Chapter 10 - Postdoctoral Appointments

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The ISU Graduate College is committed to providing an outstanding postdoctoral experience by providing services that enhance the postdoctoral experience and encourage better scholarship. The ISU Graduate College is the administrative home for Postdoctoral Scholars since they are receiving additional training and acquiring the additional skill sets to serve them in preparation for independent careers. Most postdoctoral scholars are involved in research, but a few have other responsibilities that contribute to their continuing professional development such as teaching or outreach.

Medical or veterinary residents and interns must hold the appropriate doctoral degree (e.g. MD, DVM, DO) or the equivalent, and are involved with clinical activities, but may also do some formal teaching.

Post graduate researchers are persons with a terminal degree that is not a doctorate (MFA for example), but that have responsibilities and expectations that are otherwise similar to those of a postdoctoral scholar. Post graduate researcher appointments are governed by the policies that apply to postdoctoral scholars.

10.1 - Definition

The term “Postdoctoral Scholar” is used to identify those individuals who have received their doctoral degree or equivalent doctorate (e.g. M.D., DVM, DO) and who have opted to pursue further research and/or scholarly training in preparation for a full-time independent career in academia and/or research typically, but not exclusively, in the sciences.

10.2 - Appointment

This appointment is viewed as a temporary position, typically of two or three years duration, with the primary purpose of engaging the Postdoctoral Scholar in substantial research or scholarship under the supervision of a faculty mentor and publication of the results of his/her scholarship during the time of the appointment.

The majority of the appointment is to be focused on research and scholarship. In some circumstances, the Postdoctoral Scholar appointee may also teach. In all cases more than half the appointment must be devoted to scholarship and in no case may teaching responsibilities exceed ¾ the annual teaching responsibility of an assistant professor in that department.

The Postdoctoral Scholar is recognized as an ISU D-base appointee, who is appointed at least half-time and is considered to be in preparation for an independent career.  For this reason, the Postdoctoral Scholar condition of appointment is intermediate between that of graduate assistants and faculty or professional and scientific employees.

The Graduate College allows a maximum of five years in this type of appointment. Extension of the appointment for more than five years is extremely rare and is allowed only for the most extraordinary circumstances. Requests to extend a postdoctoral appointment beyond five years must be made at least six months prior to the end of the fifth year and preferably sooner.

The stipend level at which a postdoctoral scholar is compensated should recognize the fact that the individual has earned a doctoral degree, as well as stipend levels within the discipline of the scholar. The Graduate College sets a minimum stipend level, but does not set a maximum level. Stipend increases are typically only permitted at the beginning of the fiscal year (July 1).

Postdoctoral Scholar describes a variety of appointment positions: Postdoctoral Fellow, Postdoctoral Research Associate, and Postdoctoral Trainee.

10.3 - Performance Management

At the beginning of the appointment of a Postdoctoral Scholar, the Principal Investigator (PI)/Supervisor shall establish clear expectations in writing (template), at a minimum, for:  (a) reporting duties (frequency, level of detail, format, etc.); (b) level of performance; and (c) professional conduct. The Postdoctoral Scholar is thereafter responsible for meeting (or exceeding) these expectations.  The PI/Supervisor is responsible for following up and providing feedback on a regular basis with the Postdoctoral Scholar to ensure s/he is meeting expectations.

A practical first step is for the PI/Supervisor to work with a new Postdoctoral Scholar to establish an Individual Development Plan (IDP) within the first three months of the appointment. The Individual Development Plan is an interactive, web-based tool that serves as a constructive means of communication between the PI and Postdoctoral Scholar, and it also provides a planning process that identifies both professional development needs and career objectives for the Postdoctoral Scholar. Reviewing the IDP on an annual basis – during an Annual Review – is a good practice.

A written, annual review is required for all Postdoctoral Scholars who are continuing beyond the initial one-year appointment. The Graduate College provides an annual review template for this purpose.

If a Postdoctoral Scholar is unsatisfactorily performing his/her duties, the PI/Supervisor shall promptly attempt to address these issues via informal coaching and mentoring. The PI/Supervisor shall document such efforts.

If informal coaching and mentoring does not improve the performance, the PI/Supervisor shall develop an Action Plan. The Action Plan shall include:  (a) a detailed description of all relevant performance deficiencies and prior attempts to address the performance deficiencies; (b) specific steps and improvements which the Postdoctoral Scholar must satisfy; (c) a defined timeline in which the steps and improvements must be satisfactorily made; and (d) a list of University resources (e.g., CELT, online training, EAP, etc.) which may be helpful to the Postdoctoral Scholar.  A copy of the completed Action Plan shall be sent to the respective Department Chair and to the Graduate College Dean. The PI/Supervisor shall meet with the Postdoctoral Scholar to present/discuss the Action Plan. Regular meetings between the PI/Supervisor and Postdoctoral Scholar are expected during the period of the Action Plan. The PI/Supervisor is responsible for documenting progress (or lack thereof) during the period of the Action Plan.

If the Action Plan is not successful after a period of sixty (60) days, a written Notice of Unsatisfactory Performance may be given to the Postdoctoral Scholar and the dismissal process may begin (see below for the required procedure for Notice of Dismissal).

10.4 - Dismissal

10.4.1. Dismissal due to Unsatisfactory Performance

If a PI/Supervisor determines dismissal of the Postdoctoral Scholar is appropriate due to performance deficiencies and after the minimum sixty (60) days Action Plan period, the PI/Supervisor shall first consult with the Department Chair and then contact the Dean of the Graduate College for review/approval of the request prior to issuing a Notice of Dismissal.

A Notice of Dismissal shall be given with a minimum of one month’s notice, unless the Postdoctoral Scholar’s continued presence on campus poses potential harm to the University as determined based upon a review by the Graduate College Dean. The Department Chair, and Graduate College Dean shall be copied on the Notice of Dismissal.

At the time of a dismissal, the Postdoctoral Scholar will turn in all ISU keys and property.  The Postdoctoral Scholar has an obligation to leave with the PI/Supervisor all notebooks and data in a condition that will allow continuation of the project.    

The Postdoctoral Scholar has the right to appeal the dismissal (see below for Appeals Process). 

10.4.2. Dismissal due to Misconduct

The PI/Supervisor shall immediately report to his/her Department Chair any and all allegations pertaining to misconduct alleged to have been committed by a Postdoctoral Scholar. 

The PI/Supervisor also has the responsibility to immediately report allegations pertaining to possible research misconduct, criminal activity, unlawful harassment or discrimination, or sexual misconduct alleged to have been committed by a Postdoctoral Scholar to the appropriate office, such as the Equal Opportunity Office for any allegations regarding unlawful harassment or discrimination, or sexual misconduct.

A Postdoctoral Scholar who has committed misconduct may be dismissed by the PI/Supervisor upon a formal investigation and with approval of the Graduate College Dean. The PI/Supervisor shall notify the Department Chair and contact the Graduate College to begin the process as soon as the alleged misconduct is reported or becomes known.  As used herein, misconduct may include, but is not limited to, research misconduct, acts of violence or threats of violence, harassing or discriminatory conduct, sexual harassment, theft, conviction of criminal acts, plagiarism, and other behavior or conduct of a serious nature. After the alleged misconduct is investigated and a request for dismissal is approved, the PI/Supervisor shall provide a written Notice of Dismissal to the Postdoctoral Scholar (with a copy provided to the Department Chair, the College Dean, and the Graduate College Dean). 

At the time of a dismissal, the Postdoctoral Scholar will turn in all ISU keys and property. The Postdoctoral Scholar has an obligation to leave with the PI/Supervisor all notebooks and data in a condition that will allow continuation of the project.    

The Postdoctoral Scholar has the right to appeal the dismissal (see below for Appeals Process).

10.5 - Appeals Process for Postdoctoral Scholar Dismissal

A Postdoctoral Scholar who has been dismissed based on either Unsatisfactory Performance or Misconduct has the right to appeal the dismissal via the formal grievances option outlined in the Graduate College Handbook.

If no appeal is submitted within ten (10) business days, the Postdoctoral Scholar waives the right to appeal, and the dismissal will be processed by the PI/Supervisor’s employing unit.

10.6 - Postdoctoral Scholars Dispute/Complaint Resolution

This policy assures Postdoctoral Scholars a prompt and impartial review and consideration of disputes and/or complaints that may arise in the work environment while recognizing the University’s interests.

Certain types of concerns/complaints are to be addressed through separate, existing policies. This policy does not apply to sexual violence or sexual harassment issues. Sexual violence should be immediately referred to ISU Police. Sexual misconduct involving harassment should be referred to the Office of Equal Opportunity. See policy references below.

10.6.1 Informal Complaint Options

A Postdoctoral Scholar who has a work-related dispute or complaint should first attempt informal resolution by discussing the matter with the individual involved, if the Postdoctoral Scholar is comfortable doing so. If the concerns or complaints relate to a general policy or contractual issue, rather than an individual, the Postdoctoral Scholar should bring the matter to the attention of the Dean of the Graduate College. 

If these approaches are not viable options or they are not successful, the Postdoctoral Scholar is encouraged to visit the Ombuds Office. The Ombuds Office is a professional, confidential, independent, and neutral resource available to informally work through work-place challenges.  Ombuds Office contact information: 37 Physics Hall, (515) 294-0268, ombuds@iastate.edu.

10.6.2 Formal Grievance Option

If a resolution cannot be reached through the informal options outlined above, the Postdoctoral Scholar may file a formal grievance.

Grievances must be filed in a timely manner. All grievances must be filed within ten (10) business days after occurrence of the event that is the cause of the concern, or, if informal resolution has been attempted, within ten (10) business days after use of the informal grievance option described above has concluded.

A grievance must be filed in good faith and not be of a frivolous or repeated nature. A Postdoctoral Scholar may withdraw his or her grievance at any point during the process. Grievances that have been withdrawn may not be refiled.

Step 1: File with Appropriate Person or Committee. All grievances related to scholarly and professional issues in the workplace must start at the department, appointing unit or program level. The Postdoctoral Scholar must first contact the Department Chair / unit director, or if the department has a department grievance committee, the grievance should be referred to the committee’s chair. If the Department Chair / unit director is directly involved in the issue in question, then the grievance should be discussed with the Dean of the Graduate College, who shall review the matter or create an ad-hoc committee to review.

Step 2: Prepare Written Grievance. To file a grievance, the Postdoctoral Scholar shall provide a written statement with supporting documentation attached. This written grievance statement should be concise and clearly state the relevant background facts and the primary issues/concerns/complaint, including the related policies in question; identify the key people involved and possible witnesses; and state requested outcomes/remedies. The supporting documentation should include emails, departmental procedures, University policies, letters, and other such documentation.

Step 3: Grievance Review and Decision. The person or committee who receives the written grievance statement (reviewing party) will review the materials submitted. The reviewing party shall respond in writing to the Postdoctoral Scholar within ten (10) business days, unless, in the opinion of the reviewing party, that is insufficient time to appropriately investigate and consider the substance of the grievance. If additional time is needed, the reviewing party shall contact the Postdoctoral Scholar to provide a new date by which the decision shall be made and so inform the Graduate Dean. Once the review of the grievance is complete, the reviewing party shall meet with the Postdoctoral Scholar and provide a written decision.

10.6.3 Appeals

Limited Grounds for Appeal.  Grounds for an appeal are limited to: 1) a violation of University rules, regulations or policies or a state or federal law pertaining to the Postdoctoral Scholar’s relationship with the University that adversely affected the Postdoctoral Scholar; or 2) a specific act by the University that was arbitrary or capricious and adversely affected the Postdoctoral Scholar. Non-renewal of an appointment upon expiration of the term and termination of an appointment due to loss of funding are not appealable unless such acts fall within the above-described limitations.

Appeal to the Graduate College Dean. Either party may appeal the decision of the reviewing party to the Dean of the Graduate College. Such appeals must be filed within ten (10) business days of meeting with the reviewing party. (If the Dean has already made a determination as provided under Step 3 above, the postdoctoral scholar may advance directly to “Appeal to the Provost” below.) The Dean shall respond in writing within thirty (30) business days of receiving the appeal, unless, in the opinion of the Graduate College Dean, that is insufficient time to appropriately investigate and consider the substance of the appeal. If additional time is needed, the Dean shall contact the parties (i.e., the Postdoctoral Scholar and the reviewing party) to provide a new date by which the decision shall be made.

The Dean of the Graduate College will make a decision and inform all parties involved, including the Postdoctoral Scholar, Department Chair, and the faculty PI/Supervisor.

Appeal to the Provost. Decisions of the Graduate College may be appealed by either party to the Office of the Senior Vice President and Provost (Provost).  Such appeals must be filed within ten (10) business days of the Graduate College Dean issuing his/her decision. The Provost shall respond in writing within thirty (30) business days of the receiving the appeal, unless, in the opinion of the Provost, that is insufficient time to appropriately investigate and consider the substance of the appeal. If additional time is needed, the Provost shall contact the parties to provide a new date by which the decision shall be made.

The Provost will make a decision and inform all parties involved, including the Postdoctoral Scholar, Department Chair, Dean, and the faculty PI/Supervisor.

Appeal to the President. Decisions of the Provost may be appealed by either party to the Office of the President.  Such appeals must be filed within ten (10) business days of the Provost issuing his/her decision. The President shall respond in writing within thirty (30) business days of the receiving the appeal, unless, in the opinion of the President, that is insufficient time to appropriately investigate and consider the substance of the appeal. If additional time is needed, the President shall contact the parties to provide a new date by which the decision shall be made.

The President will make the final institutional decision and inform all parties involved, including the Postdoctoral Scholar, Provost, Graduate College Dean, Department Chair, and faculty PI/Supervisor.

Further Appeal.  Any further appeal may be made to the Board of Regents as provided per the Regents Policy Manual.

10.6.4 Complaints Involving Unlawful Discrimination and Harassment

Iowa State University takes all claims of discrimination and harassment seriously. Concerns or complaints of this nature are addressed through a separate, existing policy. (See the Discrimination and Harassment Policy.)

If a Postdoctoral Scholar feels that he/she has been discriminated against or harassed based on his/her protected class status (see Discrimination and Harassment Policy), the Postdoctoral Scholar should directly contact the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO).

OEO has an internal complaint resolution process. OEO can investigate allegations of discrimination and harassment following its own formal or informal process. For more information about these options or for additional information regarding what may constitute unlawful discrimination or harassment, contact OEO.

OEO is located at 3410 Beardshear Hall; phone: (515) 294-7612, email: eooffice@iastate.edu, or visit OEO’s webpage.

10.6.5 Non-Retaliation

Retaliation against persons who file complaints is strictly prohibited (see Non-Retaliation Against Persons Reporting Misconduct Policy).

10.6.6 Confidentiality

The grievance/appeals process, findings and outcomes are to be held in strict confidence.  All individuals involved in the process shall make every effort to maintain the confidentiality of the process. Grievance/appeal information shall be kept in a confidential file in the Graduate College, and it will be accessible only to those individuals engaged in the complaint process and appropriate administrators with an official need to know.

Resources and References

Non-Retaliation Against Persons Reporting Misconduct

Discrimination and Harassment Policy

Violence Free University Policy

Research Misconduct Policy

Sexual Misconduct, Sexual Assault, and Sexual Harassment Involving Student Policy

Office of Equal Opportunity

Ombuds Office

Employee & Family Resources (EAP)

Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT)