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The POSTDOCket, May 2020
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Building Community in Times of Crisis: The Role of Postdoctoral Associations During COVID-19

By Anneke Sanders

Group of people speaking outside of building windows

Maintain the community while distancing

Postdoctoral research can be an isolating experience. When labs and sometimes entire departments have only a few postdoctoral scholars (postdocs) in their midst, postdoctoral associations (PDAs) play an important role in creating a place for postdocs within the academic environment. PDAs organize social events, career development events, and create a sense of community at research institutions.

Now that most academic institutions have instated work-from-home policies, postdocs may experience additional anxiety and feelings of isolation. Moreover, they form a diverse population with a unique set of needs within academia. PDAs are critical for maintaining a postdoctoral community while people are unable to meet in person. Therefore, PDAs must advocate now more than ever to ensure that postdocs’ needs are met.

PDA events mostly focus on two aspects of the postdoc experience: career development and social support. This is in addition to advocacy efforts that often take place behind the scenes. For example, many PDAs organize symposia to highlight postdoctoral research and accomplishments, offer career development workshops and networking opportunities with potential future employers. These are in addition to events focused on postdoc-related topics, such as immigration, finance, and health/wellness.

While many of these events have social aspects, PDAs also organize purely social events aimed to enhance the postdoctoral community by introducing postdocs to their peers. Ice cream socials, barbecues, and coffee hours allow postdocs to relax with their peers and make valuable informal connections.

Many PDA-organized events lend themselves very well to an online format, and the sudden changes PDAs are making now may improve methods of communication and increase postdoc participation over the long term.

PDAs are making efforts to maintain the community while distancing

PDAs have had to modify most of their previously scheduled events since work-from-home directives were issued. Regularly scheduled career-related and social meetings are canceled, rescheduled, or adapted. For example, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory PDA (ORPA) is retooling its annual symposium to fit an online format in case social distancing measures are still in place later this year. Other events have been replaced entirely by ones focused specifically on the changed needs of the postdoctoral community.*

The University of Utah PDA (UPDA) has retooled their financial wellness event to not just fit an online format, but to also address new financial issues their postdocs may face since the spread of the pandemic. They also moved their board meetings and an upcoming job panel online. University of Kentucky’s Society of Postdoctoral Scholars (SOPS) and the North Carolina State University PDA (NC State PDA) have run surveys to identify their postdocs’ needs and are working with their administrations to address these needs. The Washington University Postdoctoral Society (WUPS) organizes online sessions to address the changing job landscape and how prospects for postdocs are affected. The Vanderbilt PDA (VPA) has partnered with the Graduate School and the University Counseling Center to organize online meetings to identify and address mental health and well-being.

All of these PDAs have moved social events, including happy hours and coffee meetings, online. Many PDAs have also increased the frequency of these social meetings to encourage postdocs to seek each other out and support each other. Additionally, NC State PDA and ORPA have set up special online events for new postdocs to introduce themselves to the community while face-to-face meetings are not possible. Many PDA-organized events lend themselves very well to an online format, and the sudden changes PDAs are making now may improve methods of communication and increase postdoc participation over the long term.

PDAs must continue their community building and advocacy efforts

Never before has the postdoctoral community been more important for the well-being of postdocs. Now that most postdocs are working from home, they may experience increased feelings of isolation from their peers. For example, many have additional responsibilities at home since school closings require postdoc parents to take care of their children during the day. Furthermore, international postdocs may undergo additional stress related to visa and immigration issues.

PDAs play crucial rules in creating a community of peers where postdocs can share experiences and find support. As John Donne said: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Considering these words, no postdoctoral scholar should be an island either. An active PDA that connects postdocs and advocates on their behalf guides the postdoctoral community through this distressing time and brings postdocs closer together.

Anneke Sanders, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at Vanderbilt University, former senior co-chair of the Vanderbilt PDA, and founder of the Southern Postdoctoral Exchange (S-Pex).

Taking Care of Mind and Body During COVID-19

By Crystal Marrie Austin

person in tree pose becoming tree

Pixabay image

Whether working from home or the lab – or even transitioning between the two - postdoctoral scholars are facing unanticipated challenges. In order to navigate these uncertain times, it will be crucial for postdocs to prioritize their well-being, thereby becoming more resilient in the process. Here are some tips for taking care of mind and body during the pandemic.

Here are some tips for taking care of mind and body during the pandemic:

Create a healthy schedule

During these fluctuating work conditions, postdocs may be challenged by effective time management. It’s easy to slip out of routine—and that is perfectly OK; it’s simply not realistic to maintain the same work schedule as before the pandemic.

Good rules of thumb for creating a healthy schedule are to determine the time of day you are most productive and to schedule 50-minute work blocks that incorporate 10-minute breaks. Use the break to stretch, have a snack, or take a step outdoors. For those of us not good at keeping time or if you are feeling unmotivated, a great tool to use is the Pomodoro Timer app.

Setting healthy work hours goes hand-in-hand with prioritizing research projects and related tasks; postdocs should not expect to necessarily pick up experiments where they were left off prior to the pandemic. Along with their advisors, they should consider projects and tasks that need to be done, rank them, and tackle each one systematically.

While we may be feeling guilty and/or overwhelmed, it is critical that postdocs do not overextend ourselves to make up for lost time. Once you find what works best for you, you should be deliberate in sticking to your schedules to avoid burnout.

It is critical to take care of what is most important in our lives and to stay focused on the present.

Connect with others

As we transition out of our shelter-in-place orders, some postdocs may return to their lab spaces full-time, whereas some might alternate between lab and home, and others may not return at all. If heading into the lab, postdocs should expect that social interactions will be different. Many of us will be required to wear gloves, talk over masks, and practice social distancing. We may also have to move lab equipment or rearrange our desk spaces, and our institutions will likely devise mechanisms to ensure that safe practices are being maintained.

We likely will not be able to socialize at our favorite restaurant, and video conferencing fatigue is becoming increasingly common. Therefore, it may be a good time to try something new, such as GroupMe, in which you can create a group for your lab and as a space to share stories and pictures.

The way in which we interact may change, but we should be mindful of practicing kindness and compassion with ourselves and others. We are all in this together, but we each have our unique situations. Take the time to ask how colleagues are doing, wave, and make eye contact in the halls.

Practice acceptance and self-care

Postdocs may be experiencing fear and anxiety, and to help us cope, it is important to remember that it’s okay to not feel okay. Instead of focusing on the “what ifs,” postdocs should focus on “what can I do right now?”

We should practice gratitude by giving ourselves credit for the things we do and by taking a few moments to reflect on the things we are thankful for.

Because of altered schedules, our sleep patterns may have been disrupted; despite this, postdocs should prioritize getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night. We need to eat healthy meals, drink plenty of water, and exercise for at least 30 min a day. If exercise wasn’t a part of their normal routine before the pandemic, you should start off slowly by taking short walks or trying beginner’s yoga. For example, Sarah Beth has plenty of free yoga videos on her YouTube channel that can keep us grounded in the present.

Lastly, postdocs should ask about health benefits currently being offered through their employee assistance program. Many academic institutions are providing free mental health and personal counseling services to employees and their dependents that do not have to be related to COVID-19. Several other opportunities exist as free or discounted services through online programs, such as Real and others.

As postdocs, we often find ourselves in unique and vulnerable positions. More than ever, it is critical to take care of what is most important in our lives and to stay focused on the present.

Crystal Marrie Austin, PhD, is a Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA postdoctoral fellow at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City, KS.

Science Communication In Action, Part Two: Case Studies in Scicomm

By Shawna Matthews and Amber Ismael

looking at case study documents

In part one of this series on science communication (scicomm), we highlighted different types of scicomm and what each has to offer for scientists looking to get involved. As a follow-up, we talked to several inspiring scientists about how they have molded scicomm to their own interests and expertise. A note of caution: scientists are all different, and all scicomm journeys are unique. Read their stories, learn from their mistakes, and embark on your own scicomm adventure— but define your own benchmarks of success.

Makings of a Malignancy logo

Makings of a Malignancy advertisment

Social Media + Science Education: Ken Dutton-Regester, PhD

During his time in academia, Ken Dutton-Regester, PhD, (pronouns: he/him) was making steady progress towards becoming an independent investigator. At the same time, he felt drawn to scicomm. “I constantly found myself doing scicomm and really enjoying everything that came with it,” he said. Now, Dutton-Regester is a notable Twitter presence (@the_funkydr), host of the @stemventurist YouTube channel, and co-creator of the first-ever cancer-themed escape room called Makings of a Malignancy.

The escape room project served as the launch point for his science educational company Excite Science and he’s now developing other cancer-themed activities, including a virtual reality game. Dutton-Regester said scicomm can make people better scientists in three ways: through strengthening mental resilience, improving writing skills, and building collaborative networks. “In science, big wins like publishing a manuscript don’t come along very often,” he said. By adding scicomm engagements to a CV, scientists not only look more well-rounded for job hunting, but they also get a mental boost.

“It makes you feel like you’re continually making progress, independent of how your research project is going,” he said. Relative to his business venture, he advised establishing trusted mentors early on. “Starting a business is all about feedback. As you talk to more people, the holes in your plans get revealed.”

Young Hands in Science logo

Young Hands in Science logo

Youth Outreach: Young Hands in Science

In 2012, postdocs at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus felt disconnected from the neighboring community of Aurora. The group created Young Hands in Science (YHS), an AAAS-funded youth outreach program that partners scientists with local elementary schools for science demonstrations and hands-on experiments. The current curriculum focuses on ecology, forensics, homeostasis, and neuroscience. Jess Finlay-Schultz, PhD (pronouns: she/her), was part of the founding all-female group of PhDs who envisioned YHS as a way to excite kids about science.

“We wanted to reach them before they got the idea that science wasn’t cool, and before they had a preconceived idea of what a scientist ‘looks’ like,” she said. Current YHS director Nikki Rumian (pronouns: she/her) added, “Working with kids is a whole different skill set. You need to be flexible and roll with the punches.” For those interested in starting their own outreach efforts, Finlay-Schultz said to keep in mind that most curriculum is planned far in advance, so communicate early and often. She also noted legal concerns that scientists might not expect—for example, privacy concerns relative to taking pictures of kids, and whether volunteers need to have background checks.

Project Bridge logo

Project Bridge logo

Political Activism + Advocacy: Project Bridge

In 2016, driven by fears that science and facts were under attack in a hostile political climate, Erin Golden, PhD (pronouns: she/her), founded the Colorado chapter of Project Bridge, a science advocacy group originally started at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 2012. Project Bridge creates and supports opportunities for scientists to interact with legislators, as well as communicating science to the general public. Project Bridge’s current president, Lisbet Finseth (pronouns: she/her), said that scientists have a responsibility to help deliver science-driven legislative policy by communicating science in a non-biased way.

“Talking to your representative or senator can be really scary,” Finseth said. She noted that Project Bridge teaches scientists how to speak both effectively and efficiently since they might only have a few minutes with legislators. “We focus on empowering scientists to talk about their science and be advocates for their own passions.” Finseth mentioned that she is learning to hold on to her own opinions and listen more.

“Scientists are really good at talking AT people, but we can sometimes forget to talk TO people. Experience-based knowledge is just as important as academic knowledge.” For scientists looking to get involved in advocacy, Golden said that exploring ideas is the easy part, but strategizing to accomplish those goals takes more work. “Find people who excite you,” Golden recommended. “We can do our best work together.”

Define your own benchmarks of success

Education Outreach: Atom Lesiak, PhD

Atom Lesiak, PhD (pronouns: they/them), is driven to share the power of science, and specifically the scientific process – the scientific method – as a way of “going from the unknown to the known, and coming back around in the process of understanding the world.” Lesiak develops lesson plans for high school teachers to teach modern genetics to their students. It is challenging because one needs to “speak the language of teachers, and also ensure that [it] is effective at reaching the students.”

One strategy Lesiak continues to rely on in their personal learning, as well as their science communication, is using analogies to scaffold a new science principle to something that is already understood. Lesiak points out that when communicating science, it is important to find a shared common language.

They also create open avenues of communication and remove the stigma of not understanding by exposing their vulnerabilities and lack of knowledge around a subject to make a safer space for a learner to do the same. “The problems lie when we expect everybody should know the same things we do,” said Lesiak. They recommend putting yourself in the position of the learner rather than the expert to observe what helps you feel accepted and safe, and practice those things in your own communication.

Science + Art: Elizabeth Lenz, PhD

As a graduate student, Elizabeth Lenz, PhD (pronouns: she/her), brought awareness to the significant threats that are impacting our oceans by inspiring people to reconnect with nature by getting outside and exploring on their own. Lenz’s strategy was a unique one that used art to translate scientific topics for the public.

She facilitated a yearlong collaboration between scientists and artists and found that “the artists breathe new life into the topics.” One challenge was the perceived divide between the scientists and the artists – the artists assumed they wouldn’t understand the science, and the scientists were equally intimidated by the artists. However, once the conversations started, and the scientists made their work more relatable and used analogies, Lenz found the scientists and artists “empowered each other.”

She discovered her experiences in improv, theater, and sketch comedy helped her be a better science communicator. She applies the same skills to remain in the moment by listening and engaging her audience to “give them information that they will listen to in a way that they are more receptive to hear it. There are so many different mediums. It’s not a one size fits all,” she said. “It’s important for an early-career scientist to explore and see what fits . . . Explore to see how you can become a better science communicator because it’s such an important element of the job."

Shawna Matthews, PhD (pronouns: she/her), recently transitioned from a postdoctoral fellowship into freelance writing, focusing on health, science, and medicine.

Amber Ismael, PhD (pronouns: she/her), manages the Office of Scientific Career Development at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA.

At-Home Networking Strategies

By Stephanie K. Eberle

Woman networking on computer and phone at home

Getty images

With growing anxiety and isolation spreading across the globe, COVID-19 affects all aspects of our lives. The job market is no exception. While networking remains the top way to find and secure your career of choice, it’s typically practiced in person. As we begin rethinking our day-to-day work, the way we find new work deserves another look, too. The plan below outlines actions to take over the next month to keep you market ready while in the safety of your own home.

Identify current connections.

Whether or not you realize it, you already have connections. Your mentors, advisers, roommates, friends, parents, classmates, Zumba instructor -- they all could have connections who may help you find your next position.

Action 1: Start today by reaching out to your strongest allies. Let them know you are on the job market and ask them to introduce you to at least one of their connections in your preferred career of choice.

Updating your brand.

What do your LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms say about you? It’s time to find out. This imperative step determines which recruiters and hiring managers actively seek you out, and it increases the likelihood that they will respond when you contact them. Try to accomplish both of the actions below within the next week.

Action 2: Ask a friend to type your name into Google to see what comes up. (Note: they need to clear their cache first.) Then ask for feedback on your various social media platforms. What details and themes exist about you in cyberspace? Do they reinforce your desired brand?

Action 3: Now, update your brand with the content you want out there. Add keywords, photos/videos, professional experiences and publications to what currently appears about you on social media. Add other professional media outlets, where possible, including those listed above and, perhaps, your own webpage. Be sure to ask friends and career coaches to review these materials once complete.

Consider using the recommendation feature on LinkedIn; many people underuse it out of fear of pushiness. Asking key allies, customers and colleagues to write a brief recommendation for you goes a long way toward boosting your brand and connections. In turn, write one for them as well; it can take you both minimal time for maximum benefit.

Remaining intentional and active now can turn downtime into a strong network when our community convenes once again.

Define new connections.

Many career offices still maintain their regular services online and offer videos of their workshops. Those services include assessments and coaching to help you define the potential companies and connections that best align with your interests, skills and values.

Action 4: Within the next week and a half, research the many potential connections in your desired field. With whom do you most relate and have the closest connection? Of those people, select at least 10 of them whose expertise could inform your potential career options and/or provide future job leads.

Make new connections.

Even in the best of circumstances, meeting new people requires authenticity and clarity. The biggest networking mistakes involve random emails that never acknowledge mutual interests, very long emails that do not get to the point fast enough and generic ramblings with no point at all. For people with more downtime, try crafting something much more concise and meaningful.

Action 5: Over the next two weeks, reach out to the 10 people above, inviting them for a Zoom/phone conversation or coffee/lunch post-COVID. Use the following guidelines for your invitations:

  • In the first sentence or two, explain what you want and why they are the ideal person to help.
  • Compliment them and show a fit with your own experience. Make it clear this is not a waste of their time.
  • Provide a very brief description of your background and future goals.
  • Show flexibility by giving a time frame: “Do you have half an hour to discuss …?” Also provide format options: “I would like to schedule a Zoom call or perhaps send some of my questions via email, at your convenience.”
  • Keep it very brief and use a compelling subject line to maximize the likelihood that the person will read the message.
Maintain connections.

Staying home makes it even easier for you to do the research and outreach necessary to keep in touch with connections, old and new. In front of your TV or between Zoom calls, the following action takes almost no time and can mean a lot to those in your network.

Action 6: Throughout the next month and beyond, spend anywhere from five to 30 minutes on social media. Read, like and comment on the articles your connections post. When you see particularly relevant achievements or posts, email the person directly, telling them why those achievements or posts matter or asking them to clarify points. That starts a conversation beyond mere job-search content and shows you care.

Stay market ready.

Finally, make time for strategy. Lack of time in our everyday lives severely hurts our job search. Who has time to tailor each cover letter and CV they send? Well, now you do! Whether on the job market today or in three years, it is never too early to create documents that intentionally tout your interests and brand.

Action 7: During your time at home, create application documents that speak to your specific skills and interests, showing fit with your career of choice. Myriad videos and articles exist to help with this process and, once complete, career coaches and friends provide excellent opportunities for feedback.

Undoubtedly, our job prospects and very lives feel uncertain right now. Self-isolation does not, however, mean complete detachment from humanity. Remaining intentional and active now can turn downtime into a strong network when our community convenes once again.

This article is reprinted with permission from Inside Higher Ed on March 23, 2020.

Stephanie K. Eberle is executive director and assistant dean of Stanford University’s BioSci Careers community, which serves PhDs, postdocs and MDs in the STEM fields; vice chair of the Board of Directors for the NPA; and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders. They were the resident fellow of a frosh arts and humanities residence hall for 10 years and adjunct faculty at the University of San Francisco. The ideas presented here are their own.

Introducing My IDP & Me, a Career Development Resource from the NPA

By Valerie Miller & Chris Smith

The NPA is a member-driven organization, relying on volunteer efforts of its members to advance the mission of the NPA. One of the volunteer committees, the Resource Development Committee (ResDev), develops tools and resources for the postdoctoral community, including planning and implementing the myPostdoc Monthly webinar series, and creating website content such as career development resources and guides for postdocs. Volunteering with ResDev is a fantastic opportunity for postdocs and postdoc administrators alike to provide essential input into the creation of these invaluable training resources while gaining leadership experience.

Anyone who is interested in getting involved with ResDev can indicate interest via this weblink.

Resources Available for Postdocs

ResDev has developed three new career guides for postdocs: A Postdoc's Guide To The Postdoc Timeline, A Postdoc's Guide To Career Development, and most recently, My IDP & Me. A Postdoc’s Guide To The Postdoc Timeline assists trainees in developing a research, professional, and career development plan for each stage of postdoc training, providing recommendations that start at the very beginning (first 6-8 weeks of the postdoc) through planning for transition (final 3-6 months). The timeline links to helpful resources and suggestions for incorporating the six NPA Core Competencies into an individual training plan.

The Career Development Guide introduces key concepts of the career development process, providing explanations and resources to assist in both career exploration and the job search. The guide discusses self-assessment, exploring various career paths, networking, and informational interviews, preparing job search materials such as CVs, resumes, and cover letters, interviewing, and negotiating. The guide has also compiled a list of helpful resources to get trainees started, including on-campus resources, books, online career guides, and other web-based resources.

Volunteering with ResDev is a fantastic opportunity for postdocs and postdoc administrators alike to provide essential input into the creation of these invaluable training resources while gaining leadership experience.

Introducing: My IDP & Me

While many postdoctoral scholars have heard they should consider creating an individual development plan (IDP), a practical guide to the IDP process is lacking. In fact, many postdocs forget that an IDP is part of a process and is a living, evolving document. You should revisit your IDP relatively frequently and the NPA’s ResDev committee’s new reference document, My IDP & Me, can help.

IDP & Me is a comprehensive guide for postdocs seeking to develop a plan for their training and career development that assists them in reaching their long-term career goals. Particularly, this guide was created to highlight the IDP as a self-directed process. So, regardless of whether your institution promotes and facilitates the creation and use of an IDP, you can use our My IDP & Me guide to walk you through the process independently or dive into it more deeply.

To develop an effective IDP, you will need to take the time to make an initial assessment of current values (personal and professional), skills/techniques (within and outside of the area of doctoral expertise), and goals for the future. The My IDP & Me guide links to a variety of tools and resources to help you throughout the process from initial self-assessment to informational interviews and having (sometimes difficult) career conversations with your advisor. Using My IDP & Me alongside our Postdoc’s Guide to the Postdoc Timeline and other NPA resources can help you create a comprehensive plan for how your postdoc should evolve, making time for training and career development, from day one.

Essentially, you should use an IDP as a living roadmap to achieve your career goals. Taking time to formally reflect, research, and plan will let you target skills and connections you need to develop during your postdoc to help move into your desired career path(s).

Furthermore, the IDP can assist you in mapping out the steps you need to take to be competitive for multiple career paths. Exploring and preparing for multiple career paths will help you see that there are many potential careers available to you. In addition, this process will increase your confidence in your future, that you can be proactive in your career and professional development to set yourself up to be competitive for a variety of post-postdoc careers.

By using our My IDP & Me guide and other NPA resources, you can begin to empower yourself with the knowledge you need to prepare for whatever career lies ahead of you.


Do you find the My IDP & Me guide or other resource development documents useful? Please email with your thoughts.

We are looking to highlight postdocs who have found our resources useful on our website and would love to feature you and how you have interacted with our content!

Valerie Miller, PhD, is the director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Chris Smith, PhD, is the postdoc program manager at North Carolina State University and a member of the NPA Board of Directors. .

Paid in Full: A History of the NRSA Postdoctoral Stipend Levels

By Stephanie M. Davis

The National Institutes of Health released NOT-OD-20-070 containing the new Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) stipends for pre-doctoral and postdoctoral fellows on February 7, 2020. Postdoc stipends would start at $52,704 for Fiscal Year (FY) 2020, a 5.4 percent increase from FY2019. This continued increase in postdoc stipend levels was commended by the NPA leadership as beneficial to the training experience and well-being of postdocs across the country.

A history of entry-level (Year Zero) NIH NRSA stipend levels between FY2002 and FY2020. Image Credit: Katie Zander.

Establishing a Benchmark for Postdoctoral Stipends

The NRSA guidelines have helped determine stipend levels for postdocs on individual training awards; however, these levels are also used as guidelines for postdocs funded by other sources including research project grants (RPGs) (i.e. R-awards) and non-NIH funding. In 1975, NRSA entry-level stipends (year zero) began at $10,000 and have gradually increased over the past four decades with the most notable increase occurring between FY1997 and FY1999.

During these three years, entry-level postdoc stipends increased from $20,292 to $26,250; a 29.4 percent overall increase that coincided with a 22.7 percent increase in overall NIH budget appropriations. While inflation has factored into stipend increases over the years, NRSA stipends have still continuously increased when adjusted for inflation, albeit to a lesser degree than predoctoral stipends when compared to total RPG budget.*

Budget Freezes and Stagnant Growth

Despite the high level of growth between FY1997 and FY1999, the NIH and its stakeholders began to recognize that postdoc stipends still fell below their target levels. In 2001, the NIH released a statement regarding a target entry-level postdoc stipend of $45,000 and their intent to increase stipend levels at a rate of ten to twelve percent per year until that benchmark was reached.

Unfortunately, a stagnant NIH budget between FY2006 and FY2008 corresponded with a three-year freeze in the NRSA stipend levels (Fig. 1). This prolonged freeze elicited a response from the NPA requesting that the NIH end the stagnant growth out of concern for the economic welfare of postdocs. Although the NRSA stipend freeze ended in FY2009, increases between FY2009 and FY2012 were modest at best (one to two percent per year) until a subsequent freeze in FY2013.

As highly-trained professionals who provide invaluable talent and output to research labs that far outweigh their modest salaries, it is important for postdocs to have sufficient financial support as they complete their training.

Postdoctoral Prosperity

While the growth rate for the NRSA stipends between FY 2009 and FY2013 remained minimal, the release of the 2012 Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report by the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) called for NRSA year 0 stipend levels to start at $42,000 and be indexed to the consumer price index (CPI-U) from that point forward.

This report, which incorporated recommendations from NPA leadership, yielded $42,000 entry-level stipends in FY2014. Nonetheless, in their official response, NPA leaders requested that the NIH set entry-level postdoc at $45,000 “ as soon as possible.” Furthermore, the NPA also stressed the importance of ensuring that postdocs paid by training grants were not being underpaid in comparison to recommended levels.

Subsequent years saw a significant jump in entry-level stipends from $43,692 in FY2016 to $47,484 in FY2017, which finally exceeded the $45,000 stipend proposed in 2001. One major factor behind this increase was the 2016 revision to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which required employees with salaries below $47,476 to be compensated with overtime pay if they worked more than 40 hrs/week.

Before the revision, the minimum salary for the FLSA exemption was $23,660/year. However, this increase in the FY2017 NRSA stipends dictated that all postdocs who were paid according to the NRSA levels would be exempt from the FLSA requirement for overtime pay. Something about how, Although the FLSA revisions were blocked by court order, the NIH maintained the increased stipend level. For FY2020, the proposed $52,704 entry-level stipend exceeds the $52,700 levels proposed by the 2018 National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report “The Next Generation of Biomedical and Behavioral Sciences Researchers” Breaking Through.”

NIH NRSA Postdoctoral Stipends based on zero to seven or more years of experience (FY2016-2020). Image Credit: Katie Zander.

Future Trends

The robust increase in the NRSA stipend levels over the past six years is a trend that is greatly welcomed by the NPA leadership. Although academic institutions are not required to strictly adhere to the NRSA stipend levels, many will base their postdoc salaries on the corresponding NRSA requirements. Hopefully, these increases will encourage institutions to increase starting salaries for their postdocs out of gratitude for the positive contributions that postdocs make to scientific and educational productivity. As highly-trained professionals who provide invaluable talent and output to research labs that far outweigh their modest salaries, it is important for postdocs to have sufficient financial support as they complete their training. Hopefully, the increase in NRSA levels will encourage research institutions to follow suit.

For the recent press release regarding the FY2020 increases from the NPA, please read here. Furthermore, for a brief history regarding freezes and increases in the NRSA stipend levels, please click here.

Stephanie M. Davis, PhD, is a 2019-2020 Executive Branch AAAS science and technology policy fellow and an associate editor for The POSTDOCket.

Coronavirus Hackathon—an MIT Postdoc Uses Connections and Activism to Find Solutions

By Maor Farid

Beating the Coronavirus Hackathon advertisement

Beating the Coronavirus Hackathon

As both a social activist and a postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) when the COVID-19 crisis began, Maor Farid, PhD, had more to think about than his next experiment. When universities closed for the year, many students, particularly international students, found themselves unexpectedly homeless. What many would see as a problem, Farid saw as an opportunity to help.

After several Israeli undergrads at MIT contacted him regarding their housing issues at the MIT dorms, he initiated the project "Adopt a Student," which aimed to offer immediate assistance in housing, storage, and food issues for any student in the greater Boston area who faces any difficulty regarding the crisis. The support was given by a network of more than 150 volunteers in the Israeli and Jewish community in the Greater Boston area who are eager to help in any way possible to any student and person in need. “Adopt a student” was covered in both the Israeli and local media.

In addition to focusing on rehousing the student population, Farid wanted to help solve the COVID19 crisis from a technology point of view. He became one of the initiators of "Beating the Coronavirus Hackathon," which was a collaboration between MIT, the elite Unit 8200 of the Isreali army (of which Farid is a former captain), Science-Abroad, and Taglit program. The Hackathon aimed to propose technological solutions for COVID-19. It was great fun and a major success with more than 100 participants and 40 remarkable solutions!

Focus on Solutions

Farid, an Israeli scientist, engineer and artificial intelligence researcher at MIT, views the latest challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic as another reason in a long line of reasons to get connected and be involved with your community. His prior activism provided Farid with a sense of resilience and belief in the scientific community’s ability to find solutions in the face of an overwhelming global problem.

For instance, Farid is the founder and CEO of Learn to Succeed for empowering youths from the Israeli socio-economic periphery and youths at risk, a regional manager of the Israeli center of Science-Abroad at MIT, and an activist in the American Technion Society. He is an alumnus of Unit 8200, and a fellow of the Fulbright Program and the Israel Scholarship Educational Foundation.

Learning to be Better

Finding solutions to problems has been a part of Farid’s life since childhood. Farid, the eldest son of a socio-economically impoverished family of immigrants of Mizrahi Jews to Israel, initially lacked formal education, and had to work from a young age. As a child, he also suffered from ADHD, and without proper treatment had difficulty regulating his emotions, leading to struggles with obeying the law. After one such episode, his father told him “learn, so you won’t become like me.”

Farid took this to heart and became the first member of his family to complete high school, and then the youngest graduate at the Technion—Israel Institute of Technology—at the age of 24. He served as a Captain and an artificial intelligence officer in the elite 8200 Unit of the Israeli army while working on his graduate degree. The same year he graduated, Farid became the youngest lecturer in Ben Gurion university. His research was considered to be of major national interest and received funding from the Israeli Atomic Energy Committee, and multiple awards. In a single generation, Farid had proven to himself and his family the importance of education in making a difference and made some important connections that could help him continue to make a difference for others.

Inspiration for Activism

It is often true that those who are given much feel the strongest urge to give back. During his time earning a graduate degree in academia, Farid’s financial issues almost led him to drop out of school. Hence, he promised himself that if he succeeded he would support youths at risk and students from the social peripheries. He established Learn to Succeed—a nonprofit which consists of hundreds of volunteers and supports thousands of youths every year by giving them practical and mental tools for self fulfilment, as well as success in, and motivation for, formal education. This nonprofit also funds full scholarships for students from challenged backgrounds who in turn serve as mentors for youths at risk.

In 2019, Farid published the book “Learn to Succeed,” in which he described his struggle with ADHD, the violent environment in which he grew up, and the inner change and growth he went through from being a violent teenager to becoming the youngest PhD graduate at the Technion. The book was given to more than two thousand youths-at-risk and became a top seller in Israel shortly after its publication. Farid dedicated the book to his parents and to the memorial of his friend Captain Tal Nachman who was killed in operational activity during his military service in 2014. In 2019 he received the Fulbright and ISEF scholarships and began his research at MIT in the field of artificial intelligence.

While artificial intelligence may seem unrelated to the current COVID-19 pandemic, Farid has learned that we are all connected, and that solutions must come from all of us, to make this the best possible future. From better ways to use Zoom or similar technologies, to ways to promote public health initiatives, to innovation in ventilators, to better models for pandemics, technology has as much to offer in the way of solutions as biology, and scientists such as Farid are making the connections to get these solutions working.

Maor Farid, PhD, is a social activist, a postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an author and a former Captain in the Isreali 8200 Unit. Farid was elected to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list of 2019, and won the Moskowitz Prize for Zionism.

COVID-19 in the POSTDOCket Community: An Update

By Our Postdoc Community

As this global health crisis sweeps the nation and the world, The POSTDOCket would like to share a few additional reactions of our members, collected below. Light editing was done to remove personal information and for clarity or grammar.

In addition, in the previous issue, we profiled postdocs working as part of a UCSF team mapping SARS-CoV-2 protein interactions to identify repurposed drug targets for the virus. The work has since been published in the journal Nature.

I experienced in firsthand the greediness of the PIs and ambiguity of my university that ultimately encouraged the PIs behavior. Postdocs are falling through the cracks because we are not students nor staff. This loophole allows the PIs to label us as "essential" personnel which basically force us to keep going to the laboratories and cover the absence of staff members, like lab techs, that otherwise will be paid double for their time on campus. This crisis really exposed the vulnerability of postdocs and how little my university cares about our community.

The COVID-19 pandemic came right at the moment we were planning crucial experiments and hands-on-training on a new sequencer in our lab. Our university ordered us to pause research activities, wind down experiments, and make contingency plans for maintaining research organisms and cell lines. This has slowed down our bench research productivity. In terms of working from home, one person per lab is going in once or twice each week to take care of samples and check on equipment. As a new member of the lab, I'm spending much time reading background literature, analyzing data, outline future experiments, and planning controls. Around the clock, we stay interactive and connected through the virtual meetings and online journal club. We are trying our best to keep science-ing from home.

Thank you to new and renewing Sustaining Members of the NPA!

Sustaining Members are a vital part of the NPA. Sustaining Members represent a range of professional societies, postdoc associations, postdoc offices, and other organizations that serve the postdoctoral community. Students, postdocs, faculty, and staff at NPA Sustaining Member institutions are eligible to join the NPA, at no cost, as Affiliate Members. Check to see if your institution is an NPA Sustaining Member.

Thank you renewed members for your continued support!
  • Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute
  • Columbia University
  • Drexel University
  • Duke Postdoctoral Services
  • East Carolina University
  • Emory University School of Medicine
  • Florida International University
  • Loyola University Chicago, Health Science Division
  • National Cancer Institute
  • Princeton University
  • Sandia National Laboratories
  • Scripps Research Institute
  • The University of Illinois at Chicago
  • Tufts University
  • Tulane University
  • University of California, Berkeley
Please consider joining the NPA in forwarding the interests of postdocs on a national level!

Associate Editors

Thank you to our associate editors for May!