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Canada’s postdocs need better support systems to succeed, survey suggests

A national survey by the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars highlights challenges postdocs face in Canada.

By ANQI SHEN | NOV 30 2016

Canada’s postdoctoral scholars can do more with their training and expertise but are limited by a lack of workplace support and career development, according to the results of a national survey released Nov. 19 by the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars. This is the third such survey conducted by CAPS, the two previous being done in 2009 and 2013.

In comparing this year’s data with those collected from the earlier surveys, CAPS has identified three broad areas of concern: Canada’s ability to attract global talent to postdoctoral positions, a lack of workplace and career support for postdocs, and the impact of postdoc “pile up.”

“We are highly trained and specialized individuals,” said Nafisa Jadavji, chair of CAPS’ national survey committee. “Our data show we’re not being optimized to our potential.”

This year’s survey drew 2,109 responses, mostly from postdocs currently working in Canada, including international scholars. Almost a quarter of respondents are former postdocs who completed an appointment within the past four years, and 12 percent are Canadian citizens completing postdoctoral positions abroad.

The survey finds that Canadian postdocs are older now than they were in 2009. Almost a third of respondents are at least 35 years of age, up eight percent from 2009. The under-30 age group shrunk five percent over the same period. According to CAPS, this is because postdocs are spending more time completing multiple appointments in hopes of landing a tenure-track position, creating a pile-up effect.

“There’s a focus on moving into academia after your postdoc but we all know that there are not enough academic positions,” says Dr. Jadavji. “We can still have a very productive and fulfilling career, and it doesn’t have to be an academic career.”

Although the data show that postdocs are becoming more open to non-academic careers, most still consider tenure-track to be a primary goal and are training for careers in academia. A third of respondents say they feel “not at all” prepared for non-academic positions and 43 percent say they’ve had no exposure to non-academic career opportunities; fully half say they’re not satisfied with their career options. Nevertheless, half of respondents reported being at least “somewhat satisfied” with their training and a further 21 percent are “completely satisfied.”

As in previous years, survey respondents report high levels of workplace stress and many have experienced mental health conditions such as hopelessness, anxiety attacks and depression. As one survey respondent put it: “It’s a lonely academic experience … more so than the PhD. No cohort, no association, in ‘no man’s land’ between faculty and students.”

There was general dissatisfaction with low salaries, lack of employment insurance and other workplace benefits – often because postdocs are legally recognized as trainees and not employees. Nearly half of all postdocs earn an annual income of less than $45,000. Two-thirds of respondents are married and one-third of current postdocs have dependents.

International postdocs, who make up 30 percent of postdocs in Canada, have increasingly reported difficulties obtaining visas and work permits. In 2016, compared to 2013, there was an 11 percent decrease in the number of international postdocs coming to Canada.

The survey has also found that 30 percent of former postdocs left Canada to pursue employment opportunities. Ten percent of respondents say they plan to leave Canada after completing their current appointment and 28 percent say they are unsure.

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