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Collecting Data on Postdoc Benefits

NIH’s biomedical research workforce initiatives, which implement Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) recommendations, include improving graduate student and postdoctoral research training through a number of measures, including increasing postdoctoral stipends to reflect years of training, and considering policies on benefits. In February we announced increases to NRSA stipend levels in the NIH Guide. Today, I’d like to talk about how we are proceeding with evaluating postdoc benefits.

To build a complete picture of the availability of postdoc benefits, we need to collect new data. We’ve started that process by developing and sending a survey to signing officials at institutions that supported postdocs in fiscal year 2013 and that are members of the National Council of University Research Administrators (NCURA). The responses to the survey will help us understand the benefits offered to postdocs at these organizations. While the letter has been sent specifically to signing officials, we expect research institutions to complete the survey in the manner best suited to their programs, which might include delegation to specific organizational components like a postdoc association or a central training office.

You can find a copy of the letter we sent to institutions here on the Biomedical Research Workforce site, and we’ll publish a summary of results when the information-gathering and analysis are completed.

As noted in the ACD report, there is little reliable information about the amounts and types of benefits received by postdocs, but anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a wide variation among institutions and across funding mechanisms. We believe the new survey and efforts to collect more reliable data on the number of NIH-supported postdocs and the length of their training will improve our understanding of postdoc compensation, and help NIH take actions to better support these researchers.

21 thoughts on “Collecting Data on Postdoc Benefits

  1. Do you plan on asking academic institutions whether they put postdoctoral fellows on payroll or whether they use “direct-paid” fellowships — fellowship stipends that are paid directly to the postdoc?

    The problem with the latter is that because the academic institution does not kick in the employers half of FICA taxes, the postdoc ends up footing the bill. This takes a huge chunk of an already meager salary out of a postdoc’s pocket and is especially punitive in high-cost-of-living areas.

  2. It will also be important to determine differences in available benefits between postdoctoral fellows and associates; the offerings are strikingly different at my institution.

  3. I am a PI and I find it very disappointing that the F32 NRSAs come with a stipend salary plus a meager set “institutional” allotment for benefits (around $7500). This has an outside chance of covering a single person (if that) but with many post-docs having spouses/families now it will not cover that. Our institution’s PI/employer contributions are very high. I wonder if the NIH will revisit how they allot benefits for post-docs. Right now I suppose it assumed the PI’s parent grant will cover deficits but with the many cuts to those it is yet another worry. I believe this “allowance” is very behind the times.

  4. At many institutions, including my own university, although NIH postdoctoral fellows are eligible to participate in the University-sponsored health insurance plans, they must pay the full cost of this medical insurance out of their own pocket. Since faculty cannot supplement NIH stipends out of other federal funds, these costs cannot be paid for NIH postdocs out of NIH grants. It is ironic that an agency that is part of Health and Human Services offers prestigious fellowships that do not provide benefits for health care.

  5. Nowadays, at least in biomedical sciences, a substantial number of postdocs are from another country. I wonder how much of the social security/retirement benefits collected by the Universities go waste or unaccounted.
    There is also a fundamental problem-Universities count postdoctoral fellows as faculty. Yet, postdocs can’t submit independent grants or have faculty status otherwise. Senior postdocs are hired as adjust or other faculty in limbo by faculty who needs senior postdocs to run their labs. These can’t find jobs without grants and can’t write grants as they are heavily involved in mentor’s work.
    NIH has to seriously consider the goals and responsibilities of hiring postdoctoral fellows

  6. This is an old problem that I fought with my institution (and lost) for many years. The problem as I see it is that most institutions do not recognize post-doc trainees as employees, while they do recognize post-docs paid from regular RO1 grants as employees, even though there is no practical difference between them. The difference stems from an NIH statement that post-doctoral trainees are not deemed employees of an institution on the basis of having received a grant. Yet I have frequently asked “does this preclude an institution from calling a post-doctoral fellow an employee?” No one at NIH has been willing to answer this question. If NIH would change their guidelines to say that a fellowship is used to pay the salary of a trainee in the same way that an RO1 grant pays an employee, then the discussion is over. Every post-doc could be an employee of their institution and thereby have all the regular benefits of other employees.

    A similar argument was made about 20 years ago regarding medical fellows and IRS deemed them to be more like employees than trainees (mature adults undergoing an apprenticeship), and thereby required institutions to pay FICA etc. So the precedent has already been set. There is no rationale for treating PhD post-docs any different than MD post-docs.

    • I completely agree – this is exactly the problem we are encountering at my institution, and when we look at a survey of 25-30 other institutions across the country. Individual institutions have little power to overcome this difference and normalize all post-docs to employee status, since the designation of trainee comes from NIH directly. If NIH is interested in addressing the issues and discrepancies surrounding post-doc benefits, there is a simple and straightforward way to make a big change – by formally stating that a post-doc on an individual fellowship should be granted employee status.

    • Not to mention the tax implications of being an employee who receives a W2 vs. a grantee who does not, including eligibility for tax-free retirement contributions, child-care credits, etc. Each of these cuts into the financial health of postdocs and their families.

      • I am a postdoc and I agree as well and have been looking for people who are troubled by the same problem and a forum to try to change this.

        • Perhaps Postdocs on NIH fellowships or training grants should start banding together on this issue. If I were more web-savvy I would create a webpage where postdoc fellows would find the webpage if searching for “postdoc fellow benefits and taxes” and would have the opportunity to sign a letter to be sent to the NIH asking them to address this issue and perhaps sharing their own stories of how getting an NIH fellowship or being on a training grant caused them undue financial strain and reduced or lost benefits. Perhaps we should also direct these letters to members of congress on the science and technology committees.

    • After I received my F32 acceptance letter, and was informed of all the benefits I would lose because I would no longer be “employed” by the university, I contemplated not accepting it. Which, looking back may have been a better option. Not being an “employee” made everything more complicated, not only did I lose some employee benefits (retirement fund contributions, short and long term disability insurance, etc), but I did not have proof of employment (tax forms: W-2 or 1099) which lead to denial of mortgage applications. After the fellowship ended, I still cannot access the employer contribution to a retirement fund because of the 2 year service requirement and I have no real work history for the last 3 years because my university will not state that I was ‘employed’ and again, no tax forms, which most background check companies want as proof of employment.

      I hope the NIH surveys postdocs with F32 fellowships and not just the university officials, who don’t see any of these policies as a problem, to gain real insight into the disparity between F32 recipients and those under R01 grants.

  7. The concerns raised here are examples of the type of information NIH is seeking from grantee organizations through this survey and evaluation – it will allow the NIH to directly measure any disparities across different classifications of postdoctoral fellows, with the overall goal of adjusting policies in order to offer more equitable compensation and benefits.

    • Those at NIH investigating these issues should consider contacting the National Postdoc Association, which has a long history of analysis and advocacy of postdoctoral benefits.

      The key disparity comes from how each university determines employee vs non-employee and treats each category differently. It’s always seemed like a perverse disincentive for postdocs who successfully compete for fellowships to have their benefits and insurance taken away from them, and the NIH has been remiss for decades in essentially ignoring the problem.

      Some institutions (the entire University of California system if i remember correctly) solve the problem by creating a separate insurance policy for *all* postdocs regardless of funding source.

    • When can we expect the results from this survey and any subsequent recommendations for changes on postdoc benefit policies? I appreciate the effort by you, Dr. Rockey, to gather data on this issue. However after speaking to numerous postdocs about these issues, I truly believe that if these grossly unfair policies are not addressed very soon the NIH will start seeing lawsuits filed by postdocs. In the present state of tight NIH budgets, the last thing I imagine the NIH wants is to have to utilize its limited resources (or for Universities to have to utilize their limited resources) for substantial legal fees trying to defend these policies. Again, I want to emphasize that the efforts undertaken by you have been great in trying to improve postdoctoral training and postdoctoral policies, so this is not an attempt to lay blame at your feet, but rather a request for a timeline for when we might see some changes implemented.

      • To piggy back on the comments above, does the NIH have a timeline in place for the release of the data from the Institutional survey on postdoc benefits? Also, can the NIH update us on when/if any policy changes will be implemented to correct the benefits disparities that exist between Postdocs on NIH research grants and those funded through NRSA training grants and fellowships? The National Postdoc Association (NPA) has released their report from their 2014 Institutional Postdoc Policy survey, and I imagine the data will be largely similar to what the NIH compiles from its survey.

    • Numerous people have now asked the NIH for an update on this very important issue through this blog, in particular what the NIH plans to do to correct the unequal benefits between NRSA postdoc fellows and Non-NRSA postdoc researchers. If the NIH doesn’t have any plans yet, at the very least, could the NIH update the community on the relative timeline for when a decision on this might be made. Since the NIH has been silent on this issue since around the time the blog entry was first put up I am beginning to believe that the NIH intends to do nothing. I am starting to wonder if the NIH has made the calculated risk that it is easier to do nothing and put up with complaints and perhaps lawsuits about this rather than change the policies and sink money into correcting this problem. I know the NIH has a million things on its plate and funding is very tight, but doesn’t this issue warrant more attention from the NIH than changing the format of the biosketch.

      • The silence on this issue from the NIH since this blog post came out is making me consider whether it is best for me to begin exploring legal avenues on this matter.

  8. Our institution (or all state universities in our state) has the problem that Post-Docs are treated as faculty with full benefits. That means that they have to pay into a retirement system that they most likely will never benefit from as the typical Post-Doc stays less than the 5 years needed for vesting. This means that, first, the Post-Docs are hugely expensive with a benefit rate of 60% and most PIs can’t afford Post-Docs on limited budgets. So there are less Post-Doc positions open. Secondly, if Post-Docs are hired, the federal government basically subsidizes state pension systems as the money paid into the system for a Post-Doc stays in the pension fund, even if the Post-Doc is not vested and will never see the pension benefits.

  9. I would encourage NIH to mandate that all institutions receiving their funding legally designate post-docs as employees. Without this legal recognition as employees, post-docs are second-class workers. They are ineligible or will have a very difficult time qualifying for:
    – worker’s compensation (depends on a patchwork of state laws)
    – unemployment insurance (depends on a patchwork of state laws)
    – Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (ineligible)

    Moreover, post-docs meet a common sense definition of an employee. It is fundamentally unfair for an institution to say they are not employees when they are working side-by-side with technicians, physicians, residents, janitors, secretaries, etc. all of whom are given this status.

  10. I agree wholeheartedly with all that say post-doctoral researchers that are on NIH fellowships should be considered employees of the university. As an employee, I currently pay a small price for my spouse and child to be on my benefits, which are quite good. As a fellow on an NIH fellowship, I will need to pay nearly $10,000/year to add them to my benefits which are not as good as the employee benefits. Plus, I lose any vested savings/payment put into my employee benefits. My job functions will not change no matter if I am paid off of my mentor’s NIH grant or whether I am on a separate NIH fellowship. Therefore, my contribution to the university is the same but my compensation from earning a fellowship is less than if I had not competed at all. This is unfair and unbalanced and removes some incentive for acquiring NRSAs or other post-doctoral funding through the NIH.

  11. Dr. Rockey,

    Its been nearly one year since you first posted this blog entry. Has the survey analysis been completed? Has the NIH reached any decisions on how to equalize the benefits of NIH NRSA funded postdoc fellows and trainees compared to postdocs on research grants? I am sure I am not the only postdoctoral affairs administrator that has been anxiously awaiting the NIH to correct this issue. Since this blog post was published last year, I have met with several NRSA funded postdocs that are contemplating terminating their F32 fellowships or T32 training grant slots and leaving academic research over this issue as the institutional allowance is not sufficient to pay for the full premium cost of a family health plan and their mentor would not be able to afford to keep them if they end their NRSA support. In these circumstances these postdocs have been losing about half of their stipend in order to pay for these benefits and can’t support a family of 3 on around $25,000 before taxes in a high cost of living area. These are not statistics and data points, these are people and lives. Please let us know what (if anything) the NIH is planning on doing to correct this. If nothing has been decided yet, could the NIH at least let us know when we might expect to hear about this issue again?

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