There was a discussion about postdocs and if and how they would benefit from Obamas plans to increase the salary threshold below which overtime must be payed to a number considerably higher than the NIH average postdoc salary… or… fellowship. I won’t get into details why, but there were different types of postdoctoral positions thrown around for different reasons. I think I made things a bit chaotic because some assumptions about what would be a postdoc position really annoyed me.

So here are some of my opinions about what a postdoc is and should be:

Let me start with the definition of ‘postdoc’ as I found it on nationalpostdoc.org:

A postdoctoral scholar (“postdoc”) is an individual holding a doctoral degree who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing. [source] (emphasis added)

I want to put it into the words people use to justify low salaries and benefits for postdocs: postdocs are leaving soon, they get additional value out of mentoring, and they get to do what they think is the best for their future, assisted by their mentors.

In the discussion about over time there was the notion that PIs would try not to count ‘non-essential activities’ – basically anything not data acquisition. It was even considered a ‘reasonable’ argument to artificially reduce the working hours that would count. PIs who do not consider reading, seminars, and so on, part of the ‘time on the job’, are scamming their postdocs. Because obviously they won’t pay the postdoc more, or increase their benefits, despite cutting the activities that make a postdoc a postdoc. Postdocs already payed for the right to do all these things by accepting relatively low pay and benefits. And I’m not making this up, this is the argument I get from PIs and their superiors.

I know some opponents of the idea of decreasing the number of postdocs say they would really miss the postdoc’s highly qualified, engaged, and novel input into their labs. Well I sure hope there is also an awareness that in order to have such highly qualified postdocs, postdocs need to be able to read and take part in seminars as part of their job. Also, if they make up the mentoring burden on the PI by giving excellent input into the research, I feel that the argument for lowered salaries and benefits becomes even weaker.

On top of that, a postdoc used to be a temporary thing of maybe 2-4 years. But today I hear numbers around 6-8 years as an average for biology postdocs. This is a significant amount of time and if one starts a postdoc with the PI saying ‘you will be here at least 5 years’, alarms should be ringing.

So here in bullet points what I think about postdoctoral positions:
– if there is no goal of leaving the lab in less than 4 years, it’s not a postdoc position
– if you aren’t supported in learning and interacting with things happening outside the lab, this is not a postdoc position
– if you aren’t allowed to study what you agreed upon with your mentor(!) but are only instructed to work on specific projects, this is not a postdoc position
– if you told the PI you want to become a PI, too, and the PI doesn’t share their PI specific experience, this is not a postdoc position
… and if it’s not a postdoc position, but you are called a postdoc and payed as a postdoc, you are being scammed. You actually really should be given a proper job, or leave for a real postdoc position.

I am for fewer postdocs in more but smaller labs, and a higher number of appropriately payed research staff with PhDs in long-term contracts (>3 years to permanent). Especially for those who otherwise would end up as ‘permadocs’ doing high-end, frontiers expanding research with too little security for their personal lives. I also advocate against calling postdocs ‘trainees’, because it implies one wasn’t a scientist yet. That’s false, postdocs already have a PhD. And if you can’t trust that degree, maybe the PhD programs are shitty and fewer students should actually be awarded PhDs. But I digress.

There was this nobel laureate lately, who mumbled something about young researchers not having ‘rebel instincts’ anymore, but they would only be concerned about their careers. Well, being concerned about the career is pretty much the description of the *only* position that young researchers can fill in academia, these days. Maybe they should use their young rebel instincts and demand what they were promised. Just saying.

My take on Obama’s over time raises: I am all for it. If it actually would include postdocs not being exempt from over time pay anymore, this would be great. But I honestly feel there is a significant lobby of funding agencies and scientists in positions of power within academia, who will try to keep postdocs as cheap as possible. The best case scenario would probably be to raise postdoc salaries just above the threshold for over time exemption. In this case, clocking, and the bureaucracy that comes with it, won’t be necessary, and this is a great plus for maintaining the time-allocation freedom of researchers. But it’s still way above the current NIH average for postdoc salaries (by whooping 25% – ca).

It would also force funding agencies to fund fewer postdocs. The question is: will this make it even harder for young PIs to get their labs started, or will it force oversized labs to shrink?