Fire Away!

Apr 14 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

A little while back I decided that I had the funds to recruit a postdoc and that I should do so. My first inclination was to talk to a few PhD students I knew who were finishing up soon and whose experience would translate well to the work we are doing, without being completely overlapping. After some discussion with a couple soon-to-be graduates things fell into place with one of them, who will be starting this summer.

In preparation for the new hire, I thought it would be a good idea to sniff around my institution to see what is required for hiring a postdoc and I wasn't surprised at what I found out.

The good news:

Postdocs are a recognized category of employee. Health care benefits (the same I get) are required when hiring a postdoc and there is vacation, sick and maternity* time for these employees. A 30 day warning of a layoff due to funds drying up is also required.

The bad news:

1) Despite there being a category of employment for postdocs, they have no advocate. Like most institutions, both grad students and faculty are unionized here, but postdocs get squeezed between the cracks. Their "advocate" is, by default, someone whose primary job it is to advocate for the grad students.

2) The only things required to hire a postdoc are a willing body and some state and federal tax forms. NO CONTRACT IS REQUIRED. That means I can just bring someone in, have them fill out a few forms and lock them in a lab with no indication of expectations or guidelines on which to fall back on in case of a grievance. That's the kicker, right? When things go well maybe it's easy to not have any sort of record of expectation and no one cares, but what if things go poorly? What if something in my personal life goes down the toilet and I start getting all crazy and start firing people? Everyone has heard that story, no? Without a contract of any kind there is nothing to which a postdoc can go back to and say "I have upheld my end of the bargain!" There is no recourse, which takes us to Bad News #3.

3) Postdocs come in on a 12 month "probationary period", which is code for "can be fired arbitrarily". I asked our head of HR directly what it would take for me to fire a postdoc and the answer was "call me and I will either come over and facilitate that conversation or do it for you." In the first year postdocs have no protection and after that "it just takes a little longer" if one wanted to fire someone without documenting cause. Now, there are certainly times when the termination of employment would be justified and with the appropriate documentation that is just how things go. But what I described above is for if I wanted to walk into the lab one day and tell someone to clean out their desk.

Having at several institutions during my career, this doesn't surprise me a bit. But as a postdoc there are ways to protect yourself to some degree. Almost any PI with some sense will write out a contract because it protects both of you, but in reality the PI isn't the one who needs the protection. For that reason, postdocs should ask to have a contract written up at the start of employment. It should outline not only the performance expectations of the PI, but also what the postdoc can expect from the PI. No one tells you how important a signed document like that can be when you start a new position fresh off your Thesis Experience. Whereas you hope to never need to use it, you need to request it if your PI does not bring one to the table on day one.

Admittedly, I never signed a contract as a postdoc. I had an offer letter, but nothing beyond that. I had no idea that I should request one and hindsight is 20/20. I was fortunate to never need that contract and my supervisor was really good about communication, but that doesn't mean things couldn't have gone differently.

More important than the contract, however, is something that postdocs can't do anything about on their own and that is getting a person or office in place to handle all things postdoc related from the postdoc's side of things. Some larger R1s have this type of thing, but the vast majority of institutions only pay lip service to it. It requires the demand from PIs to get the wheels turning, and one might guess that PIs might be less than motivated to put a structure in place that takes away some of their power to make personnel decisions.

As a PI, it's easy to say that a postdoc office isn't worth your effort because you treat all the postdocs in your lab well. However, I think it's critical that we recognize the fact that a big part of the disgruntle factor of postdocs is the very fact that they can be dropped like a sack of potatoes. If you do treat postdocs in your lab well, then there is nothing to lose from pushing for greater university recognition in the form of dedicated postdoc advocates and it may turn out that they can facilitate some things (visa issues, a sense of community, etc.) that either you currently have to, or can't, deal with. As with most things, there's a high cost up-front, but they pay-off will be worth it.

I'll let you know how it goes here.

* I don't know how well this policy works in conjunction with granting agencies yet, but I am trying to find out.

18 responses so far

  • Micro Dr. O says:

    One of the things you might consider with your postdoc, if they're so inclined, is helping them get a postdoc association started. They can start out small with just an informal seminar series to each other, and maybe meeting once a month to come up with what types of things they'd like confronted. The NPA website has a toolkit they can work with to get started. Seeing that the postdocs are interested in organizing might help push the administration to do something about a postdoc office.

  • Professor in Training says:

    As a postdoc, I had year-long contracts and was supposed to have annual evaluations. The contracts were usually renewed 6 months late and I never had an official eval. My communication with my mentor was excellent though and we met regularly to discuss progress, expectations and when to start the faculty job search. Things wouldn't have been as rosy if my mentor hadn't been so supportive.

  • Anonymous says:

    Do post what you write up as a contract/expectation. When I was a postdoc, I never had one of these contracts. Just an offer letter that guaranteed support for 2-3 years, which was then renewed. My relationship with my mentor was excellent, which helped when I was on the job market. I think I did well by the first postdoc that I hired after getting a faculty position but I followed my postdoc as the model. The unwritten expectations were to do good science, publish and hopefully come up with a project that he could take with him if he wished to go the academic route. I guess he did well on all three counts (3 first author papers in high impact journals, all as corresponding or co-corresponding author.) Nevertheless, I do recognize the value of a written set of expectations for the next person I hire.

  • Ambivalent Academic says:

    Great post! I would also be curious about what your voluntary "contract" looks like. It occurs to me now that I have signed an "offer letter" (which does give a brief summary of possible reasons for termination in the first 12 months) rather than a "contract"...I'm curious what the difference is.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    I guess it comes down to how detailed your offer letter is. If it lays out expectations on both sides and both you and your advisor sign it, that's pretty much a contract. My offer letter explained the length of funding and salary and was signed by my advisor, but not much beyond that.

  • Dr.Girlfriend says:

    "Despite there being a category of employment for postdocs, .."We do even have this! However, we (the postdocs) are working on getting our institution to officially recognize the term postdoc and that postdocs are a unique subset of non-faculty employees. "Their "advocate" is, by default, someone whose primary job it is to advocate for the grad students."The grad office advocate here wants nothing to do with postdocs. Our solution was to advocate for ourselves. Postdocs can band together and be proactive in their career development. As a self-governed group of volunteer postdocs, we been awarded a small budget and have gained increasing respect from the college community including professors and administrators. One thing you could do is encourage the postdocs you know to consider forming an association, and even volunteer yourself as a faculty advisor to a newly formed posdoc group. The leadership skill postdocs can gain from this experience is invaluable - far more valuable that simply participating in workshops and networking events hosted by an existing organization.

  • Curious Computer says:

    How common is this in the US? I'm doing a postdoc (not in the US) and I have a contract, had a 3 month probationary period in which they still would have required cause to terminate and am represented by the same union as the permanent faculty.In a year and a half, when my current position ends I had considered looking to the US for possible jobs, but everything I hear on these blogs is pretty off-putting. I'd like to know if I'm only hearing about the rare bad situations, or if this is common practice.

  • Girlpostdoc says:

    "I think it's critical that we recognize the fact that a big part of the disgruntle factor of postdocs is the very fact that they can be dropped like a sack of potatoes."Yes, I would say that is certainly part of why there is an level of "disgruntledness" in postdocs. But industry scientists have the same level of uncertainty in their jobs and the five scientists I've talked with don't seem disgruntled with that aspect.I think a major component is whether the postdoc is valued and respected by the PI. I am finding my postdoc experience great because of the mutual respect. In my husband's case, he has had a nightmare postdoc and this is largely due to the PI's abusive behaviour. At the same time, the department turns a blind eye because of the influence of the PI. Many small universities do not offer any real advocate to the postdoc or as you said they pay lipservice. While I agree with Dr. Girlfriend that we can advocate for ourselves as a group, there is a risk both in terms of time and career. It takes time to organize people - time that could be spent getting publications and thus getting out of postdocdom. And being labeled as a trouble-maker doesn't help facilitate career advancement."It should outline not only the performance expectations of the PI, but also what the postdoc can expect from the PI." At our university the 1-year contracts we sign outline the expectations of performance for the postdoc but not the PI. Unfortunately, when my husband tried to get written clarification of what he can expect from his PI, especially given the past issues, he was met by a wall from his PI. I think if there was some pressure from other faculty, this might encourage the silverback PI to change his stance. The postdoc also has power and that is to walk away.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Ideally, postdocs wouldn't have to spend the time to band together to advocate for themselves. As Girlpostdoc points out, that takes some serious time, and really, it's not the postdoc's job. The PIs should be dealing with getting postdocs officially recognized, etc. It's in their long-term interest as well and they have the clout to do it. There's also no question that having a complete set of written out expectations from both sides won't mean much with mutual respect and exchange of ideas. At the same time, having expectations written out can be a basis for engaging other faculty or administration into a dispute. Without that, it's very difficult for a postdoc to claim much.CC - Understand that much of what is discussed on blogs are the problems that people are having because this is a mechanism for both finding solutions and educating others so that they do not run into the same problems. Most people don't blog to talk about how great everything is. I'm sure there plenty of equivalent issues in non-US institutions. Actually, I'm positive there are, having spent almost a decade outside the US myself and having many collaborators in Europe. No system is perfect.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    mean much withOUT mutual respect and...

  • Dr.Girlfriend says:

    Prof-like"Ideally, postdocs wouldn't have to spend the time to band together to advocate for themselves. As Girlpostdoc points out, that takes some serious time, and really, it's not the postdoc's job"A postdocs "job" is to prepare herself for her chosen career. My research is my top priority. However, I also juggle and wear different hats just like an assistant professor does. I am gaining valuable experience as a leader that will serve me well inside and outside of academia. Does spending 100% of your time at the bench really prepare you for a faculty position? Does being a recluse in the lab really give you an idea if being a professor is what you would enjoy?I understand that publications will get me a job. However, involvement in teaching, outreach, career development, and leadership will better prepare me for a faculty position. It will also provide me with useful skills should the publications not be forthcoming. Through my involvement with the college postdoc association have built up a network of peers, senior faculty and administrators. Even if my postdocs advisor did not write me glowing letters of recommendation, I would be OK!Advocacy is not about causing trouble, it is about obtaining and sharing needed resources. For example, postdocs can help one another write template contracts, organize workshops on conflict resolution, or networking events with faculty and industry scientists.

  • Dr.Girlfriend says:

    Another reason why a PI should care about a postdoc office:I seriously considered two postdoc offers. I eventually choose the one that was in the institution with no provision for postdocs. However, the existence of a postdoc office offering me excellent services and resources carried significant weight. For new PIs, attracting good postdocs is hard enough. A bad or ill-fitted postdoc can be disastrous to a new PI. A postdoc office can help establish and maintain a relationship that is mutually beneficial. P.s. many postdoc offices were born from pre-established self-governed postdoctoral associations.

  • tideliar says:

    It takes time to organize people - time that could be spent getting publications and thus getting out of postdocdomIf it's well organised it won't take that much time. And if it does, or if the little time you spend/week doing this takes away from your productivity that badly, there are likely larger issues.I understand that publications will get me a job. However, involvement in teaching, outreach, career development, and leadership will better prepare me for a faculty position. It will also provide me with useful skills should the publications not be forthcoming.Faculty or not, it will have a large and beneficial effect on your career. Only 20% of postdocs in the US are going to land a decent Faculty position. The rest of you need to prepare for a non-TT career. Working with a PDA is a big help because it encourages you to step outside your lab, learn to network, discover your gifts, skills and sense of self-worth in non-bench areas.If you don't have a PDA, the Natl postdoc assoc has resources to help you set one up. A lot of us have advice we would willingly share for free too.

  • chemprof says:

    As a postdoc in the US about 7 years ago now, I am happy that I had a contract. I never really thought about this being unusual as where I am back in my home country, everyone has a contract. Postdocs I employ are on the same academic pay scale, with position descriptions the same as any other research-only academic. It's a system that works well, and still allows you some flexibility in what you pay.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    By saying "it's not the postdoc's job", I meant more that it is the PI's job to advocate for major changes at the university level. It can be done by trainees, but if an administration doesn't want to go along with what you are asking for, they can wait you out because you will move on. PI's tend to stay around for longer and the university has a greater financial incentive to listen to what they want. For that reason, a PI will typically get more traction faster and with less effort than a band of postdocs or grad students without an advocate. I'm not saying it can't happen that way, just that there is a much higher activation energy.

  • Dr.Girlfriend says:

    @ Prof-life,Which is exactly why I recommended a newly formed postdoc association should enlist faculty advisors. As junior professor you can better relate to the postdoc experience, and I am sure a newly formed group would welcome your interest. You might also be able to count such a service in your tenure package.Small but important changes can be accomplished immediately and brought about by full-time postdocs:1. A pool of postdocs can produce template contracts and advice for new postdocs. 2. Postdocs can do the ground work by conducting a survey of fellow postdocs at their institution. 3. Postdocs can organize workshops on topics such as interviewing for faculty positions, conflict resolution, teaching, etc., (faculty are often willing to offer their expertise if postdocs take the lead).4. Postdocs can arrange social events to network with each other, faculty, and local industry scientists. 5. Postdocs can identify and coordinate teaching and outreach opportunities at local schools and community colleges.6. Postdocs can practice communicating their research to a diverse audience of non-specialists and organize mock chalk-talks etc., 7. Postdocs can raise awareness of who they are and why they are important to the college by presenting themselves in a professionally.8. Postdocs can acquire funding for their organization (and a line on their CV) by offering themselves as panel members for students wanting to learn about grad school or a careers in science. 9. Postdocs can arrange a poster competition for a travel award - this raises both awareness of what we do and cash for attendance at a professional conference. Faculty and administration were so impressed by this event that we organized that they gave us and addition 3 prizes of $1000 dollar each to awarded to worthy entrants. (We enlisted faculty judges). All this can be accomplished with almost no finical backing, and in less than two years. Our college postdoc association is testimony to this, and I would be more than happy to share my experiences.

  • Girlpostdoc says:

    @Dr. GirlfriendI totally agree with this vision of organizing postdocs. I don't think it's useful to spend 110% of my time at the bench. I agree all of the things you have mentioned are incredibly valuable to postdocs.But advocacy and organization do take time and energy. Workshops, poster sessions, networking events, these take a lot of time. I know I have organized events like this before. Plus it only works when people respond positively - instead of asking "Why are you wasting your time? You know what you have to do to get a job."And frankly, if I was at a larger school, where the response was more positive I might pursue putting together a postdoc organization. I don't know what size university you are at but I have found that at SmallUniversity - it is a little like pulling teeth. At some point it's not worth the personal cost to me.

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