Archive for the 'Postdoctoral Training' category

Postdoc salaries and reinforcer value

One issue I've heard raised is that some PIs like to use salary differentials to reward the "good postdocs" with bonus pay.

Given the behaviorist education that lurks in my background, I am theoretically* in support of this notion.

The new salary rules may minimize such flexibility in the future.

Are you aware of labs in which merit of postdocs as interpreted by the PI leads to salary differentials?

Is this a legitimate complaint about the overtime rules?

Will PIs use the permission to work overtime (and be paid for it) as a workaround for merit pay?
*Given my distaste for workplace bias and desire to be a fair manager, I have never used merit to decide postdoc pay. I stick to NRSA schedules and to institutional adjustments as appropriate.

40 responses so far

Collins announces NRSA salaries will meet Obama's overtime rule

In a piece on HuffPo, NIH Director Francis Collins announces the NIH response to Obama's new rules on overtime for salaried employees. Collins:

Under the new rule, which was informed by 270,000 public comments, the threshold will be increased to $47,476 effective December 1, 2016. ....In response to the proposed FLSA revisions, NIH will increase the awards for postdoctoral NRSA recipients to levels above the threshold.

"levels". Meaning, presumably the entire scale will start around $47.5K and move upward with years of postdoctoral experience, as the NRSA scale usually does.

What about the larger population of postdocs that are paid from non-NRSA funds, Dr. Collins?

..we recognize that research institutions that employ postdocs will need to readjust the salaries they pay to postdocs that are supported through other means, including other types of NIH research grants. While supporting the increased salaries will no doubt present financial challenges to NIH and the rest of the U.S. biomedical research enterprise, we plan to work closely with leaders in the postdoc and research communities to find creative solutions to ensure a smooth transition.

Imprecise and highly disappointing when it comes to the postdocs supported on "other types of NIH research grants". This would have been a great opportunity to state that the NIH expects any postdocs paid from RPGs to be on the NRSA scale, wouldn't it? Most postdocs are supported on NIH grants. This Rock Talk post shows in FY2009 something like 11,000 basic biomed postdocs on Federal research grants and only 1,000 on Federal fellowships and training grants (and ~7,800 on nonFederal support). So Francis Collins is talking the happy talk about 10% of the postdocs who work for him and throwing 90% into the storm.

The OER head, Michael Lauer, has a few more interesting points on the Open Mike blog.

Institutions that employ postdocs through non-NRSA support can choose how to follow the new rule. They may choose to carefully track their postdocs’ hours and pay overtime. Or, keeping with the fact that biomedical research – as in many professional and scientific careers – does not fit into neatly defined hourly shifts, institutions can choose to raise salaries to the new FLSA salary threshold or above it, if they do not yet pay postdocs at or above that level.

This would imply that Dr. Collins' supposed plan to "work closely with" and "ensure a smooth transition" is more realistically interpreted as "hey, good luck with the new Obama regs, dudes".

Before we get at it in the comments, a few lead off points from me:

The current NRSA scale pays 0 year postdocs $43,692 so in December the brand new postdoc will see a $4,000 raise, roughly. There is currently something on the order of $1,800 increases for each successive year of experience, this estimate is close enough for discussion purposes. If this yearly raise interval is maintained we can expect to see that same $4,000 pay rise applied to every salary level. Remember to apply your local benefits rate for the cost to a grant, if you are paying your postdocs at NRSA scale from RPG funds. Could turn this into a $5,000-$6,000 cost to the grant.

Postdocs getting paid more is great. Everyone in science should be paid more but there is something specific here. Postdocs frequently work more than 40 h per week for their salaried positions. This is right down the middle of the intent of Obama's change for the overtime rules. He is right on this. Period.

With that said, there is a very real disconnect here between the need to pay postdocs more and the business model which funds them. As mentioned above, 90% of Federally funded postdocs are supported by research grants, and 10% on fellowships or traineeships. (A population almost 8 times as large as the latter are supported by nonFederal funds- the percentage of these working on Federal research projects is likely to be substantial.) A grant may have one or two postdocs on it so adding another $5,000-$10,000 per year isn't trivial. Especially since the research grant budgets are constrained in a number of ways.

First, in time. We propose grants in a maximum of 5 year intervals but often the budget is designed one or two years prior to funding. These grant budgets are not supplemented in the middle of a competitively-awarded interval just because NRSA salary levels are increased. Given the way NRSA rises have been coming down randomly over the years, it is already the case that budgets are stretched. Despite what people seem to think (including at NIH), we PIs do not pad the heck out of our proposed research budgets. We can't. Our peers would recognize it on review and ding us accordingly.

Second, grants are constrained by the modular budgeting process which limits direct costs to $250,000 per year. This a soft and nebulous limit which depends on the culture of grant design, review and award. Formally speaking, one can choose a traditional budget process at any time if one needs to request funds in excess of $250,000 per year. Practically speaking, a lot of people choose to use the modular budget process. For reasons. The purchasing power has been declining for 15 years and there is no sign of a change in the expectations for per-grant scientific output.

Third, grant budgets are often limited by reductions to the requested budget that are imposed by the NIH. This can be levied upon original funding of the award or upon the award of each of the annual non-competing intervals of funding. These can often range to 10%, for argument's sake let's keep that $25,000 figure in mind when assessing the impact of such a reduction on paying a salary for a staff member, such as a postdoc. Point being, it's a big fraction of a salary. This new postdoc policy isn't going to result in fewer cuts or shallower cuts. Believe me.

I will be watching the way that local Universities choose to deal with the new policy with curiosity. I think we all see that trying to limit postdocs to 40 h a week of work so as to avoid raising the base salary is a ridiculous plan*. The other competitive motivations will continue to drive some postdocs to work more. This will put Universities (and PIs) in the extremely distasteful position of creating this elaborate fiction about working hours.

One potential upside for the good PI, who is already maintaining postdocs at NRSA levels even when funded from the RPG, is that it will force the bad PIs into line. This should narrow the competitive disadvantage that comes with trying to treat your postdocs well.

Final point. This will take away jobs. Fewer postdocs will be hired. Whether this is good or bad....well, opinions vary. But the math is unmistakable.

[UPDATE: The modular budget grant limit of $250,000 was established for R01s in FY2000 and the NRSA 0 year postdoc salary in FY2000 was $26,916. This is 10.8% of the direct costs of a full modular R01. In FY2017 when this new NRSA adjustment, the 0 year postdoc will be 19% of the direct costs of a full modular R01. In short the postdoc is now 76% more expensive than the postdoc was in FY2000.]
*It is, however, a failed opportunity to attempt to normalize academic science's working conditions. I see no reason we shouldn't take a stab at enforcing a 40 h work week in academic science, personally. Particularly for the grad student and post-doc labor force who are realistically not very different from the technicians who do, btw, enjoy most labor protections.

111 responses so far

An issue of data ownership

Mar 23 2016 Published by under Careerism, Mentoring, Postdoctoral Training

An interesting retraction of an Editorial expression of concern hit the Twitts:

The Editors and publisher have withdrawn an Expression of Concern previously contributed by noted neuroscientist David Amaral, with his agreement.

The original version of this Comment ‘Expression of Concern’ published by D. Amaral has been withdrawn by the Publisher in relation to the paper: ‘Organization of connections of the basal and accessory basal nuclei in the monkey amygdala’ by Eva Bonda, published in Volume 12, pp. 1971-1992 (doi: 10.1046/j.1460-9568.2000.00082.x). The review carried out at the University of California at Davis in December 2001 (brought to the publisher's attention in February 2016) concluded that the allegation against Eva Bonda described in the commentary ‘Expression of Concern’ by D. Amaral did not meet The Office of Research Integrity's definition of research misconduct, and was not pursued further.

That November 2000 Expression of Concern read, in part:

It has recently come to my attention that Eva Bonda has published a paper in the European Journal of Neuroscience entitled, ‘Organization of connections of the basal and accessory basal nuclei in the monkey amygdala’ ( Bonda, 2000). The data described in this paper were produced by my students and me at the University of California, Davis. Support for carrying out the experiments that produced these data was provided by the National Institute of Mental Health, through grant MH 41479 for which I am the Principal Investigator.
..The publication of this single-authored paper was totally unauthorized. Eva Bonda was a postdoctoral fellow in our laboratory.

Ok, so PI asserts ownership of data collected in his lab. Fine, fine... Typical story of postdoc who thinks that she owns and controls her data? And the PI was blocking publication for reasons unknown. We all have been down the various roads of he said/she said often enough to imagine a variety of scenarios where we might alternately side with the trainee or the postdoc.


She had access to the preparations that were described in the paper. However, she did not carry out any of the experimental procedures involved in making the tracer injections reported in this paper. These injections were made by other students in the laboratory and by me. Moreover, other than processing the tissue from a small minority of the reported cases, it was the technical staff of our laboratory rather than Eva Bonda that carried out the histological processing of the reported experiments.

Ah. Well that sounds bad. This suggests it is a little more like theft of credit from more people than just the PI. I happen to disagree with the not-infrequent pose of postdocs on the internet that they own and control "their" data that they generated in the laboratory of a given PI. But that is much more of an arguable position than is taking data generated by many people other than one's self and asserting control/ownership from a position that is not the PI.

Amaral finishes by making the charge of academic misconduct against Bonda very explicit:

In my view, the appropriation and publication of these data is a serious breach of scientific ethics. I have asked the Editor of the European Journal of Neuroscience to take appropriate action including publication of this Expression of Concern. Upon consultation with the Office of Research Integrity, Public Health Service, US Department of Health and Human Services, the agency responsible for protecting the integrity of NIH funded research programs, the UC Davis campus has agreed to initiate a review of the allegations of research misconduct. Based on the outcome of this review, further actions, including request for full retraction, may be taken concerning this.

Of course, the recent retraction of the Expression of Concern indicates that Bonda, the postdoc, was exonerated of misconduct charges in 2001!

Wow. Why did it take Amaral 15 years to retract his accusations? This seems spectacularly dickish to me.

And given the fact that the postdoc was not found guilty of misconduct by the University, it really questions the factual basis of his assertions in the original Expression of Concern. If I were the postdoc in question, I might have launched a counter accusation of professional misconduct. Depending, of course, on the details of the inquiry and what each party did and did not do. The exoneration of the postdoc may simply have been a lack of proof of intent, rather than any disagreement over the facts.

I notice, however, an interesting poll put up by an individual who both was RTing the tweets that alerted me to this situation and apparently co-published with Amaral.

Gee, I wonder what the nature of the dispute was between Amaral and Bonda?

The subject of this poll is the juxtaposition of "good data" with "high quality standards" of the PI. Given what Amaral does, I'm going out on a limb and assuming we are talking about how pretty the immunohistochemical images are or are not (the Bonda paper is nearly all immuno-staining pictures).

19 responses so far

On whitening the CV

I heard yet another news story* recently about the beneficial effects of whitening the resume for job seekers.

I wasn't paying close attention so I don't know the specific context. 

But suffice it to say, minority job applicants have been found (in studies) to get more call-backs for job interviews when the evidence of their non-whiteness on their resume is minimized, concealed or eradicated. 

Should academic trainees and job seekers do the same?

It goes beyond using only your initials if your first name is stereotypically associated with, for example, being African-Anerican. Or using an Americanized nickname to try to communicate that you are highly assimilated Asian-Anerican. 

The CV usually includes awards, listed by foundation or specific award title. "Ford Foundation" or "travel award for minority scholars" or similar can give a pretty good clue. But you cannot omit those! The awards, particularly the all-important "evidence of being competitively funded", are a key part of a trainee's CV. 

I don't know how common it is, but I do have one colleague (I.e., professorial rank at this point) for whom a couple of those training awards were the only clear evidence on the CV of being nonwhite. This person stopped listing these items and/or changed how they were listed to minimize detection. So it happens.

Here's the rub. 

I come at this from the perspective of one who doesn't think he is biased against minority trainees and wants to know if prospective postdocs, graduate students or undergrads are of Federally recognized underrepresented status.


Because it changes the ability of my lab to afford them. NIH has this supplement program to fund underrepresented trainees. There are other sources of support as well. 

This changes whether I can take someone into my lab. So if I'm full up and I get an unsolicited email+CV I'm more likely to look at it if it is from an individual that qualifies for a novel funding source. 

Naturally, the applicant can't know in any given situation** if they are facing implicit bias against, or my explicit bias for, their underrepresentedness. 

So I can't say I have any clear advice on whitening up the academic CV. 

*probably Kang et al.

**Kang et al caution that institutional pro-diversity statements are not associated with increased call-backs or any minimization of the bias.

29 responses so far

Blooding the trainees

In that most English of pastimes, fox hunting, the noobs are smeared about the face with the blood of the poor unfortunate fox after dismembering by hound has been achieved.

I surmise the goal is to get the noob used to the less palatable aspects of their chosen sporting endeavor. 

Anyway, speaking of manuscript review and eventual publication, do you plan a course for new trainees in the lab?

I'm wondering if you have any explicit goals for them- Should a mentor try to get new postdocs or grads a pub, any pub as quickly and easily as possible?

Or should they be thrown into a multi-journal fight so as to fully experience the joys of desk rejection, ultimate denial after four rounds of review somewhere and the final relief of just dumping that Frankensteinian monster of a paper in a lowly journal and being done. 

Do you plan any of this out for your newest trainees?

19 responses so far

I'm 14 carat......want to look good for the PI, mmm

Have you ever been in a lab with a golden-child trainee?

Was it you?

61 responses so far

NCI will ease that difficult transition to postdoc

I am still not entirely sure this is not an elaborate joke.

The purpose of the NCI Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Fellow Transition Award (F99/K00) is to encourage and retain outstanding graduate students who have demonstrated potential and interest in pursuing careers as independent cancer researchers. The award will facilitate the transition of talented graduate students into successful cancer research postdoctoral appointments, and provide opportunities for career development activities relevant to their long-term career goals of becoming independent cancer researchers.

The need for a transition mechanism that graduate students can apply for is really unclear to me.

Note: These are open to non-citizens on the appropriate visa. This is unlike the NRSA pre- and post-doc fellowships.

27 responses so far

Fewer postdocs?

Oct 23 2015 Published by under Postdoctoral Training

From @NatureNews:


The full story by Monya Baker

21 responses so far

Survey of the day: Postdoc diploma

Oct 02 2015 Published by under Careerism, Postdoctoral Training

Are you familiar with any Universities that award some sort of  official recognition of the completion of a postdoctoral term of scientific training? 
When, where, etc if you feel comfortable.....

30 responses so far

Tales from the search committee

Aug 21 2015 Published by under Careerism, Postdoctoral Training

Prof Booty has written about chairing a recent search committee.

Starting a little over a year ago, I served as chair of my department’s search committee, which concluded in the spring with a successful hire. With that experience still relatively fresh, I hope I can share some important insights into how our top candidates caught our eye, as well as the behind-the-scenes process of selecting those candidates.

Go read.

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