Four reasons we don’t need
37 names for postdocs

That which we call a postdoc by any other name might smell as sweet, but something smells off about the multitude of categories, titles and classifications that exist for postdocs. According to the National Postdoctoral Association 2014 Institutional Policy Report, the number of names for postdocs across institutions is 37.

Are postdocs “fellows” or “research associates”? Perhaps they are “scholars,” or “trainees,” or “research fellows,” or “postdoctoral associates” or even “postdoctoral scholar employees”?

This situation has arisen because of the invisible nature of postdocs at institutions, a phenomenon that was written about as far back as 1969 in the National Research Council’s commissioned report “The Invisible University.” For nearly 50 years, postdocs have been slotted into various designations across departments and institutions depending on factors such as tax codes and grant requirements. Despite the long history of the postdoc in biomedical research, the administration of the job and title is dealt with in a piecemeal fashion.

At the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s recent Sustainability Summit, attendees were charged with creating actionable items for implementing consensus recommendations for the biomedical enterprise. I co-chaired a working group on the biomedical workforce with Kay Lund, director of the National Institutes of Health’s Division of Biomedical Research Workforce Programs. As part of this working group, I directed the subgroup that looked at postdocs in particular. A clear action item identified by the subgroup was consolidating the titles used for postdocs into a single designation at institutions.

Why would a single postdoc designation make a difference?

Data reporting

No one knows how many postdocs there are in the U.S. Estimates range from 40,000 to 80,000, and a major impediment to counting them correctly and establishing true statistical data, including postdoc employment prospects, is the number of titles assigned to them. Having one title at institutions would make reporting of postdoctoral data simpler for institutions and data-collection agencies.

Aligning benefits

Postdocs are often either “trainees” or “employees,” depending on whether they are being paid from training fellowships or research grants. This leads to differences in benefits, even within the same lab. Postdocs may decline competitive fellowship offers because moving from employee to trainee status can mean losing benefits such as healthcare coverage from their institutions. Harmonizing benefits regardless of funding source is not only possible — some institutions already do it — but desirable.

This way competitive fellowships are not awarded to only those who can afford to take them.

Tracking their time

Postdocs are supposed to be in temporary training positions, but multiple titles or a change from one designation to another can allow circumvention of institutional policies on term limits or simply allow postdocs to disappear from data collection systems. Consolidating titles allows both tracking of the time periods for postdoctoral training — commonly five years — and monitoring of extension of training in cases where postdocs have taken breaks for health or family reasons. Since postdocs are meant to be temporary trainees and not permanent employees, this will facilitate institutional training practices and make sure they are not providing a cheap alternative to staff scientists.

Salary designation

A consensus recommendation at the summit was raising the salaries of postdocs and having a single designation that enables greater identification of postdoctoral populations. This could help institutions ensure that postdocs are receiving the same salary, which is a crucial first step toward raising the salary nationally.

Inertia is built into human resources policies at institutions, and consolidating postdoctoral titles into one title will require overcoming barriers. The outcome of the summit was a proposal to develop a protocol for departments, institutions and human resources offices to classify postdocs into a single designation and harmonize benefits and salaries. We plan to work with institutions that already have taken these steps to develop such a protocol.

Gary McDowell Gary McDowell is a postdoc at Tufts University and an organizer with the national Future of Research group.