Postdocs Push for Better Treatment

March 10, 2000

Emboldened by the graduate-student unionizing efforts of the last decade, and spurred by a continuing shortage of academic jobs in the sciences, postdocs at several universities have begun grassroots efforts to attain better work conditions and benefits.

They are turning their attention to the conditions of postdoctoral appointments -- a usual stage between completion of a Ph.D. in the sciences and full-time employment -- advocating for better pay and recognition and a greater say in policies that affect them. To that end, postdocs have recently organized at Stanford University, the University of California at Davis, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Nowadays, the average postdoctoral fellow in the life sciences is 32 years old and may spend five years or more as a postdoc, according to a 1998 report by the National Research Council. "People are stuck in a postdoc parking lot," says Chris Karlovich, a postdoctoral fellow in genetics at Stanford and a founder of the political wing of the postdoctoral association there. "Twenty years ago, you might have seen people doing two- or three-year postdoctoral fellowships, but now it's not unusual to find people, like myself, doing a postdoc for five years."

These new groups are forming amidst debate across the country over the status of postdoctoral scholars. Although Stanford calls them students, some universities call them employees, while still others call them trainees. To complicate matters further, postdoctoral scholars on the same campus may hold different titles -- often depending on their source of financial support.

As a result, universities often have a tough time identifying and keeping track of their postdoctoral population, and oversight of postdoctoral scholars is left up to their faculty mentors -- a situation that can be problematic when conflicts arise between a postdoc and a mentor.

"There's no big plot against postdocs; it's just indifference, and that's almost worse," says Teresa Dillinger, one of the postdocs who co-founded the postdoctoral association at the University of California at Davis last year.

Recent efforts by postdocs on her campus have focused on overcoming the isolation many feel. In April 1999, Ms. Dillinger, a postgraduate researcher in nutrition and the association's interim president, started an e-mail discussion list to give postdocs on the campus a sense of community and a discussion forum. This spring, the association plans to conduct a survey to learn more about postdocs and their concerns.

When postdoctoral scholars at Stanford University learned last spring that the university wasn't going to match the new minimum stipend levels set by the National Institutes of Health, they formed a political wing and took their dissatisfaction to the administration. (Depending on the position, the difference between Stanford's salary scale and the N.I.H.'s stipend is as much as $9,000.) "It was the last straw for many people who were already financially pressed," says Mr. Karlovich, noting that rent in the area surrounding Stanford's campus -- in the heart of Silicon Valley -- can easily be $1,500 to $2,000 a month.

The new political wing of the Stanford postdoctoral association also seeks a separate classification for postdoctoral scholars. As a result of their student status, the federal and state governments count their tuition benefits and conference-expense reimbursements as income. The tuition and conference taxes, as they are known, add up to several hundred dollars a year, says Mr. Karlovich.

Stanford's postdocs have also begun to lobby the university for subsidized housing, guidelines on resolving conflicts between faculty members and postdocs, and a voice on committees that set postdoctoral policies. After meeting with deans in the medical school, the group submitted a list of recommendations to the provost and is waiting for a response.

Although Mr. Karlovich says he likes the lab he's in and the person he works for, the problem is what he views as postdocs' second-class status. It's the little things -- such as having to deposit his stipend check in person because the university won't do it electronically -- that bother him. "It sounds minor, but when you add up things like no direct deposit, the tuition tax, student status, and inadequate pay, they amount to something much larger," he says.

"The university is making a statement that we're just not that important to them," he adds."But let's not kid ourselves. Postdocs are the prime movers of the research machine here. Most of the research that's done is done by us. The university holds millions of dollars in patents that are a direct result of the work we have done. The least they could do, you would think, is give us electronic checking."

Tom Wasow, associate dean of graduate policy at Stanford, faults the absence of a standardized system for dealing with postdocs. "There's a history at Stanford and other research universities of putting substantial resources into graduate education, but there's very little university infrastructure for postdocs because they have largely been supported by external funds," he says. "Here at Stanford we have a special problem and that's that we are situated in an area with the highest cost of living in the country."

The university does care about postdocs, he says. "The problem is there isn't the same kind of departmental or university oversight of postdocs that there is with graduate students."

At least not yet, he says. "I see universities moving in that direction, but it's going to take a while."

Two that have moved in that direction are the Johns Hopkins University and the University of California at San Francisco. Last spring, the Johns Hopkins University Medical School granted their postdocs dental insurance, a six-year term limit on appointments, and a 25-percent pay increase -- to be phased in over three years -- in accordance with 1998 N.I.H. minimum stipend levels.

Postdocs at U.C.S.F., meanwhile, have recently won representation on university committees and access to a career center, where they can get guidance on interviewing and creating C.V.'s and résumés, and information about career alternatives.

The University of Pennsylvania has also been a leader in postdoctoral reform. However, administrators, rather than postdocs, have led the charge. The school of medicine, which employs many of the university's 1,000 or so postdocs, created an office of postdoctoral programs in 1997. New postdoctoral scholars receive an appointment letter -- with information on salary, benefits, job expectations, and the length of the appointment -- and must attend an orientation. They are entitled to N.I.H.-minimum stipend levels, health insurance, and six weeks of parental leave.

Although there is no postdoctoral association at Penn, the administration helped postdocs to form their own postdoctoral council in November 1999, which meets regularly with the director of the office of postdoctoral programs. The university also provides career services for postdocs and has established five-year term limits on postdoctoral appointments. Notably, however, there is still no formal grievance procedure.

The real challenge facing postdocs will be one of organization. With no central agency or group heading their cause, the biggest stumbling block is still a lack of nationwide communication. The goal, say many postdoc advocates, would be an association on par with the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students, which could provide stability and institutional memory while striving to make the postdoc experience better across the board.

"I think for a national organization to be effective there has to be continuity in the leadership," says Trevor Penning, director of Penn's office of postdoctoral programs. "After all, postdocs come and go.

"Hopefully," he adds.


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