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NSF Employee Postdocs: An Unknown Quantity

With its annual budget of more than $27 billion, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the giant of American research funders, dwarfs the National Science Foundation (NSF), with less than $6 billion a year. Sheer size makes NIH the leader in supporting postdocs, both fellowship holders and employees working on principal investigator grants, as well as the de facto setter of postdoc standards on many campuses. NSF differs from NIH in important respects other than size, however, and the differences can have a significant impact on postdocs' lives.

On the plus side, NSF's postdoctoral fellowship stipends are often larger, sometimes quite substantially so, than NIH's awards. But, on the minus side, NSF grants to PIs are generally smaller and shorter, averaging $97,000 a year for 2.67 years compared to NIH's average of $400,000 a year for 3.79 years. These latter differences, claim postdocs employed on some of those NSF grants, negatively affect their income and job stability, sometimes quite severely.

But the size of this impact is impossible to gauge because the needed data simply don't exist. For agencies devoted to seeking knowledge, NSF and NIH have shown strikingly little curiosity about many of the scientists doing the research they support. Who, where, and how numerous their employee postdocs are--not to mention how much they earn, what benefits they receive, and how long they stay in their jobs--are facts that the agencies do not collect.

PI grants go to universities, which handle personnel matters according to their own policies, and they don't report them to the federal funders. "Different schools classify [employee postdocs] in different ways," and NSF has only "rough estimates" of their numbers, says Lynda Carlson, director of the NSF's Division of Science Resources Statistics. "We all know this needs to be addressed, and we are addressing it," specifically through a planned study of the feasibility of counting employee postdocs. NSF expects to spend "several years" figuring out the methodology, she added.

Wide Range of Conditions

In the meantime, NSF employee postdocs who spoke to Next Wave reveal circumstances ranging from "very positive" to "horrible." Susan Shriner, for example, has spent 2 years at the Department of Fish and Wildlife of Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Her "really good experience" includes "smart, helpful, and supportive" PIs, "three, maybe four, publications," and a "reasonable" salary of $40,000. Now seeking a faculty position, she finds that "the backing of NSF legitimizes my research," giving it added clout in a field in which much funding comes from scientifically less prestigious sources. She counts only "one negative," and many postdocs would consider it at least partly a positive: Her CV shows "no funding experience," but this stems from her PIs having ample funding.

Extensive, successful, grant writing, on the other hand, was only one of the "very positive" aspects of Sujatha Srinivasan's 2 years as an employee postdoc at the University of Washington, Seattle. In addition to gaining experience in managing a lab and training students, she achieved "a couple" of publications and received a salary of $36,000. Her array of experiences is "not what most people have," she notes, crediting an "extremely supportive" PI who gave her both "free rein" and advice whenever needed.

Now seeking work "outside the traditional academic sector," preferably in public health policy, Srinivasan finds that some potential employers "don't believe" all that she accomplished as a postdoc. The successful grant application that she helped write, for example, gives no "specific credit" for her major contributions, although a documented history of winning funding boosts any job search. Her PI freely acknowledges her efforts, but she believes that a standard mechanism for assigning credit, such as a list of everyone who worked on a proposal, would be "great for early careers."

However, these two postdocs' complaints are mild, compared to some voiced by other NSF employee postdocs. In his lab, notes one we'll call Ben Gouged, "there always seems to be enough money for reagents, chemicals, and equipment. ... However, whenever we [employee postdocs] attend a conference, we have to pay our own expenses." One trip halfway across the continent to present a paper on the lab's work cost him "about $1000." In his 2 years of working on an NSF grant, he has spent almost $2500, out of a salary that began just under $25,000 and has risen to just under $30,000, to attend meetings.

Pay levels in his lab are, in general, "kind of arbitrary," he continues. He "fully accepts" long, irregular hours as an inherent part of research. What he finds unacceptable is his PI's insistence that Gouged's modest income must underwrite presentations that boost the entire lab's reputation. The cost of travel to "disseminate [research] results" is a line item in every NSF grant budget, according to the NSF guide to grant writing. So why, Gouged wonders, must his travel for that purpose come out of his own, much smaller, budget?

Money Matters

Budgetary concerns weigh even more heavily on the postdoc we'll call Phil Insecure, who started his present job as a replacement for a postdoc who resigned in the second year of his PI's 3-year NSF grant. Should the pending renewal application fail, Insecure will be out of work starting in February. And, even if it succeeds, it includes no money to increase his $30,000 annual salary; the PI has not sought funds for postdoc raises since the grant began. Even more galling, the second-year NIH graduate fellow working beside Insecure takes home more pay than he does. Insecure has a higher salary but, as a university employee, he has deductions for "huge" payroll taxes and health insurance, neither of which the grad student pays.

While Insecure awaits the grant's and his own fate, he's looking at other opportunities. His search for a faculty job has thus far produced "not a nibble," but feelers in industry and government have done so. Although also considering other postdoc positions, he expects that he'll soon be leaving academe because "I'd like less praise and more in my wallet."

Insecure may be contemplating the possibility of imminent unemployment, but the postdoc we'll call Hedda Layoff knows its hard reality. After 5 years working for a PI who supports his lab with a number of small NSF grants, "recently, I was laid off because of lack of funding," she says. "Of course the projects continued without me." Layoff is now back on the payroll while the PI awaits word on an upcoming renewal but as a month-to-month worker rather than a permanent employee, a change that cost her her health insurance. Even if the renewal comes, Layoff's PI has warned, it may not cover her salary for a full 12 months. Layoff's family circumstances rule out moving, and employers in her university town routinely find her "overqualified" for the available openings.

Layoff blames her predicament in large measure on the "stingy" budgets and short durations of her PI's NSF grants. She feels herself greatly disadvantaged compared to NIH-funded counterparts of similar experience. And, as Layoff's PI struggles to "collect dimes from everywhere," he spends a great deal of his time working on grant proposals.

"I have not seen my boss in the lab in years," Layoff says. "I think he has lost touch with bench-top research. ... Getting a grant is a first priority for faculty. The welfare of people like myself and graduate students are secondary." Her PI does succeed in getting "many grants but not enough money for the people under him. ... One postdoc from another country only gets paid $800 a month," Layoff says.

So, which of these accounts typifies the lives of NSF employee postdocs: Shriner's and Srinivasan's reports of highly satisfactory learning, or the tales of irritation and anxiety from Gouged, Insecure, and Layoff? Until NSF gathers the necessary data, no one can know for sure.