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One key advance, says NPA executive director Cathee Johnson Phillips, was defining what a postdoc is. In 2007, the NPA, NSF, and NIH agreed that a postdoc is a doctorate holder in a temporary research job, receiving mentoring and training needed for the next career stage.
In 2005, then-HHMI president Thomas Cech and others examined the needs of postdocs in the National Research Council report “Bridges to Independence.” The goal was to identify ways NIH and other funding agencies could help postdocs—who work under an advisor—transition to an independent position. The authors recommended, for example, that NIH allocate funds to support postdocs as individuals rather than as simply part of an advisor’s grant.
They also recommended that research institutions provide postdocs with more than a lab bench: they need mentoring and career advice. And with fellowships lasting longer, the authors suggested that there should be a time limit. To find out whether postdocs’ needs are met, the committee recommended that NIH collect data on the postdocs it funds, including whether they continue in research.
“They do science, write grants, mentor grad students,” Johnson says. “And yet they don’t have full status as core members of any institution.”
Since the Bridges report, change has been spotty, says Cech, an HHMI investigator at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Some universities have implemented postdoc policies and support postdoc offices and clubs; the NPA reports that 160 institutions have acted on at least some of its policy recommendations. In 2010, NIH began requiring grantees to identify their postdocs by name, so it could track their appearance on subsequent grants.
Duke is ahead of the curve; the administration took seriously its postdocs’ plight and spearheaded the policy effort, Johnson says. Still, it took from 2004 to 2008 to craft a policy, which undergoes regular revisions. Now, all Duke postdoc slots are paid positions; no postdoc is a volunteer. They get vacation, sick leave, and parental leave, just like regular employees. They receive annual progress reviews. As recommended by the Bridges report, they won’t be postdocs forever; after five years, they cannot continue as postdocs but may be hired as regular employees. And while they’re postdocs, they get health care benefits and retirement savings.
Similar policies are coming together at institutions across the country. For example, according to the NSF’s 2006 Survey of Doctorate Recipients, 90 percent of postdocs received health insurance in 2006, up from 75 percent in 1986 (these data do not indicate how many postdocs must pay for their own insurance). The number receiving retirement benefits has risen from 30 percent in 1986 to 50 percent in 2006.
For the more than 700 postdocs that HHMI supports in the laboratories of HHMI investigators and HHMI early career scientists, pay is scaled to NIH and other postdoctoral fellowships, says Pamela Phillips, HHMI’s director of research operations. Starting HHMI postdocs make between $37,500 and $50,000, at their advisor’s discretion. They also receive health insurance and retirement benefits. Vacation time is at the advisor’s discretion, but Phillips notes that postdocs so rarely take time off that it usually isn’t an issue.
Financial Help Toward Independence
Satinder Singh, a former HHMI predoctoral fellow, put in her time as a postdoc at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, working on the bacterial version of a neurotransmitter transporter. She divided her time between experimenting with cells and lipid vesicles, exploring the protein’s structure, mentoring students in the lab, and writing papers.
In 2007, Singh applied for the Pathways to Independence Award, one of the initiatives NIH launched in the wake of the Bridges report. Announced in 2006, the award, a K99/R00, is affectionately referred to as the “kangaroo” award. It provides five years of funding designed to bridge the end of a postdoc and the beginning of a faculty position. The idea, Cech says, is to wean postdocs from mentored to independent research. Each year, NIH offers between 150 and 200 of these grants, with various dollar amounts.
Just writing the application was a useful process, Singh says, because she had to organize her thoughts for an independent program. Her plan to study the human version of the transporter she worked on as a postdoc earned her a kangaroo award. And Singh suspects the award helped during her final interviews for faculty positions in early 2008; she already had evidence that her ideas were grant-worthy.
Singh got a job offer from Yale University, but she still wanted to finish up some papers in her postdoctoral lab and take a couple of neurobiology courses. With the kangaroo funding, she was able to work mostly independently in her postdoc lab, and Yale waited until she was ready to start. She used the extra time to collect preliminary data before starting the Yale tenure clock—with all its associated responsibilities in the classroom and on committees. Since July 2010, Singh has been living the postdoc’s dream at Yale: a lab of her own, with two of her own postdocs to train.