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This is insane!! Indentured servitude is back

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Re: This is insane!! Indentured servitude is back

Postby BMK » Wed Sep 30, 2015 10:46 am

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:

Parker wrote: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.

Parker wrote: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.

Parker wrote: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?

Parker wrote: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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Re: This is insane!! Indentured servitude is back

Postby Dave Walker » Wed Sep 30, 2015 10:57 am

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.
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Re: This is insane!! Indentured servitude is back

Postby Dave Jensen » Wed Sep 30, 2015 12:40 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.

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Re: This is insane!! Indentured servitude is back

Postby RSD » Wed Sep 30, 2015 4:19 pm

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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Re: This is insane!! Indentured servitude is back

Postby Parker » Wed Sep 30, 2015 10:49 pm

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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Re: This is insane!! Indentured servitude is back

Postby Craig B. » Thu Oct 01, 2015 9:32 am

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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Re: This is insane!! Indentured servitude is back

Postby PACN » Thu Oct 01, 2015 2:38 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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Re: This is insane!! Indentured servitude is back

Postby Dave Jensen » Thu Oct 01, 2015 3:14 pm

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

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Re: This is insane!! Indentured servitude is back

Postby Yandorio » Fri Oct 02, 2015 9:08 am

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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Re: This is insane!! Indentured servitude is back

Postby BMK » Fri Oct 02, 2015 10:20 am

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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