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The Intramural Alternative

For the great majority of U.S. postdocs, the National Institutes of Health is a distant entity that, in response to arduous and complex paperwork, supplies the funds for fellowships or their university-based PIs’ research. But for some 3800 postdoctoral scientists, NIH is a place to go to work each day.

More than 80% of the $27 billion that NIH dispenses to researchers each year goes, through nearly 50,000 competitive extramural grants, to investigators at 2800 different institutions across the nation and around the world. But about 10% stays within NIH, supporting about 6000 scientists in 27 institutes and centers who constitute NIH’s intramural research effort. Inside 75 buildings on 300 tree-shaded acres just outside Washington, D.C., postdocs encounter both dazzling science and dizzying bureaucracy.

Campus Life

In the NIH dialect of inside-the-Beltway federal government-speak, “intramural” refers not to club-league volleyball but to the research done within NIH’s own facilities, mostly on the headquarters campus in Bethesda, Maryland, but also in Frederick and Baltimore, Maryland; Research Triangle Park, North Carolina; Hamilton, Montana; and Phoenix, Arizona. The funds supporting this work are distributed not through grants but through a separate budgeting procedure that liberates scientists from the time-consuming need to write grant proposals.

The scientists and technicians on the permanent staffs of the intramural labs are federal government employees hired through a variety of means including the federal civil service and officer commissions from the U.S. Public Health Service. Some researchers participate in a tenure system that affords them scientific independence and resembles the system at universities. Others are staff scientists, ineligible for positions that would make them independent. All receive federal benefits including retirement, health insurance, and annual leave.

All, that is, except postdocs, who work under a completely different set of rules. Postdocs with American citizenship or permanent residency generally hold appointments called Intramural Research Training Awards (IRTAs) or Cancer Research Training Awards (CERTs). Foreign citizens on temporary visas--more than 60% of NIH postdocs--hold Visiting Fellowships (VFs). A small number of postdocs hold special competitive awards. All postdoc appointments have a 5-year time limit.

Despite being called awards or fellowships--and unlike NIH’s premier extramural postdoc program, the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards--intramural postdoc appointments do not give their holders control over independent funding. Instead, the money that supports NIH’s intramural postdocs comes from the budgets of the labs that hire them. Individuals negotiate their compensation within ranges established by NIH, depending on “what [lab chiefs] have in their budget and what they think they have to do to get [postdocs] to come here,” says Patricia M. Sokolove, Director of Interdisciplinary Training Programs and Acting Director of Fellowship Training Program in the NIH-wide Office of Intramural Training and Education.

Within the labs, IRTAs, CERTs, and VFs function as employees, but the legislation that established their positions does not permit them to receive that formal designation. Instead, NIH classifies them officially as “trainees.” Through the alchemy of the tax law, this puts the money they receive in return for their long hours in the lab into the category of what the IRS calls "unearned income." As such, it is not subject to the levies on payrolls that include the FICA Social Security tax, the Medicare tax, or the FUTA unemployment tax. Unearned income also is not subject to federal or state income tax withholding. The good news, therefore, is that postdocs receive the entire amount of their stipends with no deductions.

But the bad news is that unearned income, whether gained as a dividend from gilt-edged securities or as recompense for 80-hour weeks at the bench, is still subject to Federal and state income tax, even if that tax is not withheld. The law requires NIH postdocs to pay quarterly estimated taxes on their “unearnings.” This means that they must special file tax returns four times a year, and also that they must manage their budgets in order to have money available to pay their tax liability in full every 3 months, without the cushion of having any of it withheld in advance. For many people trying to get by in the pricey Washington suburbs on a modest postdoc’s income, this comes as a very unpleasant surprise. Even more unpleasant is that fact that postdocs who do not understand the difference between employment taxes and federal income taxes and fail to make the quarterly filings and payments have been known to end up in the clutches of Internal Revenue Service auditors.

There’s more. As non-employees, NIH postdocs do not receive federal fringe benefits. They get health insurance and Federal holidays but not retirement or annual (vacation) leave. That makes time off “pretty much negotiable with the PI,” says Donna L. Vogel, a member of the Advisory Board of the NIH Visiting Fellows Committee and former Director of the Fellowship Office of the National Cancer Institute. “In terms of the financial advantages and disadvantages of not being a federal employee,” she continues, “[non-employees] are not allowed to have IRAs, they’re not allowed to do the child-care deduction because their income is not considered earned. That’s a big problem. [One] upside is that they don’t take out Social Security.” Another is exemption from the NIH conflict-of-interest rules that govern how employees can invest their money.

Postdocs have long bemoaned this anomalous situation. Some NIH insiders argue that non-employee status protects postdocs from being treated as extra pairs of hands rather than as scientists in training. Others suggest that it simply saves NIH money on benefits. “This is something we’ve been beating our heads against for years,” Vogel says. “It’s not nice,” Sokolove agrees, “but Congress tells us what we can do.”

Working and Learning

“You have every right to be confused” by the bureaucratic complexities, which are further compounded by a freewheeling recruitment system, Vogel says. Within the maze of dozens of separate institutes composed of scores of departments, divisions, and labs, postdocs are “pretty much hired by the individual PIs,” she continues. “It’s really anarchic because individual institutes may advertise generally, divisions or departments may advertise, and then individuals may advertise. And then there are the people who just meet each other on street corner. You go to a meeting and you hear somebody talk and you grab them in the hall afterwards.”

Those young scientists who do manage to unravel the mysteries of getting themselves hired--goods places to start include --find experiences that can range from outstanding to excruciating. Because investigators don’t need to write grant proposals, they have “much more time” to work with postdocs, who can “totally focus on their research,” says Deborah Cohen, an education program specialist at the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education. But labs are “pretty much individual fiefdoms,” Vogel says.

A Guide to Training and Mentoring in the Intramural Research Program at NIH, a publication issued by the office of the NIH Director, states that “scientists who work with trainees on research projects, and the institutions that support them, are responsible for ensuring that their fellows receive the best possible training in how to conduct research, as well as develop and achieve career goals, throughout the training period. Supervisors and mentors have substantial responsibilities in assisting fellows as they make career choices.”

The “minimum requirements for effective mentoring” listed in the Guide include being available to discuss the postdoc’s research, specifically by answering questions within 24 hours and “meeting in person with the trainee (either alone or with other laboratory staff) at least every 2 weeks;” helping postdocs prepare papers and presentations; advising them on how and where to present their work; introducing them whenever possible to “important contributors to the research field;” and providing an “annual oral and written assessment of the trainee’s progress, strengths, and areas requiring improvement” at a meeting that also includes ”discussion of the trainee’s professional goals and the mentor’s feedback on their appropriateness, the likely length of stay in the laboratory, and planning and preparation for career decisions after the NIH training.”

“Some people follow this slavishly and are good mentors, and others just ignore it and the experience isn’t so good,” Sokolove says. Adds Vogel, “Do we require people to do an individual development plan? No. Should we? Sure. But just because things are the way they are, it’s hard to require anything of anybody.” NIH postdocs do generally get adequate mentoring, according to a survey by the NIH Fellows Committee, the official postdoctoral association of the Bethesda campus. Eighty-five percent of those responding reported accessible mentors, 86 percent told of encouragement to present findings at meetings, and three quarters had mentors who introduced them to other scientists.

But a former postdoc we’ll call Frank Lee-Bitter worked for a lab chief who was “barely a boss and the antithesis of a mentor. His beliefs were the complete opposite. He truly believed that all postdocs should (and want to!) stay for 5 to 8 years and not be worried about departing with a single publication. He discouraged me from writing a grant application. I was not allowed travel [to meetings during] the years I was there, and, additionally, no one in the lab could present data at a meeting until it was ready for publication.”

But Lee-Bitter also acknowledges that NIH afforded truly outstanding opportunities. Along with excellent facilities and the world’s greatest biomedical library, NIH crams together, reagent to readout, thousands of the world’s smartest and most productive researchers. It also offers an extensive educational program, including, Lee-Bitter says, “a variety of unbelievable lecture series featuring the most eminent scientists of our time, including many Nobel laureates; free courses such as Medical Pharmacology, ‘Demystifying Medicine for Ph.D.s,’ Cancer Biology, Mouse Genetics, etc.; and the intra-NIH Interest Group meetings/seminar series initiated by Harold Varmus.”

Postdocs can also participate in special research symposia and competitions and avail themselves of numerous career services, including a job fair that annually attracts to campus dozens of employers with bona fide openings. And then there’s “the pleasure of working amidst such international diversity with such brainy and intellectual people,” Lee-Bitter says.

Despite his lab chief’s failings, Lee-Bitter found in these educational venues and among these stimulating companions “much needed scientific support from so many scientists who technically did not have a personal investment in me … I was consistently touched (blown away really) by the mentoring and social support that again came from people who were not ‘vested’ in me.” All in all, he concludes, “Even extremely negative, stressful postdocs remain tremendous learning experiences and are accompanied with positive experiences if one chooses to seek them ... as I did.” And there’s even a happy ending: the prestigious NIH credential helped land an excellent post-NIH position.

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