer-paid medical, dental, and vision, and also covers eligible dependents or domestic partners," said John LeViathan, postdoctoral fellows advisor and human resources manager. He further explained, "Gladstone's philosophy has been that the pension plan is a retention tool, which is counter to a postdoc's early career goal." Even so, Gladstone postdocs are eligible to contribute to a 403(b). Research scientists, the next level of postdoc at Gladstone, are eligible for the pension plan. With the exception of postdocs on J-1 visas, Gladstone postdocs pay FICA taxes (Social Security and Medicare). They also provide resources to assist international postdocs in taking advantage of any tax treaty between the United States and their country of origin that could exempt them from paying federal taxes.

Kevin Grigsby

College of Medicine

Penn State

Solution 3: Treat all postdocs as faculty. Kevin Grigsby, vice dean for faculty affairs at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, explained, "We have begun supporting postdocs, as a group, through our Office for Faculty Development. As we examined the options for support, we concluded that postdocs are more similar to our faculty than they are to graduate students. In many ways, they are the 'Faculty of Tomorrow.' " At Penn State, postdocs and their families may enroll in a health plan and pay the same 20% of the cost as do faculty members. Vision and dental plans can also be purchased.

Solution 4: Treat all postdocs as students. Stanford University has classified all postdocs as students. As students, postdocs can defer student loan payments. But they must also pay tuition, although the university pays this for most postdocs. All Stanford postdocs get the same benefits, but the mechanism used to pay for them depends on their funding source. Says Michael Cowan, associate dean for postdoctoral affairs, "For postdocs on salary, the premium is paid from the fringe pool as well as 70% of the family cost. For postdocs on stipend, the institutional allowance or department pays for the premium with the same cost sharing for families. All postdocs have short-term/long-term disability and life insurance, which is paid for them." As of the coming academic year, postdocs will be eligible for dental insurance as well, covered 100% by the university. If on salary, the funds will be derived from the fringe pool; if on stipend, funds come from the postdoc's department.

"The message that we need to do something to standardize these practices comes through very clearly!" said Heather Rieff, senior policy analyst at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. For our part, the Postdoc Network is working to enhance our online database of postdoc organizations to include more detailed information on compensation and employee benefit policies as well as best practices for both personnel and career development programs. In addition, we will be publishing a qualitative summary of the PDN survey of benefits available to postdocs, along with a discussion of tax code updates that could help make standardization more seamless.

Stay tuned!