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Stanford Report, April 5, 2000

Postdocs and administrators collaborate on concerns about working conditions  

BY RUTHANN RICHTER

More than 150 postdoctoral fellows from the School of Medicine and the University discussed a variety of concerns about pay, benefits and employment status with officials from the University administration March 21 at a Town Hall Forum.

More than 1,200 postdocs work at Stanford, including some 940 in the School of Medicine. Postdocs -- whose average age is 32 -- are considered students in the University community, meaning they must pay $940 in quarterly tuition and lack the benefits of University employment.

Stanford postdocs receive an annual stipend of between $26,000 and $33,000, depending on years of experience -- about 28 percent less than the stipend received by postdocs at the National Institutes of Health in the more affordable area of Bethesda, Md., said Mark Siegal, PhD, a postdoc in biological sciences. With the high cost of living in Santa Clara County, Stanford postdocs are forced to live at "poverty level," Siegal told some 150 of his colleagues assembled in Fairchild Auditorium.

"When we talk about [increasing] these salaries, we're not talking about getting rich," Siegal said. "We're talking about getting by."

In keeping with a national trend, postdocs at Stanford began to organize last summer to improve their working conditions. Nationally, postdocs at research universities find themselves as part of an "invisible" class, with barely sustainable salaries and difficulties in finding jobs in an increasingly tight market, Jodeane Pringle, PhD, a postdoc in developmental biology and genetics, told the audience. As a result, new postdoc organizations have sprung up at research universities around the country, she said.

In December, the new political arm of the Stanford University Postdoc Association (SUPD) presented a series of proposals to the provost, including a request for reduced tuition, higher stipends, improved benefits, access to University housing, a change in student status and better methods for resolving conflicts with principal investigators, said Audrey Ettinger, PhD, a neurobiologist and postdoc in psychology.

On March 16, University President Gerhard Casper and the deans of all the schools met to consider those recommendations and agreed to a number of positive changes, Michael Cowan, associate dean of student affairs at the School of Medicine, reported at the recent Town Hall forum. These include a "significant reduction" in tuition and a requirement to make health insurance a paid benefit for all postdocs in the University. Currently, principal investigators in the School of Medicine are required to pay the cost of health insurance for their postdocs, she said.

The School of Medicine also has agreed to a three-year phase-in of the NIH payscale for its postdocs beginning October 1, Cowan said.

The University, however, was unable to make a commitment to provide subsidized housing to post-docs, she said. Charles Kruger, the University's dean of research, said that the University is well aware of the housing shortage generally for students and is actively working on the issue.

"We're not insensitive to the problem," Kruger told the group, "but we have to realize that nothing is going to happen to resolve that problem in the next couple of years."

Some postdocs said they still remain concerned about their continued status as students. The University is unprepared to change their status now but will conduct an ongoing review of the issue, Cowan said.

Tomas Wasow, associate dean for graduate policy at the University, noted that for many years postdocs at research universities have essentially functioned as employees of principal investigators. For universities to intrude into that relationship and alter the status of postdocs will require a wholesale change in culture at research institutions nationwide, he told the group. "And culture changes don't occur overnight," he said.

Some post-docs acknowledged that they have made good progress in just six months and that it will take time before their grievances are fully redressed.

"We're happy that the University has been responsive and that the changes have been mostly positive," Ettinger said in an interview. "There are still some issues that need to be resolved." SR