Postdoctoral researchers warn NIH that cost-of-living pressures are gutting the workforce

Postdoctoral researchers warn NIH that cost-of-living pressures are gutting the workforce

Academic workers strike at the University of California, Los Angeles, on 21 November 2022.Credit: Jill Connelly/Bloomberg via Getty

Postdoctoral researchers have warned the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) that they feel undervalued and overworked at a time when they might want to start families and build retirement savings.

Around 90% of the comments made to an NIH working group were about pay and benefits, according to data presented at an online meeting of the group earlier this month.

The group was set up in November 2022 to investigate how postdoctoral training could be improved in the United States. It received about 3,300 responses during a 60-day comment period earlier this year.

The data reveal a decline in the number of US postdocs at both the NIH, the country’s main biomedical-research funder, and the National Science Foundation (NSF), the US government’s main science and engineering funder, over the past two years. The number of postdocs supported by NIH awards dropped by 9.5% from 2020 to 2022, and the number of NSF postdocs in science and health fields dropped by 4.1% and 3.8%, respectively, between 2020 and 2021. Some speculated that the 2020 numbers might be an outlier because of COVID-19, but the 2021 data are now consistent with a decline, says working group co-chair Shelley Berger, an epigenetics researcher at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Well-documented anecdotal evidence also indicates that lab leaders in many regions are struggling to fill postdoc vacancies as the number of applications drop.

Nor is the decline confined to the United States. For example, Advance HE, a non-profit higher-education monitoring organization based in York, UK, warned last year that the estimated number of postdoctoral researchers from the European Union working in post-Brexit United Kingdom declined slightly, from 12,495 in the 2019–20 academic year to 12,185 the following year. Over that same period, the total number of postdocs working in the United Kingdom dropped from 50,865 to 50,675.

According to the US National Postdoctoral Association, there are around 70,000 postdocs in the country, with a median yearly salary of US$49,000. Academic postdoc salaries vary wildly, but even the NIH’s $56,484 minimum first-year entry-level postdoc salary pales in comparison to salaries offered by industry. “The median salary for a first-year postdoc in industry is about $90,000 for the biological, biomedical and health sciences,” said Berger.

Childcare concerns

“A very prominent theme [in the comments] was peoples’ desire to start a family,” said Tara Schwetz, acting principal deputy director of the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland, and a co-chair of the working group. This desire often occurs during postdoctoral years — but salary, workload and academic culture are serious obstacles.

The inconsistency in pay and benefits was a notable sticking point. Only 30% of institutions offer the same employment benefits package to all postdocs, Berger told attendees. She also said that many institutions incorrectly interpret NIH policy to mean they cannot hire postdocs as employees, which would entitle them to full benefits. The NIH issued a notice in April to correct that misperception.

It’s not uncommon, Schwetz noted, for institutions to have postdocs in the same lab with vastly different incomes and benefits depending on how they were hired. And this can cause resentment between colleagues.

Postdocs who are awarded the NIH National Research Service Award (NRSA), a common postdoctoral fellowship for training researchers in the life sciences, receive a childcare allowance of $2,500 per year. The benefit is not offered by many other grants, but is still only enough to cover a couple of months, especially in cities.

For those on a postdoctoral salary, the financial burden of childcare can be an important reason for leaving academia for industry, says Frankie Heyward, chair of the National Black Postdoctoral Association in Boston, Massachusetts.

Visa woes

Other concerns raised in the comments included harassment, mental-health concerns, problems with visas and the lack of diversity at institutions.

“International postdoc trends and vulnerabilities appear to be even more dire,” said Berger. “In 2021, 53% of US-based postdocs were international,” she added.

Berger also noted that, according to a 2022 survey conducted by the US National Postdoctoral Association, 73% of international postdocs indicated that their international status has a negative impact on their lives.

For example, international trainees are not currently eligible for the NRSA programme.

“International postdocs have really been frustrated and at their wit’s end in terms of trying to resolve visa issues,” says Heyward.

“They’re having to hire their own lawyers and navigate a lot of these issues on their own,” he adds.

This, coupled with cultural barriers and often a lack of community and support in academia, makes the United States a less appealing option.

Schwetz said that drastic changes in compensation, benefits and job security are a must. “We’ve come to a consensus around the fact that that’s going to mean that we have fewer postdocs in the system overall,” she added, citing a finite pool of resources around funding and compensation.

The working group laid out six principles on which their recommendations, due in December, will be based. First, that postdocs, including international scholars, should receive regular cost-of-living adjustments and employee-level benefits, irrespective of the terms of their employment.

Other principles focused on creating safe, equitable, inclusive and accessible work environments, instituting a finite duration for postdoctoral positions to replace repeated contract renewals, which hampers career progression, and expanding funding mechanisms.

Heyward, who is not on the working group, says that he is cautiously optimistic that postdoctoral financial concerns will be addressed, but he has not seen many details focused specifically on improving equity and inclusivity.

Many postdocs from under-represented minorities feel like their institutions can do a lot more to help them build community, he says. Postdocs can feel isolated without the structured support of a graduate programme.

But given that there are so few postdocs from under-represented groups, the isolation can be even worse for such individuals. “It would be wonderful if institutions would put into effect more initiatives to help us establish affinity groups to build community,” he says.

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