Johns Hopkins Magazine -- February 1999
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Underpaid, overworked, and often under-regarded, today's postdocs find themselves locked in a limbo that can stretch on for years.

S C I E N C E    &    T E C H N O L O G Y

The Postdoc's Plight
By Joanne P. Cavanaugh
Illustration by Anita Kunz

When Thomas Alva Edison set up his industrial research lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, in the late 1870s, the famed inventor knew best how to become a legend: hire a staff of smart, innovative, and dedicated young engineers to create some of the world's technological advances. Edison penned his name to more than 1,000 patents, many of which bore the mark of those minds.

"Genius," the master inventor once said, "is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." Edison often declined to delineate whose.

Today, much of the startling new science being accomplished at Hopkins, and across the nation, is fueled by a large group of relatively unknown, highly educated research "trainees." Called postdoctoral fellows, or "postdocs," this huge scientific population garners little of the respect that most people imagine a group of PhDs would warrant.

"The most unappreciated positions in science are the trainees," says renowned Hopkins oncology professor Bert Vogelstein. "Not only in our labs, but in virtually every lab in the world. They are underpaid, overwhelmed, and under-regarded by any standard.

"Virtually all scientific work is done by them," Vogelstein says of postdocs and graduate students. "They are not only doing lab techniques, they are thinking of [experiments] and designing them. They are responsible for the incredible success in cancer research."

Model Mentors
On the Bay 1 fridge in Bert Vogelstein's cancer research laboratory is a penned note: "The Most Highly Cited Refrigerator in the World." Next to that felt tip-marked assertion are a few other scribbles that read, "Bay 1 to World: Bite Me" and "Bay of Pigs." Full story...
Yet ask most anyone about postdocs, and you are likely to draw a perplexed gaze. Two years ago, David Levine, a professor of medicine, was named director of the Department of Medicine's Office of Postdoctoral Fellowship Programs. The office, among other recent efforts at Hopkins, was created to give a voice, and some power, to postdocs. Still, Levine often finds himself explaining his ombudsman's job.

"In general, people understand the idea of medical students, nursing students, and PhD students," Levine says. "They know that lawyers and doctors go to professional schools and have internships. But to the general public, what postdocs do is quite vague."

Thousands of postdocs, here and elsewhere, work in a sort of limbo--they're not quite students, not quite faculty or staff. Typical pay is $25,000 and there's a litany of status issues they'd like to improve, including lack of intellectual ownership of data or credit for scientific advances, and limited access to health care and other benefits.

Partly because some job markets in academia are tight, rising numbers of postdocs are doing two and even three successive research fellowships--exacerbating problems that were once passing irritants for scientists on stopovers to full-time careers as professors or senior researchers. Some fellows are looking at the horizon of their 40th birthday before they find their first real jobs. And that can really rub.

Hopkins postdoctoral association officers Nancy Johnston, Sharyl Nass, and Djikolngar Maouyo provide a voice for Medicine's 1,000 postdocs.
Photo by Mike Ciesielski
"We feel like we are not being treated like grown-ups, like adults," says Sharyl Nass, co-vice president of the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association (JHPDA), created in 1992 as the first of its kind in the country. Nass points out: "If you take away the postdocs, research would come to a screeching halt."

As designed, the postgraduate program--through mentoring--trains independent research scientists in challenging fields: oncology, physics, chemistry, neurology, public health, engineering, genetics, and social sciences. Ideally, the two- to four-year fellowships allow fledgling scientists to gain the investigative techniques and experience needed to attract grant money and set up their own research labs--the entrepreneurial engines in America's pursuit of new science.

Hopkins, it so happens, was apparently the U.S. birthplace of postdoctoral fellowships. In the 1870s, high-level apprenticeships became part of the new European-modeled research institution--the first of its kind in the States. Like then-unstructured PhD programs, the individualized fellowship approach spread as other American research universities were formed. And "postdoc power," as one researcher describes it, has boomed in the technology-oriented decades since World War II.

Today, the postdoc population is huge, and growing. While fellows are scattered across Hopkins departments (Economics, History, and English each has one fellow), most work for the School of Medicine. In research labs in unassuming brick buildings dotting the East Baltimore campus, nearly 1,000 postdoctoral fellows work, compared to the 660 medical interns and residents. Postdocs outnumber medical students by two to one, and, as a group, are more than half as big as the school's entire 1,800-member faculty. The number of postdocs has increased steadily, up 21 percent since 1993-94, according to the medical school's Office of Postdoctoral Programs.

"Postdocs, overall, are the most important element of this academic environment," says Levi Watkins Jr., the medical school's associate dean for postdoctoral programs, who has fought for changes for fellows. "They probably should have been recognized all along."

Althought many top university researchers work hard to provide a learning experience that will help fellows in future careers, other senior scientists are taking advantage of what some call a highly educated, cheap labor force.
BY MOST ANYONE'S CALL, elements of the postdoctoral fellowship system nationally have gone seriously awry. In some labs, postdocs are little more than semi-anonymous research temps or glorified technicians. Although many top university researchers work hard to provide a learning experience that will help fellows in future careers, other senior scientists are taking advantage of what some postdocs and administrators call a highly educated, cheap labor force.

"That's a fair assessment," says Gary Ostrander, associate dean for research at Hopkins's Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts & Sciences, where this year nearly 140 postdocs work in physics, chemistry, biology, and other disciplines. "If you have a postdoc [working] in your lab, it's incumbent on you as an advisor to mentor them. Unfortunately there are many examples where postdocs are used basically as grunt labor."

Take the case of Anita Smith (whose name has been changed to provide anonymity). Smith was instructed by her Hopkins mentor to apply for a grant from the National Institutes of Health, called an NIH First Award, a career development grant for young scientists. The money was supposed to support the postdoc's own salary and research, and would mean a promotion to junior faculty status.

For two years, Smith generated preliminary data on the effects of drugs on gene expression in cells, then wrote and submitted the grant proposal. NIH answered back. To get the funding, grant reviewers told Smith, you need to be named a "research associate" or a similar short-term junior faculty position that guarantees lab space. The mentor did not support the application for the promotion, and the grant was not funded.

What happened to Smith then, according to the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association, may exemplify one of the worst type of abuses found in the currrent system:

The mentor apparently used the data and ideas in the original grant proposal to get funding from a private foundation, with himself listed as the principal investigator. The foundation provided no funding for the postdoc's salary. After the grant was awarded, the mentor told Smith she should seek another job. Among other things, she was told she wasn't good enough and productive enough to work in his lab. Smith was devastated. All along, she says, her mentor told her she was an "outstanding scientist." No written performance evaluations are required for postdocs.

Dissatisfaction among postdoctoral fellows is rising nationwide, according to the Association of American Universities, which released a report on postdoctoral education in early 1998. The AAU, which represents 62 top North American research universities, including Hopkins, also found:

  • A steady growth in the number of postdocs nationwide.

  • Increased number of postdocs in their second, third, and even fourth appointments.

  • A widely held perception that postdoctoral appointments are being used as an employment holding pattern.

  • The transition, in some disciplines, of fellowships from an elective activity to a required credential.

    In early November, officers of the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association arranged a meeting of fellows in a Department of Oncology lab to talk to Hopkins Magazine about these issues. The topics covered reflect concerns found elsewhere at Hopkins and other universities. For three hours, frustrations ricocheted around the small lounge decorated with a kidney-shaped glass table, bookshelves lined by outdated journals, and a pale green couch and blue reclining chair that serve as makeshift beds during nights spent checking time-course experiments.

    Because the postdoctoral fellows are almost solely dependent on mentors for lab-related recommendations (a wrong word could kill a career), they are unwilling to discuss specifics they fear will openly identify them.

    Many of the situations they described are typical. In one, a mentor tells a postdoc she won't get a job recommendation if she doesn't drop outside skill-building activities, like teaching. Or, facing a tough job market, another postdoc fails to mention he has a PhD--saying he only has a master's--because a corporate employer says he would be overeducated for the job. Another fellow stays in the lab until after midnight to finish experiments her mentor asked her to do, just so she can find time to work on her own projects.

    There's the limbo status: In the School of Medicine, for example, postdocs are considered students (as they are elsewhere on campus). At Medicine, they get student-level insurance and are not eligible for other benefits, such as dental care or retirement. However, when it comes to parking they're considered employees, many paying the same $90 a month most faculty and staff pay. In some cases, postdocs find themselves truly in-between. For example, they cannot take courses in a degree-seeking program as either students or through employee tuition remission. (Some other courses may be covered, if approved by administrators). "I'd like to get away from the science sometimes and use the other half of my brain," says Ellie Carson-Walter, a postdoctoral fellow researching colorectal cancer.

    Postdocs are expected to work long hours in a lab--50 hours or more per week. Sometimes that means focusing on a particular lab technique they already know--not because it will help them prepare for a career but because those particular skills are needed in that lab, postdocs and administrators say.

    Consider this ad posted by a university in a recent issue of Science: "Postdoctoral position available immediately to investigate DNA adduct formation by metabolites of Tamoxifen using in vivo models. Candidate should have demonstrated experience in measurement of DNA adducts, 32P- postlabeling, and chemical synthesis."

    Or this one seeking a postdoctoral fellow "with experience in statistical biology, linkage analysis, association studies, mutation detection, and candidate gene screening. Postdoctoral fellows should have a PhD or MD in the appropriate areas of research [and] several years of experience."

    Clearly the goal in such cases is to hire highly specialized individuals at often dismal pay, $30,000 a year or less.

    Administrators admit that the fellowships can pose problems, but say outright exploitation of postdocs is rare at Hopkins. Officials say the university wants to keep the focus on student training to make sure the experiences build careers for Hopkins-quality scientists.

    "I know that it exists, but I know it is not frequent," Watkins says of multiple fellowships or other abuses within the School of Medicine. "I'm the one who has to look at all the stipends and appointments. If I see someone who has been here eight or nine years doing the same thing with no upward progression, I know they are in a fixed situation."

    Watkins admits his office cannot keep track of every case, unless problems are brought to his attention. "I am not a policeman," he says. Also, many postdocs who do successive appointments take two- and three-year stints at several universities.

    "The holding pattern of second and third postdocs is a relatively new phenomenon. I don't think anybody has the full answer," Levine says. "It's important to realize that there are two dimensions to that: Some people try to get a second one because they haven't been able to get a position [in academia]. There are others who could get positions but not the kind of positions they want."

    Also, for new scientists trying to establish themselves as "leading researchers," a single fellowship in some disciplines is no longer enough: "In neuroscience, genetics, and epidemiology, the knowledge base has increased so much that people need to borrow from other areas," Levine says.

    That means the training track could drag on years after the dissertation was filed on library shelves. Says Ostrander, a research professor in biology, "For people to be in postdoctoral positions for seven or 10 years is not uncommon."

    That can put a strain on personal lives, especially for women approaching their later childbearing years. Female postdocs here know others who have ended, or indefinitely postponed, research careers because the process is simply taking too long.

  • "For people to be in postdoctoral positions for seven or 10 years is not uncommon," says Arts & Sciences' Ostrander. That can put a strain on personal lives, especially for women approaching their later childbearing years.
    "It doesn't feel like an official job," says Jill Slansky, 30, a postdoctoral fellow in oncology. "It's nice to be independent and doing research, but everyone else my age has a house and baby and benefits and they say things about retirement!"

    Some postdocs say that their friends and family think they must be doing something wrong, that their situation is unusual. Hear a few voices: "My husband asks, 'When the hell are you going to get out? When does it end?'" says Ingrid Joseph, also a postdoctoral fellow in oncology who has a master's degree in reproductive physiology and endocrinology, a DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine), a PhD in reproductive biology and physiology, and is working on her second postdoc fellowship. She is in her late 30s.

    Or Ashani Weeraratna, 28, who works alongside Joseph in the Bond Street oncology labs: "My dad asked me, 'When am I going to get payback for all the college money I've put out?' I said, 'Dad, you are going to wait a long time.'"

    Some administrators say sacrifice is endemic to the higher pursuit of science: "The value of the education and training you derive has to be important enough to you that you are very clearly willing to sacrifice opportunities for more income," Levine says.

    As Vogelstein points out, financial prospects in academic research are never as tantalizing as in corporate or other sectors: "These people were straight-A students in college and all their peers are lawyers and doctors and businessmen who are literally making 10 times as much as they are. You have to be pretty darned dedicated to endure this."

    Postdocs understand the scientific contract. Says Joseph: "There are a lot of positives. We love what we do. We've had choices to chuck things and go. I don't want to give up. We came to science because we liked it, no one pushed us. But it can be improved."

    Hopkins is ahead of many universities in addressing issues that have drawn criticism from the AAU, among other groups. The School of Medicine has established minimum stipend levels, basic health care, and a certificate awarded upon "satisfactory completion" of a fellowship--all efforts that have been cited as national examples. And Levine's two-year-old office--which helps postdocs resolve problems with mentors--is a rarity elsewhere in the country. "Hopkins was one of the early institutions to take a hard look at its policies," John Vaughn, AAU's executive vice president, says. "And the postdocs there turned themselves into an organized, recognized process on campus."

    Department of Medicine chairman Edward Benz says he wanted an ombudsman because he was worried about the 250 to 300 fellows working in the department's dozen divisions. "I regard them as a vulnerable group in a critical time in their career," Benz says. "The divisions and labs can be doing a phenomenal job and still not have all the resources."

    Though Levine only mediates issues for postdocs in the Department of Medicine, he also advises the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association on the East Baltimore campus. Other universities have assigned administrators to oversee research trainees; and, as some graduate students elsewhere in the country push for unionization, the postdoctoral association idea is catching on. Colleges with associations include the University of Cincinnati, University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Utah.

    There's a primary reason for this: If postdocs across the country got up and walked out today, science probably would come to a messy halt. Consider the numbers. In just the 50 top research institutions--which include Hopkins, Harvard University, and Stanford University--the number of postdocs hit nearly 24,000 in 1995, according to National Science Foundation (NSF) figures cited in the AAU report. Experts from those groups add that many universities don't adequately track postdocs, so the numbers are likely higher.

    In addition, many are foreign postdocs from Asia or Latin America, which are now in financial crises. These scientists may be the most desperate. "The fall of the Soviet Union has dumped tons of people on the market. They can find a postdoc position here in the United States and will work for very little money," says Doug Green, associate dean for research at the Whiting School of Engineering, which has 47 postdocs, 83 percent of those foreign. In Engineering, foreign postdocs are not paid less than their lab colleagues, Green says.

    "We generate data and results for the lab and it's good for the institution," says Djikolngar Maouyo, 43, president of Hopkins's postdoctoral association. Maouyo, a Chad native, is on his third postdoctoral fellowship--in molecular biology at Hopkins. He has 10 years of research experience. He earns $36,000 and has three children. "I have to make a lot of sacrifices," he says.

    Maouyo is relatively lucky. A primary issue for postdocs remains pay. Postdoc salaries nationwide still range from no stipend at all to salaries that surpass the NIH standards. A lot is left up to each lab's primary researcher.

    Minimum NIH Postdoctorate Stipend Levels

    Even with years of experience, many School of Medicine postdocs can expect relatively dismal pay.

    The School of Medicine adopted NIH standards in the mid-1990s-- minimum annual salaries that range from $21,000 to $33,000. But, there could be a catch: stipends are linked to years of "relative experience." "We let the preceptor [mentor] make that determination," says Diane Voss, the medical school's administrator for postdoctoral programs, who admits that a few mentors try to cut costs this way. "If someone comes here with 10 years' experience and is assigned a [lower pay grade], a researcher may say, 'Only three years are relevant to what I'm doing in my lab.'"

    Elsewhere at Hopkins, centralized policy on stipends is rare. Public Health, which has about 90 postdocs, generally follows NIH guidelines, though each case is not specifically tracked, administrators say. Elsewhere on campus, primarily Arts & Sciences and Engineering, postdoc stipends vary from lab to lab as faculty members juggle trainees' pay with other grant needs. "Salary is a red hot issue," Green, of Engineering, says. "Faculty is not keen that we touch that."

    Watkins also points out that some of the complaints being heard from today's postdocs--mostly recent calls for dental care, better parking, and access to day care--are minor compared to what's been accomplished in the past several years at the School of Medicine. "They are small when you look at it globally," Watkins says. "Postdocs come and go, and many do not remember history."

    In June 1992, 700 Hopkins postdoctoral fellows held a mass meeting to protest problems at the School of Medicine: Some postdocs then worked for no salary, others didn't have basic health care. They had no real representation on campus. Today, the postdoctoral association meets regularly and has members on the School of Medicine's Joint Committee on House Staff and Postdoctoral Programs, although those meetings focus mostly on clinical programs and not the specific issues outlined here. As of yet, there is no similar postdoctoral fellow association at other Hopkins campuses.

    Back in 1992, as Watkins describes the scene, there were tremors of another, more familiar battle for equality.

    "What they said then was, 'We feel we are on the back of the bus, we have no voice," says Watkins, who was a civil rights activist in his college days. "These [new] problems and complaints sound incredible to me. If people still feel they are on the back of the bus, they might not know where the bus was."

    TODAY'S POSTDOC PLIGHT appears to center on three basic factors: Postdoctoral fellows are bargains to hire. Sharp minds are needed in increasingly competitive labs. And supply and demand realities mean PhDs outnumber some job openings in the academy.

    Call it a take on the 1990s "trim the fat" corporate mantra, but the first factor fueling the increase in postdocs is a nationwide trend to cut costs, a phenomenon also linked to the hiring of teaching assistants (graduate students), lecturers, and adjunct faculty. With salaries ranging from $3,000 to $35,000 a year, these instructors cost far less than faculty. (A full-time professor at Hopkins makes about $91,000, figures show.)

    Steven Sample, president of the University of Southern California, chaired the AAU's Committee on Postdoctoral Education that put out the 1998 report. "One of the reasons postdocs have become increasingly popular is because a postdoc is less expensive than a PhD student--you have to pay the PhD students' tuition plus a $15,000 stipend," Sample says. "And the postdoc spends 80 hours a week or more on research while the PhD has to go to class. That makes postdocs very, very attractive."

    Research universities like Hopkins also are aggressively competing for limited funding for sponsored research. To nab grants, scientists often need large, productive labs churning out findings. And, as scientific knowledge has grown, so has the need for people who have a greater understanding of what's already been discovered. Inexpensive, high-quality Edison-style inventors are ideal.

    Asssociate professor Nancy Davidson runs an oncology lab at the School of Medicine. "We work as a small business, so I have to fund all the research I do," Davidson says. "Other costs up my payroll and that ups my grant needs. On the one hand I'm sympathetic to the needs of postdocs, but that can make it difficult to get research done. It's a double-edged sword."

    "The complexion of science has changed dramatically," Vogelstein says. "It used to be individual scientists or a small group doing the work. Now, in general, the work is done in labs that have an average of 10 people. The PI [principal investigator] is often more of a director than an active scientist."

    NIH and NSF also limit postdoc stipends in grants they award, leaving it up to cash-strapped labs to find a way to pay more if they choose to. The federally funded science institutes can be picky since they have no shortage of applicants seeking funding. Ostrander says he asked a foundation director about the issue: "The response was: As long as people continue to work for those wages, and you get quality people, why raise the wage if the market doesn't dictate it?"

    At Homewood, some primary researchers are hankering to lure top-dollar postdoc talent. "I have faculty in physics who will tell me, 'I have the money in my grant to pay them $40,000 a year and give them full benefits,'" Ostrander says, "while others, such as those in the humanities, say, 'The most I can pay is $17,000, and I can't pay any benefits.' It puts us in a difficult position [and] creates a two-tiered system."

    In some cases, mentors remember the rosier research market of their training years. Some may discount postdocs' job worries, or even decide those postdocs doing two or three fellowships are simply not strong scientists.

    Yet today's reality is supply and demand, primary factors fueling the postdoc phenomenon: The number of PhDs coming out of the academy is mushrooming, and there aren't enough academic research jobs in some disciplines. Consider: In 1958, about 8,700 PhDs were awarded annually in the U.S. That number more than tripled by the early 1980s. By 1995, there were nearly 42,000 PhDs awarded, according to another AAU report released in October.

    This is causing an apparent glut. An especially chilling report by the National Research Council (NRC) shows the proportion of PhDs holding permanent jobs in the life sciences five or six years after graduation has decreased from 89 percent in 1973 to 62 percent in 1995.

    That report, cited in the September issue of Science, also highlighted the dangers of long-term transitory postdoctoral positions. Panel chair Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist at Princeton University, called it the "La Guardia effect." "A lot of trained scientists . . . are circling, burning up very important and useful fuel and waiting for their turn to land."

    Postdoctoral appointments, as temporary landing pads, therefore are growing. From 1975 to 1995, the number of fellowships in science, engineering, and health-related disciplines more than doubled to 35,000. And the proportion of PhDs accepting postdoctoral appointments in these disciplines has jumped from 25 percent in 1975 to nearly 40 percent by 1995, according to the AAU. "And it's not clear that it will roll back," says the AAU's Vaughn.

    Certain fields are hot now, meaning PhDs are more likely to get jobs with one or no postdoctoral fellowship. Those fields include genetics, gerontology, and molecular epidemiology. Areas with limited opportunities include psychology, anthropology, sociology, and some life sciences, including general biology.

    Some administrators say part of the fault lies with postdocs and graduate students: They need to do the homework before spending 15 years in a course of study. "If you're looking at a PhD in an area where it's difficult to find a position, you need to look at moving into a more open field," Vogelstein says.

    "When I was young I was as guilty as anyone about not thinking about the future. I enjoyed the intellectual challenge, I was not thinking about having to get a job or grants," Vogelstein says. "A lot of things that worry older people don't seem to worry younger people."

    Postdocs themselves admit there is a level of unpreparedness among their colleagues. "A lot of them are naive," says Anne Ferguson, in her second fellowship in cancer research at Hopkins. "If they think about the job situation, they say, 'No, I'm good enough.' There is a lot of idealism about the academy that is not like other places."

    Postdocs also cite a lack of useful career counseling. Former professors and others had told them not to worry--that faculty members would be retiring in the 1990s, creating a shortage in certain fields. "The Sputnik generation or Beatnik generation are all supposed to retire," says Carson-Walter.

    Some postdocs are moving into alternative fields--such as corporate or privately funded research institutions, or not-for-profit groups. That shift is encouraged by Watkins, Vogelstein, and others. But, the reality is, competition is tough in those areas, too. And postdocs who leave the campus culture may be viewed as less-than-Hopkins-level scientists. The familiar line is: "You're aiming too low."

    "We're communicating the idea that the only worthwhile career path is to follow in the steps of the PhD advisor," says Jeremy Berg, director of Biophysics and Biophysical Chemistry. "There are lots of other possibilities that are at least as attractive: biotechnology companies, pharmaceutical industries, and so forth."

    While some postdocs are moving into alternative fields outside academia, those who leave the campus culture may be viewed as less-than-Hopkins-
    level scientists. The familiar line is: "You're aiming too low."

    Those concerns led to a recent graduate student-organized symposium at Homewood titled "PhD Career Choices," including a session on Nov. 9: "Leaving the Ivory Tower." Patricia Matteo, director of Career Planning and Development for Homewood, pointed out that anything regarding the 35 attendees should remain confidential. "Many people don't want their advisors to know they're here."

    CHANGE WITHIN THE POSTDOCTORAL FELLOWSHIP world is on the proverbial horizon: The AAU postdoc report called for several fixes, some of which are already in place or being considered at Hopkins. Suggestions include:

  • setting two- to three-year limits on first appointments and a six-year total time limit for postdoctoral fellowships

  • requiring standard minimum pay and health benefits

  • offering career advising and job placement

  • defining employee or student status

  • requiring regular evaluations of postdocs and their mentors.

    National groups also suggest cutting back graduate programs. Both the AAU and NRC are encouraging universities to reexamine the size and performance of graduate education programs and consider eliminating those that do not lead to jobs. Students' training should take precedence over their value as research assistants, the AAU says.

    Several Hopkins administrators agree; there's been limited talk about reviewing graduate enrollments: "If we see that certain fields are much too full, we have a responsibility to not keep feeding more and more people into them," Levine says.

    Fellowship time limits are another of the likely changes to be seen here and elsewhere. At Hopkins, the schools of Medicine and Engineering are considering setting time limits for postdoctoral fellowships, administrators say. (Arts & Sciences follows a policy of three- to four-year limits in a lab program). Overly strict maximums, however, could keep some talented scientists out of the Hopkins environment entirely.

  • There's been limited talk at Hopkins about reviewing graduate enrollments. "If we see that certain fields are much too full, we have a responsibility to not keep feeding more and more people into them," says Levine.
    Hopkins postdocs support many of the changes offered nationally, and add several items of their own, including a repeated pitch for dental care and other benefits. They'd like the university to keep track of where fellows go after they leave. Also, in fields that increasingly require a fellowship as a de facto credential, postdocs suggest they be named "research associates" for a limited-time contract. Levine and other administrators support the concept of a junior faculty position, which has been used at a few schools, including the Mayo Graduate School of the Mayo Clinic.

    Yet, as postdocs push for increased pay or reclassification, some administrators question how they can offer more expensive health plan options, retirement plans, and other benefits--a potentially huge cost considering the number of people involved. There are several complications cited by universities nationwide, including tax implications.

    The Internal Revenue Service, in a recent review of the university, evaluated whether postdocs were students or employees, and concluded it depended on the source of their salaries: If funded by training grants, they're students; if funded by research grants, they should be employees, which raises the benefits question, as well as fairness issues, Berg says. "You could have a setup where two people do exactly the same thing right next to each other, yet are treated quite differently. There's potential for it to be more unfair than it is now."

    Berg, who also advises the postdoc association, points out a possible downside for postdocs, many of whom would gladly give up student status to qualify as recognized employees--even short- term ones. As employees, they could lose student loan deferments. "We could give them $200 a year in benefits, and they'd be paying back $2,000 in loans."

    To help break the postdoc cycle, various schools, including the School of Medicine, are considering career counseling focused on non-traditional jobs. Effective career counseling could be difficult to pull off. "If it's done right it might help," Vogelstein says. "But people are working in areas that are so different."

    Postdocs welcome any help. A survey of Hopkins postdocs shows job worries jumped from a No. 3 concern in 1992 to No. 1 in 1998- -with nearly 70 percent of those surveyed listing jobs first. As Watkins, of the School of Medicine, says: "Perception is still important."

    Watkins also recognizes the potential power of postdocs calling for change. "I hope they are never satisfied. It will keep us moving and doing things, keep us on the cutting edge."

    One of those edgy ideas is being proposed by Levine, in the Department of Medicine. His office has suggested a three-person fellowship committee--similar to a PhD committee. That would help, say postdocs worried about reporting to a single mentor who can become offended if they go elsewhere for guidance. Some faculty in the department already are taking part, Levine says.

    Despite these efforts, postdocs' second-class, limbo status will linger. In the fall, Adam Book, a former co-president of the postdoctoral association, accepted a position in grants management and science writing with a private firm, facing the disappointment of his mentor and others.

    Book had done two fellowships--five years of training. In his first one, at a university he declines to name, he focused mostly on setting up the lab with the molecular biology techniques he needed to do his own research. "The single publication in three years of work at my first postdoc didn't exactly make me a stellar candidate to start my own lab," he says.

    His second fellowship, here at Hopkins, went well. Book published four articles as a primary or secondary author. But he encountered signs of sometimes dismissive attitudes toward postdocs. During a celebration last summer of Hopkins's No. 1 ranking in the U.S. News & World Report's list of top hospitals, a staff appreciation day meant free coffee mugs in the hospital lobby.

    When Book picked up his mug, two women behind a table conferred, he says. One said she was told they weren't supposed to give mugs to postdocs.

    Says Book: "I was not going to give it back."

    Joanne P. Cavanaugh is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.