Best Places to Work 2007: PostDocs

It's a simple formula: Start with well-equipped research facilities, add helpful mentors and knowledgeable colleagues, allow researchers the freedom to explore new ideas, throw in enough money and benefits, and you get productive and satisfied postdocs. At least, that seems to be the winning formula for research institutes ranked by their postdocs as being the "Best Places to Work" in 2007.

By Ted Agres

The Scientist's fifth annual survey reveals that postdocs worldwide are mainly interested in getting the training and experience they need to advance their careers. They are willing to tolerate institutional quirks and lackluster compensation,...

"The people, from the principal investigators to the support staff, are knowledgeable and willing to lend a hand any way they can," comments Amy Inselman, a postdoc at seventh-ranked National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in Research Triangle Park, NC. "Collaborations are easy to build, and we have a wide array of resources available (from equipment to career guidance) that will help us transition to the next level," she writes in her survey comments.

Because it is part of the National Institutes of Health, NIEHS pays its postdocs according to National Research Service Award stipend levels, which range from $37,000 to $51,000 - a practice followed by many top-ranked US universities and research institutes in the survey. Among these is the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas in Houston, which catapulted from 29th place in 2006 to first place this year, despite large variances in the pay scale.

"What is important to our postdocs is accessibility to higher management," observes Toya Candelari, M.D. Anderson's associate vice president for trainee and alumni affairs. "Our president, vice president, CEO - all are accessible to and really interested in our postdoctoral fellows," she says. The postdocs have noticed. "Postdoctoral fellows at M.D. Anderson are a valued section of the research workforce," comments Tracy Costello.

Postdocs hold in high esteem those institutions that do things right: The National Cancer Institute has ranked in the top 15 for all five years, and five of the top-10 institutes from 2006 remain there this year. Of course, things do change. For the first time, a for-profit company has made it into the ranks of best places for postdocs. Genentech, the South San Francisco biotech powerhouse, breaks the rules in more ways than one. While most nonprofit research institutes eagerly offer postdocs training courses and guidance on career development, Genentech puts a "firewall" between its postdocs and anything having to do with careers and product development - even its own (see article "here").

While postdocs may not be in it solely for the money, being adequately compensated is important, especially for those in cities where the cost of living is extremely high. "Affordability is a big issue," notes John R. LeViathan, postdoc adviser at second-ranked J. David Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco. "We increase the salaries every year," he says. But even with a better-than-average salary of $51,180, postdocs say that the expenses and the lack of retirement benefits are disheartening. "The pay is inadequate for the cost of living," writes one postdoc who asked not to be named. "But the institute has made an honest effort to address this problem."

While virtually every research institution now offers medical insurance to its postdocs, few offer retirement benefits and other perks reserved for regular employees. One exception is the sixth-ranked National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver. Postdocs get full employee benefits and are treated like regular employees, and that means they are welcome to communicate freely not only with their PIs but also with the other 120 faculty members.

"Postdocs understand they are free to navigate across [departmental] lines to get help in their research," says John Cambier, chair of the Department of Immunology at National Jewish and mentor for six postdocs in his lab. "They can visit any lab for input, get a needed reagent, or get help in learning a technique. That's important." The postdocs agree. Katja Aviszus says the best thing about National Jewish is "the laid-back and yet highly driven atmosphere." Adds fellow postdoc Jenny Chain: "Here there are many of the country's top immunologists with which to interact, and they care deeply about student and postdoc education."

With few exceptions, top-ranked institutions offer their postdocs programs in career development, such as grant writing and public speaking. Ninth-ranked Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, offers these as well as opportunities for postdocs to speak at campus-wide seminars. "These give postdocs the chance to talk to a broad audience, not just scientists," says Tom Bollenbach, head of Cornell's postdoc association. "They can get a lot of feedback in a supportive environment."

Even though Boyce Thompson's pay scale is less than that of other institutions, postdocs appreciate the congenial atmosphere. "It's an excellent environment to do research," writes postdoc Greg Rairdan. "I appreciate the excellent communication between my adviser and myself and the collaborative relationships between labs."

In an attempt to support the growing number of fellows who have children, the 10th-ranked Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle offers a childcare subsidy of as much as $250 per child per month. "We're trying to help those postdocs who might otherwise choose to delay having a family or delay becoming a postdoc," says Karen Peterson, staff scientist and associate for interdisciplinary training.

Because the postdocs conduct substantial research yet are paid at NIH stipend levels in an expensive city, everyone at the Hutch tries to be supportive, Peterson says. "The science is second-to-none," writes one postdoc, who wished not to be named, "but the pay is horrible." While postdocs "get paid a pittance," writes Brian Fritz, "excellent intralab collaboration and teamwork result in a much quicker research pace as well as greater opportunities for me to develop leadership and training."

Of course, it's never possible to please everyone. "If someone is unhappy we try to figure out what we can do about it," says Peterson. "We try to help people to be more productive, to help them help themselves."

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