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!”