Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Postdoctoral status changes

Some of us have made the transition from scholar to fellow and back to scholar and wanted to share some tips and cautionary tales. We also recommend anyone about to go through a switch attend one of the PDA quarterly info sessions. The next info session is November 7th 2011 at 2pm in BSLC room 202, RSVP to kolla@uchicago.edu.

First, some definitions:
Postdoctoral scholars are University employees and as such are eligible for benefits (matched retirement, subsidized healthcare, pre-tax parking etc). The scholar is paid a salary.

Postdoctoral fellows have obtained their own funding (NIH, ACS, DOD, AHA, Komen, etc) and are NOT University employees. The paycheck says University of Chicago but you are NOT an employee, no tax is deducted and the fellow is not in the Human Resources system. The fellow is paid a stipend.

Important for international postdocs/Visa holders: Funding agencies will sometimes allow grants to be paid out as salary, allowing postdocs to remain as scholars and thus, university employees. This can be very important for international postdocs, in particular those on H1 visas. Inquire with International Office and your grants administrator about whether the particular funding agency can provide salary instead of stipend.

Switching from postdoctoral scholar to postdoctoral fellow

The transition from scholar to fellow was made easier by the fact that a postdoc. in my lab had just gone through it. The biggest change was that no taxes are taken out of the paycheck and I was responsible for paying estimated payments. There is an online service allowing you to pay your taxes directly that makes things so much easier. It is free, government run and can be provided here. I highly recommend it.

The scholar to fellow transition also involved losing the pre-tax status of the parking, health insurance and having no matched retirement funds. You can contribute to a retirement fund, but the funds will be un-matched and you cannot contribute to the TIAA-CREF fund that is open to all of the employees of the University of Chicago Biological Sciences Division.

Every fellow should be paid a supplemental stipend (currently it is $1,600 if healthcare funds are provided or $6,200 if no healthcare funds provided), in addition to the regular stipend you receive. This is to provide you with funds for retirement and healthcare (see below).

It is important to talk to your PI about health insurance, as soon as you find out that you will be transitioning. This is because most postdoctoral scholars pay $62/month (pre-taxed income; $62/month×12months/year=$744). This is in contrast for postdoctoral fellows, who will pay $376.59/month×12months/year=$4,519.08, which is extracted out of the institutional allowance, if any (postdoctoral NRSA stipends currently are provided a $7,850 institutional allowance).

When it comes to families, the health insurance coverage for postdoctoral scholars to coverage a married couple is $129/month (×12months/year=$1,548) and for a family is $156/month (×12months/year=$1,872). When it comes to families for postdoctoral fellows, the difference between affordability is dramatic. For a married couple, the health insurance premium is $794.60/month (×12months/year=$9,535.20) and $1137.26/month (×12months/year=$13,647.12). Thus, both of the latter sums for postdoctoral fellows go far beyond the institutional allowance and will require some good will by your PI for coverage.

For NRSA (F32) recipients, the institutional allowance guidelines can be found here.

Finally, make sure your department implements the $1,600 supplemental stipend (or $6.200, if the grant does not provide healthcare funding) in addition to your normal stipend, during your transition. Although it does not offset the cost of losing the excellent benefits supplied through postdoctoral Scholar status, it does help to defray some of the economic burden.

Switching back from postdoctoral fellow to postdoctoral scholar

Because you are not being newly hired and it is just a change in status, it is very important to make sure all your benefits are in order. I did not pay enough attention when I was switched back from a fellow to a scholar. It turns out that the pre-tax parking was not reinstalled and the retirement was not started. I didn’t realize this until 4 months later and lost the retirement I could have been accruing (including University matching) and pre-tax benefits.

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