Languishing in postdoc limbo
The 2007 federal budget includes a proposal to strengthen Canada's economy through a "knowledge advantage." It outlines plans to improve Canada's research endeavor by increasing spending on equipment and facilities, restructuring management of government labs and investing in the training of more scientists and engineers. The budget also calls for improved accountability in training highly qualified personnel, or HQPs.
HQPs aren't limited to, but include, postdoctoral scholars - those of us who have earned a PhD but have not yet moved into a permanent position befitting our education. As a group, we are in favor of increased financial aid to students and more scholarships for PhD candidates. However, we also believe that the universities (and government) want to increase production of PhDs in this country, yet do little to monitor the success of PhD graduates in securing long-term careers. For all the talk about meeting Canada's needs for the knowledge economy, there is a serious disconnect.
Many postdoctoral fellows in Canada feel invisible, despite their important contributions to the research endeavour. Most Canadian universities are not even sure how many postdocs work on their campuses. In 1998, when the University of California, San Francisco counted its postdocs for the first time, it was shocked to discover they outnumbered graduate students by three to one. Yet the federal budget, in its chapter on the knowledge advantage, says nothing about obtaining, retaining or training Canadian postdocs.
Canada, the United States and other developed countries already produce more PhDs in science and engineering than they can accommodate as replacements for retiring professors, hire in government labs or place in industry. A postdoc is supposed to be a temporary training position, where newly minted PhDs gain valuable research experience without the burden of teaching and administrative duties. But the postdoctoral training period has been getting longer, and the competition to move into academic positions more fierce.
A 2003 study by the National Postdoctoral Association of the U.S. (or NPA) tracked the cohort of science and engineering PhDs who received their doctorate within the past six years. Just under 20 percent were in tenure-track positions. What was once a one- to two-year rite of passage on the way to academic employment has become a lengthy stay in contract limbo.
Meanwhile, many Canadian universities plan to greatly increase the number of PhD students over the next five years. Where will these new recruits come from? Who will hire the resulting PhDs? The federal budget includes provisions to attract bright students from other countries, but we don't know whether Canada is a net importer or exporter of PhDs. Without a proper accounting of postdocs, we question the soundness of training ever more PhDs, especially if a large portion of this investment moves on to greener pastures in the U.S. A rapid increase in PhD numbers will require recruiting students who previously would have been seen as not suited to pursuing a PhD. Digging deeper into the draft pool is unlikely to produce more science equivalents of Wayne Greztky or Mario Lemieux.
A question to ask is whether we can better use a resource we already have. Productivity during postdoctoral training is pivotal to future success. According to the NPA, 43 percent of first authors in articles in Science are postdocs. Postdocs are often responsible for the day-to-day research training of undergraduate, graduate and medical students, but this aspect of the postdoc experience is not part of the job description and is poorly acknowledged by universities and the national granting councils. Too many postdocs give up on research for lack of proper recognition and remuneration - a serious blow to them and a lost resource to the country.
Some steps must be taken to better account for training researchers in Canada. Our recommendations are too numerous to list but would include provisions to:
We are now in the process of establishing a national committee to form a postdoctoral association - our first recommendation.
Dr. Ferguson was the first president of the Postdoctoral Association at the University of Western Ontario (PAW) and is on his third postdoc at Western. Dr. Stanford is past president of PAW and now a postdoc fellow at the Ottawa Health Research Institute.