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Canadian survey of postdocs reveals dissatisfaction

Report recommends time limit on postdoctoral training

by Rosanna Tamburri

Canadian postdoctoral fellows exist in an academic limbo where they are subjected to low pay, few job benefits and little chance of finding permanent employment as faculty members, according to a new survey conducted by the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars.

The CAPS survey found there are about 6,000 postdocs in Canada. Some 1,200, or 20 percent, participated in the survey. More than half of respondents were aged 30 to 35 and almost 80 percent earn $45,000 or less a year before taxes. The data were collected through an online survey conducted from April to July 2009.

More than half of respondents said they were satisfied with their postdoctoral training. But many said they felt as though they lacked respect and recognition for their academic contributions and that their needs and concerns were ignored. They also expressed concern about the likelihood of obtaining a tenure-track faculty position.

“Most of us were sold the idea that there were lots of academic positions… and we’re finding that the opportunities aren’t there,” said Marianne Stanford, a postdoctoral fellow at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute at the University of Ottawa and chair of the association.

The most worrisome issues facing postdocs, she said, are low pay and lengthening postdoc terms. In some cases, postdocs earn less than graduate students, whose scholarships and bur-saries are tax exempt.

Postdoctoral fellowships are regarded as temporary training positions for PhD graduates. But in some disciplines, postdoc training can last five years or longer, the report noted. “Many [postdoctoral fellows] are languishing in a non-structured, dead-end position,” it said.

In 2007-08, PhD enrolment totaled 40,400, up 62 percent from 2001-02, whereas the number of full-time professors increased about 20 percent over the same period, according to figures cited in the report. In 2007, Canadian universities conferred 4,800 doctorate degrees and hired 2,616 new full-time professors. “It is clear from these numbers that the majority of [postdoctoral fellows] will not be entering into academic positions,” it said.

The report made a number of recommendations, including establishing a clearer definition of postdoctoral status and a time limit on a postdoctoral training period; after that the incumbent would be reclassified as a research scientist or research associate, a more secure position. The report also called for increases in base salaries, training opportunities and employment benefits.

cartoon
“Piled Higher and Deeper", a comic strip by Jorge Cham, pokes gentle fun at graduate students – and occasionally at postdocs.

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