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This is insane!! Indentured servitude is back  

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Craig B.
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October 1, 2015 5:32 pm  

I agree with much of what has been said regarding how the recent article makes the NRSA payback issue bigger than it really is. Assuming you stay in science or teaching, the second year of service isn't difficult to get.

That said, I do find it troubling that a position was offered without it being made clear that it would be paid for using NRSA money. It's one thing to consciously apply for and receive NRSA funding (with its payback stipulation) either through a national or institutional mechanism, it's another thing entirely to have it foisted upon you the day you show up for a position.

Beyond the payback issue, as BMK points out, some universities have different employment classifications for individuals with external funding. In the words of my own institution:

"Individuals appointed as postdoctoral fellows are not employees of the University and, therefore, provide no service to the University."

That's a frustrating bit of legaleze that ultimately means that those with independent funding (even training grants that were awarded to and managed by the institution) have a whole reduced set of benefits and protections compared to postdocs funded through a PI's grant. Considering that NRSAs and other independent funding are often considered more prestigious for the individuals that receive them, it's too bad that some institutions choose to penalize their recipients.


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PACN
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October 1, 2015 10:38 pm  

I'm a little surprised by the outrage. Not only is this kind of thing legal, it is very, very common. It's true for institutional and individual fellowships from the NIH at the predoctoral and postdoctoral level. It's also true for the NIH loan repayment program. It's also not uncommon outside of the NIH-- your company pays for law school/business school/whatever and you have to work there for a certain period of time afterwards or pay back the cost. They are paying for you to develop certain skills and want to get a return on their investment. From the point of view of the NIH, they are paying you to develop certain skills (as as scientist) and expect a return on their investment as well (that you work as a scientist). To call it indentured servitude is ridiculous.

As far as this case goes, he should have been informed ahead of time that he was being paid with NRSA money. On the other hand, how did he not ask at any point in the process where his funding would come from?


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Dave Jensen
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October 1, 2015 11:14 pm  

This is a "nothing" issue blown up into "something" by a writer looking for something to write about. Enough said.

Dave

Dave Jensen, Founder and Moderator
Bio Careers Forum


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Yandorio
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October 2, 2015 5:08 pm  

As long as they say up front you're going to have to pay it back
I think no one can complain.
The bigger issue I see lately is PIs will not pay the Postdocs
the NIH standard stipend. I almost got a postdoc spot at a good
school in Southern California but the PI said the $58 K stipend would be more like $45K, then 2 weeks later he could only promise $35K because that's what his foreign postdocs got paid. Huh? What? What's the point of having an NIH standard if people are not going to abide by it?


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BMK
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October 2, 2015 6:20 pm  

Hi Yandorio,

I guess this is a separate issue from the article, but I am unsure where you get a $58k stipend being recommended by NIH; that's higher than any of NIH's guidelines specifically the NRSA stipend level (the second $45k number is more in line for a postdoc with 1-2yrs experience). Technically though, a university only needs to abide by the standard if the postdoc is paid through NRSA support, though most postdoc salaries are de facto pegged to this table. You could check with the University's postdoc office (if it exists, but it's rare if it doesn't) to see what the university policy is, it is not uncommon tho for all postdocs at the same level of training (i.e., yrs post PhD) to be paid uniformly at a given institution.


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Chris
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October 2, 2015 6:41 pm  

I think this is being blown way out of proportion. As others have said, all NRSA fellowships require this "payback" agreement. By payback, they mean that you need to keep working in biomedical science, broadly defined, for the appropriate number of years. Unless the trainee is hoping to leave science altogether after their postdoc (which begs the question of why they want to take a postdoc), this should be a non-issue.


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Yandorio
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October 2, 2015 6:50 pm  

BMK
I had more than 6 years postdoc training so $56,300
was what I was expecting, not 35K...and yes, my post does digress some
from the original topic but has in common with it the
subject of PIs or the powers that be cutting corners or
not playing by established rules...


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P.C.
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October 2, 2015 7:16 pm  

As a set of professions the sciences suffers from lack or oversight of the trainers and trainees, such as what occurs with health care professionals, lawyers, and engineers.
Hence chaos, fraud, disorder and misunderstanding.

"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education" - Mark Twain


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M.K.A.
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October 8, 2015 9:54 pm  

I received 3 years of NRSA funding from 2012-2015. I signed the Payback agreement stating I would "pay back" the salary I received in my first year by accepting a 2nd year of funding and doing the subsequent work I proposed, which was written as a 3-year grant. If I chose to leave my postdoc position I could fulfill the payback agreement with 20+ hr/week of health-related teaching or research. As another commenter mentioned, this must have been a T32 grant - an F32 NRSA fellowship is written by the postdoc him/herself and is generally written as a 3-year grant. You wouldn't write an NRSA proposal without the understanding that it (hopefully) results in 3 years of postdoc funding.

In my case, my research did not go entirely as planned. I re-routed some experiments and explained my results in yearly progress reports. No one took away my funding because of an incorrect hypothesis (or in my case, mice that didn't breed well). The negative comments here are a little surprising. The purpose of the NRSA mechanism is to ensure the presence of a pool of new/young researchers to carry out the long-term mission plans of the NIH. If the NIH gave out fellowships left and right and half those people left the health sciences, it would be a tremendous drain on funds. The payback agreement simply ensures that you don't take a year's worth of trainee salary and then fly the coop.

I would be much more concerned about the PI who either pulled a bait-and-switch in hiding the payback conditions or who just flat-out didn't know about it (it's very clearly stated on the NRSA website).


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SRD
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October 16, 2015 8:27 pm  

NRSA payback is not an issue as long as you plan to stay in science. I had a T32 for one year and an F32 for two years. Both fellowships had a payback clause. One year on T32 I "payed back" by staying in the same lab doing the same research, "year for a year".
For 2-year NRSA funding, second year on NRSA pays for the first year. If you have a 3-year NRSA funding, the third year pays for it self. So really only the first year needs to be payed back.
I did have a 2-year F32, but I left the lab after spending 9 months on F32 for a job in industry. I fulfilled my payment by doing industrial research.
One thing to remember is that "science work" here is vaguely defined. You don't need to do bench-work to fulfill your payment obligation. If your work has any connection with science you will fulfill your payment. Teaching also counts.
Also, as an advice for those of you planning to apply for NRSA F32: if there is a chance not to do it, don't do it. Though this is a competitive fellowship, it is not an award to you. It is an award to your PI - he/she gets you for free! Especially since NIH shortened the eligibility for K99 to maximum 4 postdoc years, don't waste your time on F32 application.

Cheers!


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MLC
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October 23, 2015 3:18 am  

I thought this article was exactly on-point, and reflects my own experience. I was not informed about the payback agreement until I was asked to sign it during my first week of work. It wasn't a big deal to me at the time because A) I suspected that the 'funding line' (the term that was used during interview/recruitment) was a T32, and B) I *did* plan to stay in research. But, even then, I thought the way it was presented was very underhanded.

Since signing on, I've discovered that training grants are a really bad deal for many reasons:

1. 'Trainees' don't get any benefits. Other postdocs get treated as employees, and as employees, they get health benefits, dental, dependent care, FSA accounts, short-term disability, FMLA... the full benefits package of an employee. T32s get nothing and, according to my institution, this is due to how the NIH insists T32s are administered.

2. Hold on... I'm a 'trainee'? What? I have over a decade of professional experience and more technical expertise than anyone in my lab-- which is why I was recruited. A postdoc is a job that does not result in any degree, education, or certification. This isn't graduate school (and I could actually see an argument made for payback on pre-doctoral training grants-- but there is none in that case). Postdocs in this funding climate are recruited for the skills they already possess. They don't get to choose their postdoc based upon what they want or need to learn. I receive no more training than my peers funded on R01's who have no payback obligation and get full employee benefits. As a matter of fact, it is part of my job to train technicians, graduate students, medical residents, and undergrads-- none of whom have payback obligations of any sort.

3. You cannot negotiate your salary because PIs can't supplement your stipend off federally-funded grants. And there is no cost-of-living adjustment for very expensive areas of the country like NYC. The average postdoc salary at my institution is ~60K. My NIH trainee stipend is ~40K. Because I'm on a 'prestigious' T32, I'm paid less.

4. 'Trainees' can even get paid less than the current NIH minimum, depending on the funding cycle of the training grant. I get paid the NIH minimum from 2 years ago, not the current NIH minimum.

5. Maternity leave is all screwed up for T32s. Here's the deal: new parents get the lesser of 8 weeks paid leave or whatever other postdocs at your institution get. Because other postdocs at my institution can buy short-term disability insurance, there is no institutional policy regarding paid maternity leave. So T32s here likewise get no paid leave. BUT we also can't get short-term disability because 'trainees' can't get the benefits other postdocs qualify for. Furthermore, FMLA does not protect T32 fellowships. So if a PI or program administrator determines pregnancy/maternity leave is unacceptable, the fellowship can be terminated, and the fellow can wind up owing the NIH massive amounts of money (payback agreement) because they had the fortune to have a child while on a T32. Maternity leave also can't be terminal for 'trainees'-- so if your kid is due towards the end of your fellowship, I have no idea where that leaves you. Probably you would have to 'payback' the months/weeks you took for maternity leave, regardless of medical necessity.

6. Taxes. Tax payments for T32s/NRSA recipients are such a logistical headache I won't even get into it here...

7. THE ONE-SIDED PAYBACK AGREEMENT. You owe the money whether you leave or are terminated (at fault or not, it doesn't matter, you owe the money or service to the NIH if you don't stay for 2 years).

And the payback agreement BECAME a big deal for me. You never know what can and will change over 2 years of your life, or what will change in the lab you've signed on to. My family has suddenly and unexpectedly been faced with significant hardship. At the same time, the once well-funded lab I'm in has been hemorrhaging funding and failed to renew service contracts on critical equipment. So I have no equipment, no reagents, no real opportunity to progress professionally here-- and at the same time, I need to earn more to support my family. But, because of the payback agreement terms, I'm rotting here, unable to take a more lucrative position, unable to even do the science I came here to do.

The jobs that would satisfy the payback agreement just don't reflect what's available in the biomedical marketplace today. Industry is unfortunately not hiring in my field in the research-intensive positions that would satisfy the payback agreement and teaching jobs are few and far between. Who is hiring? Data science, patent law, medical marketing and advertising, healthcare consulting. None of these positions satisfy the payback agreement.

Between the lack of benefits, lower pay, poor maternity leave policies, the tax situation, and the one-sided payback agreement, it is no wonder that administrators and PIs have to lie to postdoctoral candidates to get them onto these T32 grants (which have a citizenship requirement, FYI, so if you're a foreign postdoc reading this, this is something that you fortunately don't have to worry about!). It must be getting harder and harder to fill these spots with American PhDs as every T32 I've spoken to at my institution was lied to in one way or another (about salary, benefits, conditions, payback, etc). I personally was lied to about everything from my salary to benefits and maternity leave on my interview.

Once I was here, there was nothing I could do. Yes, T32 trainees have to sign a payback agreement with the NIH but the administrators and PIs who oversee their hire have no obligation to the NIH or to trainees or to anyone else past the NIH's 'suggestion' that they disclose the terms of the T32...

It may be legal. But that does not mean it's in any way ethical.


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PACN
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October 27, 2015 4:14 pm  

MLC, it certainly sounds like you got a raw deal, but it sounds to me like it is more your institution than the T32 that was the cause. At the two institutions I've been at, T32 or F32 trainees get the same benefits as all the other postdocs-- in one case, that was no benefits except health insurance, in the other it is full staff benefits. Although it is true that they cannot supplement your salary with federal funds, most institutions have allowances for labs to supplement with non-federal funds (e.g., departmental funds, gift funds, etc.). In at least one of the institutions I was at, in a high cost of living area, the institution set their own minimum salary for postdocs, which was higher than the NRSA level. No exceptions. That's also true for graduate student stipeds, which is many places is higher than the NIH guidelines as well. Every place I've ever been has a maternity leave policy in place and postdocs qualify for it. It's pathetic-- 6 weeks paid or partially paid leave-- but that's the US.


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M. Lee
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October 28, 2015 10:56 pm  

PACN, I've worked at a lot of institutions by this point in my career and surveyed postdocs from many others over the past year when my efforts to advocate for myself got nowhere. My institution is far from alone in having multiple 'classes' of postdocs. The NSF fellows definitely have the sweetest deals 🙂

The business administration department of my current R1 institution claims that it is in fact illegal to accord T32s the benefits accorded to employees/other postdocs, according to the letter of NIH policy, and that doing so could in fact open them up to a lawsuit by the NIH. A close reading of the fine print of NIH T32 grants does support their interpretation although the litigious nature of the NIH came as a surprise to me. So, while at first I blamed my institution, I now feel the blame does rest entirely with the NIH. At best, the NIH is tacitly supporting inequitable treatment of T32s and NRSA fellows by not explicitly stating that all postdocs funded by the NIH MUST be treated equitably in terms of benefits/salary (on top of requiring T32s/NRSA postdocs alone to sign payback agreements).

SUCH a mistake... I cannot explain how trapped I feel and how awful this has been for my family. The T32 has, above all, taught me that I never want to deal with the NIH again.


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Andy Spencer
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November 13, 2015 8:57 am  

The government is providing money to train life scientists. They want the people they train to either (a) train for two years, or (b) work in a life science related field for up to one year. Doesn't seem like that big of a deal to me, but yes the University should make it crystal clear. Also, a postdoc should often apply for their own fellowship upon arriving in the postdoctoral lab. Having your own funding is ideal and lends you credibility with the boss. Once you get your own funding you can switch over and avoid the situation entirely.

Work under fellowship for two years, no obligation. Work under fellowship for one year and get any job related to life sciences for a year, no obligation. Work for one year under fellowship and move to Vail to ski, you pay it back. Solution, move to Vail right after grad school!

Andy


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Dave Walker
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November 13, 2015 8:40 pm  

Solution, move to Vail right after grad school!

Finally, a universally good piece of advice that nobody should argue with 😀

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


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