Postdoctorates cope with instability

Postdoctoral researchers often switch job titles, which also changes their benefits.

Taylor Nachtigal

Brett Colson first came to the University of Minnesota to study genetic heart diseases as a postdoctoral fellow in 2010.

Since then, his grants and awards have switched multiple times and his employment status has changed each time.

And as postdoctoral researchers’ University employment statuses change, so do their benefits — leaving many confused and calling for more consistency across positions.

The University is responding by examining how it can improve the disconnect between the titles and their benefits, a change that many would like to see, said Melissa Anderson, associate dean of graduate education.

“Every time I bounce between research associate and fellow, my insurance and benefits change,” Colson said.

Colson said his job classifications have changed five times since he came to the school. Like other postdocs, he often moves among the three classifications — each with a different set of benefits.

“It’s like you are a new employee every six months,” Colson said. “There is a lot of discontinuity. It’s definitely time to revisit this policy.”

Postdoc problems

After completing a doctorate degree, many move on to postdoctoral research positions that allow them to specialize in an area of research and training before transitioning into a career.

“The whole point [of postdoctoral research] is to give them the best launching into their careers that they possibly can get,” Anderson said.

Nationwide, the role of postdoctoral researchers has changed in recent years.

The position used to be a sort of funnel for researchers to become more experienced in a certain area and then transition into academia in a tenure or tenure-track position, Anderson said. Now, many go onto non-academic fields.

The majority of postdocs at the University are in the biomedical field, said Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Education Henning Schroeder.

“They need jobs and they can’t all go into academia,” he said.

There are three postdoctoral appointments at the University: postdoctoral fellow, postdoctoral associate and research associate.

Postdoctoral associates and research associates are employees of the University, but postdoctoral fellows are not. They receive a stipend through their funding agency.

The number of postdocs at the University has steadily increased in the last 10 years, with over 750 postdoctoral associates and fellows at the University from the most recent count, Anderson said.

With the increase in postdocs, she said the University is trying to understand how the implications of switching between the three job designations.

The differences in job titles doesn’t change what a postdoc does, Colson said. Rather, he said it’s just a difference of where the funding comes from.

Government regulations and grant and contract agreements also affect the benefits postdocs can receive and change how they have to file taxes, depending on the job designation, he said.

In some cases, Colson said, University departments will cover insurance or health plan costs, but other times researchers may have to pay for health insurance on their own.

“It’s not to create problems, but there is inherently that system,” Colson said. “What can we do to fix this and make everything more equal and better? Because these people are doing good things for the University.”

In the near future, Anderson said the University will evaluate how often postdocs move between designations and assess any problems associated with it. 

She said the University’s goal is to maximize the time postdocs can spend on research, rather than worrying about administrative burdens like status changes and tax issues.

The Graduate School, which houses the postdocs, hopes to address these issues through a survey in the spring, she said.

“We are aware of the problem, and we will support positive changes if they’re possible,” Anderson said.