The black hole of postdoc compensation and funding
Starting a postdoc can be an intensely exciting but isolating time. Every experiment, every student to mentor is a step towards independence. Unlike graduate students, postdocs do not have the protection and support of a departmental cohort. Postdoctoral trainees are usually so focused on their research progress that worrying about things like employee status and benefits feel like distractions during the lab selection process. Postdocs quickly learn however, that elements like your official title, whether the university considers you an employee, and access to benefits are not only incredibly important, they also vary widely among institutions. There are institutions, for example, where a postdoc who acquires a highly desirable fellowship to advance their career may change their status and access to university benefits.
Historically, postdoctoral positions were short-term transition periods meant to gain project independence and lab management skills. As graduate school and postdoc periods continue to grow, this “temporary” time without institutional or union protection eats away at an individual’s ability to save for the future and provide for their families. This is specifically detrimental given the lack of transparency and wide range of postdoctoral salaries. Relationships with and financial status of mentors can strongly dictate postdoc salaries creating tremendous disparities among trainees. In 2019, postdoc salaries ranged from $23,660 to well over $100,000. Disappointingly, gender pay disparities still exist in the ivory tower; annually, women in the Northeast and South of the U.S. were paid on average $1,710-1,940 less than their male equivalents.
The postdoc perspective made all the difference
As a postdoctoral fellow studying virology, Dr. Kaitlin Davis couldn’t help but notice systemic problems troubling her postdoc colleagues, regardless of field or institute. The postdocs who left academia often departed citing the same needs left unfulfilled, while the few on the faculty interview circuit credited common advantages, and a bit of luck. But it shouldn’t be luck, really - the precise elements associated with success often came easy in environments bolstered by generous funds, institutions with deep pockets and professional programming, and with seasoned, supportive leaders. The canon ‘this is just how it is’ didn’t sit well with her, so she sought out opportunities to start making change - first as an elected Councilor of the American Society for Virology, where she served as the inaugural Councilor for Virology Trainees, and then with the forward-thinking, impact-focused funder, Additional Ventures.
Additional Ventures is a the nonprofit research foundation that supports biomedical research work on a rare form of congenital heart defects called single ventricle heart disease. They are driven to develop solutions that deliver functional cures for this complex condition, and advance a field that is in its infancy, with limited knowledge of cause, risk, outcomes, or treatments. The organization hopes to make waves - both in the way it supports academic science and scientists, but also to grow the single ventricle research community sustainably. Too many passionate, promising investigators are lost from the field due to a lack of support, and novel programs like this will be a gamechanger for the investigator, the field, and ultimately the patients and families affected by single ventricle heart disease.
Dr. Kaitlin Davis was drawn to Additional Ventures because of the organization’s bold, relentless pursuit of scientific exploration through programs designed to be a disruptive force in academia. As Program Manager of Research & Grants, Dr. Davis seized the opportunity to develop a novel funding mechanism to address a critical bottleneck in scientific training and re-imagine how science is done and funded. She couldn’t believe the depth of support from former academics as well as those unfamiliar with academic training to found such a radical postdoc program.
“Every scientist on the Additional Ventures team has had their own formative experiences as a postdoc,” says Dr. Davis. “They’ve experienced the good, the bad, and they’ve seen others find opportunities and experiences they wished they had - the ones that were changemakers. These are the things we’ve built into this award, with the intent to transform chance and luck into a programmed part of the process.”
Revolutionizing postdoc support
Additional Ventures' novel funding mechanism aims to revolutionize postdoc funding and provide awardee cohorts the tools, skills, and experiences to succeed. Similar to NIH K99 and HHMI Hanna Gray fellowships, the Additional Ventures Catalyst to Independence Award (AVCIA) supports exceptional early career scientists during the final years of a mentored postdoc research position, through the transition to an independent faculty position.
Aiming to establish a new standard in postdoc support, Additional Ventures decided to surpass NIH recommendations. To determine stipend levels, applicants will use the US General Schedule, which standardizes compensation based on locality, experience, and position. Starting their new awardees at GS-11, a 3rd year postdoc in, for example, Kansas City would make almost $70,000 per year, paid entirely by the AVCIA. The award also provides $30,000-100,000 in annual research funds, with additional funding to cover research support staff and supplement costs of health and family care. All together, the AVCIA award can offer fellows up to $1.2 million to support a postdoc’s career.
Along with generous funding support is a multipronged approach to equip investigators with the skills and tools they need to thrive as leaders of outstanding research programs. The AVCIA provides career coaching, AV-directed networking, and professional workshops aimed at a number of topics conventionally neglected – including lab and people management, mentorship, networking, and career legacy. Further, the program has recruited an advisory board of forward-thinking experts in the field, mentors themselves, to support fellows. While innovative approaches to career development are commonplace in other industries, fellowships like the AVCIA are unfortunately uncommon in academic training spaces.
One of the most influential forces for early career scientists comes directly from mentors; however, long term compatibility can be difficult to determine from a single postdoc interview. Thus, Additional Ventures is incorporating mentorship into the AVCIA programming. As a graduate student, Dr. Davis’ own trajectory was transformed by a positive mentor - an example she hopes to carry forward. Dr. John T. Patton, her PhD advisor, was “a life raft. [He was] everything I needed in a mentor - someone who saw me for who I was, and gave me the tools to be a better version of my scientific self.” Not all mentor-mentee relationships are as beneficial, or even healthy, and the need for added community support for trainees is considerable. Dr. Patton’s impact on Dr. Davis was a huge motivator for incorporating a diverse mentor network into the AVCIA. When acknowledged for his support, “all he asked in return was that I ‘pay it forward’. I hope my role in building this program lets me fulfill that promise.”
A call for more reform in academia
The lack of transparency surrounding postdoc status, benefits, and compensation is an institutional disregard for the scientists who care so deeply for their fields of science and their places of work. Reform is unlikely to come from academic institutions or federal agencies who have no financial incentives to change. Rather, reform can be grown from the ground up through efforts of funders like Additional Ventures, and by organizations like Future of Research, eLife Community Ambassadors, and the National Postdoc Society. These organizations see the benefits of providing meaningful, equitable support and opportunities for postdocs to support the individuals that will make meaningful discoveries. These types of novel approaches will pay off tremendously for the postdocs, for science, and for human health. Dr. Kaitlin Davis is one person who wanted to make a change; what will you do?
The AVCIA launched on February 3, and is accepting Letters of Intent until March 17. For more information, visit www.additionalventures.org or contact the Additional Ventures Research & Grants team (grants[at]additionalventures.org).
Amanda Hurley received a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from Princeton University and completed a postdoc with Dr. Jo Handelsman at the UW – Madison. She volunteers for the nonprofit, Future of Research.
We welcome comments, questions and feedback. Please contact us at ecrlife [dot] editors [at] gmail [dot] com.
Would you like to share your own story, insight or opinion? Pitch us here.