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PostDoc Appreciation Week 2022: Are you making an expensive mistake? The true cost of doing a postdoc 

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A photo of Alexis Ceasrine: PostDoc Appreciation Week 2022: Are you making an expensive mistake? The true cost of doing a postdoc

Most academic research labs would agree that a lab without postdocs is like a river without water. All the more reason that we in the research ecosystem should be supporting our postdocs, but do we really walk the talk when it comes to looking after our postdocs? 

A series of tweets from Dr. Alexis Ceasrine recently captured our attention. She shared her frustration with not being allowed to receive retirement benefits at her institution under the stipulations of her university given her prestigious external postdoctoral funding. With 100s of retweets and 1000s of hearts, this is clearly a recognized problem. What I appreciated most about these tweets was that Alexis was determined to focus on policy change and even included a promised action to help others.  

She wrote “For my part, I’ll do my best to curate an open doc to share widely, so that grad students who are considering a postdoc can have a list of places where they would be financially supported (unless this already exists? If so – share it here!)” . When I saw this, I wrote to Alexis immediately. Given we already have a curated, open research funding database that provides accurate details on postdoctoral funding opportunities, I wondered if there was a way for us to collaborate to bring more attention to the details of the benefits for the postdoctoral funding calls in our database. I also wondered – how many postdoc funding opportunities have no benefits details listed in the call?

In honor of Postdoc Appreciation Week, we have now expanded the information in our postdoctoral research funding list to include benefits listed within postdoctoral funding calls. The best way to support postdocs across the globe is to improve their work contracts. By bringing attention to the benefits offered, we hope this is a first step in illuminating where change is needed.  

Thank you, Alexis, for joining our advisory board at scientifyRESEARCH and for suggesting that these benefits details should be more visible. The visibility piece is important because it may help more incoming postdocs recognize where they will be compensated properly for their contribution to academic research.  

And now, we would like to bring attention to this guest blog from Dr. Alexis Ceasrine:

The problem 

The paucity of postdocs is at the top of the list of academic woes, leaving tenured faculty scratching their heads and wondering where their talented PhD-wielding trainees have all gone. Postdocs are instrumental to moving research forward. They drive independent projects and bring in funding, in addition to acting as lab managers, technicians, and primary mentors for a slew of undergraduates and professional students. In my 3-year stint as a postdoc, I’ve been the primary mentor for 4 undergraduates (3 of whom completed senior thesis projects), 3 graduate student rotation projects (2 of whom joined the lab), and 2 high school students. I’ve been the primary person in charge of ordering reagents. I’ve taken apart and fixed equipment ranging from microscopes to cryostats. I also applied for and received an NRSA F32 grant, meaning that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) now sponsors my salary and provides overhead to the University where I am a postdoc. It’s supposed to be a win-win – I can add a line to my CV saying that NIH thinks I’m neat, and my PI can now use her research funds to hire new staff or buy new equipment instead of paying for me. 

The catch 

And yet – because I’m now supported by an NRSA F32 grant – I’m now facing the reality that being a postdoc is one of the most financially irresponsible decisions of my life. Skyrocketing inflation, daycare bills, and a recent email from my University really hammered this point home. 

The email had the eye-catching subject line: “Are you making an expensive mistake” and led with “… Human Resources records show that you may not be contributing to your … 403(b) retirement plan, which means you may not be on track for having enough money to live comfortably in retirement.” In a recent Twitter thread I highlighted the issues with this email. Namely, I’m not eligible to contribute to a retirement account because I am an NRSA F32 postdoc – and I’m not alone. There are almost 1000 postdocs throughout the United States currently supported by an NRSA, and thus “not considered to be in an employee-employer relationship” with the institute where they…well…work.  

Institutes use this as a convenient excuse to not provide benefits to any of their postdocs – regardless of the funding source – in the interest of being equitable. They purport that they would have to take away benefits when a postdoc receives a prestigious NRSA F32 grant. This is not the case. The stipulation that an NRSA F32 does not constitute employment does not mean an NRSA F32 recipient is ineligible to be considered an employee. A few institutes have recognized this, and they provide full benefits to all postdocs. It’s time for the remaining institutes to step up and do the same. The National Postdoc Association performs regular surveys to collect data on available benefits and provides resources for institutes. 

I want to take a minute to highlight why this one benefit – a (matched) retirement account – is so important for postdocs. Postdocs are considered “early career” researchers, but this can be deceiving. Most of us are already in our 30’s. Considering PhD programs rarely (if ever) offer retirement benefits, that means that we’ve missed out on about 10 years of retirement savings. If you take a moment to think about what that means financially, the implications are staggering. If you assume a decent (~10%) return on investment from a 401K, then investing just $1,000 when you’re 20 years-old will net you about $45,000 at age 60. Retirement consultants recommend you put at least 10% of your income into a retirement account, so if we assume the average postdoc is making $50,000, they should be contributing $5,000 a year pre-tax. A yearly $5,000 investment starting at age 30 puts you at about $490,000 by age 60. With employer-matching, you can add close to $100,000 of lost lifetime earning potential.  

So, as my institute so elegantly put it, postdocs are “not be on track for having enough money to live comfortably in retirement.” This singular issue comes full circle – senior faculty members are not retiring – in part because they can’t afford it. This means that institutes can’t create new tenure-track jobs, and postdocs are stuck in temporary positions with no benefits for longer and longer. 

The solution? 

Susanna Brantley, another postdoc, previously raised similar concerns to leadership who then passed the buck on to the NIH while saying that if only we were true employees of the University, they would love to help us out. In truth, it likely comes down to the money – institutes claim that there is simply no money in the budget to better support postdocs. But that excuse feels hard to believe when the quad behind your building is getting fully re-landscaped for the 3rd time in 3 years, or when the weekly emails you receive boast that the endowment has never been bigger.  

And the excuses are likely just that, excuses. After a COVID-related benefits cut enraged the faculty and staff at Johns Hopkins University, they mobilized and organized a crowd-sourced audit that revealed extraordinary resources (about $2 billion) at Hopkins disposal. Institutes need to recognize postdocs for the incredible resource they are and provide them with appropriate benefits if academic science has any hope of continuing.  



We thank Dr. Alexis Ceasrine for writing this guest blog.

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