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February 21, 2002

University post-doctoral fellows struggle against "outsider" status

When Assad completed his Ph.D. at Pitt and became a post-doctoral fellow here, he assumed — incorrectly — that he could continue to ride Port Authority buses for free, a perk enjoyed by most Pittsburgh campus faculty, staff and students.

"I was surprised to learn that, once I became a post-doc, I lost this privilege," said Assad, a post-doc who spoke on condition that his real name not appear in print.

"Not only couldn't I ride the buses for free anymore, I was no longer permitted to pay for a space in the University lot where I had been parking during the summer. It was as if I was being punished for earning my Ph.D."

Actually, post-docs aren't the only members of the Pittsburgh campus community who do not qualify for free Port Authority bus rides. Some 2,700 volunteer faculty also are excluded, as are hundreds of trainees, unpaid staff and others.

But according to post-docs seeking to organize a Pitt Post-Doctoral Association, being left out of the Pitt-Port Authority agreement symbolizes their outsider status.

"We sort of fall through the cracks of the University's structure," said Stuart Olmsted, a post-doc at the Magee Womens Research Institute. "We're not students anymore, we're not faculty members yet, and we're not staff. The pay and benefits we receive vary. We don't all get the same compensation for the same amount of experience.

"Most post-docs think it's ridiculous that we can't ride [Port Authority] buses for free. But that's a pretty small issue, compared with salaries and work conditions."

To determine which issues matter most to Pitt post-docs, Olmsted and a number of his colleagues are circulating an e-mail survey. It lists post-doc salary guidelines recommended by the National Institutes of Health (ranging from $28,260 for first-year post-docs to $44,412 for those with seven or more years of experience) and asks respondents to indicate how their pay compares with the NIH guidelines. The survey also asks post-docs about their fringe benefits, where they work within the University, and issues of concern to them.

Olmsted said a summary of survey results will be presented to Pitt administrators, including the person hired to fill a new Health Sciences position: director of career development. Post-doctoral affairs will be among the new administrator's responsibilities.

About 450 of Pitt's nearly 800 post-docs are in the medical school, and another 130 are in the five other Health Sciences schools, according to the University's Office of Institutional Research.

Olmsted said he and other post-docs hope to hold an organizational meeting of the Pitt Post-Doctoral Association in March. Post-docs, unlike faculty, staff, and undergraduate and graduate students, do not currently have their own campus organization and are not represented on University Senate groups or on Board of Trustees committees.

Nor are there grievance procedures for most post-docs, as there are for faculty, staff and grad students.

"Right now, if you have a problem with your boss — your quote-unquote 'adviser' — you have no one to go to," Olmsted said. "Graduate students who have problems with their faculty advisers can go to their department chairs, but we have no one."

"It's not even that post-docs have to begin speaking with one voice," Olmsted added, with a laugh. "We just need to speak, period."

To contact the Pitt Post-Doctoral Association or obtain a copy of its survey form, e-mail: Formation of a post-docs' association was welcomed by two graduate studies administrators who said they have been handling post-doctoral issues despite the fact that post-docs are not graduate students.

Elizabeth U. Baranger, vice provost for Graduate Studies, said: "I think having an organization of post-doctoral fellows would be enormously helpful. [Post-docs] are a group that we should be treating better, I think."

Steven Phillips, associate dean for graduate studies in Pitt's medical school, called formation of a Pitt post-doctoral organization "a very good idea." Similar organizations, he noted, are being formed at a growing number of research universities — more than 60, including Penn State and the University of Pennsylvania, according to the journal Science.

Post-docs, Phillips said, are "very vulnerable" because their training is not governed by uniform curricula or employment policies.

Phillips began his own post-doctoral fellowship 30 years ago, after earning his Ph.D. in biophysics. "There was an understanding that it would be an intensive period of training in a laboratory with a faculty mentor, and for that I would get a stipend," the associate dean recalled.

"Because there were no institutionalized standards of training and compensation for post-docs, individual investigators could feel free to set their own policies, to some extent.

"That's still the way it works today," Phillips said. "A post-doctoral fellow comes into a laboratory and works there for a mentor with no oversight, really. The NIH has set national standards for levels of post-doctoral fellows' compensation, but they're only recommendations."

According to Phillips, Pitt post-doc salaries tend to be slightly below NIH standards. Olmsted said responses to his group's survey of post-docs indicate the same.

One reason it's difficult for universities to impose uniform standards for post-docs' pay and work conditions is that funding to support post-docs comes from various sources, Phillips noted.

"Funding [for post-docs] can come through individual, investigator-initiated grants. There are also NIH training grants for post-docs. And, in some cases, funding for post-docs comes from center or departmental monies," he said.

Baranger said Pitt professors and/or administrators, including members of the University Research Council and the University Council on Graduate Studies, have examined the status of post-docs and recommended actions such as designating an individual in each school to handle post-doctoral issues. But little action has resulted from such recommendations, she said.

Nationally and at Pitt, average ages of post-doctoral fellows are edging up into the mid-30s or even older, as more professorial wanna-be's complete more than one fellowship prior to gaining faculty status.

According to Associate Dean Phillips, "Doing more than one post-doc appointment was infrequently heard of 10 years ago and unheard of 20 years ago. The claim is that, to accumulate the necessary credentials for competing for academic positions at research universities these days, you have to have more than one post-doc."

— Bruce Steele

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