clear for sometime that postdoctoral trainees are valuable resources to the institutions and senior faculty who employ them, but their status is often ambiguous. On some campuses, postdocs are viewed as students, even though they do not take classes and are not working toward a degree. On other campuses, they are viewed as employees, but they are not provided employee benefits such as medical coverage, holiday leave, and maternity leave. Nor are they provided other protections afforded to employees by law, such as the Family Medical Leave Act or whistleblower protection. Postdocs are not represented by labor unions either. When medical and other benefits are provided to postdocs, there is no regulatory oversight or guidance to ensure that these benefits are applied consistently. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a role in this situation. Postdocs on NIH training grants have one set of benefits, while those on NIH research grants have another. According to one program administrator, “The health benefits available from my institution, if one is on a research grant, are vastly better than what the government makes possible through a training grant. Family leave is vastly better if you are on a research grant than if you are on a training grant. When NIH institutes hire postdocs, they get full government benefits, whereas those who are supported on training grants, which are supposedly equivalent positions, are not treated anywhere near as well.”
Further, there are no standards or benchmarks of achievement for postdoctoral training as there are in the medical or legal professions, for example. The lack of achievement standards leaves postdocs vulnerable to abuse by mentors, who have a vested interest in keeping their labs fully staffed for indeterminate amounts of time. Prolonged postdoctoral training is interpreted by some potential employers as an indicator that the individual is not productive.
Underrepresented minorities face additional difficulties. Being the only minority in a lab, research group, or department is an isolating experience. Minority individuals may feel that they are under a microscope or that they are carrying the burden of an entire race of people. Because so few minority mentors and role models exist at the faculty level, some minority trainees report that they endure the “imposter syndrome,” that is, a lingering feeling that they do not deserve their professional status or achievements. Such manifestations of lowered self-esteem have the potential to subvert minority trainees’ desires to “aim high” professionally. Even mentors may project lower achievement standards onto their minority trainees. This and other expressions of ignorance or bias by mentors have the potential to sour mentor-mentee relationships, erode trust, and create social and professional distance. For those minority trainees who are unique within their families by virtue of their educational attainment, there is added stress. Lesser-educated family members may criticize the postdoc for “not getting a real job” or for their inability to shoulder family burdens proportionally, such as caring for a disabled or elder family member or child.