A Report on Postdoctoral Researchers at Boston College

May 2002

OVERVIEW

A task force comprising Professors Michael Naughton (Physics), Lisa Feldman Barret (Psychology), and Anthony T. Annunziato (Biology) met with Boston College postdoctoral researchers (postdocs) and faculty mentors, to discuss issues surrounding the environment for postdocs at Boston College. What follows is a detailed report of our discussions, which can be summarized by the following points:

  • There are approximately 50 postdoctoral researchers currently at Boston College.
  • In those Departments in which postdoctoral researchers are found, faculty mentors consider postdocs to be essential to their research efforts.
  • There is a strong consensus among both faculty researchers and postdocs that Boston College has (not done enough) to help with recruitment and support of its postdoctoral researchers.
  • Postdoctoral researchers universally assert that the opportunity to work with a specific faculty member is of primary importance in their postdoctoral experience, and is the predominant factor in their decision to do research at Boston College.
  • Boston College postdocs and faculty mentors identified both the cost of H-1b visa applications, and the high cost (and unavailability) of housing in Boston, as having a negative impact on the postdoctoral environment.
  • Boston College postdocs and faculty mentors have strikingly different perceptions of how BC’s postdoctoral salaries compare to salaries at neighboring institutions.
  • Several other issues of concern were identified that can be easily addressed, such as official recognition for postdoctoral researchers, assistance with healthcare and Rec-plex costs, and the creation of a “Postdoc Website”.
  • Specific recommendations are given in detail, beginning on page 6 of this report.

Introduction

A key element in the continuing development of Boston College as a research university is the establishment—and maintenance—of a thriving community of postdoctoral researchers. In general, postdoctoral researchers (or postdocs) are defined as individuals who have obtained a Ph.D., and who are employed to perform research under the active mentoring of a fulltime faculty member, as part of that faculty member’s research group; postdoctoral researchers are also important in the education of graduate students and undergraduates researchers. A typical postdoctoral appointment is for two to three years, reflecting the “journeyman” nature of postdoctoral research. Excluded by this definition are unmentored “visiting researchers”, as well as Postdoctoral Fellows hired exclusively to teach.

As research activities at Boston College intensify, the number of postdoctoral researchers on campus will rightly and necessarily increase. It is clearly in the best interest of Boston College’s research programs for the University to attract the most talented postdocs possible. It is also in the mutual interests of mentors and postdocs alike to create an environment that eliminates possible impediments to research productivity, while generating an atmosphere that strongly supports the resident postdoctoral community.

As noted above, postdoctoral researchers typically spend a limited time at any one research institution. While there is variability among specific research fields, in many disciplines recent Ph.D.-recipients must have at least one, and often two, postdoctoral research experiences prior to seeking a permanent position. The duration of each postdoctoral position is usually two or three years. During this period, postdocs are expected to complete one or more major research projects, and to publish several prominent research articles in top-tier journals (or equivalent peer-reviewed venues). Postdocs are also expected to present their research at national and international meetings, and are encouraged to obtain external funding for their salaries and/or research supplies, on their way toward building independent research reputations. A primary issue for postdocs, therefore, is the overall research reputation of their institution, especially if that institution is the site of their ultimate postdoctoral experience. There is currently (and will be for the foreseeable future) intense competition among investigators and research institutions for talented postdoctoral researchers. To compete effectively, Boston College and its faculty must convince applicants that BC possesses the environment that will enable a postdoc to launch a vigorous, independent research career.

Although postdocs are vital to numerous research programs at Boston College (and by extrapolation to the research reputation of the University), in many ways postdocs work within the interstices of our traditionally recognized employee categories. Postdoctoral researchers are neither faculty members nor students. Nor are they visiting researchers or support staff. In fact, a postdoc is sui generis, and he or she comes to Boston College with a unique set of expectations, concerns, and goals. The increasing presence of postdocs at Boston College therefore presents both opportunities and challenges.

The following overview represents an initial assessment of several issues surrounding the growing postdoctoral community at Boston College. In preparing this report, interviews were conducted with faculty mentors from all departments in which postdocs are currently working. We also interviewed many postdoctoral researchers. Postdocs and mentors were also asked to complete short questionnaires, designed to gather opinions of the postdoctoral environment at Boston College (see Appendix A). Because questions surrounding applications for visas for foreign postdocs emerged as a recurrent theme, we also contacted the … Office of Student Development. An analysis of the information collected is presented in the following section. In the last sections a number of specific recommendations are offered and discussed.

Postdoctoral Researchers and Faculty Mentors at Boston College

Number and Location of Postdoctoral Researchers at Boston College

To determine the approximate number of postdoctoral researchers at Boston College, we contacted the Directors of all research centers …, the Deans of the Schools of Nursing, Law, Education, and Management; and faculty in the Departments of Psychology, Sociology, Economics, Political Science, Geology & Geophysics, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. It was determined that between fifty and sixty postdocs are either currently on campus, or are expected to arrive in the next few months. All postdocs were concentrated in the Departments of Psychology, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology.

Interviews with Faculty Mentors

Approximately 25 faculty mentors agreed to discuss BC’s postdocs with our committee. These subsequently completed a brief questionnaire consisting of ten questions, aimed at determining the importance of postdocs to their research, and their perception of the role that Boston College has played in recruiting and hiring postdocs (for a copy of the survey, see Appendix A). Faculty mentors universally regarded postdocs as being extremely important to their research programs. A similarly strong consensus is that Boston College has done little to help faculty researchers recruit postdocs. One consistent area of concern involved the cost of visa applications, especially for H-1b visas, which permit postdocs to remain in the United States longer than the three-year limit imposed by a J-1 visa. It was noted that visa issues are especially important for foreign-born individuals doing second postdocs (60% of the postdocs interviewed came to Boston College to perform second postdocs).

When asked how BC can help its research faculty to recruit high quality postdocs, faculty mentors identified several key areas of possible intervention. First and foremost, mentors would like to see Boston College address the high cost (and often unavailability) of housing for postdoctoral researchers (housing issues can be particularly vexing for postdocs arriving from out-of-state, or from foreign countries). Suggestions included BC-owned housing, and direct salary supplements. Faculty researchers also would like Boston College to address the high cost of visa applications for foreign postdocs, with some faculty voicing the opinion that other universities and research institutions already provide such help.

Faculty mentors generally believe that they must offer salaries that are comparable to or higher than salaries at their competitors’ institutions, particularly to compete effectively for postdocs in the Boston area (but see the postdoctoral perspective on this issue). Thus an overarching theme for faculty researchers is that Boston College should be more pro-active to “sweeten the pot” for prospective postdocs, especially since (the University) per se is not an effective draw (see below). Suggestions included salary and travel supplements, and help with advertisement costs.

Interviews with Postdoctoral Researchers

To the extent possible, all postdocs on campus were invited to an information-gathering meeting and reception, to provide a forum for a discussion with our committee. Fifteen postdoctoral researchers (5 women) attended, all of whom completed our survey (see Appendix A for the survey; responses are summarized in Appendix B). Six respondents reported that this was their first postdoctoral experience. Most were being paid through a mentor’s grant. In general, mentors were the most important motivating factor in the respondents’ postdoctoral experience at BC. The overall BC environment seems to matter much less in their postdoctoral experience. As determined from our survey, postdoctoral researchers chose BC as a postdoctoral site mainly on their desire to work with a specific mentor and/or a desire to be in the Boston Area. Working (specifically at one university or another) was not a major motivation. Respondents identified their adviser as most important to their postdoctoral experience; other factors (being part of a department or BC community) were much less important. Overall, respondents reported being moderately satisfied with their experience here.

Postdoctoral respondents noted a number of concerns that made their experience at BC more difficult. High housing prices and limited e-journal access were the most frequent complaints, followed by the fact that BC does not provide financial help with (the recreation complex), visa, or healthcare fees. Respondents also felt that their salaries were low when compared to other institutions, and that this was exacerbated by the “hidden costs” of healthcare and visa applications. Institution-based complaints were also noted, such as the absence of a campus orientation, an official status on campus, university-organized social gatherings, and a designated postdoc listserv. Family-related issues, such as the absence of affordable daycare for children, and of English classes for spouses, were also noted.

Interview with Adrienne Nussbaum

Because visa costs were consistently raised as an area of postdoc and mentor concern, we contacted (the) Assistant Dean for International Student Services. It should be noted that although visa costs (especially for H-1b visas) are considered problematical, mentors and postdocs alike gave high marks to the Dean’s office for help with visa issues. In response to our questions, the Dean noted the following:

  • While most foreign postdocs come with J-1 Exchange Visitor visas, H-1b temporary worker visas are requested if (a) postdocs are already on H-1b visas; or (b) if they have used up their J-1 time already (as can be the case for those doing second postdocs in the USA);
  • For the J-1 visa, the faculty mentor completes an information sheet with biographical information and details about the job title, length of stay, and salary. The Dean’s office then issues the immigration form for the J-1. No fees are involved.
  • H-1b visas must first be approved by the Office of the (Provost). If the university decides to petition for an H-1b, this is referred to (the) law firm that BC uses to process visas and green cards. The immigration filing fee is $130; the lawyer's fee runs from $1,500 to $2,000. Boston College does not typically pay the lawyer's fees for postdocs. Only BC’s law firm can be used for the petition.

Specific Recommendations

From our interviews (of approximately 30% of the postdocs on campus) it can be determined that our postdocs’ greatest source of satisfaction stems from working with their mentors, and from their immediate research environments. In contrast, being at Boston College per se has not enhanced their experience, and in several ways has been perceived as being less than satisfactory (though not actively inhibitory). As a consequence, postdoctoral researchers at Boston College generally express moderate overall satisfaction with their postdoc experience here. Cases of dissatisfaction largely arise from what are judged to be inadequate action on the part of Boston College, rather than the active placement of impediments. The following recommendations are aimed at addressing both the large-scale and small-scale concerns of postdoctoral researchers and their faculty mentors.

  1. Postdoc concern: Postdoctoral researchers have no official status at Boston College;
    Recommendation: An official class of employee should be established, that of Postdoctoral Fellow;

  2. Postdoc Concern: There are no mechanisms in place to inform postdocs about Boston College, to orient them on campus, or to foster postdoc-postdoc interactions;
    Recommendations
    : A “Postdoc Website” should be established, to publicize information about postdoctoral opportunities at Boston College, visa application information, salaries, fees, etc; An official orientation session for postdocs should be put in place, paralleling the orientation for new faculty; A postdoc “listserv” should be set up on the web, to provide a forum for discussions and information sharing among postdocs; Once or twice per year, the University should sponsor official postdoc social events, at which postdocs can meet and interact (inviting a guest speaker for these events should be considered).

  3. Postdoc Concern: The relatively high cost (to postdocs) of membership in the Rec-plex prevents them from taking advantage of this opportunity (a surprising number of postdocs listed this as a priority item);
    Recommendation: Boston College should absorb 75-90% of the cost of a Rec-plex membership for postdocs. This perquisite should be prominently advertised on the postdoc website, as an enticement for potential postdoc applicants; Approximate cost: $10K

  4. Postdoc Concern: For some disciplines, the library does not have adequate access to electronic journals; the interlibrary loan system is inefficient;
    Recommendation: Departmental TCs should publicize a sublist of journals that are available electronically, to avoid confusion over which journals can be accessed in this manner; Departmental Chairs and faculty mentors should ensure that postdoctoral researchers have input in discussions of departmental library holdings; the interlibrary loan system should be examined for ways to increase efficiency;

  5. Postdoc/Mentor Concern: It is generally perceived by postdocs that their salaries at Boston College are lower than the area average. In contrast, faculty mentors argue that they must pay more to convince postdocs to come to Boston College.
    Recommendation
    : The payroll office should perform a systematic analysis of postdoc salaries in the Boston area, to more thoroughly investigate this issue;

  6. Postdoc/Mentor Concern: Currently, postdocs and/or mentors must absorb the lawyer’s fees for applications for H-1b visas. When mentors pay for these fees, it translates into less funds for supplies and/or travel for postdoctoral researchers.
    Recommendation:
    Our investigations determined that at neighboring universities postdocs are not asked to cover the costs of visa applications (either the university or an individual Department bears the cost). Boston College should establish a formula for faculty to apply for funds to cover the costs of visa applications for their postdocs. As part of the application process, mentors should justify the request for funds, with the expectation that all reasonable requests will be funded. It is estimated that approximately 5-10 such requests would be made per year, at a maximum cost to Boston College of $10K-$20K;

  7. Postdoc/Mentor Concern: The high cost of housing, and the lack of university-sponsored temporary housing, present difficulties for postdocs and mentors. For postdocs, searching for housing detracts from time spent doing research. Excessive housing costs also force difficult lifestyle decisions on our postdocs, many of whom have families to support. For mentors, housing problems can make it difficult to attract top postdocs to Boston College. Postdocs arriving from out-of-state or from foreign countries face particularly daunting challenges as they search for decent housing at an affordable price.
    Recommendations: Boston College should take immediate steps to establish transitional housing for postdocs. Postdocs should be able to reside at BC housing for up to six months, while they establish themselves in Boston and in their new research environments. Steps should also be taken to explore the procurement of permanent housing for postdocs. Until such housing is available, Boston College should offer “housing supplements” to new postdocs, to help defray their housing costs.

Summary

Our interviews and discussions indicate that although postdocs consider their working relationship with their mentors to be of the utmost importance, Boston College has not yet developed into “postdoc friendly” institution. As the University adopts a more prominent research posture, the need to integrate postdoctoral researchers into the Boston College community will become increasingly pressing. Our recommendations to provide official recognition, campus orientation, a website, listserv, etc. should be inexpensive to implement, and should provide postdocs with a better sense of their key place in the BC community.

The research reputations of faculty mentors (and/or a desire to remain working in the Boston area) emerged as the predominant factors in attracting top postdocs. In light of the research prominence of neighboring institutions, faculty researchers expressed the opinion that Boston College needs to level (or indeed tip) the playing field, by providing postdocs with extras such as Rec-plex memberships and financial aid for visa applications. We have recommended that these suggestions be implemented, as relatively inexpensive ways to advance research at Boston College. If, as some faculty mentors suspect, BC researchers do pay more for postdocs, this should be verified and perhaps advertised. Other concerns, such as the absence of affordable daycare for postdocs, or English classes for postdocs and their spouses, are certain to become more important as the demographics of our postdoctoral community changes—an inevitable consequence of the maturation of our research programs. It is recommended that plans to address these issues be considered in a timely manner.

A prominent theme in all of our discussions with both faculty and postdocs was the very difficult housing situation in the Boston area. If BC were to provide transitional housing for new postdocs, this would without question act as a very powerful incentive for postdocs to chose Boston College as the place to do research. In time, the research reputation of Boston College will rise to a level that stimulates postdocs to apply for positions here. Until then Boston College must actively create a path of least resistance for talented postdoctoral applicants.