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Question about the Void: Guidelines for postdocs
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Monday, October 18, 2010

Blown away!
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Blogging with substance-which substance, we won't say
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biochem belle

Research-and careers therein-rarely follows a linear path. Instead, it is often a long and winding road. These are stories about science and my personal experiences on this road.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Wednesday, August 4, 2010


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.

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Blog Comments

Genomic Repairman
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If postdocs would get paid a decent pittance and be better taken care of, then it would definitely give my graduate student brethren and I some hope for the future.

Brian Krueger, PhD
Duke University
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We went from real people insurance to being put on the graduate student plan here at Florida. Looks like I get to go to student health again...

PS, I fixed your link issues. Make sure all of your " marks are from the same character set, you had a mixture :(

biochem belle
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I was on postdoc insurance plan at my grad institute for a few months (due to the crazy way the company charged the department for student insurance). The plan was a modest upgrade from student insurance. I was shocked to get such a good health plan, and even more surprised that I could add my husband to my plan for less than the plan for just him would have cost through his employer. I would be really interested to know how benefits correlate with institution.

Brian-Thanks! I noticed the link issues as soon as I posted. I think we were probably fixing them at the same time :) I blame MS Word.

Disgruntled Julie
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The healthcare situation is really strange at my institution. Post-docs have better insurance and pay smaller premiums, but not at our hospital. Graduate students get pretty crappy coverage anywhere else, but fairly decent (70% covered) at our hospital. So, we pay more per visit, but just walk right next door to the hospital. Post-docs pay far less, but they have to take a half day to shuttle themselves around DC and Virginia. I prefer the grad student plan; it's worth it for me to pay more to have to take less time off the lab, especially with weekly physical therapy appointments.

Geeka
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I was lucky that the med school had their own regional insurance. As a student, I had the best freaking coverage: practically no co-pays. Something like $150 for my spouse.

As a post doc, I had same coverage, but paid a bit more.

I was actually quite happy with mine.

I also live in a low cost of living area, so getting paid NIH scale wasn't bad. However, after paying taxes and student loans, I had less take home pay as a Post-doc than a grad student.
Alyssa

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We are trying to come up with an insurance plan for the post-docs at our university (in Canada). Right now, post-docs can opt in to the grad student plan, but at an increased rate. It would be nice if the Canadian Association of Post-Docs could get a national plan going - the more people involved typically means cheaper rates.
bugsybug

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HHMI has good plans (insurance, 401K's and the like) for postdocs. I was mildly surprised to be treated like a normal employee when it comes to benefits. But no fixed vacation days or sick leaves. All that has to be decided with your PI. So if you have a great PI, it is a win-win situation for you!

Dr. O
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I know some of some universities that pay your health care premiums up until you get a training grant - then all of your employee-based benefits fly out the window and you're expected to fend for yourself. Makes for a tricky situation when, all of a sudden, you don't even have permission to check out library books, much less pay a visit to the on-campus health center. I'm definitely thankful for the group plan my U contributes to for all its postdocs, even if it is a bit costly to opt for a decent plan that covers chronic medical issues (asthma anyone?).

biochem belle
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The problem with many student health plans is that they're really designed for healthy people who occasionally get minor illnesses that can be attended to by student health. While in grad school, I had some issues crop up that resulted in 2 trips to the emergency department within a month, which ended up costing us close to $1000 out of pocket with insurance at the university's medical center. And as Dr. O points out, coverage for chronic health problems is often not great; I'm glad that you have an alternative, Dr. O, even if it does cost a littl emore.

It's interesting-the comments here truly highlight the heterogeneity of benefits among postdocs. It's particularly eye-opening for Alyssa to stop by. I've found many Europeans and Aussies doing postdocs in the U.S. completely bashing the system, as though it's the worst in the world. Admittedly there are problems with it (otherwise this post wouldn't be here and getting comments), but few of us realize how similar the situation is for our friends to the north. I seem to recall seeing something about the stipends for Canadian postdocs being much lower and/or subject to somewhat exorbitant taxation-perhaps, Alyssa, you might comment on this.

Kelly Oakes
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Wow, I had no idea health insurance in the US was so expensive.... I'm so used to having the NHS over here. I even get free prescriptions because I'm on such a low income as a student.

biochem belle
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The kicker, Kelly, is we're basically talking subsidized rates here. About $170 comes out of my check each month to pay for health and dental for my husband and I; this is quite generous. Were I to leave my job and have a gap in employment, I could opt for COBRA for up to 3 months (I think); under COBRA, you basically pay a similar premium (actually up 102%) to what the company would, which would come to over $800/month for us. If we health insurance outright, it could easily run over a $1000/month-if we're in good health. Of course, considering that a single not-so-exotic prescription can run well over $100/month, the NPA plan premiums don't sound so bad.

Genomic Repairman
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Our uni gives graduate students and postdocs the same medical insurance it gives to its employees for free! You have to pay extra for vision and dental as well as dependents but this kicks ass. So my dental insurance costs $30 a month and my medical costs me a whopping $0.
Bori

Guest Comment
Um this health insurance issue touches a sore sport here... Here in Germany, I pay mine myself (a poor excuse for an insurance, because at the time it seemed like I have to choose from either of the extremes). I can (almost) live with it, what really bugs me is the lack of social status... The "not really employed" status, with lack of retirement, social (i.e. unemployment) benefits. (maybe have a look Link pops )
Bori

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Sorry about that! here's the link: http://postdoc-exploring.blogspot.com/2010/07/postdocs-unite.html
(will get the hang of it eventually)
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27 and a PhD
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Alyssa said: We are trying to come up with an insurance plan for the post-docs at our university (in Canada). Right now, post-docs can opt in to the grad student plan, but at an increased rate. It would be nice if the Canadian Association of Post-Docs could get a national plan going - the more people involved typically means cheaper rates.

The same happens where I work (I'm in Canada). I didn't opt in for the grad plan because a) nobody told me I was elegible and what the elegibility and sign up periods were, and rather than paying a small part of the premium every month, I had to pay over 1000 to start up. That's a big no-no, because if 1/3 of my pay still has to go for loans/debt, and I've just relocated, how the hell am I suppossed to cover every single expense without getting into red numbers. I think it prop. would have been similar had I applied for a postdoc in the US. So, now I roll sans extended health coverage, only carrying my provincial healthcare. What is not covered by prov. HC is not treated. And this is sad. I think CAPS should try to find a way to get something similar to what NPA did. Like you said, the more people there are, the cheaper it will be for all. The situation for retirement and life insurance is better in Canada, at least for native canadians. I, as an international cannot apply for a retirement acc or life insurance, but if you are Canadian you can (which I think is WAY better than in the States). It's pretty shitty to be in this void. You are screwed everywhere you look.

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