Friday, 13 June 2014 09:25

Can Unions Provide Sustainable Solutions to Postdoc Concerns?

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Labor Day bandwagon as 00154vWill postdocs get on the labor union bandwagon to improve
their lot? Photo: Labor Day 1909, New York City from the
Bain Collection, Library of Congress.
When discussing the concerns of the modern biomedical workforce, the growing dissatisfaction of postdocs is invariably one of the first topics to come to mind. Many postdocs feel undervalued by the biological science community. I commonly hear postdocs lament that they are being taken for granted by their mentors and institutions. One oft-cited reason for this sentiment is the striking disparity in the salaries, benefits, and job protection of many postdocs when compared to graduate students and staff in similar academic environments. Now some postdocs are exploring the possibility that unions may help improve their situation.

I know a couple in a situation that perfectly illustrates this concern. Both recently graduated with biology PhDs and have opted to stay in their graduate labs as they finish their publications; however, their new positions are distinct. She became a Research Specialist and he became a Postdoctoral Scholar. Despite the fact that they hold identical qualifications and fulfill the same daily responsibilities, their compensation and benefits are vastly different. In terms of their base salaries and in their access to healthcare plans, disability and life insurance, university childcare, and retirement plans, the Research Specialist position is superior to that of a Postdoctoral Scholar in nearly every category.

Based on this example, one might conclude that growing postdoc dissatisfaction could be explained by a decline in their relative compensation over time. However, postdoc stipend levels in the NIH NRSA guidelines have roughly kept up with inflation over the past decade,1,2 and many universities and fellowships offer salaries above these levels. In my view, postdoc concerns are not due to salaries per se, but rather that the current status of a postdoc is based on an outdated way of thinking.

Before the explosion in the number of biomedical trainees, graduate and postdoc training was slightly shorter and the job market was less competitive, so researchers could expect to start a non-training position at a younger age. For example, in 1984 the percentage of academic PhDs who received NIH R01 funding before the age of 36 was nearly 1 in 5, compared to roughly 1 in 50 today.3 Completing a postdoc after graduating was also less common, and the almost-guaranteed career advancement from gaining extra training easily justified spending one or two years with relatively low compensation.

Today it is less clear whether postdocs are in such privileged positions. The median duration of a postdoc is over 4 years, and 29% of PhDs complete multiple postdocs before moving to a non-training position.3,4 Postdoc positions are also increasingly considered entry-level requirements. I know many students who have applied for research positions ostensibly requiring just a PhD who have been told that, in reality, only applicants who have spent at least a year as a postdoc would be seriously considered. Given that biomedical PhDs begin their postdocs with more experience and often spend much of their 30s in these positions, sometimes with young families in tow, it's reasonable to expect better levels of compensation.

To help improve the status of postdocs as academic employees, postdocs at several universities throughout North America have formed state-recognized unions. The world's largest postdoctoral union (UAW Local 5810, which represents all University of California postdocs) began to organize in 2005 and historically negotiated its first contract in 2010. Smaller postdoc unions have also formed to represent postdocs at universities in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, Alaska and Canada.5 Though issues of compensation do not comprise postdoc grievances in their entirety, bargaining by these unions is largely focused on salary and benefit increases.

If postdoc unionization becomes more widespread, the consequences of a resulting large-scale effort to raise postdoc pay are difficult to predict. Some have argued that this would give PIs a financial incentive to hire more graduate students, which would simultaneously raise the number of biomedical PhDs and lower the number of opportunities available to them.6 In the current funding climate, it's also not clear if most labs would be able to bear the financial burden of higher postdoc pay. As a result, postdocs may be forced to take on additional administrative or teaching responsibilities to subsidize their salaries. The well-documented plight of adjunct professors suggests this may not be a desirable move.7

The experiment of postdoc unionization is in its infancy, and regardless of the unions' fate, it has succeeded in advancing the dialogue about postdoc concerns. Many organizations, including ASCB, the National Postdoctoral Association, and university-specific groups, are becoming advocates for postdocs, and their parallel efforts may ultimately supersede the unions' goals. In the meantime, the status of a postdoc and the nature of the postdoc-university and postdoc-mentor relationships are undeniably in a state of upheaval. Hopefully, the conversation about postdoc concerns will generate sustainable solutions to these issues that acknowledge the value of postdocs and their place in the academic research workforce.


For comparison: http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-04-023.html and http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-14-046.html shows a stipend level increase of ~18% for new postdocs from 2004-2014.
From the Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator (http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl) suggests the value of $1 decreased by ~20% from 2004-2014.
2012 NIH Biomedical Workforce Report, http://acd.od.nih.gov/biomedical_research_wgreport.pdf
The Best of Times and the Worst of Times, HHMI Bulletin, http://www.hhmi.org/bulletin/may-2011/best-times-and-worst-times
Information from UAW Local 5810: http://uaw5810.org/
"The spread of postdoc unions", NatureJobs, http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/science/articles/10.1038/nj7316-739a
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/is-academia-suffering-adjunctivitis/

Brittany Belin

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