Drivers of Discovery

November 25, 2003

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — It’s a windy Monday afternoon in July and 5-year-old Luke, a rough-and-tumble fellow with dark hair and curious eyes, is in his backyard with his 2-year-old brother, Jared. The pair zips across the grass and scramble atop their jungle gym with the kind of verve that seems to fade soon after adolescence. Their mother looks on with admiration. If only she had their energy.

The brothers and their parents, Laurie and David Boyer, returned the day before from a week’s vacation on Cape Cod. Monday is Laurie’s day off, and she’s spent part of the time unpacking from their trip—suitcases full of clothes, bags of toys, her laptop. Like many working parents with demanding careers, Laurie had to take care of things back in the office while she was away. There were e-mails with her supervisor, articles to review for a paper she’s writing. Laurie’s office is a laboratory at Whitehead Institute and her demanding job is that of a postdoctoral fellow.

It’s been a challenging road for the 35-year-old postdoc. There have been times when the rigors of the lab have clashed with the trials of motherhood, moments when she questioned her ability to find that perfect balance between work and home. She adores her children. She has a passion for science. The strength of each—and the support of her husband—has provided the leverage she needed to move past uncertain times when she thought about leaving her career behind.

Her challenges are no different from those of any working parent, she says. While she is representative of hundreds of thousands of professional women seeking that balance between home and career, she also is symbolic of today’s postdoctoral researcher. These future academic and industrial scientists are older than postdocs of the 1950s, the first period in history to see a dramatic rise in the number of postdoctoral researchers. Most are married and many have young children. The life of today’s postdoc comes with many new issues, but much remains the same: Low salaries, minimal benefits, a competitive job market.

A 2000 report from the National Academy of Sciences maintains that the 52,000 postdocs in the United States are drivers of discovery and innovation in science, medicine, and engineering, crucial to the nation’s scientific prowess. Their importance has been long dismissed by the institutions that employ them and the funding agencies that cover their wages, claims the report, which offers a laundry list of recommendations to improve postdocs’ quality of life and scientific experience. Topping that list are higher wages and better benefits. But there are other issues. Most of the nation’s postdocs are in the life sciences, doing work in such cities as Boston and Palo Alto, where the cost of living is extraordinarily high. Access to affordable childcare is limited and many postdocs lack retirement benefits. The average postdoc stint is five years and a weak job market leads many to do more than one rotation. Mentoring and professional development are in short supply, while the feeling of isolation haunting many postdocs is widespread.

Some institutions responded to the academy’s findings with plans to increase wages and expand benefits. But improvements vary from institution to institution. To truly effect change, explains the academy report, the nation must first ask: Just what is a postdoc, anyway?

A National Resource

Postdocs historically have been viewed as research apprentices, a philosophy developed in the mid-1870s at Johns Hopkins University. Fifty years later, the Rockefeller Foundation formalized the postdoc position by creating a fellowship program designed to allow physicists more time to learn the nuances of their science, a feat that no longer could be done within the confines of traditional doctoral study.

The number of postdocs increased marginally until the late 1950s, when the race for weaponry and technological superiority spurred the government to increase funding for science and engineering and heightened the demand for scientists. Between 1960 and 1970, the U.S. postdoc population tripled. Then as today, the majority of postdoctoral positions are in the life sciences. The mix includes scientists who completed graduate degrees outside the United States, but traveled to this country for advanced training. International postdocs account for about half of all those in the U.S., a trend that began in the 1970s when federal fellowships—and subsequently the number of American graduate students—decreased.

Today, about 80 percent of postdocs work in academia. According to a 2001 National Science Foundation report, Harvard University has the most postdocs in the nation—3,597. Stanford University is second with 1,210 and Johns Hopkins is third with 1,159. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with 828, ranks No. 11.

Institutions haven’t always tracked such statistics. When the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy—COSEPUP for short—began collecting data for the 2000 National Academy study, “Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers,” it found that many universities didn’t even know how many postdocs they had.

“Some places had postdocs as students, some had them as faculty, some had them as staff,” says Maxine Singer, chair of the committee that published the 2000 report. “No one had really focused on the fact that there was this population of people called postdocs.”

Four years ago, Stanford University launched a university postdoc association, one of the first institutions in the nation to do so. (Johns Hopkins was the first, in 1992.) In addition to a desire for better pay and benefits, one motivation for forming the group was to educate people at the university about just what a postdoc was, recalls Mark Siegal, co-chair of the organization.

“Even going into your department office and asking to check out a slide projector became a difficult thing,” Siegal says. “They assumed that you were not very valuable at all, because you weren’t a grad student and you weren’t faculty.”

Things are different today, he says. And yet, the classification system at Stanford is proof of the confusion across the country. At Stanford, postdocs are labeled “nonmatriculated graduate students” and are assessed tuition of $125 a quarter. (It was nearly $1,000 a quarter until last year.) At Harvard University, all postdocs are called fellows. At Whitehead, postdocs with independent funding are fellows and those whose salary is covered in their advisers’ grants are associates.

Developing a standardized definition is one goal of the National Postdoctoral Association, created last spring with a $450,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and supported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The organization held its first annual meeting in March, an event that emphasized key issues on the minds of postdocs around the nation, says Carol Manahan, chair of the association’s executive board and a Johns Hopkins postdoc.

“People have tried to start nationwide postdoc organizations in the past, but they have not been successful,” Manahan says. “I think when the reports on postdocs came out, people began debating these issues. A lot of things came together to make this time right.”

A Study of Demographics

Timing is everything for working parents, a mantra Laurie Boyer knows well. A postdoc working with Whitehead Member Rudolf Jaenisch, Boyer works long hours in the lab Tuesday through Friday (and sometimes on weekends) so that she can be home with Luke and Jared on Mondays. Her husband David, an engineer with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, rearranged his work schedule to be at home with the kids on Fridays. Tuesday through Thursday, the boys have a nanny.

“We wanted to minimize the amount of time our kids spent with someone other than a parent,” Laurie says. “It was very important to us.”

Equally important is how she spends time with her kids, adds Laurie. When she’s with them, she tries to focus exclusively on them. The science waits until they go to sleep, when Boyer sets up a makeshift office at the kitchen table. It’s often in the wee hours of the morning before she calls it a day.

“I don’t think I’m doing anything extraordinary compared to other postdocs,” Laurie says. “Maintaining a balance between family and career is challenging, but it has been my choice.” She runs her hand along a pink cloth heart filled with fragrant lavender, a gift from Luke, and struggles to find words to express her thoughts.

“Being a postdoc is a great opportunity. I didn’t want to have to give up on that,” she explains. “But I want to be good at both—being a mom and a scientist. I think it’s important for my children to see that it is possible.”

The drive to excel in parenthood while also holding onto a science career is growing more common, according to the COSEPUP report. A survey conducted two years ago by Whitehead’s postdoc group suggests about one-third of the Institute’s postdocs have at least one child. Other institutional surveys yield similar results.

It’s a matter of math, really. People are taking longer to complete their doctoral training and rather than starting a postdoc in their mid- to late 20s, many folks are in their 30s by the time they begin that level of professional training. At Whitehead, the average postdoc is 32 years old.

“I think it’s much harder to have a family when you’re doing a postdoc,” says Whitehead Member Hazel Sive, a faculty adviser to the Whitehead Postdoc Association, which formed last fall. “But if you are in your 30s, putting things off can have devastating consequences. It is an enormous problem, especially for women, and I think it needs to be addressed on a national level.”

Standards of Living

Susan Lindquist was in her mid-20s when she began her postdoc at the University of Chicago in 1974. The current Whitehead Institute director doesn’t recall her exact salary, but remembers that “It was considerably more than I was making as a graduate student, but not enough to get started on a life of your own.”

For many, starting a research career is more about a yearning for science than it is about money. “I was just so compelled to go into science, I just didn’t think about the salary,” Lindquist says. “In retrospect, I really don’t think it was right to have to live that way.”

According to the COSEPUP report, a postdoctoral scholar in the late 1990s earned an average of $30,000 a year within six years of completing a PhD. In that same time period, the salary of a 25- to 34-year-old bachelor’s degree recipient was around $35,030.

“Postdocs are supposed to be getting advanced training, learning how to be independent scientists, getting mentoring,” says Singer, who was named chair of Whitehead’s Board of Directors earlier this year. “They are getting something of value, whereas if you just go for a job, you don’t expect to get something of value for your future other than a salary.”

Even so, Singer says, the wages some institutions historically paid was unjustifiably low.

“For many senior scientists, the situation as it existed was acceptable,” she says. “They got highly skilled, highly educated people, working for very moderate sums. The mentors were getting very cheap, very fine labor.”

Most universities and research centers have for decades used the minimum postdoc pay scale set by the National Institutes of Health as a guide for their institutions’ salary ranges. That was never the intention of the agency, the single largest funder of postdocs in the United States. That scale applied to individual recipients of NIH postdoctoral fellowships, not to postdocs who were paid through their principal investigators’ grants, which is how most postdocs in this country are paid. Setting the range for those postdocs, the agency argues, is up to the investigator. Some investigators argue it should be set by NIH.

Many institutions, recognizing this isn’t an easily solved battle, have charged ahead with their own salary and benefits changes, choosing not to wait for federal agencies to set the standard for postdoc pay. Whitehead Institute began a review of its postdoc salaries and benefits packages three years ago.

When that review began in 2000, Elizabeth Wiellette, a postdoc in the Sive lab, received an NIH fellowship. Wiellette went from a classification of postdoctoral associate to postdoctoral fellow. She brought nearly $100,000 into the Institute to cover her salary—and immediately lost her benefits package. At the time, only associates received full benefits because they were Whitehead employees; their salaries were paid by the Institute. Fellows were paid by outside agencies and were subject to IRS rules that made it difficult to offer them regular employee benefits.

“Seeing other people in the lab who were ineligible for fellowships or who hadn’t won them getting really good benefits, while I, who was bringing money into the Institute and the lab, lost my benefits, seemed wrong,” Wiellette recalls.

So, when Wiellette learned that the administration was forming a committee to lead a postdoc compensation and benefits review, she volunteered to help. Realizing the challenges presented by strict tax laws and inflexible benefits providers, the postdocs, faculty and administrators on the committee knew that finding equitable solutions would be difficult. The group spent the next year gathering data and building a proposal to increase postdoc minimum salaries and help equalize benefits for fellows and associates.

The plan, which would cost nearly $1.5 million to implement, was expansive: Minimum first-year postdoc salaries would be increased from $28,260 to $36,000; the Institute would subsidize the difference between postdoc fellowship stipends and the new Institute minimum. Fellows would continue to receive their fellowship salary after their grant expired and they moved to associate status. Associates and fellows would receive access to similar health insurance plans, which would be funded either out of a central funding pool or through other Whitehead or lab resources; all postdocs would have free access to dental insurance. Postdoctoral associates hired before July 1, 2002 would continue their participation in the Institute’s employee retirement plan as long as they retained associate status, while postdoctoral fellows and any associate hired after July 1, 2002 would receive an annual cash stipend of $2,000 to invest in a Roth Independent Retirement Account. Implementing such a broad and expensive plan during tough economic times would require a keenly persuasive argument before Whitehead’s Board of Directors.

“I wanted the Institute to be known as the most ideal place to do postdoctoral research in the country,” says Lindquist, who made improving conditions for postdocs a priority when she was named director in 2001. “And that means a good salary, opportunities for mentorship, career development. We have to pay attention to all these things.”

Lindquist knew mentoring and professional development needed to be addressed. But improving salary and benefits had to come first. She and the postdocs, faculty and staff on the committee made their case before the board, and the plan was approved.

“Before the committee started this whole process, everybody said, ‘You can’t do this,’” Wiellette says. “But we did it.”

Other institutions have enacted salary increases and changes in benefits packages, but according to the National Postdoctoral Association’s Carol Manahan, Whitehead set the stage.

“Whitehead was the only place that actually made a comprehensive review of postdoc salaries and benefits,” Manahan says. “It’s really one of the models to look toward when other people ask how they should set up their policies.” Among the other institutions experimenting with new salary plans is Stanford University, which raised its first-year minimum postdoc salary to $36,000 this fall.

Harvard University introduced a new benefits plan July 1 that offers most postdocs access to dental insurance, short-term and long-term disability, life insurance, a choice of four or five health plans, discounted mass transit passes, tuition assistance, and other perks. Most responses to the plan have been positive, says Roz Orkin, assistant dean for faculty affairs who oversees Harvard Medical School’s postdoc office. However, Orkin admits that there have been complaints from some postdocs who receive stipends from external funding agencies, who now must pay more for health care insurance. Before the roll-out, these postdocs had access to a lower-cost, limited-coverage health plan available to all Harvard students. That plan is no longer an option for them. But even if it were, Orkin notes that plan’s cost is set to increase by 59 percent this year.

MIT is heading down a similar road with plans to explore ways for the university to equalize health insurance benefits for all postdocs. The provost hopes to devise an initiative by the fall. But the question, says MIT Special Projects Director Marilyn Smith, will be “How to pay for it?”

Something of Value

There couldn’t be a worse time for the nation to experience a record-high number of postdocs. The harsh economy is unforgiving when it comes to job creation in the sciences, especially in academia, which is where most postdocs want to work. When asked where they hoped to find work after their postdocs ended, nearly all the participants in Whitehead’s postdoc survey pointed to academia. When asked if they were certain that their careers would go in that direction, two-thirds rated their confidence as low to medium.

“I think good people definitely fall through the cracks and don’t get jobs,” says Stanford’s Siegal, who is in his fourth year as a postdoc. “Some people stay in postdocs and just keep trying year after year. Some go into industry. Some take jobs they never would have taken otherwise.”

Industry is an option many are considering. A report released earlier this year by the nonprofit research group Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology found that the number of people entering industry after completing a PhD increased from 20 percent to 30 percent over the past two decades. Those choosing academia over industry cite as their primary motivation the ability to publish, something they fear would be limited in a business setting. Many also wish to teach, another reason to continue the search for a collegiate position.

There is little to be done about a slumping job market, except to be vigilant in the job search and examine all options. Aside from that concern, most postdocs agree that salary and benefits are areas that need immediate attention. Among those issues that remain is the need for professional development and a desire to foster a stronger sense of community among postdocs.

“Every point until now, you come into a new situation with a group of people who are going through it at the same time. Everyone is starting at the same point and you have this built-in support network,” says MIT Postdoc Association member Penny Beuning. “For postdocs, you don’t have that. Everyone comes in at different times from different places, with little orientation or training.”

Building community and offering professional development are on the planning boards at many institutions. One project under development at Whitehead is a Second Mentoring Program, an initiative involving the work of several postdocs and Sive. The program will offer postdocs an opportunity to work with several mentors who might offer counsel on a variety of topics. Other initiatives, such as programs on lab management and grant writing, are in the works.

Meanwhile, attacking salaries, benefits and professional development concerns goes a long way toward meeting the guidelines set out in the National Academy’s COSEPUP report. But universities want more.

“It provides a wonderful list of recommendations, but no road map for implementation,” says Harvard’s Orkin.

Perhaps that’s because the map will be different for each institution. Although conceiving some standard guidelines on postdocs would be helpful—for example, a uniform definition to ease the fiscal confusion surrounding management of postdoc salaries and benefits—there likely never will be one right way to structure a postdoc position.

However, the Academy’s report suggests, there is one thing to keep in mind when contemplating the value of postdoctoral researchers: “As a whole, the postdoctoral population has become indispensable to the science and engineering enterprise, performing a substantial portion of the nation’s research in every setting.”

Their role isn’t likely to diminish any time soon, the report continues. Other agencies will be looking to gather data on the nation’s postdocs in the near future. The National Science Foundation plans to do a better job of tracking the postdocs that agency funds; both NSF and NIH have plans to raise postdoc minimum salaries, a trend they hope all research institutions will strive to match. Indeed, it’s a goal worth attaining, Lindquist remarks, and not just for the postdocs.

“I think it’s extremely important for the well-being of science and the future of our country,” she says, “that we make science a profession that is not associated with self sacrifice.”

Written by Kelli Whitlock.

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