Concerns and Requests of the OHSU Post-doctoral Community
July 2, 2014
Office of the Provost
Office of the Senior Vice President for Research
Oregon Health & Science University
3181 SW Sam Jackson Park Rd
Portland, OR 97239
Letter from the Post-doctoral community of OHSU
Dear Drs. Mladenovic, Dorsa, Robinson, and Barr-Gillespie,
As leaders of a reputable biomedical research institution and individuals who have had an illustrious career in higher academic administration, you are likely aware of the evolution that has occurred in the professional science workforce. It has become much less common for graduate students and post-docs to follow the canonical and formulaic career track to become assistant professors in a contemporary scientist’s career. In fact, research in academia must now be considered the “alternative” career relative to non-academic positions. Only 15% of post-docs receive a tenure-track faculty position within 6 years of beginning their post-doctoral position (1). Based on these current trends, only 8% of those entering graduate school are projected to become tenure-track faculty (2). Strikingly, despite this projection, 53% of current graduate students still intend on pursuing this career path (2). As a result of these selective pressures, an estimated 17,000 biology PhD’s are currently working in non-academicjobs, compared to the 29,000 current tenure-track faculty members in the U.S (1). These statistics are clearly not a model of sustainable growth in biomedical research and significant changes, both in cultural expectations and education, are necessary.
As post-docs at OHSU, we are delighted to be engaged in a supportive biomedical community, one that equivalently values high quality research and providing world-class healthcare. As evidence for this support we point to the recently updated research mission Vision 2020. Specifically, goal #6 states, “(To) Generate and deploy OHSU resources to sustain an environment where faculty and staff committed to top performance can excel”. Furthermore, we share with faculty and administration in the excitement of Phil Knight’s philanthropic challenge to our Cancer Institute to raise 1 billion dollars to research and treat malignant diseases. We know this type of financial status will not only entrench OHSU as a leader in cancer research, but also dramatically enhance the quality of science in all aspects and departments of the OHSU research community. We also understand these resources represent an opportunity–an opportunity for OHSU to not only fund ground-breaking research, recruit great scientists and upgrade our facilities, but also to be a model to other institutions for how to educate the next generation of scientists. This money alone cannot have its full impact without the trained hands and bright minds of an enthusiastic post-doctoral workforce. If this money is a tool for solving problems and curing diseases, the post-docs are the hands and feet capable of effectively employing this tool.
Towards the intentional pursuit of OHSU’s strategic research mission, we as the post-doctoral community believe that significant changes to our training environment are necessary and attainable. We ask that the administration consider and address three specific concerns, outlined below:
1. Normalize all post-doctoral salaries to the NIH pay scale
Until recently, OHSU has had two distinct pay scales by which post-doctoral researchers could be paid. Originally the OHSU pay scale was meant to supplement the NIH scale, but the OHSU scale has remained stagnant over time, while the NIH scale has increased to reflect inflation and cost of living adjustments that have been incorporated into all NIH grants. Although it is now a requirement that all new post-docs be hired at the NIH scale, many current post-docs who are still being paid on the OHSU scale are significantly under-compensated. It is unacceptable that post-doctoral researchers be compensated below the NIH salary levels, which are set by the grant funding agency and therefore incorporated into grant budgets and funds awarded to each PI and university. Although it may represent an initial financial burden to bring all post-docs up to the NIH pay scale, we believe that this is necessary for the benefit of all current and future OHSU post-docs.
2. Establish an official Post-doctoral Affairs Office
In order to become a preeminent national leader in post-doctoral training, a centralized office with a specific purpose of addressing, stewarding, and educating all OHSU post-docs is required. In the absence of such an entity, the Office of the Vice President of Research has taken on the task of promulgating the multitude of non-laboratory/technical skills necessary to succeed in our hyper-competitive careers. These include but are not limited to grantsmanship, people management, research ethics, networking, manuscript preparation, and many other career development associated issues. Additionally, we as post-docs have formulated the Women in Science (WIS) and the Research in Progress Seminar Series (RIPSS), whereby the majority of these seminars are intentionally organized for career development purposes. We invite a variety of professionals from academia, government, industry, law, and other doctoral level non-academic disciplines, to meet the educational demands that successful scientific careers now require. Our PIs and mentors are unfortunately unable to efficiently shoulder this burden alone as their research and institutional responsibilities prevent them from fully engaging in these matters. Furthermore, we believe that unlike other employees, students and medical fellows, our group is disconnected and difficult to manage with issues specific to our demographic due in large part to the lack of an office tasked with addressing these affairs.
The logical solution to these problems is to establish an Office of Post-doctoral Affairs that would formalize postdoctoral career development and other issues specific to the needs of postdocs at OHSU. This office should be staffed by a full-time employee dedicated solely to post-doctoral affairs, who would coordinate the current efforts of the Office of Research as well as serve as the primary resource for post-docs. This would not only yield a more effective strategy to combat the escalating competition in our workforce but would fall in line with the training standards set at numerous other research universities that already have successful post-doc offices such as Columbia, Duke, UCSF, and Stanford. Furthermore, establishment of an Office of Post-doctoral Affairs is keenly in line with OHSU’sVision 2020, sub-goal 6.4, which states:“Implement an explicit funding model to support the uncovered cost of competitive scientific research and highly productive scientists.”It has come to our attention that a formal proposal for a post-doc office has been submitted and the university administration is currently considering it. We, as the primary beneficiaries of this office, strongly support this proposal and request that it be approved to fund a Post-doctoral Affairs Office for FY-2015.
3. Dissolve the distinction between post-doctoral “researchers” and post-doctoral “trainees”
OHSU categorizes its post-doctoral community under two distinct designations - post-doctoral researchers (employees) or post-doctoral trainees (non-employee fellows). While it is a great achievement for a post-doc to be awarded an individual training grant, such as an NIH post-doctoral NRSA or a private foundation grant, these grants automatically convert the post-doc to a non-employee trainee who is paid through a stipend, rather than receiving a paycheck directly through a Principal Investigator’s (PI) grant. There are unique differences and disadvantages to being a post-doctoral trainee, all arising from the loss of employee status. For example, trainees are not eligible to sign up for short-term disability, which is the main mechanism for OHSU employees to receive paid maternity leave. Instead, trainees must look to the family leave stipulations outlined in their particular grant, which are often not straightforward or standardized, and almost always cover only a few weeks of paid leave. Last year, the Graduate Council passed the first Parental Leave Policy for non-employee graduate students who are paid via stipend, in order to overcome this very problem for the graduate student community. However, no such policy exists for post-doctoral trainees. Since post-doctoral trainees are not considered employees by the institution, but rather independent contractors, another benefit lost is the ability to file for unemployment, should their position be terminated for any reason. Combined, these factors cause much unnecessary life stress to post-doctoral trainees, which can and does interfere with their most productive years as a scientist.
Another major complication for post-doctoral trainees arises from significant differences for how the IRS and tax law classifies those paid by stipend. Post-doctoral researchers who are paid through a PI’s grant are considered employees of the university and receive a W2 documenting their compensation for their previous year’s work, as well as having their taxes deducted automatically from each paycheck throughout the year. Those who are paid via a stipended mechanism are considered “self-employed” or “independent contractors”; they receive form 1099-MISC for their services and must estimate and manually pay their taxes on a quarterly basis. This is an important difference because those receiving a 1099-MISC, unlike their official employee counterparts, are exempt from payroll (but not income) taxes and are therefore prohibited from contributing to tax-incentivized retirement plans such as an IRA, Roth IRA, 403b, etc. With the average years of training and the age at which we obtain our first job sharply rising, no longer is this a short-term issue that can be easily offset years later when we transition out of a post-doc into a career position. For those of us fortunate enough to land an academic position our average age will be 37 (3). If your prior graduate institution also classified trainees into the same stipend category, as most institutions do, this can translate to roughly 8-12 years that these individuals are not able to invest a single dollar in their retirement. In addition, by not paying payroll taxes, non-employee post-doc trainees do not pay into Social Security and Medicare, again creating a 8-12 year gap in future eligibility for those services.In theory, those who receive a stipend should be free to carry out any research they desire because they are not technically “compensated," nor do they “earn income”. In practice, despite the differences on where the funds for our work are generated, post-docs equally carry out their research under the supervision and mentorship of a PI, who works with the individual but is in large part dictating the research project to be carried out by that post-doc. This would traditionally be categorized as an employer-employee relationship or quid pro quo in every other profession, but contradictory tax cases over the past 40 years have adjudicated otherwise (4). However, despite the IRS interpretation of these cases, each university is left to its own discretion for how it distributes post-doctoral incomes and thus how post-docs can be classified (4).
Based on these reasons, we strongly urge the OHSU administration to examine the possibility of classifying all post-docs equally as employees, to allow full benefits for all and the freedom to influence our current and future financial security by investing in our retirement. At a minimum, we request that the administration normalize benefits for all post-docs, which would likely streamline other administrative, logistical and compliance concerns for OHSU, such as the health benefit compliance issues that arose in June 2013 and resulted in significant health benefit changes for all post-docs. These health benefit changes resulted in the formation of a separate health plan for all post-doctoral researchers and trainees, distinct from the OHSU employee health plan. This rather abrupt change in health plan benefits continues to greatly impact our community.
We believe the three measures outlined above would not only benefit current post-docs, but would also allow OHSU laboratories to competitively recruit future post-docs not based solely on the quality of its science but on the merits of its university’s training environment. Naturally, because our training years have lengthened, postdocs must incorporate a higher degree of personal considerations into their laboratory decisions, such as life quality and future job prospects. Indeed, many fellowship applications are now requiring language that outlines the nature and environment of post-doctoral training at the applicant’s institution. This indicates that funding agencies, such as the NIH, are selecting awardees based in part on criteria that are beyond the applicants’ control, but instead lie in the hands of our research university.
We believe that OHSU will continue to strive for research excellence and agrees with our assertion that post-doctoral training and well being is a necessary ingredient to sustain that excellence. We welcome any and all discussions this letter may initiate. Thank you for your consideration.
Andrew Gunderson, Ph.D.
Cell and Developmental Biology Department, Knight Cancer Institute
Kateri Spinelli, Ph.D.
Neurology Department, Jungers Center for Neurosciences Research
Members of the OHSU Post-doctoral Council
Members of the OHSU Post-doctoral community
1. Cyranoski D., Gilbert N., Ledford H., Nayar A., Yahia M. The Ph.D. factory: The world is producing more PhDs than ever before. Is it time to stop? Nature. v.472, pgs. 276-279.
2. Sauermann and Roach. PLOS ONE. 2012. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036307
3. Alberts B., Kirschner MW., Tilghman S., and Varmus H. Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws. Proc. Nat. Ac. Sciences. 2014.
4. Haak L. Postdocs and the Law, Part 3-Are postdocs employees? Science Careers. 2002.