U Maryland faculty want to decrease postdoc benefits to stay competitive

Apr 08 2015 Published by under Careerism, Postdoctoral Training

from Andrew Dunn, staffwriter at The Diamondback:


A group of life sciences professors and administrative chairs appeared before the Faculty Affairs Committee yesterday to discuss adding a second title for postdoctoral students and professionals in temporary positions. The only employee title currently available for postdoctoral students at this university is “postdoctorate research assistant,” which classifies all postdoctoral students as non-tenure-track faculty.

huh, that actually sounds pretty good. What's the problem?

The life sciences programs collected research on postdoctoral students from the other Big Ten schools and found that out of the 13 other schools in the conference, eight offer health benefits and two offer retirement benefits. The only other schools to offer retirement benefits are Northwestern University and Indiana University, which both have significantly higher funding for life sciences.

Jonathan Dinman, professor and cell biology and molecular genetics department chairman, said the current academic environment requires this new title for postdoctoral students for this university to stay competitive and on track with fellow Big Ten schools.

Ahh yes. The cry of every labor exploiter since forever. "We must screw the humblest, least-paid workers to stay competitive"!!!

38 responses so far

  • odyssey says:

    "Hmmm, Northwestern and Indiana give more benefits and bring in more $$$'s... I know, let's cut benefits!"

    Good grief.

  • drugmonkey says:

    RIGHT???? are these people not scientists?

  • drugmonkey says:

    The guy who was quoted, and who apparently chaired the inquiry, has one postdoc and a host of graduate students. hmmm.

  • Travelingeneticist says:

    What were they thinking? Obviously NOT in the best interests of postdoctoral scientists (not postdoctoral students).

  • BugDoc says:

    Trying to push reform in graduate & postdoc training is starting to feel like trying to bail out the Titanic with a teacup. The a$$hats are just so bloody determined! MORE trainees! LESS benefits! Unbelievable.

  • Ass(isstant) Prof says:

    Does it grate on anyone else that postdocs are referred to as "students," despite having already earned a terminal degree? We may consider postdocs as still in training, but we also discuss training and mentoring for junior faculty.

    I think the word choice is part of what allows postdocs to be exploited and eases the consciences of the exploiters: "they're just students, it's temporary and they really get a benefit that I am providing out of the goodness of my heart."

    My not-at-all MRU classifies postdocs as faculty, provides benefits and retirement (paid from grant at 30% of salary), and really pushes salaries beyond the NIH fellowship guidelines. Maybe that's why we're not in the MRU league. Should we cut benefits to be like the big guns?

  • Rheophile says:

    I wonder about how accurate some bits of this article are.

    Take a look at the Postdoctoral Fellow's Manual: http://www.gradschool.umd.edu/images/uploads/Manual.pdf

    There seem to be (at least) three categories of postdoc, two of which get some unclear variety of retirement benefits, and one of which, "Stipendee post docs no paid appointment," does not (beyond postdoc contributions to an annuity).

    Googling, I can't find any official instances of "Postdoctoral student" at UMD either - so this may be an error on the part of the journalist.

  • Rheophile says:

    Whoops, ok, here is one "Postdoctoral student:" https://www.dental.umaryland.edu/pediatric/postgraduate-program/

  • Stochastic Sam says:

    That dental program a teaching program designed to train pediatric dentists. It results in the award of a "University-based certificate with option for a master of science or doctor of philosophy." It is unrelated to the experience of a typical biomedical postdoc.

  • zb says:

    Five of the Big "Ten" don't offer health benefits to post-docs?

  • JustAGrad says:

    The cynic in me believes this kind of thinking is why PhD programs often have no emphasis on promoting skills for work outside the academy. So long as the doc students think that they only have value in academic science, they'll continue to fill even the most exploitative postdoc arrangements.

  • Josh VW says:

    The stats they collected about other schools must be wrong - the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (also in the Big 10) gives both health insurance and retirement benefits to postdocs (at least in Chemistry, and I think for the whole school).

  • Davis Sharp says:

    The whole Big 10 comparison is a load of bull. Do medical schools have football teams? Do postdoc candidates look at the Big10 ranking of academic departments? Maryland really wants to compete with local biomedical juggernauts Johns Hopkins and NIH (intramural). But this won't help.

    Way to cement your mediocrity, Maryland.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    "Does it grate on anyone else that postdocs are referred to as "students," despite having already earned a terminal degree? We may consider postdocs as still in training, but we also discuss training and mentoring for junior faculty."
    -I actually would prefer it if it were recognized officially as a training program. There are tax write-offs and loan deferments that would be nice to be able to use.

    I feel like, given all the articles about the misery of postdocs, these guys are almost trolling.

  • coldone says:

    My spouse did 2 postdocs at a rural public research U, where postdocs are classified as non-TT faculty, and got all the same benefits as faculty/staff. It was wonderful, and we have a fantastic retirement fund that we would not otherwise have (always made max 8% contribution to get 12% employer match). Seriously, we are miles ahead in savings from where most academic couples with similar lives are, just because of that ONE benefit. We know it's rare and we are grateful for it.

    Meanwhile, I did postdoc at a med school (T1 but not Big 10), where they took a mandatory 7% out of my paycheck, dumped it in a fund, and called it a "retirement benefit". No opt-out and no contribution from uni. I couldn't change the %, and they contributed nothing. When I tried to liquidate the fund recently, I found out I'd have to pay massive taxes on it unless I rolled it over, like more than I'd have to pay pulling money out of a regular retirement fund, so I'm just going to do that. It's pretty annoying that I had no choice about contributing to the fund in the first place. What if I was a single parent or had some other reason I really couldn't afford it?

    There's a big difference between the two unis, and I think the most likely explanation is that my postdoc U was much bigger and realized they could save $$$ by classifying postdocs as "term temporary employees" and giving us that crap "retirement benefit". At least I got some paid leave (but not as much as staff).

  • coldone says:

    I should add that the rural public research U with the great postdoc benefits has relatively few postdocs. I speculate that is the major reason that they haven't bothered to create a specific underclass designation for postdocs.

  • Established PI says:

    Maryland is competing with a lot of schools that, sadly, do not provide retirement benefits to postdoctoral fellows. This means that the typical life scientist at U MD gets less out of their NIH grant than a competitor at many other schools. I don't know if they first tried to see if Maryland would pick up the retirement part of the fringe benefits but, failing that, they are asking to play by the same mean rules as their competitors in the life sciences.

    Postdocs are treated differently in different fields, which may be why they seem to be asking for a multi-tiered system at Maryland. A postdoc in mathematics, for example, is expected to teach classes as well as do research and does not work under a mentor, so it is closer to a faculty position that a postdoc in the life sciences. I don't know what other sort of field-specific differences there are, say in chemistry, but I imagine that plays a role in how postdocs are treated in different areas.

    There has been real resistance to giving benefits to postdocs. There is a little of the attitude that "I remember my carefree postdoc days, when I didn't care about money - why should they?" without acknowledging how much postdocs spend in "training" now. Too many of these policy makers either had no family responsibilities or had other means that made retirement savings (for their very short postdoc period) not that important.

  • Here is a link to the University of Michigan's benefits (a Big 10 school). U of M receives significant funding from NIH and is one of the top Medical Schools in the US. They have pretty good benefits for Postdocs including 22 days of vacation, health insurance and the ability to contribute to a retirement account, but I do not think they get a match. While I was a postdoc at BCM, I could contribute to 403(b) plan (no match). However, this account is why I'm doing fairly well right now. I put away at least 20% of my salary and NIH NRSA stipend. I also got a $3000 bonus for obtaining an F32 at Baylor College of Med.

    http://hr.umich.edu/acadhr/researchfellows.html

  • jmz4gtu says:

    http://www.nature.com/news/the-future-of-the-postdoc-1.17253

    Most recent article on how postdocs are awful. Mostly more of the same, though it tries to highlight places where potential fixes are in the works, most of these are in other countries or too small of a sample size to judge the effect.

    There is an interesting survey though. Apparently the establishment of super-docs are more popular than just paying postdocs more. This surprises me, since the chief beneficiary of this program will be the old established labs, and it doesn't really do anything to reform the system.

  • drugmonkey says:

    People just want jobs at this point jmz4gtu

  • MF says:

    Here is a nice analysis of this issue (I don't think this has been posted yet, sorry if I am duplicating).

    http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2015_04_07/caredit.a1500086

    "Despite having employed postdocs for years, UMD apparently still lacks a specific employment category for them. Until recently, employee postdocs at UMD were classified either as category 15 (“Faculty nontenured, continuing”) or category 25 (“Faculty, contractual”). But recently, UMD’s human resources (HR) department “decided to phase out the Cat25,” Dinman writes in the e-mail. “Thus, recently, we were informed that we should hire postdocs under … the so-called ‘Category 15.’ ” Among the benefits category 15 postdocs are entitled to are tuition remission for classes they take at the university and participation in the state’s retirement program—both expensive and both, Dinman says, lacking a line-item in most NIH grants.

    Arguing that the changes make postdocs too expensive, UMD life-science faculty members pushed back. More than 130 life-science faculty members signed on to a letter to Wallace Loh, UMD’s president, arguing that paying for those benefits from research grants will cause “research funding erosion.” The letter calls for the creation of a new, postdoc-specific administrative category that would not be faculty level and would come with benefits appropriate for short-term, trainee employees.

    “We are just trying to get the university to officially codify the position of ‘postdoc,’ ” Dinman writes in the e-mail.

    Within the logic of UMD’s needs—or any university’s needs—the argument makes sense. That same logic, though, if applied nationally and internationally, will perpetuate and worsen the current, damaging glut of early-career scientists. It’s an example of what economist Garrett Hardin termed the tragedy of the commons, in which pursuing individual self-interest (or, in this case, institutional self-interest) leads to collective disaster. Hardin concluded that such problems have “no technical solution” but require instead concerted joint action by all concerned. "

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Did they fall off the turnip truck? If they cut post-doc benefits the cost basis for fringes goes down and they collect no overhead on the direct cost. You can't charge fringes that you don't pay.

  • drugmonkey says:

    That is not really a tragedy of the commons scenario. Can't these humanities drone journalists even get their own fundamental principles shit right?

  • Geo says:

    Time to eliminate the postdoc. Shift to staff scientists. Highly experienced people ought to have stability in their jobs. New staff scientists can be evaluated on a 3 year contract.

  • physioprof says:

    Highly experienced people ought to have stability in their jobs.

    I'm no right-winger, but the idea that workers who have put in some time should have "stability"--which can't mean anything other than "can't be fired"--is absurd. Name me an industry in which well-paid workers get long-term contracts like are being argued for and in which labor conditions like those of post-docs are so fucken terrible.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Way to lead the race to the bottom, PP

  • BugDoc says:

    Even if you agreee staff scientists deserve highly stable jobs, where will this stable source of funding come from?

  • MorganPhD says:

    Why not cut benefits and retirement for pretenure faculty? It's only a short-term 7 year training position for the associate professor job anyway.

  • mfade says:

    "Does it grate on anyone else that postdocs are referred to as "students," despite having already earned a terminal degree? We may consider postdocs as still in training, but we also discuss training and mentoring for junior faculty."
    That was actually something that really annoyed me when I interviewed for a postdoc position at one famous institution - apparently they considered postdocs to be students and either charged them tuition or charged them taxes on "tuition remission" - I can't remember which, but it was pretty absurd.

  • Ola says:

    Aah yes, the cry of every dean and adminstrator since the dawn of time...

    "consistency with our peer group"

    "benchmarking"

    If ever there was an entire field more lacking in original ideas than university administration, I've yet to find it.

  • drugmonkey says:

    BugDoc- the same place hard money salary for all grant funded faculty is to come from, of course.

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    And then there is the whole issue of whether postdocs are employees at all, whether faculty or not. Obviously they are employees in reality, but I know several schools have stopped attempts at postdoctoral unions on the grounds that they are "trainees" rather than employees -- even at places where other campus workers are unionized.

  • DJMH says:

    Related, JB, places that do treat their postdocs to health and retirement benefits often eliminate them as soon as you land an NRSA--because that's for "trainees," not staff. Damned if you do, damned if you don't! the postdoc's rallying cry.

  • former staff scientist says:

    Actually, the term postdoctoral student, though irritating, is refreshingly honest. Isn't a postdoc just graduate school all over again, but without the course work?
    I find it hysterical that the dumb shits in the article think that to stay competitive they need to *cut* salaries and benefits. Yeah, that should really help attract the best and brightest postdocs. They claim they are worried about "research funding erosion" because too much money is going to pay postdoc benefits, rather than actual research. By that logic, why not just eliminate all salary and benefits? Obviously, they have not considered how much more research money will be eroded when they can attract nothing but monkeys to carry out the actual research.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    "Yeah, that should really help attract the best and brightest postdocs."
    -In my experience, many PIs only want a pair of hands at the bench, they're not too worried about the "best and brightest" part. They want, essentially, a pipette monkey, so maybe they'll be happy when that's all they can afford.

  • former staff scientist says:

    The problem is that with the current race to the bottom we are now experiencing, a person that can competently pipette liquid from one tube to another may soon be among the best and brightest.

  • Geo says:

    PP / Right winger. A 3-year contract is not long-term. Enough time to evaluate performance and to "fire" someone not competent. Use this approach to eliminate hiring of marginal employees and instead place a premium on prior excellent performance in the job market. Money comes from standard short-term grants. Employment is conditional on funding. Publish fast with skilled people.

  • […] Another regressive move spearheaded by scientists this year took place at the University of Maryland, College Park (incidentally, the most militarized university in the USA). Norma Andrews ( Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics) and Iqbal Hamza ( Animal and Avian Sciences ) wrote a letter which was signed by 131 tenured/tenure-track life science faculty) to explain why some postdoc positions should not come with the same benefits of other postdoc positions- that is, to allow lab heads to pay less so they could have more postdocs (http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2015_04_07/caredit.a1500086 ). At a time when many faculty are trying to help postdocs (      )x, the University of Maryland faculty, as are the University of Washington faculty, are trying very hard to better themselves at the benefit of others. […]

Leave a Reply