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In the ongoing effort to improve policies, communication and outreach for the University's postdoctoral community, sometimes the little things can mean a lot.

"Right now, there's no P for postdoc" on the A through Z menu on the University Web site, said Susan Rottenberg, postdoctoral program and data manager for the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. But there soon will be, she said, and "that's a big deal for communicating."

The University is currently home to 211 postdoctoral fellows and research associates in 41 departments, according to data from the Human Resources Department. Having already received doctorates, postdocs are neither students nor faculty — they have come to Brown for extra research and training before moving on to careers in academia or other industries.

This in-between space is often poorly defined at universities, and compensation and benefit policies for postdocs differ from institution to institution, said Cathee Johnson Phillips, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association.

At Brown, postdoc advisory boards and administrative committees have collaborated for several years to clarify existing policies regarding benefits and compensation and create standards where none existed. The Postdoctoral Advisory Panel continues to work with several University offices to strengthen the postdoc community and address concerns.

Clarifying benefits

Postdocs are divided between fellows, who receive external research grants or fellowships and make up 75 percent of the postdocs at Brown, and research associates, who work as University employees.

As Brown employees, postdoctoral research associates receive health care and retirement benefits through the University. Since 2004, all postdoctoral fellows have been able to buy University health insurance with the portion of their grant stipends designated for training-related expenses — after they have paid income taxes.

"That's probably the biggest problem," said Melissa Maginnis, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry and member of the Postdoctoral Advisory Panel, where she serves on the benefits subcommittee. When Maginnis and her husband were both postdoctoral fellows last year, they each paid taxes on their health insurance costs. Now that her husband is a research associate, Maginnis receives pre-tax University health care benefits through him and can use more of her stipend to fund travel and lab equipment.

Despite the prestige of receiving a research grant or fellowship, the inequity in benefits gives research associates at Brown little incentive to apply for external funding, said Sharon Furtak, a postdoctoral fellow in the psychology department who also serves on the advisory panel's benefits subcommittee. Research associates who are awarded an external grant become postdoctoral fellows ­— and thus lose health benefits — when the funding begins.

"Instead of having incentives to bring in your own money, there are actually a lot of negatives, and I think the University realizes that," she said. "You're losing your life benefits, you're losing retirement benefits, you're losing the ability to have your health care pre-tax."

Some universities treat postdoctoral fellows as consultants, allowing them to receive health care pre-tax, but modifying the policy at Brown is "kind of that gray area no one wants to talk about," Furtak said.

The University cannot change how fellows' benefits are taxed, according to Associate Dean for Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies Nancy Thompson, due to the federal requirement that postdoctoral fellows not be University employees. To compensate, the Division of Biology and Medicine asks professors to provide bonus funds for research associates who receive external funding, she said. Half of Brown's postdocs work in BioMed departments, according to Human Resources.

Brock Christensen, a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Community Health and the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and a member of the advisory panel, said that fellows are motivated to seek bigger grants to cover their expenses, but associates have less reason to do so.

"Why would I do that, if it would mean that my status would change?" he said. "All I know is, I'm thankful to be a research associate."

Ongoing adjustments

The Postdoctoral Advisory Panel and the administrators that work with postdocs have also made efforts to improve salary equity and create policies for maternal leave and leave-taking.

The University imposed a salary freeze on all employees last year, but postdoctoral fellows were still slated to receive a stipend increase, as mandated by federal law. To maintain salary equity between fellows and research associates, Thompson said her office requested that the University find a way not to freeze research associate salaries.

Top administrators "identified the funds that would allow all the postdocs at the University to get increases" this fiscal year, Thompson said.

While this issue mostly affected postdocs in BioMed, according to Senior Associate Dean of the Faculty Carolyn Dean, "the need to ensure equity is one of the few conditions under which a salary may be raised" in the current freeze.

Another key issue on the postdoc radar has been the lack of a maternity leave policy. Until now, maternity leave has been determined on an individual basis between postdocs and their mentors, with "nothing written or understood ahead of time," Furtak said.

"I don't think there's any disagreement that we need to have one," said Associate Provost Nancy Dunbar, who recently convened a panel of administrators to draft a policy.

The new maternity leave policy, which includes language on medical leave and vacation time, is "really welcome," Thompson said, and will be posted online soon. She added that the need for a maternity leave policy points to the growing number of female postdocs — 43 percent of postdocs at Brown are female.

Communication and community

Brown has had postdoctoral research associates and fellows for years, but until 2004, those titles had little consistency or meaning, said Dunbar, who convened an ad hoc Committee on Postdoctoral Researchers in 2004. "There was tremendous confusion on a lot of fronts," she said, adding that the committee worked with postdocs to provide "greater clarity on their appointments, on their benefits, on support for them, on to whom they should go with various questions."

Many of the administration's efforts to improve the postdoctoral experience have centered on making information more widely accessible. University Web sites now provide information specifically for postdocs through the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, the Human Resources Department and the Resources for Graduate and Postgraduate Parents Web site. Adding a postdoc category on the A through Z list will create a "common entry point" where postdocs can access information, Dunbar said.
On top of that, postdocs have stepped up their efforts to create a community across departments through social events and communication.

"We didn't even have a listserv," Christensen said, until one was created at the end of last semester. "You would think that something like having a listserv is trivial and can't really make a huge difference, but in fact, disseminating the right information to the right people" has helped postdocs meet one another and gain a bigger presence on campus, he said.
The Postdoctoral Advisory Panel has also helped postdocs "have a more active voice on campus," Furtak said, adding that administrators have been responsive to their requests and concerns.

Postdocs have more opportunities to meet each other and network at professional develo
pment events, as well as in non-academic get-togethers, Maginnis said.

Still, it can be hard for postdocs to make connections outside of their labs or departments, especially because they don't take or TA courses. "You don't always feel like you're part of the Brown community when you're on a satellite campus," Maginnis said.

National perspective

While statistics on postdocs are hard to find, "it appears that the number is increasing" nationally, said Phillips of the National Postdoctoral Association. Her organization lobbies on behalf of postdocs for funding increases and improved benefits and policies.

Though the postdoc experience was less than ideal when Dunbar first convened the committee on postdocs in 2004, the issues they have addressed are not specific to Brown, she said.

"I think the challenges that we have with postdocs are not any different than any other universities," Dunbar said.

Postdoctoral appointments are becoming increasingly common and necessary for graduate students hoping to advance to academic or professional careers in many of the sciences, Phillips said. While these extra years of research allow postdocs to grow as independent researchers and publish independently before applying to long-term positions, Phillips said "only 20 to 30 percent of postdocs will acquire a tenure-track position." She added that the longer someone remains a postdoc, the more difficulty they have reaching a faculty position.

But the current economic climate suggests that "the group of postdocs here at Brown and nationally probably will continue to grow," Maginnis said.

Though postdocs are a "small community here," the fact that 75 percent of them secure external funding for their research is "good for the University," Furtak said.

Postdocs "are increasingly important to the University and the research mission," Dunbar said, a reference to the ongoing goals of President Ruth Simmons' Plan for Academic Enrichment to expand Brown's stature as a research university.
Improving the postdoctoral experience at Brown and responding to their concerns "academically, professional and socially" is in the University's "best interest," Thompson said.


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