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FEATUREBest Places to Work 2006: Postdocs Jason Varney | varneyphoto.com BY TED AGRES Whether they are in North America, Europe, or the Middle East, this year's top-ranking research institutions in The Scientist's Best Places to Work survey offer postdocs such important features as collaborative, intellectually challenging environments, quality research facilities, and flexibility in designing and conducting research projects.
March 1, 2006|
However, these institutions vary widely in addressing other needs and desires of their postdocs. Some facilities offer a range of programs in accordance with National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) guidelines.1 Others offer little, if any, support beyond having a well-funded facility and world-class scientists (which apparently can compensate for otherwise benign neglect).
Postdocs worldwide have common concerns, judging by the NPA guidelines, a set of white-paper recommendations that The Scientist published,2 and comments submitted in this year's survey. Postdocs want knowledgeable principal investigators and mentors who have genuine interest in their research and personal development. They desire clarity in their research program with clearly defined goals and feedback measurements. They seek training in grant writing and other career development skills. They want to be compensated adequately and receive medical, retirement, and other employee benefits. Perhaps most importantly, they crave a greater sense of security about their future careers (see the charts and graphs on this page as well as the tables in the Article Extras sidebar, right).
The J. David Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco pays close attention to its postdocs' needs. John LeViathan, postdoc adviser and human resources manager, says Gladstone follows NPA guidelines, offering excellent salaries and employee benefits, emphasizing mentoring, career and professional development, and making wide use of surveys and meetings to monitor progress. Gladstone jumped from 12th place in 2005 to first place in North America this year. "Postdocs are fully involved in the process," LeViathan says. "They are in the driver's seat." But it's not all warm and fuzzy. Like other top institutions, Gladstone has a strong research base. As postdoc Danny Hatters puts it, "working with top-class and motivated scientists" is what's most important.
At the other end of the postdoc care and feeding spectrum is the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, UK. Lacking any special programs or activities for postdocs, LMB came in second place outside of North America. "We just focus on science," explains Matthew Freeman, a senior group leader in developmental biology with six postdocs working in his lab. "There is a strong, interactive atmosphere here," Freeman says. "Research is number one; everything else is secondary." The postdocs agree. "The strong informal relationship with my PI and the amount of time he is willing to spend helping with my research" is most appreciated by one LMB postdoc, who did not wish to be named.
When it comes to giving postdocs appreciation, respect, and freedom, the 11th-place Netherlands Cancer Institute (NKI) in Amsterdam excels. Research projects are designed with clear objectives and metrics, yet postdocs have considerable freedom to conduct independent research, says Peter Peters, NKI's dean of postdoc affairs. Each year the institute's 75 postdocs organize a retreat focusing on career and professional development. The event, held at a four-star hotel with NKI paying the bill, is so popular that postdocs from other institutes in Holland ask to be invited. "We treat all the postdocs with respect," Peters says.
Like other scientists, postdocs prefer their respect be accompanied by something more tangible, such as adequate salaries and benefits. In some cases, being affiliated with a government agency rather than a private university or research institute can offer better salary and benefits. Postdocs at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), part of the US Department of Agriculture, receive the same salary as well as health, retirement, and life insurance benefits as the regular staff scientists, says Dave Love, ARS deputy human resources director.
Postdoc salaries at ARS start at around $55,000 and range to more than $67,000, compared to the NIH's recommended stipend levels of $35,600 to $51,036 for fiscal 2006. Many top US institutions, including second-place Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center ("the Hutch") in Seattle and eighth-ranked Wadsworth Center in Albany, NY, structure postdocs' salaries around these guidelines.
The ARS, which catapulted from 66th place in last year's survey to 10th place this year, also has a strong research base. "Postdocs are given meaningful opportunities to conduct and publish their research," says Love. For postdoc Charlie Barnes, "cooperation among all people in the lab in working towards our common goals" is what he most appreciates about ARS.
In addition to salaries and solid research opportunities, benefits are important to postdocs. "I truly love the research I'm doing," says Jennifer Schmahl, a postdoc at the Hutch. "But it would be nice if postdocs on grants had the same benefits as those on salary." Karen Peterson, the Hutch's postdoc adviser, agrees but says Federal tax regulations prevent postdocs on stipends and grants from receiving employee benefits. The Hutch tries to compensate by offering childcare subsidies, conference travel twice a year, and scholarships for continuing studies.
Postdocs in Europe generally have fewer concerns about benefits than do their colleagues in the United States, largely because of nationalized health care. But postdocs in Israel and Canada can also find themselves bereft of benefits. At the fourth-ranked Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, postdocs on fellowships receive no health care or retirement benefits. "The upside is no tax is deducted from their pay," says Michal Irani, who heads Weizmann's postdoc program. It was a conscious decision. "We could either have fewer postdocs with more benefits or more postdocs with fewer benefits," she says. "We've tried to optimize the program with more postdocs."
In Canada, postdocs face a similar situation, observes Carl Breckenridge, vice president for research at ninth-ranked Dalhousie University in Halifax. While the Canadian government provides universal health care, a recent change in regulations bars postdocs on fellowships from receiving it, he says. Other benefits are determined by the particular grant or fellowship. "Our institute doesn't have a level playing field in providing benefits," Breckenridge says. What is attractive is Dalhousie's medium-sized labs (three or four postdocs to each) and research flexibility.
As for giving postdocs more certainty about their future careers, no institution can do much, other than watching for the best and brightest and offering permanent positions when they become available. Says Irani, "If a star shines, we are happy to grab him."
1. "Recommendations for postdoctoral policies and practices," National Postdoctoral Association, Washington, DC, February 2005. www.nationalpostdoc.org/policy/Recommended_Practices.pdf