by Judith M. Reichel
One step forward, two steps back
By Judith M. Reichel, PhD
The Status Quo
So much has been said and written about the “special kind of hell” that often describes the daily life of a postdoctoral research fellow. There have been objections against the poor pay and horrid hours, advice on how to combine a young family with the demands of a prosperous career, and many other more or less specific issues regarding the career choices and trajectories of postdocs. But after all this reporting, writing, and the discussions – what has actually been achieved?
Unfortunately, not much has really changed. While there have been some isolated improvements for more pay, they are limited to a select few universities. In January 2016, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released guidelines announcing slightly augmented postdoc stipends and yearly stipend increases. However, until each institute where postdocs are employed enforces these guidelines, postdoc stipends remain at the discretion of all-too-powerful PIs. The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), established in 2003, is trying to rectify this situation. Yet, the NPA is still a fairly young organization, struggling with its own organization and without a big enough budget to put some well-deserved weight behind their demands. So while we have to thank the individual postdoc unions and associations for what they have already achieved, we also have to acknowledge that there is still a lot left to fight for.
Hope on the horizon?
On May 18th, the US Department of Labor (DOL) finalized a new law that will lead to increased salaries for many postdocs by December 2016, either through a direct pay raise or overtime pay. The new law requires that employers provide overtime pay to employees who earn less than $47,476 (nearly double the previous threshold of $23,600). According to the NIH guidelines from January, an entry level postdoc in the US earns $43,692; thus, they are now entitled to overtime pay once they exceed 40 hours per week. Given the demands of a postdoc schedule and the difficulties in accurately accounting for their work hours, the most likely scenario will be that entry level salaries will be raised above $47,476. This is certainly an enormous step in the right direction for postdocs across the U.S. and worldwide, who have on average undergone over a decade of highly specialized training only to receive near minimum wage for a 60+ hour work week.
However, we still have a long way to go. The implementation of these mandates will have to be enforced by every institution, which will be difficult to say the least. Powerful PIs bring in grant money and prestige, both of which are essential to any research endeavor. Until institutions value both PIs and postdocs (who arguably carry the bulk of the bench workload) appropriately, postdocs are relying on strong advocates to make their voices heard.
But who will these advocates be? Current postdocs? Many of them barely know about the existing NIH guidelines or, if they do, wouldn’t dare to demand their realization. In many cases, a lack of knowledge and time (plus, for international postdocs, fear of a revoked visa) converge to prevent progress. Granted, the daily lab routine of a postdoc leaves little room for anything else aside from the bench, and especially international postdocs are often uncertain of their rights and what they can legally demand in terms of a paycheck or time off. But who else is going to fight for them? Unfortunately, as long as postdocs agree, either willingly or due to a lack of choice, to work around the clock for seven days a week, for a fraction of their rightful pay, and without speaking up, there is no incentive for institutions or PIs to increase their pay or benefits. As long as PIs can make people work with no regards for off-time, weekends, or holidays, without considerations for family time or visa status, postdocs everywhere are losing out. So how can we change this? We need to educate every postdoc of their rights before they agree to glorified slavery. And perhaps most importantly, PIs have to be held accountable for their actions or as the case may be for many of them, their lack thereof.
In fairness, postdocs do not start their positions because they crave or expect an easy life–they become postdocs because they are passionate about science, about progress, and about pushing new frontiers. They are the best chance we have at finding the origins of the universe, developing new ways to relieve disease burdens, or end world hunger. But as long as the institutional government body fails to support these highly-trained, specialized, and motivated people, we–as a society–are losing. We are losing highly talented scientists who just won’t put up with this situation anymore; scientists who’d rather leave academia for positions where they can earn at least double the pay, plus benefits and enforced free weekends. We are losing talented scientists, men and women, who, in the prime of their lives, rightfully prioritize their own families, opting out of academia in search for a more supportive environment. Mostly though, we lose focus. Postdocs should be able to focus on their projects and the next scientific breakthrough, instead of being stressed about making rent or managing to spend an evening with their partners. Otherwise, in the end what suffers the most–the one thing we all care about and we are here to do–is science.
Adequate compensation of postdocs would not only improve their lives, but would also benefit all of the people who ultimately (hope) to reap the benefits of cutting-edge research. However, if no one stands up to advocate and fight for their well-deserved compensation, no one is going to provide it to the postdocs. Therefore I urge every postdoc in every lab to take charge and inform themselves of what they rightfully deserve and then go and demand nothing less. You can see it on your seven-days-a-week commute in every subway cart: “Speak up. If you see something, say something.”
Judith M. Reichel obtained her Ph.D. in Neuroscience/ Neuropsychiatry in March 2015 from the Ludwig Maximilians University Munich and the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany.
Since April 2015, she is a Postdoctoral research fellow in the department of Molecular Pharmacology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Judith is an active member of the Einstein Postdoctoral Association (EPA) and the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA). Find her on LinkedIn, Researchgate, and Twitter