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Addressing Disparities in Postdoctoral Benefits Packages
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Stephanie Davis, PhD


According to the 2014 NPA Institutional Policy Report, there are 37 job titles held by postdoctoral scholars in the United States. This lack of consensus reflects the disparities in benefits that often occur between postdocs at the same institution.  

 

Currently, the NPA has several recommendations to make postdoc benefits packages comparable to those of standard employees at the same institution. These recommendations include health and dental insurance, adherence to the family and medical leave act (FMLA) for non-employee postdocs, institutional childcare, and maternity/paternity leave.

 

Categories of Postdoctoral Employment

The 2013 NPA Institutional Survey identified four categories of postdocs based on their employee status and the source of their funding:

  • institutionally-funded postdoctoral employees (IFPE)
  • institutionally-funded postdoctoral trainees (IFPT)
  • individually funded postdocs (IFP)
  • externally-funded postdocs (EFP)

Percentage of each postdoc category who are eligible for benefits and the percentage of public and private institutions that offer benefits. Source: 2017 NPA Institutional Policy Report.

While IFPEs are considered salaried employees, the latter three categories are considered trainees who are given a stipend to support costs of living. IFPT stipends are covered by an institutional training grant, such as an NIH T32 award; stipends for IFPs are covered by an individual training fellowship (i.e. an NRSA fellowship); EFPs receive direct financial support from an institution, such as a foreign government. The non-employee status of IFPTs, IFPs, and EFPs often precludes them from accessing benefits that are available to IFPEs.

 

Percentage of each postdoc category who are eligible for benefits and the percentage of public and private institutions that offer benefits. Source: 2017 NPA Institutional Policy Report.


Access to Health Insurance

In 2005, the scientific honor society Sigma Xi surveyed 7,000 employee and non-employee postdocs to determine the accessibility of benefits available at United States institutions. Ninety-seven percent of survey participants reported eligibility to individual health insurance with 81 percent of postdocs reporting eligibility for family health insurance packages.


The 2017 NPA Institutional Policy Report determined the percentage of postdocs in the four categories that have access to each benefit, which they visualized in a table. According to this report, 96 percent of IFPEs have access to single-person health insurance. However, only 78 percent of IFPTs, 68 percent of IFPs, and only 52 percent of EFPs in the United States have access to individual health insurance.


This same trend continues for two-person/family health insurance, and all forms of dental and vision insurance. Institutions that participated in the survey revealed that the source of a postdoc’s funding (53 percent) and connection to institutional payroll (37 percent) are the main factors that determine whether these postdocs are eligible for employee health plans.


Availability of Paid Maternity Leave to Postdoctoral Scholars. Source: Parents in the Pipeline. 

Retirement Savings for Postdocs

While the 2017 NPA report shows that IFPEs largely have access to health insurance, only 76 percent of IFPEs having access to tax-deferred retirement plans (i.e. 401(k) and 403(b) plans) and 47 percent having access to employer-matched retirement plans. This percentage is lower IFPTs, IFPs, and EFPs, where access to tax-deferred plans ranges from 24-40 percent and 18-30 percent for employee-matched plans. Tax-deferred retirement plans are often unavailable to IFPEs at institutions where they are classified as temporary employees.


However, the average length of postdoctoral training has significantly increased. An appointment that lasts several years has a large impact on future earning and may appear less like a temporary training position and more like a permanent job. Since non-employee postdocs often receive non-taxable “living stipends,” they are often ineligible for participation in employee retirement accounts due to regulations by the IRS and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Emily Roberts, PhD, author of the blog “Personal Finance for PhDs,” suggests that fellowship recipients utilize taxable investment accounts, which are not limited to “taxable compensations” in the same way as individual retirement accounts (IRAs), 401(k), or 403(b) accounts.


Family Leave for Postdoc Parents

Most postdocs in the United States are ineligible for paid family leave regardless of employee status. Approximately 61-64 percent of IFPEs are eligible for unpaid maternity/paternity leave, which is lower than the 88 percent of United States civilian workers who have access to unpaid family leave in 2017. However, postdocs do fare better than civilian workers in terms of access to paid maternity leave. The 2017 NPA-sponsored report “Parents in the Pipeline” showed that 26-47 percent of all postdocs have access to paid maternity leave compared to 15 percent of all civilian workers.


Institutional childcare is available to ≥41 percent of all postdocs. Childcare costs can vary dramatically by state and urban location. Academic hubs are largely located in urban settings where, even when childcare is available, the cost can consume a disproportionate amount of the NRSA-recommended base stipend for postdocs ($48,432). According to the 2017 NPA-sponsored report Parents in the Pipeline, several postdocs reported feeling stressed due to the financial responsibility of parenthood. In addition, 18 percent of postdocs were unaware of the options for childcare and parental leave offered by their institutions. The authors of this report suggest better communication regarding these benefits might help alleviate stress felt by postdocs who are parents.


On August 21, NPA will host a myPDO webinar that will discuss the disparity in benefits for postdocs. The data from the NPA’s latest publication, Supporting the Needs of Postdocs, provides a snapshot of where PDOs are today as well as information about postdoc policies at their institutions. This webinar will provide highlights from the published data as well report on additional analyses investigating the impact of how measurable factors (such as the number of postdocs at an institution) play a role in the depth of postdoc policies, benefits, and training programs that an institution may offer. We hope to have an engaging Q&A session at the end of the webinar. Should you miss August 21, this webinar will remain accessible for members on the NPA website.

Strategies to Address Disparities

To address the disparities in benefits between different categories of postdocs, NPA member institutions have implemented programs to ensure uniform benefits. For instance, the University of California university system partnered with Garnett-Powers & Associates in 2005 to implement the Postdoctoral Scholar Benefits Plan for its 5000+ postdocs. This plan, which ensures that all postdocs were offered a standardized benefits package, is still in use by the UC System today. The University of Pennsylvania offered a uniform benefit plan to postdocs by placing them in a separate category of personnel that is distinct from students and employees. An institutional tracking system, such as the mandatory registration system utilized by Stanford University, could prevent future disparities.


In addition, efforts by advocacy organizations such as Future of Research and PostDoc Salaries to gather information regarding postdoc compensation are designed to put pressure on institutions to offer competitive benefit packages which are standardized across employment categories.


NPA Recommendations for Postdoc Benefit Packages

Currently, the NPA has several recommendations to make postdoc benefits packages comparable to those of standard employees at the same institution. These recommendations include health and dental insurance, adherence to the family and medical leave act (FMLA) for non-employee postdocs, institutional childcare, and maternity/paternity leave. Furthermore, the NPA also recommends that postdocs have access to retirement accounts with employer-matched contributions. The full list of recommendations may be found under the NPA Recommendations for Postdoctoral Policies and Practice.


Stephanie Davis, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Scholar at University of Kentucky and a member of the NPA Advocacy Committee.