In early June, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D) and Michael Lee (R) introduced the Graduate Savings Act of 2016. If passed, the Graduate Savings Act of 2016 could improve the retirement prospects of nearly 100,000 postdoctoral fellows and hundreds of thousand graduate employees. This new legislation, combined with the Obama’s Administration’s new overtime rules, will help put countless over-worked and underpaid academic workers on the path to retiring with dignity.
Many postdoctoral and graduate employees forego compensation in order train and conduct important research that brings in billions of dollars in grants to colleges and universities. They deserve to be able to save for the future.
“Most physician-scientist trainees don’t finish their graduate degrees until their early thirties, after which there are 10 to more than 10 years of additional fellowship or postdoctoral training before finally getting a “real job” and a compensatory paycheck,” said Colleen McClean, a PhD candidate at Duke University. “Making the choice to dedicate one’s life to research, and take the associated reduced pay, is hard enough without tax disincentives making the process even more difficult.”
For too long, many colleges and universities have relied on postdocs. Changes in academia over the past decades have led to the creation of the postdoc as a source of cheap labor, without the stability, benefits, or hope of advancement that one would expect for a workforce with advanced training. This legislation provides a common-sense approach to provide some peace-of-mind to academic workers in need of relief.
“We’ll miss several years of contributions [under the current system], which will cost us thousands of dollars in the long run,” said Joel Lewis, who works as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota. “This will be a major improvement to our retirement plans and financial security if we are able to make IRA contributions from our stipends.”
Yet postdocs are not depending on the government alone to address their working conditions — across the country, postdocs are uniting with other higher education workers to create a movement. By joining unions like SEIU, these postdocs are standing up to demand that colleges and universities prioritize spending on instruction and research, instead of administrative salaries and other management bloat.
With this confidential postdoc working conditions survey, researchers can share the issues that they believe affect them most. Researchers that organizing with SEIU are already making great progress; at the University of Minnesota, postdocs won the right to remain in their campus-based homes after being threatened with eviction. It’s a perfect example of what can happen when postdocs work together.