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.

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Back on March 17th a PhD trained management consultant called Clifford Mintz wrote a little comment on the Postdoc Forum at biocrowd.com. 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.”

8 responses so far

  • I feel like NPA doesn't do enough to promote themselves, they should have a representative do a meetup at bigass meetings like AACR, SfN, ASBMB, etc. I think this would help make folks more away of their existence and what they have to offer.

  • brooksphd says:

    The NPA does what it can mate. I'm not being defensive about it and I know the Executive Director would love to have the resources to attend all the "BIG" meetings, but he expense would be too great. You need registration, airfare, hotels, meals etc., plus if you're going to do it right you need vendor/exhibit stuff, which means a booth, and transport for your materials.

    Plus, she's only one person LOL...

    We...I mean, they always issue a call for volunteers to do something NPA related at these events, and if people step up, then they contact the conference organisers and see if something can be arranged. I guess the ED does several of these each year, and the Chair and Board of Directors join in too.

    Because they're based in Washington, D.C., a lot of work gets done in the NE - the ED is on Capitol hill regularly.

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    HA HA HA!!! Clifford Mintz! I wouldn't take seriously much of anything that dude has to say.

  • Cliff Mintz says:

    I find it interesting that BrooksPhD --whose real identity remains unknown to his readers--and who by his own admission is a hardworking PhD--found the time comment ad naseum on a comment that I made while responding to a comment made by a fellow BioCrowder in a discussion that we were engaged in.

    First, let me say that I am a professional medical and science writer and the comments that I left in the thread were made on the fly in between writing assignments that I get paid handsomely to write. Consequently, I did not spell check, proof read or otherwise content check my post @ BioCrowd. If you want to get an idea of my writing skills check out my blog BioJobBlog (www.biojobblog.com) or google my name.

    As an aside, since you are clearly not a professional blogger, you may not know that before you write a vitriolic blog post questioning another person's skills, capabilities or beliefs that you ought to do a little research and try to suss out the context of comments in a thread. While the first amendment guarantees a constitutional right to free speech, it does not shield you from defamation or slander lawsuits.

    Second, let me set the record straight regarding my attitudes about unions. My wife is a union side labor attorney who represents members of the American Federation of State Municipal Employees so I am very familiar (and appreciative) of the benefits that unions offer to their members. Further, I have actively worked for unions the past three presidential elections to get out the vote and have been pro Union all my life. Finally, I recently contributed money to the Wisconsin Public Unions' fight to preserve collective bargaining rights for state employees. With this in mind, I find your assertion that I may be "anti-union" inappropriate and offensive.

    Third, I am still trying to figure out what you were trying to say in your blog post? In your first paragraph, you say you are pro-union but then you conclude with the comment that postdocs don't need a union? Is that typo or is that your point? If that is your point, what was the goal of the rest of the post beside railing against me.

    Finally, you rightfully point out I am an advocate for systemic change to improve career opportunities for life sciences graduate students and postdocs. And, because NPA hasn't (or can't) bring about those changes (even with 10,000 members) how is this supposed to happen?

    Based on comments in your post, you seem to think that change can only occur when large numbers or organizations push for it. While that may be true to overthrow dictatorships or autocracies, changes usually occurs locally through incremental steps. But, until someone has the courage and conviction to stand up and ask for I can must assuredly guarantee that things will remain the same.

    Perhaps next time, you ought to think twice before you kill the messenger because ironically we both believe in the same end result. We just diagree on the path to get there.

  • brooksphd says:

    Hi Cliff, thanks for your comment and your kind words. I started reading your comment, because I couldn't think of anything I'd rather do right now. And then I remembered that you're the professional writer and I'm just a professional scientist, so what could I could have to offer to the debate? Then I remembered I had about a hundred better things to do.

    I'm sure you make a great argument, maybe my Reader can offer me a synopsis in this comments, thread.

    Once again, thanks for your kind words and veiled threat.

    Stay classy,

    BrooksPhD

  • Cliff Mintz says:

    Not a problem Brooks PhD...I am always happy to lend a helping hand to a scientist who is in need of a reality check and clearly is a very busy man. Oh and by the way, it was not a veiled threat....just a warning as I have been sued for lesser comments than you made about me and believe me it is expensive.

    Good luck with you career. And, if you need any career advice feel free to ask. You may get some ideas about what you are going to do with your career when there are no scientist jobs available. But, then again, you can always get a job with the NPA!

  • brooksphd says:

    Hi Cliff,

    Not sure what you're meaning with the "reality check" but it's kinda cute, so I'll ignore it.

    I'm happily ensconced in my scientific career, but I appreciate your offer of help. In fact, if it wasn't for the NPA I would be in a much worse situation and would be one of the thousands of unhappy perma-docs wishing I'd made some difference choices.

    The reason I wrote this post wasn't to pass judgement on you per se, but to correct and offer counter-point to your comments about the NPA. You should get in touch with them and educate yourself on what they're doing before passing judgement.

    Let me know if you need an introduction, I'm more than happy to help facilitate a meeting. Perhaps we can all work together in helping postdocs and junior scientists instead of wasting electrons in pointless barb-swapping.