(Photos: Chris Myers)
When COVID-19 forced shutdowns across the medical campus last spring, many of the school of medicine’s postdoctoral fellows could still be found toiling away. Some 200 postdocs were designated as essential personnel to keep the school’s labs running during those early months of the pandemic.
“In many cases, postdocs were the ones responsible for all routine maintenance and upkeep of equipment and animals — everything essential to keeping research going,” says Dana Boatman, associate dean for postdoctoral research affairs at the school of medicine.
To those who know academic medicine, that’s not surprising. Postdocs have long been the backbone of the research enterprise at American academic medical centers like Johns Hopkins. They work long hours. They design and execute experiments. They apply for grants. They write papers. And they often provide significant amounts of mentoring to graduate and undergraduate students in their labs.
Though they have already earned doctoral degrees, postdocs usually need more experience before pursuing faculty positions. So, for several years — on average three to four and a maximum of six at Johns Hopkins University — postdocs exist in a state of transition: still being mentored by faculty members, still gaining experience in their fields, still considered “trainees,” but working toward independence.
Until fairly recently, they have largely been invisible and in a uniquely vulnerable position, with their fate closely tied to the strengths and weaknesses of their principal investigators (PI).
Unlike graduate students, who have the infrastructure and protections of their training program and thesis committees, “In the past, postdocs have often been more on their own, even here at Johns Hopkins,” says Roy Ziegelstein, vice dean for education at the school of medicine.
But that’s changing. One notable sign of that change is the appointment two years ago of Boatman, professor of neurology and otolaryngology, who runs an auditory neurophysiology lab and is herself a former Johns Hopkins postdoc. She knows well the benign neglect — or worse — that postdocs at research institutions across the country have endured over the past several decades. And she and her team are on a mission to improve that experience for the 1,200 postdocs who are working across almost 425 labs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
The road to today has not been without its bumps and potholes.
In 1999, Science magazine published an article about the plight of postdocs in the United States. It begins with the experience of a Johns Hopkins scientist who started a postdoctoral fellowship in 1992 before leaving academic research entirely due to a soured relationship with her PI. She shared accounts about some foreign postdocs being underpaid: They earned just $8,000 a year, she noted, at a time when postdoc salaries hovered around $25,000, but never asked for more for fear their visa status would be revoked. She also related the experience of peers who never asked for a day off because of the enormous pressure they felt to always be in the lab.
During this scientist’s time at Johns Hopkins, a group of postdocs took their concerns to renowned cardiac surgeon Levi Watkins Jr. (1944–2015), who was then the associate dean for postdoctoral affairs at Johns Hopkins.
Watkins grew up listening to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s preaching in Montgomery, Alabama, participated in multiple freedom marches during the Civil Rights Era, and later volunteered as a part-time driver for King.
His reaction to the postdocs’ plight? “I told ’em they were on the back of the bus. And so we organized them … to get them representative pay, get them representative benefits, get them representative opportunities, get them due process when there’s an argument,” he said in a 2007 interview with Janet Sims-Wood of The HistoryMakers.
In 1992, with Watkins’ encouragement, the young scientists created the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association (JHPDA). It was the first of its kind in the nation. By 1994, the university formally recognized the JHPDA and gave the group representation on the committee that determines postdoctoral policies. Soon, universities around the country were following suit, and by 2003, the National Postdoctoral Association formed, with 25 member universities.
Once postdocs got organized, their situation began to improve at Johns Hopkins and around the country. Over the last three decades, their salaries and benefits have gradually become more consistent and more competitive.
Today, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the major purveyor of grants, mandates that faculty grant recipients pay postdoctoral fellows a minimum of $52,704 per year. At the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, postdocs also receive medical, mental health, dental and vision insurance at no cost to them, and they can add a spouse and children for a moderate fee. In addition, postdocs receive long-term disability and life insurance plans and can participate in the university’s 403(b) retirement plan. And they can take two weeks of paid vacation time.
But not all facets of the postdoc experience kept pace, and some postdocs were still falling through the proverbial cracks, Boatman concedes. Some trainees toiled away for years with no clear path forward. Others could get stuck in a difficult pattern with an uncompromising PI.
Today, as head of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPDA), Boatman carries on what Watkins began. Since she took up her role in 2018, she and her small team have put in place a number of important initiatives to improve the professional trajectory of Johns Hopkins postdocs, and to ensure that they are fairly compensated.
Most recently, she stepped in to take action when leaders of the JHPDA discovered, through their annual survey of fellow postdoctoral fellows, that not everyone was being paid at least the NIH-mandated minimum.
JHPDA leadership brought their survey results to Boatman during their monthly meeting with her on September 1, 2020. “She was more upset about it than we were,” says Alex Weiss, co-president of the JHPDA. “She immediately triggered an audit of salaries.”
Boatman says the audit identified 134 postdocs who were being paid approximately $1,000 to $4,000 below the required level.
She notes that, as of October 20, 2020, all school of medicine postdocs who were previously underpaid have received pay increases retroactive to July 1. “The effort was strongly endorsed by Dr. Ziegelstein and departments were very responsive to the requested pay adjustments,” she says, then adds, “We are also taking several steps to ensure this doesn't happen again.”
Goal-Setting and Connectivity
In terms of professional development, Boatman has taken several steps to help ensure today’s postdoctoral fellows don’t get “stuck.” Beginning in the fall of 2019, all new postdoctoral hires at the school of medicine are now required to create an individual development plan in their first year that is revisited and revised annually. (They are the first trainee group in the university to be required to do so.)
“They meet with their PIs and agree on short- and long-term goals,” says Boatman. “That gives them a common set of expectations and a frame of reference for the postdoc’s tenure here.”
Naomi Dirckx, a third-year postdoc in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, admits she was a bit skeptical when she first heard about the professional development requirement. “But I decided to put in a good effort anyway,” she says. “It ended up being really helpful. I knew I wanted to stay in academia, but I didn’t know which steps to take. My PI, Thomas Clemens, suggested I become a reviewer of a journal in my field to increase my visibility. Then, as the ultimate step toward independence, he supported me in a K99 grant application.”
Currently, Boatman is working on another initiative: to increase her connectivity with every postdoc under her auspices. The plan is to have a peer postdoc representative in every department, who will serve as a point of contact for other postdocs and act as a liaison with her office.
“About half of the departments have one now. They’ve been really helpful during the pandemic,” Boatman says. Dirckx, who is the representative for her department, emails her peers about important events so that they hear about them from someone they know. She is also their first line of communication when issues arise. “Because people don’t have to email someone ‘important,’ they’re more willing to voice their concerns,” she says.
Honing Mentoring Skills
The most successful faculty members in academic medicine are those who, in addition to being great scientists, are also effective mentors, training up the next generation of investigators. To encourage postdoctoral fellows to hone the mentoring skills that will make them more effective (and more marketable), and to reward those who go above and beyond, Boatman established the Postdoctoral Excellence in Mentoring Award in 2020. The inaugural recipients are Janielle Maynard and Susana Rodriguez.
“Mentoring was something I did by default because it’s something I enjoy and benefit from a lot,” says Maynard. “Much of what I’ve accomplished in my own life I owe to someone saying, ‘Hey! You should apply for this program,’ or ‘Here’s something you should look into.’ That guidance isn’t always recognized as being as important as it is,” she says.
Maynard and Rodriguez have both done a lot of mentoring through the Mentoring Family Program, an initiative within the Diversity Postdoctoral Alliance Committee (DPAC), a subcommittee of the JHPDA. In this program, underrepresented minority postdocs and clinical fellows who want mentoring experience are paired with incoming underrepresented minority trainees who want mentorship.
Maynard, in the Department of Pathology, investigates racial health disparities among patients with prostate cancer. In addition to graduate students, she has also mentored undergraduates through the Johns Hopkins Summer Internship Program and high school students from Baltimore Public Schools through the Merit Health Leadership Academy.
Rodriguez, in the Department of Physiology, studies novel hormones linked to metabolic diseases. She was nominated for the award by doctoral student Cory White, who is one of the many students who have benefited from Rodriguez’s guidance in learning laboratory techniques or improving a presentation, resume or grant application.
“It felt deeply gratifying to receive the mentoring award,” she says. “Being in academia is so difficult. It’s better when we all help one another.”
Stronger Support for Career Planning
To further support postdocs in their professional growth, the OPDA often partners with the Professional Development and Career Office, which serves graduate students and postdocs in the schools of medicine, nursing and public health. Kate Bradford, the associate director for career services there, says their goal is to “support all postdocs in all career pathways from day one until they get a job.”
Ziegelstein notes that in recent years, there has been an intentional shift in the career guidance being offered at Johns Hopkins.
“I think many of our alumni, who did a postdoc here 25 or even 10 years ago and wanted to pursue a career in industry or entrepreneurship, would say that they often felt like there was nowhere to turn for help,” he says. “There was an implicit, if not explicit, message that, ‘If you don’t go into academics, you’re not a success.’ That has changed dramatically. Now our postdocs know they can pursue a diverse array of career paths. It’s not just acceptable; we provide career development to prepare them for those careers.”
Bradford, who received her Ph.D. in biology from Johns Hopkins’ Krieger School of Arts and Sciences before completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Food and Drug Administration, says their office has offerings for trainees at every stage of the journey. “Some come to us and say, ‘I have no idea what I want to do,’” says Bradford. “Others tell us, ‘I just got a job and I need help negotiating my contract.’ And there’s everyone in between.”
From Myers-Briggs tests to mock interviews and from one-on-one career counseling to grant writing workshops, the Professional Development and Career Office provides a wide array of programs to meet the varied needs of Hopkins’ trainees. For the many postdocs interested in academia, there is a series of workshops on the application process for academic positions. The office also partners with the Teaching Academy, a universitywide initiative to provide trainees with opportunities like pedagogy classes and classroom experiences at local universities.
Getting Better Oriented
One of the challenges unique to postdocs, says Alex Weiss, the JHPDA co-president, is that, unlike graduate students who generally arrive in the fall in cohorts, postdocs arrive randomly throughout the year, whenever they finish their Ph.D.
“That means it’s hard to have an authentic onboarding process that ensures that every postdoc knows about all of the benefits and opportunities available to them,” he says. “It’s also harder to meet your peers and create community.”
Until recently, the school of medicine provided a single orientation per year for postdocs. If you happened to start your term after that, you had to figure things out on your own. Likely because of this, JHPDA surveys showed that the majority of postdocs had a poor understanding of available benefits, like dependent care. Beginning in October of 2020, with the support of Boatman and her team, the JHPDA began offering their own orientations, monthly.
The new orientations may be particularly helpful for international postdocs. “Imagine how difficult it must be to come to a new institution, in a new role, in a new lab, in a new country,” says Ziegelstein, “especially if English is not your first language.”
Weiss adds, “They also have to deal with the stress of maintaining their immigration status, which has been particularly stressful lately with constantly changing immigration policies.” Though foreign postdocs might initially seek help with the JHPDA, they are usually referred to Johns Hopkins’ Office of Immigration Services, which is best equipped to help with the myriad nuanced situations.
Yujing Wang is not a U.S. citizen. She first came to the United States, and to Johns Hopkins, in 2011 for a master’s in biomedical engineering, so she was relatively familiar with the American way of doing things by the time she started her postdoc at the school of medicine in early 2019, after earning her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. Wang says the environment in her lab, that of Nathan Crone, is extra friendly.
She says she felt very supported by Crone and by Johns Hopkins in taking on one of the big challenges many postdocs face: building a family. The latest JHPDA survey shows that about 25 percent of postdocs have children, many having two or more.
When Wang told Crone she was expecting a baby, he sat down with her to discuss a plan. “We talked about what our goals were, what to finish before I gave birth, and how I would reenter the lab after. I really appreciated it,” she says.
Currently, Johns Hopkins University offers all of its graduate students and postdocs eight weeks of fully paid family leave for new mothers and fathers (including those who have adopted a child). This can be combined with paid sick or vacation leave, short-term disability leave, or a shift to part-time status. They may also request unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks according to the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Wang’s first son was born in 2017 while she was in graduate school. She received six weeks of maternity leave then. Her second son was born in May 2019, during her postdoc at Johns Hopkins. She says, “I think eight weeks is more reasonable, but I’d really appreciate two to four weeks more. It’s hard for breastfeeding moms to adjust to pumping. It would be nice if there were a period of part-time work so you could adjust gradually.” That said, she really appreciates the pumping stations provided at Johns Hopkins. “They really help us keep our children on breast milk,” she says.
Wang has also been pleased by the university’s child care benefits. “Because my husband is also a postdoc at Hopkins, and because we use a Hopkins child care center, we were able to apply for a scholarship and receive double the usual discount. It covers about 80 percent of our expenses,” she says. “And even though we aren’t currently sending our sons to daycare [due to COVID-19], the center is generously holding our sons’ places so that they can return as soon as we return to our labs.”
Overall, the situation for postdocs at the school of medicine has greatly improved since the 1990s. Most concretely, their salary and benefits are more commensurate with their knowledge and experience, which speaks volumes about their importance to the institution. But perhaps more importantly, say today’s postdocs, the administration has cultivated a culture of listening to — and addressing — their needs.
“The school of medicine goes out of its way to give postdocs a seat at the table,” says Weiss.