Washington Update

New FASEB Factsheets Advocate for Postdoc Benefits

By: Jacqueline Robinson-Hamm
Thursday, March 17, 2022
Postdoctoral scholars (“postdocs”) contribute immensely to the research missions at higher education institutions and to research and development goals in the United States. Academic postdocs frequently serve as mentors to graduate and undergraduate students, making them an integral part of the scientific ecosystem, both in the works they produce and in helping to develop the next generation of talent. 

Despite their vital contributions to the research enterprise, not all postdocs have access to basic benefits. Receiving a prestigious fellowship to support the postdoc, often viewed as a sign of faculty readiness and highly desirable for career outcomes, comes with penalties to access benefits. Early-career researchers should not have to choose between accepting a notable fellowship or setting themselves up for long-term wellness and financial security. FASEB has created a set of factsheets to help communicate the value of postdocs and their variable  access to benefits as a resource to help advocate locally or nationally for greater equity in access to benefits for all postdocs. Download them to support your advocacy efforts. 

Recognizing that many individuals have never heard of postdocs, the first factsheet, "What Is a Postdoc?" is a primer on what a postdoc position is and how many postdocs are in the United States. An expanded version of this factsheet also shows that the majority of postdocs in science, engineering, and health fields are temporary visa holders.

The second factsheet, "Academic Postdoc 'Trainees' Lack Access to Benefits," aims to put postdocs in perspective with other sectors of work. While a postdoc is a trainee position, other job sectors also consider junior members trainees. Yet, postdocs can face limited access to basic benefits unlike other members of the workforce in junior positions.

Utilizing data from the National Postdoctoral Association’s Institutional Policy Report, variable access to benefits by pay mechanism is highlighted in "Funding Mechanism Dictates Postdoc Benefits." Typically, postdocs paid institutionally from grant research dollars are considered employees, whereas postdocs paid from individual fellowships through their institutions are usually not considered employees. This difference in pay mechanism and employee status can drastically alter access to benefits for postdocs across the nation. Furthermore, a deeper dive version of this factsheet also includes postdocs with external fellowships who are paid directly through their fellowship and commonly not considered employees. These postdocs face the worst access to benefits nationwide compared to their individual fellowship and institutionally funded postdoc counterparts.

The final factsheet is a case study demonstrating benefit scenarios for four different postdocs. Regardless of pay source, all postdocs effectively perform the same job function, yet the mechanism of pay can dramatically alter access to benefits. Furthermore, disruption to benefits may occur when postdocs transition from being funded from grant research dollars to a fellowship and vice versa. This can have devastating financial impact, create unnecessary stress, and exacerbate symptoms of professional instability due to temporary appointments.