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For more than 10 years, The Scientist has surveyed the postdoc community to learn what they value most from their training experience and which institutions best provide those lessons. For the third year running, the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research has taken the top spot in our 2013 Best Places to Work Postdocs survey, offering its postgraduate fellows more competitive salaries and benefits as well as access to high-quality scientific experience and guidance. The Institute also pays close attention to quality of life, providing its 120 postdocs with subsidized childcare, health care, retirement planning, and an active postdoc association.
This is a noticeable change from how postdocs were treated when we began our surveys in 2003. Back then, postdocs had few benefits and few avenues to discuss their grievances and advocate for better treatment. Indeed, postdocs responding to our first surveys said that what they wanted most was an attentive principal investigator, the security of knowing that their training would push their career forward, and a pay and benefits package that was in line with their specialized experience and expertise. And Whitehead isn’t the only institution that took note of postdocs’ demands and began providing better pay and benefits as well as in-house organizations to deal with postdoc affairs. This year’s second-place winner, the La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology, for example, also ensures that its postdocs’ basic needs are met, providing health-care and retirement plans, as well as responding to requests for new equipment. In addition, the institute challenges postdocs to interact with the local biotechnology community, and offers perks like free yoga classes and subsidized gourmet lunches.
Given the noticeably increased institutional response over the years—and the launch of the National Postdoc Association that acts on the national level as an advocate for postdoctoral researchers—The Scientist’s surveys no longer play as crucial a role for postdocs to communicate what they value. While many issues continue to stress the postdoctoral researcher—perhaps none so much as the dwindling number of tenure-track positions available at research universities—for many at the best institutions, balancing a demanding career with basic financial needs is no longer so challenging. And although The Scientist will continue to cover issues that matter to postdocs in our Careers section, we sign off here with the results of our final postdoc survey. —Edyta Zielinska
Every Wednesday at 4 p.m., scientists at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research step away from their benches and gather for an hour-long chat over coffee and cookies. “That might sound insignificant,” says Jessica Von Stetina, a postdoctoral fellow who studies signals that modulate the cell cycle during development, “but it’s a great way to interact in a more relaxed, sociable way” than is typically encountered in the lab. This collegial atmosphere is emblematic of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, institution, which has now garnered the top spot among US institutions as the best place to do a postdoc for 3 years running.
Given its reputation as a powerhouse of life science research, readers could be forgiven for thinking the Whitehead is a competitive, cutthroat kind of place. On the contrary, however, “everyone is very easy to approach and willing to help,” says Giorgios Karras, a postdoctoral fellow who investigates how the heat shock protein Hsp90 influences genetic variation. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the level of collaboration here.” And world-class outside collaborators are always close at hand, thanks to Whitehead’s location within spitting distance of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Broad Institute, and the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research.
© JUSTIN KNIGHT/WHITEHEAD INSTITUTEWhitehead’s 120 postdocs earn starting salaries of $50,000, receive subsidized childcare, and enjoy the support of an active postdoc association that runs mentorship and training programs to prepare postdocs for their next career move. And each summer, they join students, other fellows, and faculty for a retreat at Waterville Valley Resort, New Hampshire, where postdocs share their work and exchange ideas before heading out to hike or play volleyball. “Postdocs are central to life [here],” says Whitehead director David Page.
It all adds up to a first-rate experience—one coveted by outsiders. “My [researcher] friends are envious,” says Von Stetina. “And people who find jobs in other places, they realize that what we have here is amazing. They say, ‘Enjoy your time at the Whitehead because it’s not the same at other places.’ We know we are lucky here.” —Dan Cossins
COURTESY OF LA JOLLA INSTITUTE FOR ALLERGY & IMMUNOLOGYThe La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology (LIAI) is located amidst San Diego’s densely populated biotechnology community, and it’s just a stone’s throw away from the Pacific Ocean. Ranked second in the United States in this year’s Best Places to Work for Postdocs survey, the institute has 21 labs that provide its roughly 150 postdocs with rich research opportunities as well as a desirable quality of life. “There’s a general, underlying feeling that they’re going to support their young scientists,” says 6th-year postdoc Aaron Tyznik, who studies natural killer T cells.
After joining the institute because of its renowned virology research, Tyznik was pleasantly surprised by the faculty and administration’s willingness to help postdocs explore ideas freely and to conduct their research with dispatch. For instance, when Tyznik noted that the institute’s cell counter was always in use, faculty not only agreed to buy a second one, but also asked Tyznik to recommend which one they should buy and set aside a generous budget for the new equipment.
Outside the lab, LIAI is equally supportive, Tyznik says, offering free yoga classes, serving subsidized gourmet lunches on-site for around $6 or less, supplementing a retirement plan, and providing generous health insurance. “I have a sick spouse, so the health coverage was a deciding factor for me,” Tyznik says, noting that he and his wife pay just $10 for many medical exams and tests, including MRIs. Richard Hanna, a 3rd-year LIAI postdoc who studies immune regulation, agrees that the perks make a difference—though he skips the yoga classes, preferring to get his exercise surfing each morning before heading to lab.
LIAI also helps postdocs prepare for competitive faculty and industry positions by giving them the freedom to teach classes at nearby University of California, San Diego, and providing opportunities to upgrade to an instructor position that enables them to apply for grants as a PI. Last year, Hanna won his own 4-year, $300,000 grant from the American Heart Association, which he can use to build his own lab wherever he gets a position. As Hanna puts it, “I’m pretty well set up.” —Beth Marie Mole
Survey Form: A Web-based survey form was posted from August 31 to November 26, 2012. Results were collected and collated automatically.
Invitations: E-mail invitations were sent to readers of The Scientist and registrants on The Scientist website who identified themselves as nontenured life scientists working in academia, industry or noncommercial research institutions. The survey was also publicized on The Scientist website and through news stories.
Responses: 2,081 usable and qualifying responses were received. Responses were rejected if the respondent did not identify him- or herself as a nontenured scientist, if the respondent's institution was not identified or identifiable, or if the response was a duplicate, based on e-mail address or other criteria.
Analysis: Respondents were asked to assess their working environment according to 38 criteria in 9 different areas by agreeing or disagreeing with a series of positive statements. Answers were scored on a 1–5 scale, with 5 = "Strongly agree," 1 = "Strongly disagree," and 3 = "Neither agree nor disagree." Respondents were also asked to assess the importance to them of each factor on a 0 to 5 scale, with 0 indicating that a factor was "Not relevant" to them.
Identification of Institutions: As much as possible, institutions were identified and names were standardized. Responses from institutions with branches or campuses in multiple locations were lumped together.
Thresholds: 53 US institutions and 8 non-US institutions that received 5 or more responses were included in the rankings.
Scoring: Scores for each statement were averaged by institution and country.
Ranking: In order to calculate the overall rankings of institutions, we first weighted each factor based on the average importance score. Because several factors that are ranked as important in the US are ranked as less important outside the US and vice versa, we used different factor weightings in our ranking of US and non-US institutions. The overall rankings were based on the average score per institution on all factors, weighted as described.
In addition, we ranked institutions based on unweighted average scores for the 9 major categories covered by the statements included in the survey. These categories are:
1. Quality of Training and Mentoring
2. Career Development Opportunities and Networking
3. Quality of Communication
4. Value of the Postdoc Experience
5. Quality of Facilities and Infrastructure
7. Equitable Treatment
8. Pay and Benefits
9. Family and Personal Life
Results: Results are published in The Scientist, April 2013 issue, and are available on The Scientist website at www.the-scientist.com.
The survey was developed and responses were analyzed by The Scientist staff.