When funding is a costly booby trap

When entering into an important agreement, it’s always wise to study the fine print. But to do so, as a former biomedical postdoc we’ll call Owen A. Bundle learned, you must first know that the fine print exists, and have access to it.

Owen, however, had to make the very important decision to take a 2-year postdoc appointment at a prominent university without that crucial knowledge. As a result, he found himself in a difficult and potentially very costly quandary that could either damage his future financial security or deprive him of important career opportunities. Had he been given full information, he assured Science Careers in an interview, he would not have taken the position, nor would some of his fellow postdocs at his institution. 

He found himself in a difficult and potentially very costly quandary that could either damage his future financial security or deprive him of important career opportunities.

Like many other young scientists, Owen had started graduate school thinking he would have a career as a tenure-track academic researcher. By the time he began discussing a postdoc position with a prominent professor, however, he knew that both his chances of having such a career and his interest in even pursuing one were small. Following advice from media articles and knowledgeable colleagues and advisers, he had begun putting out feelers for opportunities outside academe. Nothing concrete had developed by the time the professor offered him the postdoc, so Owen accepted the position, assuming he could leave when something better came along. Though meager, the salary was steady and the work would keep him professionally active while he searched for his new career path.

Upon arriving at his new institution, however, Owen had a very unpleasant shock. Until then, he had only dealt with the professor. Now, the human resources department presented him with a sheaf of papers to sign. Among them was the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) Payback Agreement. To his complete surprise, Owen learned that the funding covering his position came not, as he had assumed, from one of the professor’s research grants, but from an NRSA institutional training grant. Postdocs funded in this way, he read to his horror, “incur a payback obligation … during the initial 12 months” of their positions. In other words, they must pay back all the money they receive during that first year, either through approved work or in cash.

“For most trainees, payback is easily accomplished,” says a description of the NRSA program from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). But it’s only easy for those who finish the second year of the postdoc, land the kind of academic jobs that are in vanishingly short supply, or opt to work in research in a governmental or private setting. None of those described Owen’s plans.

“Don’t sign that,” advised a lawyer friend whom Owen consulted. But, having moved to a new city without any other prospect of earning an income, he saw no choice but to agree to terms he would never have willingly accepted had anyone told him about them beforehand. Instead, he would have sought a postdoc without such strings.

According to the NHLBI statement, “[t]raining program directors and Institute business officials are urged”—but, apparently, not required—“to share … information [about the payback requirements] with prospective postdoctoral trainees.” However, neither Owen’s lab chief nor the university did so, and they are unlikely to be unique in this crucial omission. Why the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which provides the NRSA training grants, does not make full transparency a requirement for institutions to have such a program is not clear.

Owen was luckier than some others in this situation. Before he got too far into his postdoc, one of his feelers developed into an attractive offer—for a job that did not meet the payback requirements. He took it because the work and the potential career path were enticing, and the salary was high enough for him to meet his payback obligation without extreme pain. But had this opportunity come late in his first postdoc year or early in his second, when his undischarged obligation would have amounted to tens of thousands of dollars, he would have had to choose between losing a potentially life-changing career opportunity and adding a crippling burden to the undergraduate student debt he already owed.

There’s no way of knowing how many other Owens are working at America’s universities, trapped into similarly untenable and punitive agreements by financial need and by professors’ and institutions’ failure to provide basic information about the positions’ obligations. Clearly, however, any number of such unfortunate events constitute yet another painful form of abuse perpetrated by the academic establishment against vulnerable young scientists.

Owen had no idea that a postdoc appointment could include so costly a booby trap. He had never heard of a job that requires you to pay back the salary. But he now understands that prospective postdocs cannot depend on the professors who hire them to provide full information about the positions they are offering, and that the cost of not knowing about payback requirements can be very steep. Until NIH requires that those engaging postdocs make the conditions of their position clear, Owen urges all early-career scientists to learn from his experience. They must, he advises, ask for and make sure they get complete information about the funding source supporting their job and any obligations it may entail.

Elsewhere in Science, 25 September 2015

After the bombs