Monday, August 27, 2018

Columbia lawyers argue that postdocs are not employees, they're trainees

Via Gary McDowell, (amidst Columbia University's recent postdoctoral unionization drive), a rather shocking and candid statement from their legal team and research administration:
If provided an opportunity to present evidence to show that postdoctoral trainees at Columbia are not employees under Section 2(3) of the Act, the University will present witnesses including, but not limited to Michael Purdy, Executive Vice President for Research. Dr. Purdy will testify to the following facts to show that postdoctoral trainees are not employees under Columbia University:  
(1) Postdoctoral trainees are merely "trainees" who, despite having a PhD degree, still require significant education, mentoring, and training in order to learn how to successfully conduct independent research....
...(5) Unlike other employees of the University, postdoctoral trainees are not "hired" based on their skills and ability to perform specific job tasks. Instead, the University appoints postdoctoral trainees to research positions based on their fit within a particular lab or with a particular principal investigator and their prior experience conducting mentored research....
(6) The tasks performed by postdoctoral trainees are fundamentally educational and are part of their training.... 
...Similarly, here, postdoctoral trainees seek such positions not to earn a living but to learn - for a temporary period of time - how to conduct independent research under the educations instruction and mentorship of a principal investigator. The trainees conduct research and perform tasks as part of the learning process. Their compensation is also generally fixed and does not vary based on the extent of services rendered. 
As I said on Twitter, I'm sure that the likeliest response is "well, this is language cooked up by our lawyers and we greatly value our important postdoctoral employees trainees..." Also, what does (1) mean for Columbia Ph.D.s and their ability to perform independent research without postdoctoral training? Surely some PUIs expect a research component and are willing to try out a freshly-graduated Ph.D? (not many, granted.)

19 comments:

  1. Replace "conduct independent research" with "lead a small group of beauro crats" and 90% of college administrators are trainees.

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  2. In my experience, a grad student is either a student or an employee depending on which classification is convenient for the university at the time!

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  3. I'm not opposed to thinking of the postdoc experience as a fellowship or additional training period, but to say that Phds are not yet ready to conduct independent research is hogwash. I recognize that there are many postdocs out there who lead subgroups and work on proposals, but most new faculty coming into a university straight out of a postdoc still have the "deer in the headlights" look about them when it actually comes time to startup and manage the operations of a research group. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this either--in fact, it's a form of professional growth that is difficult to simulate under other conditions. If anything, I'd argue that postdoc positions do a fine job at delaying the plunge into reality, whether it be to an academic post or industrial position.

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  4. When I left graduate school, the main reason my advisor gave for advising me to do so was that I wasn't able (or hadn't shown the capacity to) prosecute independent research - I couldn't take a research project from inception to terminus (likely a paper, but at least some sort of conclusive body of research, perhaps). I don't know if his conception of research is general, but since it was also based in part on the perceptions of potential employers (and he had enough experience to know), then I would assume that it is held by a significant fraction of chemists. Given that, saying that postdocs can't perform those tasks is inconsistent with the expectations of many of the people involved in the research enterprise.

    An appropriate defense might be to look at the responsibilities Columbia's professors expect of postdocs. In synthesis it might be different, but for my advisor, postdocs were closer to mini-profs than students, with more leadership responsibilities over projects, grants, and input into reviews. If that's the case at Columbia, then their statements don't hold water.

    KT (and previously, Derek Lowe) have had the sentiment I'd buy that postdocs will have whatever role costs Columbia the least and imposes the least risk on them. Between this and Sames-Sezen, I'd have to think before I took a position at Columbia as anything but a professor (which I don't have to worry about, in any case).

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  5. PUI prof here. Saw this on Twitter and I really think you're reading too much into in. When I did a postdoc, it was to acquire additional training and mentorship that enabled me to be a more competitive applicant to my current position. Could I have done this job without a postdoc? Almost certainly. But I'm definitely doing it better because of mentorship and training acquired during my PDF.

    People get hired at PUIs with no postdoc. People get hired in industry with no postdoc. One does a postdoc to acquire additional skills, mentorship, and training, ideally in the context of a longer-term career goal (e.g. point 2 in the statement). That Columbia document doesn't mention PhDs who aren't postdocs, because, presumably, they don't need additional training to do those jobs. I don't see that as a controversial assertion. It's the literal definition of a postdoc. The NIH uses similar mentorship/training language to describe F32 and K99 fellows, the creme de la creme of postdocs.

    "Independent," simply means status as a PI. Not the ability to run an assay without someone looking over their shoulder. Nothing in the literal reading of that statement devalues a PhD, and I'm sure you've got the data to indicate that plenty of employers value a "PhD / no postdoc" enough to hire them.

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    1. You could certainly be right. As I said on Twitter, Columbia's response when confronted will be to say that this is fronting in order to save a pile of money.

      That said, I still think this kind of language is unnecessarily insulting. If the phrasing had been "how better to conduct independent research" or some other vaguely ameliorative term, I'd be less irritated.

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    2. My guess is they needed more "forceful" (for the lack of a better term) wording to make their point. If they simply said "how better to conduct independent research" it would be a grey area (in lawyer-speak). So, they needed different language to make their point.

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    3. As PUI, I am guessing there's more emphasis on teaching vs research schools. As a post-doc how much formal training was completed at the Education Department to be a good teacher? Or Psychology department to become better at student-teacher conflict resolutions?

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    4. Glad you asked.

      * Guest-lectured for my PI and other faculty in the dept. 3-4 times.
      * Taught a full-semester class myself at a local college.
      * Half-day workshops on pedagogy, course development, syllabus-writing, grant-writing, paper-writing, and other professional development type stuff every 2-4 weeks or so.

      A good PD mentor will let you adjunct somewhere to get "real" teaching experience, or at least guest lecture several times. Most large research universities have frequent professional development opportunities like point 3 above; it's still on you to Show Up for them. And the ACS P2F workshop offers additional training of that nature, as well as a job-application review. Can't recommend that last one enough.

      Additionally, several schools offer fantastic opportunities to get additional training, from research mentoring, to teaching training, to entire fellowships:
      https://chemh.stanford.edu/programs/undergrad-programs/ugs-mentors
      https://wiscience.wisc.edu/WPST-program
      https://www.bu.edu/chemistry/faculty/pff/
      https://www.nigms.nih.gov/Training/CareerDev/Pages/TWDInstRes.aspx

      The opportunities are there; it's incumbent on the trainee to find them, and a good mentor to assist in that process. Those four are just off the top of my head.

      CJ, I still don't think it's insulting, but just the literal definition of "postdoc". Except maybe in the sense that nobody actually wants to do a postdoc, much less be reminded of why :)

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    5. We'll have to agree to disagree. Thanks for your thoughtful rebuttals/comments. - CJ

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    6. I think it's worth mentioning that the experiences highlighted here are not true for many (I'd say likely the majority) or post-docs. Most are hired for a skillset to get data on a particular project without the need for training that goes into graduate students. Many schools don't require IDPs or any sort of mentoring for post-docs.

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    7. Of course it's an extreme example. But the links give you an idea of what's available at ~15 different schools.

      Most reputable universities should have an Postdoctoral Office that offers frequent career development and mentoring opportunities. Even Columbia has one with what looks like 3 FTEs on staff, and 15 events scheduled for September: https://research.columbia.edu/office-postdoctoral-affairs

      It's just like grad school--if you choose a bad mentor, you'll get bad mentoring. Don't pick a lab that hasn't placed people in the career situation you want (it seems obvious, right?) Chemistry's a small community and everyone's reputation precedes them.

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    8. I appreciate the data - the only rejoinder I have is that my job has similar training for us, and yet we aren't called trainees and assumed to be immune from workplace protections - we're assumed to be employees, with some responsibility for our further education.

      It's been a while since I was in grad school, but training (any sort of explicit training) made up very little of their time - they learned mostly by doing, similar to (what used to be) other jobs. If someone is a trainee and not an employee, then training should be most of what they're doing, and I suspect that's not the case.

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  6. In synthesis, more often than not you are hired as a post doc to drive forward a research program with as little training as possible. The PI is specifically hiring a post doc as they can produce results from day 1, unlike grad students who typically need a year or two to come up to speed. In my experience, the occasionss when the PI was forced to "train" a postdoc were shrouded in shame, and carried out with a heavy dose of cynicism to remind the postdoc that they should not have required any training in their capacity as a postdoc. The idea that the Columbia team put forth actually sounds like a good scenario, in terms of what they propose a postdoc constitutes. Unfortunately, at least for synthesis labs in USA, that is a far cry from reality.

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  7. A postdoc should be a period of training, a bridge to becoming a PI. As such if a post doc is spending all of their time running reactions similar to those done in grad school then it is a waste of time. To justify Columbia's position here, postdocs should be spending significant time writing grant proposals, writing manuscripts, reviewing manuscripts, developing budgets and/or curricula for classes they would teach. If their postdocs are doing this that's great. My suspicion is that most of them spend almost all of their time at the bench producing data.

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  8. From my grad school experience, I've never seen a post-doc do anything different from senior grad. student.

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    1. What is he supposed to do? If the boss asks the post-doc help senior grad.student graduate fast, seems like a plan!

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  9. If post-doc is an educational position and not an employee position, where is the training? Does Columbia (or anywhere else) have any? if they don't (and they've basically given that charge to professors) then how do they know if the training is being done or what is being taught (or that it is taught competently or not)? If you're training for a PUI, where is the training for teaching or class preparation?

    If you're arguing that PDF are trainees, then you should be able to point to what training you're giving them and how you evaluate its quality. If you can't do that (and I suspect that they can't) then it seems hard to argue that you're training them or trying to do so. If it's an apprenticeship (which is what I assumed) then what is Columbia's role other than to cash the overhead checks?

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