A Void Ship-Every postdoc should have one, but oh so few do. (Image from Wikia)
Being a postdoc is like being stuck in The Void between realities.* We tend to fall into this amorphous, ambiguous state. We’re not students anymore, but we’re not always classified as employees. Even if we are classified as employees, we’re often not eligible for the same benefits (i.e. life insurance, 401K, etc.) as those with real, grown-up jobs at the same institution. We’re neither here nor there.
The kicker is no one really knows where we’re at. That is to say, there is no hard data on postdoc benefits, pay, leave… Hell, no one even knows exactly how many postdocs there are in the U.S. I’ve seen estimates running as high as 95,000; according to the NPA Postdoc Scholar Fact sheet, NSF estimates run the gamut from 43,000 to 89,000. The information we have is based on surveys that are largely targeted toward students completing Ph.D.s in the U.S., which misses a substantial portion of the postdoc force.
The immense variation in the titles and classifications of postdocs makes it quite difficult to get a clear picture of postdoc training in the U.S. Instead we have this muddled, heterogeneous collection of anecdotes that raise a number of issues. Several months ago, a post about postdoc salaries initiated quite a substantial discussion (at least for my blog) and highlights the issue of heterogeneity. Although it seems many medical schools use the NIH NRSA payscale as the benchmark (which means about $38k for a first-year postdoc), there is no requirement (at least by funding agencies) that they do so. Few go above that mark, regardless of cost-of-living, and some go below—I heard one number as low as $24,000 a year. There’s also the issue of holidays, sick leave, and vacation—a topic which popped up on Twitter today.
Recently I became aware of another issue that I had never given a second thought: healthcare coverage. I’m fortunate enough to be employed (now and for my next post) by institutions that offer fairly generous packages (including dental!). However, some institutions that don’t count postdocs as employees apparently also do not provide health insurance! Most postdocs are pushing 30—if they haven’t already past it. Some of us have medical issues or health risks that require routine treatment or screening—a prospect which, I daresay, would be damn near impossible to afford on a postdoc’s salary without health insurance. Many postdocs are looking to start their families—how are they supposed to do that without maternity coverage? Add to this, some states assess hefty tax penalties if you don’t carry health insurance.
Fortunately the National Postdoctoral Association quite literally has a plan to fill the gap left. The NPA partnered up with Garnett-Powers to essentially provide group health insurance rates to postdocs who are not provided this benefit by their institution. You have to be a member of NPA, but dues are only $35/year**. It’s not exactly cheap—monthly premiums are about $180 for the postdoc, $340 for spouse or domestic partner, and $250 per child, more if you live in Massachusetts or New York. But it’s waaaaay cheaper than getting your own coverage through an independent provider.
Props to the NPA and Garnett-Powers on this, but it does make me realize that my situation could be substantially worse. It also makes me think that before we keep lobbying for increase NIH stipend levels, perhaps we should first push for some form of standardization of healthcare benefits. It may not be something that affects us directly—at least not today—but in my mind, it’s an important issue that needs to be addressed. Now, to figure out how…
*If you don’t get this reference, you haven’t watched enough Doctor Who! But come on: The space between universes? No up, no down? No sense of time? Absorbing Void stuff?
Feel free to contribute your own #PostdocAnalogies via comment or tweet :P
**The NPA seems to recognize that “broke-ass” is a redundant modifier for “postdoc”. I need to get on that… after my next paycheck comes in.