NSF Postdoctoral Fellows

mclutter at NSF.GOV mclutter at NSF.GOV
Wed Mar 23 19:02:15 EST 1994

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I have followed with interest the comments on a foreign component to NSF
postdoctoral research fellowships (although I haven't read the relevant
guidelines).  Based on my experiences in 1976-78 as a foreign postdoc in
the US, I thoroughly endorse the concept, which follows a long line of
similar programs including Rhodes Scholarships, Harkness Fellowships, NATO
postdocs, Fulbright's, etc.

I am sympathetic to the problems cited by our unnamed NSF postdoc.  To solve
some of them, I'd suggest NSF establishing a prestitigous program similar
to the NIH FIRST program, but with a twist.  Make recipients spend the
first two years in Europe, and the last three in the States.  Provide
sufficient funds for supplies, travel and health insurance, and ensure
recipient institutions play ball regarding unreasonable seizure of indirect
          NSF actually had the first FIRST program. It was called the
          Presidential Young Investigator program and began in 1982, I
          think. I can't remember even though I + 3 others wrote the
          program. It lasted until 1991. Some plant people were
          awardees. In 1991 the program was revised and called
          Presidential Faculty Fellows. In addition we have NSF Young
          Investigator awards. They provide up to $100K/year for 5
          years. Next year we will have a Faculty Early Career
          Development program. In BIO support will be for 5 years at
          $100K/year. These awards are actually better than the FIRST
          awards--hard as that may be to believe.     MEC
David Galbraith

From: jcw at biosci.mbp.missouri.edu (John C. Walker)
Wed, 23 Mar 1994 06:20:16 -0800
To: arabidopsis at net.bio.net
Subject: NSF Postdoctoral Fellows

The following is an anonymous message from a former NSF Plant Postdoctoral
fellow.  I have agreed to post this message to protect the identity of the
author. The  opinions expressed are not my own

I would also like to point out that I am not opposed to foreign
postdoctoral experiences, I did one and I thought it was one of the most
valuable experiences of my life.  I intend to go overseas on sabbatical as
soon as possible.  But should it be required? Is it productive to do a six
month shift overseas?  Does it really make for a "world class scientist"?
or does world class science make a "world class scientist"?

Second, I have had a  NSF Plant Biology postdoctoral fellow in the
laboratory (prior to the "foreign requirement") and it was truly valuable
opportunity for me and the fellow.  I would like to see the program
continued in some form.

Third, I don't really want to be a moderator of this discussion but I think
it would be useful for other people to relay their experiences and
impressions to NSF.

*****************Appended Message**************************
>As a former NSF Plant Postdoc, I would like to make a few comments about
>my experience with the program.  First, I agree that the "foreign
>requirement" has no justifiable relation to the purpose of the postdoc.
>There are other ways to work in 'foreign' labs, and anyone who feels that
>is important to their development should show enough initiative to explore
>those options themselves.  I found a way to work in a European lab for a
>while, and it was worth it-- but I don't think it should be required.
>But more to the point, I have some negative comments about the NSF Plant
>Postdoc program at the time I experienced it.  I hope these comments
>shape the way NSF designs future postdoc programs for plant biologists
>(whether under the umbrella of 'Environmental Biology' or whatever).
>        First: There was no guarantee of support in the laboratory the
>postdoc joined.  This is plant biology, folks, and we all know how
>underequipped and underfunded many of our labs are.  So, when I visited
>the lab I planned to work in, they appeared to have the equipment and
>facilities to do the project I had described.  What I didn't know until I
>got there and tried to do research, was that this lab hadn't gotten their
>grants renewed, and barely had the money to buy the reagents to do even
>the simplest experiments.  At one point, I had to decide whether to use
>part of my institutional allowance to buy 3 months of health insurance (see
>below) or buy an antibody I needed.  (I bought the antibody.)   So, they
>welcomed me because I was "free" but they did not have to prove they had
>dedicated sufficient resources to support my research.
>I have chosen to do a second postdoc (and give up the $35,000 starter grant
>I was eligible for...) just to try and do this project right!
>        Recommendation:  The supporting laboratory has to demonstrate
>that they have set aside reasonable funds ($3000/yr) to buy supplies for
>the the postdoc's research.
>        Second:  Unfair access to benefits.  I received an "institutional
>allowance" to use for travel, insurance, etc.  Let's see-- first I had to
>let them take overhead from that allowance to "qualify" me to be allowed
>to buy insurance through the university's group policy.  After they took
>out the overhead, there was not even enough for me to pay for a whole
>year's coverage each year.  So, I had gaps in coverage, and kept my
>fingers crossed.  (Of course I was not eligible to use student health
>services).  This is because I was single.  Other NSF postdocs with
>employed spouses got covered on their spouses' policies and had the
>entire institutional allowance to spend on travel, etc.  Is this fair?
>        Third:  No raises.  Frankly, it was insulting to be told that
>this was a 'prestigious' fellowship, but to have my salary frozen at the
>rate for the year it was awarded.  Other fellows who received awards the
>next year made more money.  Postdocs being paid off the PI's grant got
>raises as mandated by the state/institutional schedule.    Again, is this
>In conclusion, I was not happy with the NSF Plant Biology Postdoc Program
>as I experienced it.  I'm not sure the end of that program is such a
>loss.   I hope that the new "Environmental" program treats its awardees


John C. Walker
Divison of Biological Sciences
308 Tucker Hall
University of Missouri
Columbia, MO   65211
Phone: 314-882-3583 (Office)
       314-882-3481  (Lab)
FAX:   314-882-0123
EMAIL: jcw at biosci.mbp.missouri.edu

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