this sense, the expectations for their overall performance are not radically different from those of students supported by NRSAs. Although the training may be less interdisciplinary and may lack the same emphasis on exposure to Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR), career planning, and quantization in science, we may nonetheless expect that these programs should be comparable academically to the NIH-funded programs.
It is not so immediately apparent that these same conclusions necessarily apply to the postdoctorate workforce. Postdoctoral fellows are recruited to individual labs and are rarely involved in a highly structured program comparable to the graduate education model. For well-trained individuals, this is an opportunity to broaden their experience and develop their independence and can be a valuable component of their professional development. Nonetheless, as was indicated in Table 3-14, a significant number of U.S. national postdoctoral fellows are trained as fellows or on training grants, each with explicit NIH-mandated components (such as diversity and exposure to multidisciplinary research and RCR). However, the pool of postdoctoral fellows who are the most responsive to rapid deployment of recently received research funds is the international pool—a group that now makes up the majority of the postdoctorate component of the workforce. There is a need to ensure that the programs in which these trainees find themselves are adequately developed, indeed that there is a training component, and to ensure that the caliber of work is high, that the expectations of the NIH are met, and that the interests of the international postdoctoral fellows themselves for training in RCR, quantitation, and career planning are met.
A discussion of postdoctoral education would be incomplete without a discussion of the byzantine ways that universities have been compelled to categorize and appoint postdoctorates by the stipendiary nature of the NRSA. At any one time an institution will likely have the following types of postdoctorate, all of whom might be doing comparable research and being exposed to similar enrichment and other appropriate training activities. There are U.S. national postdoctorate trainees who are not supported by an NRSA and international postdoctorates on J-1 visas who cannot be supported by an NRSA, and both groups are treated (or should be) as postdoctorate employees in training. Finally, since 1990 there has been an increasing number of H1-B employees, who are usually also classified as postdoctorates. These international scientists are allowed into the United States in response to a defined shortage of workers in high-tech fields. As such they are admitted because institutions assure the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security that they are already trained and that they will fulfill a workforce need not satisfied by the current pool of U.S.-trained workers. However, the reality is that these international scientists really should not be in “training” programs as they were admitted on the assurance that they are fully trained!
Adding to the confusion in terms of pay and benefits for postdoctorates is the federal mandate that NRSA recipients are stipendiary, and because they are not categorized as employees, they do not pay the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) tax and do not receive employee benefits, such as health insurance and contributions to retirement funds. Many institutions have successfully attempted to address this situation by providing separately negotiated medical insurance, but the retirement benefits usually have to be secured independently by using the savings from not paying FICA to cover the cost of a personal investment mechanism. Postdoctorates who are not supported by NRSA are treated as employees, but, depending on the institution, they may be offered full or sometimes, restricted employee benefits. Following prompting by the NRC report Trends in the Early Careers of Life Scientists, many institutions have moved to provide employee postdoctorates with health benefits comparable to those provided to the rest of their employees. However, there remains the paradox of postdoctorates who perform similar tasks but who are remunerated in different fashions depending upon their NRSA status. Faced with the difficulty of turning NRSA trainees into employees, some institutions have paid such trainees an additional, nominal salary, which can give them access to employee health plans, while others have converted all the postdoctorates into a common classification as trainees. However, in order to satisfy IRS rules these fellows must receive a formal education component for which they pay tuition cost. Also, given the H1-B issue referred to above, this may be an increasingly complicated and perhaps even questionable strategy. Obviously, different institutions have attempted to develop individual strategies best fitted to their own cultures. Possibly the best solution is to combine an excellent health insurance scheme for all postdoctorates (which is eminently doable) with transparent explanations of the different financial circumstances which, while different for the different categories, ultimately end up with all the postdoctorates in a more or less similar financial position.
As was mentioned earlier in the chapter, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows have traditionally tended to seek careers in academic or industrial research. This paradigm has been changing over the past decade, and the current turmoil in the economy will likely additionally affect career outcomes for our trainee workforce. The factors of concern are: (1) the economic distress has hit both industry and academia hard, and it is likely that these sectors will not increase their rates of hiring in the near term; indeed some downsizing seems almost unavoidable, and (2) the downturn in the world economy has had less severe impact on several Asian coun-