Monday, April 3, 2017

The Postdoc Titling Kerfluffle Continues

Previously, on "The Postdoc Titling Kerfluffle", there was a letter, and then a counter-letter. And now, a second letter in support:
I’m on the side of Andrew Lovinger in viewing that postdocs are not students (C&EN, Feb. 20, page 4). I am a postdoc in a federal lab, but I seem to have an experience similar to other non-postdoc contractors. 
Those who hire postdocs must say it’s an educational, and hence student-like, experience for one simple reason: It makes the postdocs cheaper. If there is no educational benefit, there is no FICA exemption. With the option between one Ph.D. researcher (including Social Security and Medicare taxes, benefits, etc., beyond the salary) or two postdocs (only a stipend) for the same cost, which would you choose? 
In short, I don’t believe postdocs are students, but for tax purposes, it is advantageous for our sponsoring institutions to classify us as such. 
Ian McAninch
Abingdon, Md. 
I have no dog in this fight, but it is fascinating to me that it continues. 

(Is it really true that if there is no educational benefit, there is no FICA exemption?) 


  1. I'm disabled and on the cusp of retirement, but I still haven't maxed out my social security benefits in part because my postdoctoral years didn't contribute to my retirement in any way. SS is based on your best 35 years of covered earnings.

  2. "(Is it really true that if there is no educational benefit, there is no FICA exemption?) "

    At the federal level, it all depends on how they classify you. A postdoc brought in on a training award (IRTA at NIH) will be classified under 1099 and will not contain an employer addition to FICA but the post-doc that is a citizen of the USA better be paying their full tax burden which should add to SSA. If they are brought in as a Post-doctoral Fellow they are paid as a government employee.

  3. I wonder if by doing an international post-doc you can get around the post-doc title. I will have to check what my official title was on the paperwork when I did a post-doc at overseas university. I believe it was Researcher with a number behind it. If so, from now on I am putting research scientist on my resume instead of post-doc.

  4. If postdocs are students, where is the educational component in their duties? In my second-hand experience, it doesn't seem as if there is much of one, or at least one that can be distinguished easily from any that you would go through as an employee starting a new job. No classes, for example (unless they're teaching for the prof).

    Dr. Lowe has noted something like postdoc status with graduate students - graduate students will have the status that costs the university less money or makes it more money (no, consistency is not relevant). When universities have the upper hand (or anyone, probably), they act like five-year olds trying to get what they want.

    1. Yes, well, universities...American ones, anyway...seem to want EVERYTHING both ways. Just think of your dear alma mater ("bounteous mother") that would have kicked you out on our ear if you'd missed a tuition payment. The business of education is, at its core, a contradiction.

    2. It's not inherently a contradiction - you can make enough money to fund activities and no more. The behavior or organizations and individuals, though, is to accrete power and look after their own well-being, respectively, and so those tend to conflict with their (alleged) primary mission once they get big enough (and to run a university, they have to get big enough). Add the unwillingness of states to see education as a value and this is what you get.

      The hypocrisy, I think, bugs lots of people - while education and care for students are universities' nominal missions, they seem relatively uninterested in actually performing those tasks...until someone threatens to hold them to the rules of their (secondary?) mission of making money (or to the rules that others doing their work have to obey) or to either deprive them of revenue or prevent them from making money in one of the ways to which they are accustomed, at which point, universities tout their educational mission and hope no one notices how they behave.

  5. Let's just stick with calling them indentured servants and keep it as that.

  6. Paying postdocs tiny salaries seems to be a North American thing. In many other countries (definitely UK, Australia, New Zealand and I think most European countries) postdocs are paid 10-15% less than entry-level academics, which seems roughly appropriate to their training.

    Eg. here in Aus, postdocs get AU$86,500 (US$66,000) and academics start on AU$94,500 (US$72,000). When you're paying postdocs this much, they're definitely not students!!

  7. Ian McAninch strikes at the heart of the matter: $$$$$$$$$$$$

    The rest of the discussion is semantics laced with gray area. Someone could postdoc in a field they know relatively little about and not be considered a student despite the serious training they might need, but then again someone could postdoc in a field they know relatively well and be treated as a student despite the fact that they'll need little background on their new projects. How do you reconcile those extremes and scenarios between it with one, neat job title?