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This is insane!! Indentured servitude is back  

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Parker
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September 29, 2015 9:49 am  

http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/ca ... t.a1500228

Upon arriving at his new institution, however, Owen had a very unpleasant shock. Until then, he had only dealt with the professor. Now, the human resources department presented him with a sheaf of papers to sign. Among them was the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) Payback Agreement. To his complete surprise, Owen learned that the funding covering his position came not, as he had assumed, from one of the professor’s research grants, but from an NRSA institutional training grant. Postdocs funded in this way, he read to his horror, “incur a payback obligation … during the initial 12 months” of their positions. In other words, they must pay back all the money they receive during that first year, either through approved work or in cash.

This is beyond ridiculous. Essentially the PI/institution are making people take out a loan so they can work for him/her/it. And don't even have the decency to be upfront about it. Is this even legal? This takes it to another level. Unbelievable.


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PG
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September 29, 2015 10:30 am  

I am not in the US but in Northern Europe. I am pretty sure that this would not be legal here. In contrast stipends of different types that can be used for salary purposes are defined by law that they cant have any requirement for the person receiving it to do anything in return.


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Dick Woodward
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September 29, 2015 5:16 pm  

While these terms are rather absurd, what is even worse is that the University did not explain this prior to Owen's move. This is at best sleazy, and at worst fraudulent. What is even more annoying is that the document does not indicate what is considered "health-related research." Can this be research in industry?

This should be a warning to all potential post-docs. Send a letter to the PI accepting the position pending a review of the terms and conditions, ask that all documentation pertaining to the post-doc be forwarded to you, and ask the PI to check with HR to determine if there is anything that he/she is not aware of. Also, it is good to ask where the funding is actually coming from.

Dick


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BMK
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September 29, 2015 6:08 pm  

While these terms are rather absurd, what is even worse is that the University did not explain this prior to Owen's move. This is at best sleazy, and at worst fraudulent. What is even more annoying is that the document does not indicate what is considered "health-related research." Can this be research in industry?

This should be a warning to all potential post-docs. Send a letter to the PI accepting the position pending a review of the terms and conditions, ask that all documentation pertaining to the post-doc be forwarded to you, and ask the PI to check with HR to determine if there is anything that he/she is not aware of. Also, it is good to ask where the funding is actually coming from.

Dick

I agree that it's bad form for the institution to not make it explicitly clear that an NRSA agreement is in place for the postdoc position (I assume that this is a T32, given the description), but it is very much legal (Congress made these rules mind you) and I'm not sure that it was all that hidden ("Owen" applied to a university's "program", and I haven't seen one such program that doesn't say its a T32 when it is, I think they have to according the rules). One thing I feel I should point out is that if you do a 2-year postdoc program at a University (where yr-1 is NRSA funded, and year-2 is covered by the department or PI), you the "service" is already covered in year 2, but you are bound contractually to see your "service" out. That said, in a broad-sense the payback is more like "don't leave medical science for 12 months after the NRSA", i.e., don't run off to Wall Street. To answer Dick's question, you CAN do the service in private industry. You can also teach. NIH has a whole FAQ about this (https://researchtraining.nih.gov/resources/faq).

All said though, I'm not entirely sure I agree with the point of view of the article. For example,

He had never heard of a job that requires you to pay back the salary.

is an odd statement. Lots of "training" arrangements have some kind of service requirement, and postdocs ARE considered temporary arrangements for training/educational purposes. Teach for America pays for additional education and has a teaching service requirement. ROTC pays for undergrad with a military service requirement. These are VERY well known programs that have service requirements. And let's not mince words, "salary" is just a fancy word for fee for service, don't do the service, give back the "fee". Signing bonuses from companies tend to have similar language. "You will receive $##### upon signing of this employment contract. If you leave prior 24 months of employment you will have to return this bonus" (and the amount to return may or not be prorated).

The system is screwed up for sure, and I am certainly not defending the status quo, but I think this is an "Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking" kind of view of the situation.


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PG
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September 29, 2015 6:25 pm  

If it is obvious that this type of agreement is what you are signing up for it is of course up to the country/state/university/individuals involved to come to an agreement. As I said around here this type of agreement wouldnt be legal and any type of employment contract that is payed in advance and would require paying money back are hard to enforce. Rather agreements are written in the form that you get a bonus of x for joining the company (x can be cash or more common stock options or anything else) and this gets payed to you once you have worked for the company during two years ie a hold back option rather than a pay back if you dont deliver.


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BMK
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September 29, 2015 6:33 pm  

If it is obvious that this type of agreement is what you are signing up for it is of course up to the country/state/university/individuals involved to come to an agreement. As I said around here this type of agreement wouldnt be legal and any type of employment contract that is payed in advance and would require paying money back are hard to enforce. Rather agreements are written in the form that you get a bonus of x for joining the company (x can be cash or more common stock options or anything else) and this gets payed to you once you have worked for the company during two years ie a hold back option rather than a pay back if you dont deliver.

Right, and I think this here is a perfect example of the difference between Europe and the US. Furthermore, postdoc's in the US are NOT necessarily considered employees (I can provide lots of links to articles discussing this particular bit of nonsense), which is WHY the wording/requirements of the position can be so odd. There was a sciencecareers article a long while back that explains this "clear as mud", so to speak http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2002_12_20/nodoi.1898940035772141261

The conclusion is especially telling

Postdocs at several institutions are in favor of a uniform classification for postdocs, as are administrators. "Categorizing postdocs according to salary source--'employee' (paid from sponsor's grant) versus 'stipendee' (paid from an NIH fellowship/training grant or from a private foundation fellowship)--is an artificial, essentially administrative classification," said Roslyn Orkin, dean of faculty affairs at Harvard Medical School. "What was undoubtedly set out originally by the NIH as a means to protect postdocs ('trainees') from abusive practices, has paradoxically, in many cases, turned out to harm them, largely in terms of access to benefits."


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Dave Walker
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September 29, 2015 7:44 pm  

Great discussion, everyone! BMK's extra links are super interesting; while I'm not surprised there are hoops to jump through with a government postdoc, it's amazing to me that decades of stipulations byh NIH and congress have made the fine print a byzantine mess.

However, I disagree frankly with the original poster's title of this thread, with words like "insane" and "indentured servitude." Yes, we should overhaul the fine print on NIH grants. Yes, it's shameful that institutions don't provide all the facts up front (I think it reflects how low they think of postdocs in the first place). But a simple networking conversation with a few postdocs would have unveiled all of this to the article's job seeker, and probably more.

I am also under the impression that stipulations such as these are common in many forms of grants, including those for other forms of education like undergraduate studies. I think that how the postdoc "hoped, and expected, not to" complete the second year of their postdoc sends up a big red flag. I wonder if their PI knew of or agreed to this arrangement.

I sympathize greatly for postdocs in general, but I'm having a hard time sympathizing for someone who took a 2-year postdoc upset that they cannot easily leave for a better opportunity after 1 year. Even more than this, I think that when it comes to the job market, caveat emptor. You have to do your homework!

"The single factor that differentiates Nobel laureates from other scientists is training with another Nobel laureate." -- Sol Snyder


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Kevin Foley
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September 30, 2015 1:18 am  

I think the article is a bit overblown.

I received an individual NRSA fellowship at the start of my postdoc in 1993, but only kept it for a year before receiving a better fellowship. To the best of my knowledge, the exact same payback language was enforced back then. And, this fact was widely known by everyone, causing little concern since most trainees expected to stay in their chosen profession after the conclusion of their postdoc. It's not like NRSAs were few and far between and no one ever gossiped about them around the lab.

The only annoying part of it that I can remember was the paperwork.

However, it is true that we all do need to do sufficient due diligence before accepting a job offer, which apparently didn't happen in this case.


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Parker
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September 30, 2015 4:36 pm  

Here is why this arrangement doesn't make any sense for a postdoc. Science is not the same as teaching or the military or providing basic healthcare to an impoverished town. Nothing in science is certain. What if the project fails to meet an important milestones at month #10? What if the hypothesis is wrong, the drug is toxic or your project gets scooped? You are obliged to stick around and work on whatever the PI wants you to do. The onus is still on the person who is signing the contract to read the fine print of their own contract. If I was presented with such a contract, I would have said thanks but not thanks. But there are always people who are desperate or did not read it who would sign it. Which keeps this type of system going. Which goes back to my original point. How is this legal?


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Dave Walker
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September 30, 2015 4:48 pm  

Here is why this arrangement doesn't make any sense for a postdoc. Science is not the same as teaching or the military or providing basic healthcare to an impoverished town. Nothing in science is certain. What if the project fails to meet an important milestones at month #10? What if the hypothesis is wrong, the drug is toxic or your project gets scooped? You are obliged to stick around and work on whatever the PI wants you to do. The onus is still on the person who is signing the contract to read the fine print of their own contract. If I was presented with such a contract, I would have said thanks but not thanks. But there are always people who are desperate or did not read it who would sign it. Which keeps this type of system going. Which goes back to my original point. How is this legal?

Parker,

I hope it's not too callous of me to say that life isn't fair, and expecting it to be is unrealistic. The bad things you mention that may befall a postdoc -- being scooped, the hypothesis being wrong, or the experiment not working out -- are just things that happen. In the real world bad things happen, too: layoffs, being skipped for promotion, sales numbers not being met.

As BMK has said, a postdoc has "fellowship" (i.e., "trainee") status, and is therefore expected to have something to be learning. Personally I think this arrangement does a disservice to the independent discovery that postdocs (and graduate students) perform, but that's the system. I can't imagine this comes as a surprise to anyone who does PhD studies and has spoken to at least a few postdocs in their time. Kevin's anecdote from almost 25 years ago speaks to this as much.

"The single factor that differentiates Nobel laureates from other scientists is training with another Nobel laureate." -- Sol Snyder


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BMK
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September 30, 2015 6:46 pm  

In addition to Dave's very valid points, I want to add a few more things. First, the only real stipulation in the service obligation is that you don't leave science for an extra year. LEAVE being the operative word. Let's go through your post and see how this applies:

What if the project fails to meet an important milestones at month #10? What if the hypothesis is wrong, the drug is toxic or your project gets scooped?

Then you start following the potential pitfalls and alternative strategies that EVERY funded grant has (and I mean EVERY grant, thats a KEY STICKING POINT with review committees). And with a scoop, change the pitch and test other targets indications, you know, just like pharma does.

You are obliged to stick around and work on whatever the PI wants you to do.

This is not true: you can change PIs, institutions and/or projects. You can leave your program entirely (like you got an R&D job in Pharma, or a better project elsewhere). You can teach. If you work with your program to figure something out. The university programs with a T32 doesn't want to see you fail, because that would look really bad at renewal time and they can lose it. F32s (the individual NRSA postdoc grant) are two years. You cannot run off to Wall Street or be a salesman. Also, given that only 1year of payback service is incurred, seeing a two year program through to the end satisfies the payback (hence why they all tend to be 2 years), as yr2 is the service for year1.

The onus is still on the person who is signing the contract to read the fine print of their own contract.

Isn't this always true? In anything and everything?

If I was presented with such a contract, I would have said thanks but not thanks. But there are always people who are desperate or did not read it who would sign it. Which keeps this type of system going. Which goes back to my original point. How is this legal?

Everyone needs to do right by their own standards, so that's fine that you wouldn't sign it. There also normal postdocs positions that faculty can create get as part of an R or some private foundation grant that have no service obligations (and thus are more like regular jobs). But I need to point out that there are plenty of others who see the value of extra training and the contacts/exposure you can gain while a part of a major organized research program (Institutional quality and topic are factors in awarding T32s) or proving you can successfully propose and see through fundable projects (in the individual postdoc F32 example).

So, given the above, I don't see how you've demonstrated how any the above break any labor laws. Broken for sure, and in desperate need of revision (it would be nice if the Labor department would weigh in for example), but not outright illegal in its design. It makes your argument sound alarmist more than anything else.


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Dave Walker
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September 30, 2015 6:57 pm  

Thank you BMK for speaking on this topic so well. It's clear you have first hand knowledge of this -- thanks for sharing it with us.

"The single factor that differentiates Nobel laureates from other scientists is training with another Nobel laureate." -- Sol Snyder


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Dave Jensen
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September 30, 2015 8:40 pm  

I haven't yet jumped into the fray here. But I agree with Kevin Foley -- this article is way overblown. The author is looking for everything possible to say, negative, about the way that training is set up, and about the Postdoc system. I think it got pushed a bit too far here.

On the other hand, I wonder what Ruth L. Kirschstein would say to the way her name is being used. I wouldn't want such a wacky document to go out into the world as MY legacy.

Dave

Dave Jensen, Founder and Moderator
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RSD
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October 1, 2015 12:19 am  

When I signed my T32 agreement a few years ago, the payback obligation seemed like a big deal. When I left my postdoc after 18 months to work for a reagent company, 6 shy of the full payback obligation, I didn't think twice. I signed a document that assured them that I was still working in science, even in the only loosely research are of reagent development, and moved on.

The options for payback are very flexible. The only real issue here is that it typically isn't presented up front to candidates prior to relocation.


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Parker
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October 1, 2015 6:49 am  

In the real world bad things happen, too: layoffs, being skipped for promotion, sales numbers not being met.

In the real world, no company would ever be asking for their money back if your quit before your contract ends, they lay you off or if you don't meet your sales quota!! That would be crazy (which is what this is).

I can't imagine this comes as a surprise to anyone who does PhD studies and has spoken to at least a few postdocs in their time. Kevin's anecdote from almost 25 years ago speaks to this as much.

This payback thing must be a US thing. I've never heard of such a postdoc arrangement in Canada. I don't see how this would fly here.

This is not true: you can change PIs, institutions and/or projects. You can leave your program entirely (like you got an R&D job in Pharma, or a better project elsewhere). You can teach. If you work with your program to figure something out. The university programs with a T32 doesn't want to see you fail, because that would look really bad at renewal time and they can lose it. F32s (the individual NRSA postdoc grant) are two years. You cannot run off to Wall Street or be a salesman. Also, given that only 1year of payback service is incurred, seeing a two year program through to the end satisfies the payback (hence why they all tend to be 2 years), as yr2 is the service for year1.

That is not how the article made it sound at all. None of those details where mentioned. But it doesn't matter. They are obviously (or I guess to the extent that the article can be trusted) not very clear about the stipulations of their contracts, people sign them without realizing what they are signing up for. That is an outrage in and out of itself.


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