Archive for: March, 2011

Postdocs, unionization and ill thought commentary

Mar 30 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Disclaimer: I am a former member of the Board of Directors of the National Postdoc Association (NPA). I am still a regular dues paying member of the NPA. This is written in a private capacity and is not sanctioned or otherwise by the NPA, its Leadership or Advisory Council. I am also pro-union on many issues, and find the current GOP efforts to undermine collective bargaining rights across the country un-democratic, un-American and utterly abhorrent. However like much else in life there is a time and place for everything; postdocs do not need a union.


Back on March 17th a PhD trained management consultant called Clifford Mintz wrote a little comment on the Postdoc Forum at Without access to their page views I can’t tell how much heat or light it generated, but given there is only one comment I’m guessing it didn’t really register much in the way of interest. It did however peak my curiosity because in it he makes a series of statements that appear to be so damned ill-considered..
He opens with a non sequitur, saying he’s been talking about a postdoc union for years, but can’t see what the inducement would be for any postdoc to join. That seems odd, because he can’t have been talking very hard if he can’t come up with a few inducements. And if he can’t think why postdocs should join, why is he talking about it? On reflection this might just be a poorly constructed sentence (odd for a self-styled 'science writer) and perhaps we should let it slide, perhaps he’s trying to say he’s anti-union?
He then goes on to lambast the NPA, but concludes by supporting the mission of the NPA. It’s an odd and pointless piece and strikes me as something written in a moment of pique. Given its proximity to the recent NPA Annual meeting, held at the NIH in Bethesda, my guess is that there is a connection between the two.
Dr. Mintz says,

“I learned the other day that there is a National Postdocs Association and was aghast to discover that all it is an organization that collect dues from it (sic) members and provides little else. Talking about robbing the poor!”


Robbing the poor
Yes. Robbing the poor. It costs just $35 a year to join the NPA, and I don’t need my PhD to help me do the math and find out that that’s less than 10c per day. Given the average salary of a postdoc in the US is $40,000 p.a. (about $3300 per month) I hardly think a meager $35 is going to drive anyone to penury.

Of course, there’s a disparity in postdoc remuneration, and not all positions provide for healthcare, daycare, retirement and so forth. The salary gap can be more pronounced in expensive areas of the country. $40k goes much less further for a postdoc at UCSF than it does in the MidSouth. However, the point remains; $35 per year to join a nationally and federally recognized advocacy group is surely not much to ask.


National and Federal Recognition
The NPA represents postdocs on multiple committees that otherwise they would have no access to. For example, the National Academies Committees, the Committee on Research Universities (CRU), the Committee of Women in Science and Engineering and Medicine. They also represent postdocs to the NSF. Importantly, the CRU and the NSF are working on new data surveys and at the CRU meeting in November in Washington, D.C., the NPA made recommendations on best practices that should be implemented.

The National Research Council is working with COSEPUP on new report on the state of postdocs that the NPA had input into, and finally the NPA held their own National Summit on Gender and the Postdoctorate, last year in Philadelphia, PA.

All of this hard work, as well as the daily efforts of postdocs around the country in furthering the US scientific and research enterprise was recognized by The House of Representatives by the passing of HR 1545 recognizing National Postdoc Appreciation Week.


Back to finances – who’s robbing the poor?
It’s also important to note that the NPA is a 501(c)3 non-profit and all funds are designated solely for expenses related to the daily operation of the charity. The Executive Director has only a couple of staff members to help her, and she is not heavily compensated for her work. Not nearly as much as, say, the leader of the United Auto Workers (UAW), who gets $173,000 p.a. to look after the postdocs in the U-California system.

The UC postdocs unionized under the UAW fairly recently (after a first attempt in 2006 failed to get enough support). Interestingly enough, UAW has a lot of mouths to feed. Detroit alone has nearly a million current and former UAW members. I’m sure the $2,000,000 a year they’ll rake from the state of California might help, and I’m sure the 5000 postdocs in the UC system feel better knowing where they stand on the ladder right now.

These new union workers now have mandated dues of 1.15% of their gross pay. So, if you’re making the average $40k p.a., your dues work out at $460, or $38.33 per month. Every month, under this system you pay more than it would cost to join the NPA. But for what? What does PRO-UAW offer that is thirteen times better than the NPA?

Well, I guess you have collective bargaining rights, and somewhere to air your grievances. Honestly, this is one of the most vacuous arguments I’ve heard in favor of unionization. In many cases postdocs do have a venue to air their grievances, but choose not to do so because they are scared of rocking the boat; this is worse for foreign scientists on visas. I cannot imagine under any circumstances that an over-whelmed postdoc is now going to run to his or her union arbiter to lodge a formal complaint. How can that possibly be less intimidating than talking to the Dean or Provost about your situation? This does nothing to engender the change that is needed within the system.

What about the pay rises for postdocs though? That is another post in and of itself, and one I’m happy to write. All I’ll say now is caveat emptor – that “extra” money has to come from somewhere and the extra couple of hundred a month in your paycheck will have wide ranging ramifications for you and your lab. A PI often simply can’t shift resources around to cover salary raises, and don’t forget indirect costs (usually about 40%).


But what about forcing change?
Mintz concludes his ‘post’ by saying,

“For what its would (sic), graduates students and postdocs should band together to force curriculum changes at their respective institutions that offer career development seminars, paid internships and new programs that focus on non-academic training tracks!”

Again, more ill considered waffle – forcing change? How much noise can a disparate and disorganized group of junior-rank scientists make, such that the upper levels of their administration will listen? It might work for a larger research institution with thousands of postdocs, but at my University, a fairly typical Academic Medical College, there are only about 120 postdocs and RAs.

We had no voice, until a far-sighted administrator learned of the NPA and saw that it provided a national voice for the tens of thousands of postdocs in the country, and thus gave us a larger platform from which to lobby. Furthermore it provides tools and toolkits, advice and site-visits to help institutions set up postdoctoral offices (PDOs) and postdoc associations (PDAs). Once the administration sees their peers are doing something about salaries and healthcare and other essentials of life, they have a motivation to follow suit.

This is why I support the NPA.

The journey is far from over, but as one of my colleagues on the Board of Directors once said, “I think the ultimate goal of the NPA should be to ensure there is no need for an organization like the NPA need exist.”

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Absentee BlogLord

Mar 23 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

(cross posted)

Damn it's been a while.

This is a nothing post, just a place holder to let my Reader know I haven't fallen down a hole somewhere.

I split up with my fiance, which sucks, but is probably a good thing in the long run. We had a lot of self-fulfilling, overindulgent bad habits that need to be addressed and we were getting nowhere trying to do it together. I met again last night to tell her I need to not see her for a while, for despite being separated we were still hanging out most weekends. It was a thoroughly depressing talk and I got the feeling that she doesn't really get it. We'll see. I have to have my space if I'm going to fix things. Then maybe there'll time to fix us, but I can't and won't make promises.

Our big CTSA grant isn't going to get funded and we're out of submissions so on or before June 1st my institute will cease to exist. This has obviously been massively stressful, because no only is it my job on the line, but those of "my staff". Four young(ish) men who rely on me to keep the money coming in. Two had babies (or rather, their wives did) recently too, so there's an added pressure bonus.

I've been offered a position as Director of Faculty Development within our Office of Academic Affairs. This would pave the way to a possible Deanship in a few years, or even a Vice-Chancellorship. But... as much as I've enjoyed doing some of the work they've given me to test/train me, it's when I sit down to work with our faculty collaborators on their clincial trials that I really feel the love for my job.

I am a scientist at heart and I love the 'doing' of science, albeit vicariously. However, it's scary thinking about turning down a promotion and payrise to stay where I am, on soft money in an Institute that soon ceases to exist. My Unit will be kept around - we actually generate a portion of our running costs and it will get better as we pick up more projects. But... we're also getting a new Vice Chancellor for Research soon and will s/he want to keep me/us around? Will she see the value in providing core biomedical and clincial informatics support? I hope so - my University is looking to recruit up to 70 new MD/MD-PhD clincial scientists over the next five years and my Unit provides an essential service (secure, centralised, professional and cost effective data management support). But, who knows what the new VC will judge her priorities to be?

So... a lot on my mind right now. It's hard to write. I'm reading your blogs, but not commenting right now either. I'll be back soon, hopefully with happier and better news. Or at least a story involving something humorous. This place has been a bit morose recently....

5 responses so far