Postdoc leave policies (guest post)

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post by Margaret Kosmala, a postdoc in Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard.

Note from Margaret: This is the first post in a mini-series examining the enormous variation in U.S. postdoc leave benefits. While most postdocs do not consider benefits packages when choosing a position, the benefits available can greatly affect quality of life, and sometimes mean the difference between staying in academia and leaving it — especially for caregivers and those with chronic health conditions. I surveyed 21 U.S. universities with highly ranked ecology programs (according to The Chronical of Higher Education and U.S. News and World Report) and the U.S. federal government by looking up postdoc benefit information on their webpages, and present the data (with commentary) here. (Note that this information is up-to-date as of July 2014. Please provide updates and corrections in the comments. I also welcome data about other universities and will add them to the charts if full info is provided.)

When you become a postdoc, you jump from being a student to being a contract employee or self-employed fellowship holder. The implications for taxes and benefits are quite important, but rarely discussed. In this post, I will talk about one small aspect of being an employee postdoc: paid leave.

Surprisingly, leave policies for postdocs vary quite a bit from university to university, from minimal to quite generous. Employee postdocs are expected to be working eight hours each day Monday to Friday, just like any other normally employed full-time employee. Some universities (and the U.S. government) put postdocs on the clock like other staff and require them to track and report hours on timesheets. At other places, postdocs are treated more like professors and are expected to be working full time, but do not have to fill out timesheets. In these latter cases, sometimes postdocs are supposed to record their time off even if they don’t do hourly timesheets.

Leave can be granted in lump amounts to be used throughout the year, or else can be accrued in small amounts each pay period. (Postdocs are frequently paid monthly, but some are paid bi-weekly.) Sometimes leave can be carried from one year to the next, and sometimes there’s a cap on the amount of leave that can be accrued. Sometimes leave can be used immediately, and sometimes there’s a minimum length of employment before leave can be used.

Most universities (and the federal government) provide sick leave and vacation leave (which goes by many names, such as “annual leave”, “personal leave”, “paid time off”, etc.). Six of the 21 universities I surveyed also provide two to three “personal” days. As far as I can tell, these personal days differ from vacation in that they can be used without getting permission; in most cases, vacation days technically have to be approved in advance by the supervisor.

Sick leave (table of postdoc sick leave by university)

Sick leave is the most standard type of leave, and typically allows postdocs to take leave with pay when they or immediate family members are sick, injured, or have medical appointments. Many universities also allow the use of sick leave for pregnancy, post-pregnancy recovery, adoption, and for bereavement. A couple universities I surveyed (University of Chicago, Washington University in St. Louis) have severe sick leave policies* that allow sick leave to be taken only for personal illnesses and no other purpose, including caring for sick dependents.

Universities (and the federal government) generally grant postdocs 8 to 15 sick days per year. A few universities don’t offer standard sick leave, but instead have alternative schemes. Indiana University lumps together sick leave and disability leave and allows postdocs to take up to six weeks of sick/disability leave per year. Cornell doesn’t have sick leave at all and just asks postdocs to take a reasonable number of unrecorded brief absences as needed for illness and injury. The University of Florida lumps sick leave and vacation leave together as “postdoc leave,” of which postdocs receive just 16 days per year total.

Vacation (table of postdoc vacation leave by university)

Vacation leave is more variable across universities than sick leave. But it tends to be more generous than in industry, with 3 or more weeks of leave per year the norm (in addition to holidays). At some institutions, the amount of vacation leave increases the longer the employee is there. For my survey, I only considered vacation leave in the first year because most postdoc appointments are short and most policies only increase leave amounts in the third year of employment or after. Vacation leave can typically be taken whenever the postdoc wants – subject to the approval of the supervisor. However, at the University of Chicago, employees (including postdocs) are expected to take vacation during the four weeks between quarters; there is no provision to take leave outside of these periods. And Colorado State does not give postdocs any vacation at all! The most generous universities (University of California and Princeton) offer 24 days of vacation per year – that’s almost five weeks! But I wonder: how many postdocs actually take that much time off?!

* Real, actual sick leave policies (I am not making this up):

University of Chicago: “Sick leave shall be used in keeping with normally approved purposes, including personal illness; medical appointments; and, childbearing. It may not be used to care for others who are ill.”  Let me paraphrase: the University of Chicago’s sick leave policy forbids you from leaving work to take care of your ill children – unless they’re so ill that they die, in which case you can take sick leave to attend their funeral (since sick leave CAN be used for bereavement).

Washington University in St. Louis: “Sick leave may only be used for the illness of the postdoctoral appointee only [sic]. Time away to care for an immediate family member’s illness is considered vacation time.” Let me enact a scene. Place: St. Louis. Time: Winter.

Postdoc1: “I had a great time on vacation, swimming in the blue Caribbean waters… how was your vacation?”

Postdoc2: “It was swell; I spent the first half comforting my young son who was vomiting every three hours, and the second half worrying that my baby was going to stop breathing because her croupy cough was so terrible. I can’t wait for next year’s vacation!”

22 thoughts on “Postdoc leave policies (guest post)

  1. Interesting post, Margaret!

    I’m curious how many universities require their postdocs require timesheets vs. just expect work to get done? I’ve never encountered the first kind and think it could be tough for morale. Given that, I wonder how strictly the rest of the sick/vacation time policies are followed. It’s good to have something on the books to prevent abuse, but flexible scheduling is one of the big perks of academia.

    Will you get into parental leave in a sequel?

    • I don’t know exactly what the balance of timesheets vs. not is. It’s not easy to find out online. I do know this: University of Texas and the Federal Government both require timesheets; University of Minnesota and Harvard University do not. (My personal sample here is a bit limited in scope…)

      Yes, I think that sick/vacation leave policy enforcement must vary a lot. When you have to fill out a timesheet, enforcement is built-in. In my experience with non-timesheet organizations, I think you’re right that there’s a lot more flexibility and the rules are there to prevent abuse.

      And YES! I will do parental leave. (I actually started my research with parental leave, but to understand parental leave, you first have to understand sick and vacation leave. Hence this post.)

  2. Great post Margaret. Just to add two more data points. When I was a postdoc at MSU on an NSF fellowship, they literally did not know what to do with me. They actually asked me if I wanted the graduate or faculty health insurance. I think universities literally don’t quite know what to make of postdocs.

    Here at U Maine we are unionized and the postdocs are part of the same union as the staff (secretaries, lab techs) so they have great benefits including retirement, vacation, sick leave etc.

    • Wow, that’s interesting about not knowing what to do with you! From what I could tell, usually postdocs on an outside fellowship fall through the cracks when it comes to benefits. At many universities I found that outside fellowship holders get fewer benefits than employee postdocs; it has to do with legal stuff. For example, sometimes outside fellowship holders have to purchase their own health insurance because they’re not covered under the scope of the university’s health policy. Additionally, institutions that cover short-term disability for employee postdocs *never* cover outside-fellowship postdocs, because they’re not classified as “employees” for insurance purposes. (There are other rather bad — and mostly unknown — things about holding fellowships… maybe I’ll do a post on that sometime.)

      Re: UMaine — post the relevant data for sick and vacation leave and I’ll add it to my charts. And note that it’s unionized. UCal is also unionized, I believe, and has quite good benefits.

      • “At many universities I found that outside fellowship holders get fewer benefits than employee postdocs; it has to do with legal stuff.”

        That makes the University of Calgary a pleasant exception. The Killam postdoctoral fellowship here–which is paid by the Killam Foundation–comes with extended health benefits, the same as other postdocs get, I believe. Although I assume the Killam Foundation pays for them rather than U of C, but I don’t know.

      • I think this point about external fellowships is often overlooked and underappreciated. This was my experience during my postdoc (even worse because I had a Canadian NSERC fellowship at a US university). Because I was paying for benefits for myself and family members, my take-home pay was MUCH less than other postdocs, and almost the same as my graduate student pay. It is really unfortunate and negates any ‘prestige’ that comes with being awarded a highly-competitive fellowship.

      • Thanks for the comment hpomena. I’ll think about doing a post specifically aimed at outside fellowship holders.

    • As a very belated response to this: I had a similar experience at Wisconsin on an NSF fellowship. They eventually decided to make me an “honorary fellow”, which got me library privileges. I was initially not so keen on the title, because it seemed so obviously made up. But then I realized that it was the same title Bobbi Peckarsky had there, and then it seemed much better.🙂 I had to purchase health insurance privately, which was such a nightmare.

  3. Here at the University of Michigan postdoctoral research fellows are eligible for: one month of vacation (22 days), University holidays off (including the days between Xmas and New Years), 3 weeks paid sick leave (can use to care for sick family/kid), and 6 weeks paid ‘extended leave’ (e.g. for childbirth). These benefits are significantly better than the ones I had at my previous gig at a conservation non-profit.

    • That leave package is in the upper tiers for universities. Can you tell me whether the sick and vacation leave is available in a lump sum or accrued; whether you can use them right away or not; and whether you can carry leave over from year to year? I’ll add University of Michigan to my charts…

  4. Thanks for this analysis! At UWyoming, they didn’t really have a coherent policy on postdocs. I was given full staff (state employee) benefits, except no vacation accrual. Postdocs in some other departments did accrue vacation. Vacation or not, the benefits were pretty generous. For your chart, sick leave was accrued based on hours worked (8hr/mo based on 160hr work/mo), no waiting period, and with carryover. I’ll be really curious to see your analysis of family/parental leave. I used all of my accumulated sick leave and a ton of donated sick leave (thank you friends and strangers!).

    • Nice that you had access to a sick leave bank. That’s not very common for postdocs.

      Oh hey, I was looking up vacation for postdocs other than you and saw this:
      “Post-Doctoral Research Associates may request up to 22 days leave with pay a year.”

      Are you classified as something else?

  5. Wash-U is a crazy place. Grad students get 22 paid vacation days, and 12 paid sick days. I don’t understand why the same policies would not apply to postdocs.

    In Ecology and Evolution, most labs are pretty flexible with time off. If postdocs need a day to take care of their family, many professors are willing to let them “work from home”. Other labs, especially outside of Ecology and Evolution (like Genetics, Genomics, etc.) are very strict and require postdocs to clock in each day, and keep stringent time records.

    Just a small correction…it is Washington University in Saint Louis, not University of Washington. You could also correct it to say “Wants to Be University of Washington, in Saint Louis”.

    Thanks for another interesting post, Margaret!

    • Oh gosh. Thanks for the name correction! Fixed in the post, and I’ll fix the charts soon.

      Interesting about grad student benefits. I find that it’s common that staff (the category that postdocs are typically classified under) have worse benefits than faculty. But usually grad students have mediocre benefits, too. I’ve never heard of grad students having official sick and vacation days. Weird that the vacation leave is higher than that of postdocs.

  6. For University of Wisconsin, post-docs get 176 vacation hours per fiscal year (can take before you earn; carry over for one year); 176 sick hours per 18 months (76 per year after that; carry over and don’t expire; have to earn it to use it). Plus we get 36 hours of personal holidays and 9 paid holidays.

    In Maine (to help Brian out), we got 20 days per year of both disability/sick and annual leave. The disability leave could also be used for sick family members. And 12 paid holidays.

    In both places, I was or am salaried staff as a post-doc. If I only had a 9 month appointment, I’d get way less benefits.

    I’ll also note that I’ve never taken vacation time as a postdoc and it seems like a weird benefit – one I’m supposed to be happy to get and value in a position, and one that I’m never supposed to use. Even sick leave is somewhat like that.

    • Thanks for those details. I’ll update the charts. When you say you’ve never taken vacation time, do you mean that you’ve never taken a vacation? Or that you’ve never officially used “vacation days” when you have taken a vacation? I know academia has a workaholic culture, but it is important to take time off — for both your sanity and your productivity (in case you need to justify it to your boss).

      • Ha. Yes, I agree that vacations are important for sanity but my travel is either family time (aka flying cross-country for holidays or events – not sure how much that helps my sanity? I guess it’s a change of scenery) or for conferences. As a post-doc, starting my third year, I’ve never taken a vacation except for my sister’s wedding (cross-country and only two official days off).

        But it’s okay, I take weekends off.

  7. As a grad student (Columbia University) and postdoc (Boston Children’s Hospital), I never had the slightest clue what my vacation policy was and it never really mattered for anyone I knew. A fellow postdoc made the mistake of asking HR about their policies when she was pregnant and they told her she had 6 weeks and then they would not pay her if she took longer, while in reality my boss let you take the full 3 months if you wanted, at full pay. Nobody would ever report that you were gone. The lab was extremely friendly to people with small children and in fact almost everyone had 1-2 children while there.
    As a PI, I don’t care when my people take off for vacation, take half days, etc. I just ask them to let me know when not to expect them and we have a calendar where they can list when they are out, but otherwise they can manage their time. I actually have no idea how many days they are supposed to have….or I am supposed to have.
    So, while I think it’s a very good idea to know what the policy of your university is, when interviewing you should also ask other postdocs in the lab whether it’s enforced or not and what the attitude is to people with small children or to emergencies. Time sheets can be pre-filled and filed weekly in your absence, if you go away for a month😉

    • Thanks for this really good point. I think it’s very common that PIs trust their postdocs to not abuse the system and no one worries too much about time taken. And I think that’s generally considered a nice, flexible thing about academia. I certainly appreciate it.

      But I think it’s a dangerous game to play for vulnerable people (like pregnant postdocs, postdocs with chronic health conditions, etc.) who *need* to have that time off. If a PI gets on the wrong side of a department head or a grumpy administrator *finds*out* what’s going on, the postdoc could find herself not only out of a job, but also bereft of the health insurance tied to her employment.

  8. Pingback: The resurgence of Title IX and women’s rights in U.S. academia » EC0L0GY B1TS

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