In most careers, when you do a good job, you get rewarded - a promotion, a bonus, a raise, whatever. These things are the incentives that make you strive to do your best.
In science, as a postdoc, you get penalized for your success.
I did something postdocs are supposed to do - get money by writing a research proposal that you submit to a funding agency. The process is competitive and time-consuming; when you are successful, this is a significant achievement, an essential step in your career.
But the actual payoff is really years down the road. In the immediate aftermath of successfully obtaining a funded postdoctoral fellowship, you lose out:
- Your salary very well may decrease. That's right - if you write a successful research proposal, your salary could go down. The going rate for an NIH fellowship was less than what I was earning as a university-paid fellow; it was only thanks to the timely help of my advisor I avoided a pay cut.
- Your health insurance premiums become fully taxable. Before I was funded by the NIH, my health insurance premiums were taken out before taxes - just as it's done for everyone else in the country with employer-sponsored health insurance. Once you are an NIH fellow however, your insurance premiums (including the hefty 'employer contribution') are not deducted before taxes - the entire cost of your health insurance premiums is considered taxable income. Thus my taxable income jumped up by several thousand dollars, but my take-home pay remained unchanged. (You can of course deduct the premiums at the end of the year, but this substantially complicates your tax filing.)
- You have to submit your own tax payments. As an NIH fellow, you are nobody's employee - not the university's, not the government's. But the IRS doesn't consider you self-employed either. You technically don't earn wages. You don't receive a W-2. You're not a student.
Thus you have to spend hours navigating the labyrinthine state and U.S. tax codes to figure out how to submit quarterly tax payments. I thought I had it all figured out - until I suddenly discovered that in my state, quarterly doesn't exactly mean quarterly. It turns out that sometimes you have to submit three months worth of taxes after just two months of pay! (April 15 to June 15). Of course, on my shamefully excessive NIH postdoc salary, it's no problem at all to save up extra taxes on income I haven't been paid yet. I suppose I shouldn't be eating anyway - there is lab work to do!
The list could go on... The sheer hours of bureaucratic combat involved in living off of NIH funding makes the whole process almost not worth it. Almost - there is the fact that your future academic career is not too bright if you don't manage to get some sort of fellowship.
Postdocs are in such a nebulous, in-between world - not students, not staff, not faculty, not employees of any kind. This basically means you're everyone's awkward step-child, only partially claimed by the NIH and the university, left to fend for yourself.