As our readers know, we ran a panel discussion last month in Toronto at the 5th Annual Canadian Science Policy Conference. It was a packed room and the panel featured heated exchanges at some points (even between panellists!). Many diverse opinions were shared, pointing to a clear need for academic-training reform.
Chris Corkery began by representing the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars and their recent survey findings from ~20% of Canadian postdoctoral scholars. This launched the panel discussion by showing that early career researchers in the postdoctoral stage were a growing cohort of young bright minds in their mid-30s who aspired to becoming career researchers, but found themselves in a temporary holding zone when it came to career options.
A major policy issue for Canadian universities, governments and industry is how to avoid wasting such talented individuals that represent a major national investment. We set up three perspectives to engage this issue: Rob Annan from Mitacs delivered a talk on Mitacs’ suite of programs to facilitate the transition of trainees into industrial placements, Mawana Pongo spoke of the need for governments to invest in young trainees and the creation of 2,000 fellow positions and 1,000 professor positions, and Ben Neel spoke about the view from research-focused academic institutes and “tough love” for trainees
Dr. Neel’s was perhaps the most provocative presentation, arguing that graduate students and postdoctoral fellows needed to be given a “tough love” message more often than they appeared to be receiving currently. He argued that trainees needed to become masters of their own destiny and that things “aren’t that different” to when he trained (despite admitting that the numbers of scientists being trained has far outstripped new faculty positions). Dr. Neel made some solid arguments – PhD students and postdoctoral fellows have never been particularly well compensated for their educational standing and academic jobs have never been what the majority of people end up doing, and that the real disaster is the reduction in science funding.
Where does this leave us in the policy world? Three main questions need answers:
- Should there be multiple career streams for publicly funded researchers?
- Should the time to complete a PhD be reduced? (And if so, how can this be achieved?)
- Should PhD researchers be treated like medical residents and junior accountants despite unclear career outcomes?
After our panel, CSPC President Mehrdad Hariri asked if we would consider continuing the conversation through CSPC. If this takes place, we’ll certainly let readers know. In the interim, start the conversation below and we’ll collate the responses in our next quarterly summary. As I’ve said many times before, there is little obvious incentive for anyone else to fix academic training, so it’s up to researchers to fix their own system.
This Thursday, I’ll be attending the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Toronto to run a session on the training the next generation of scientists. The session promises to be discussion-based and I hope that some practical ideas and solutions will be proposed by audience members and panelists to help address what I consider to be one of the greatest wastes of human capital in our country.
The results of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS) survey will launch the panel highlighting the real need for new policy solutions to address the ever-increasing numbers of science-based trainees being spun out of Canadian universities and research institutes. This human resource crisis stimulated the formation of CAPS and numerous other international groups of early career researchers (e.g., the NPA in the United States, and ICoRSA for international research staff). The panel brings together stakeholders in industry, government and academia to discuss the needs of each sector and strategies for Canada to adopt in order to come out ahead in its training and utilization of young scientists.
I’ve compiled a list of relevant posts by Jonathan and I that try to tackle some of these issues and propose solutions and I hope this will act as fodder for conference-goers to get the discussion rolling. Post-conference I’ll relay to readers who could not attend the key ideas that emerged with the intention of building consensus on the best ideas that granting agencies, universities and employers could adopt:
- Sick of studenthood, early career researchers want employee status
- Half of Canada’s early career researchers are not Canadian
- Attracting and retaining talented researchers
- Reversing the brain drain
- Too much Talent? SSHRC’s “solution” to the postdoc boom
- The PhD Placement Project
- Incredible promotion tool: student and postdoc outcomes
- Tri-Councils should learn from EMBO fellowships
- Postdoctoral mentors and a regular reality check
- Shorter PhDs and more active thesis committees
- Fewer postdocs with higher salaries? Hold your horses!
- Planning Ahead: How many of you are there and who will pay you?
- A paradigm shift in academic advancement
- Creating scientists, not science, is the key to productive universities
Science training will not magically fix itself – it’s up to young scientists to identify the challenges and help to address them. The most important product of a university is people and these people will go out into every sector of society to help improve our collective future.
- I’ll also partake in a panel on the value of science blogging in Canada on Friday. Hopefully this session will highlight the utility and meaningfulness of scientists picking up the proverbial pen and paper to get their thoughts and opinions out into the world.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll be breaking down the fantastic information found in the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars 2013 Survey of Canadian Postdocs. To start this, I thought I would focus on the most surprising finding in my mind: 53.1% of the 1,830 respondents were either landed immigrants or holding a work permit. This is an incredibly high fraction that represents a huge opportunity for Canada, but only if policies and programs are designed to maximize the influx of such talent.
Plenty of non-American talent
Many of Canada’s postdoctoral fellows travel abroad and many find themselves in the United States, but the converse is not as frequent as many people think. Indeed, just 8% of international postdocs are from the U.S. whereas both France (13%) and China (12%) supply higher numbers of international researchers to the Canadian workforce.
When asked why they moved to Canada for research, facilities and resources were chief amongst reasons, showing that Canada has clearly created an excellent research environment. However, without the correct numbers and types of jobs available following this temporary period of research, it is not surprising that many leave the country. Funnily enough, the major challenge cited by international postdocs is not something remarkably academic or specialized, but rather “transitioning to life in a new country” and “visa/permit issues”- surely Canada can do a better job of making its talented young people feel more welcome.
You may ask why Canada should invest in these young researchers when they will all run away back to their home country? Again, the CAPS survey sheds light on this issue, showing that only 25% of researchers on work permits and just 3% of immigrant researchers have definite plans to leave Canada. There is a huge opportunity to capture this bright class of motivated young people to drive economic benefit for Canada, but we again do very little to support this permanent relocation.
Where does this leave Canadian researchers?
Jonathan just posted last week about attracting and retaining talented researchers, pointing out both the importance of international experience and the need, in Canada especially, to create jobs for researchers. Those jobs do not have to be academic jobs, but they do have to make the case for staying in – or coming back to – Canada for long-term employment.
As a Canadian-funded postdoctoral fellow working outside the country, I have lamented the lack of connectivity between Canadian funding bodies and institutions. My PhD and postdoctoral training cost CIHR $210,000 in salary alone and they have done virtually nothing to encourage my return. Indeed, funding agencies, institutions and companies do very little to attract its early career scientists back to Canada (both Jonathan and I can attest to this) both for academic and non-academic jobs. I think that two main problems exist: 1) lack of networks 2) poor programming for its fellows.
When one is looking for a non-academic post (industry, science writing, consulting, law, etc.), you are much more likely to do this locally. In my own case, a move to industry in one of the Cambridge biotech science parks would be much easier than trying to figure out the lay of the land in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. This is mostly because I regularly meet and interact with scientists who are employed with these companies and are collaborating with academics at our university.
EMBO, and countries like the UK and Australia, have come up with ideas on how to do this. EMBO created a “Fellows Network” that meets regularly and interacts with academics and non-academics; the U.K. encourages international applicants to its independent funding programs (Career development awards) and Australia ties the latter portion of grant funding to a fellow’s “return to Australia.” As far as I can see, Canada lags in this area and desperately needs to rethink its policies if attracting Canadians to return to work in Canada is a goal.
Overall, Canada needs to support both cohorts of talented researchers in order to capture the best and brightest minds to drive critical and inventive thinking that forms the baseline for discovery and innovation. Creating programs to bring back internationally trained researchers and encouraging Canadian trained international researchers to put down roots are not trivial tasks especially when the people making these decisions are (as described in the CAPS survey) adults “in the middle of their lives, but at the beginning of their careers.”
Last month, I found the best “come to my lab” sales pitch. After my jaw was set back into place at the numbers, I soon realized the broader implications of such a web page and its power as a general tool for academics. It takes virtually no effort to create and is something that every academic could (and should!) do. In fact, it is one of few things in this world that costs no money, takes no time, and could single-handedly alter the lives of a vast number of current and future trainees:
Academics should publicly disclose the career progression of their former trainees on their webpage.
The example that inspired this post is Tony Kouzarides’ lab at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge. It lists a breakdown of the individual fates of 39 PhDs and postdocs that have been in his research group. The part that grabbed my attention: 21 of his trainees (54%) have gone on to start their own academic research group and are based in nine different countries (and he even provides links to their websites!).
As someone who would like to run an academic group, I think these numbers speak volumes to the training environment and resources available in the Kouzarides group. If I were interested in a career in the biotechnology industry, I would also strongly consider this lab since five of 39 trainees (13%) went directly into careers in industry and this includes one person who started their own company. The page also goes on to list the fact that the lab has a five-year reunion and an annual retreat – an incredible network of academics to be plugged into.
Of course, this is an incredibly productive group and few academics could boast such statistics; however, providing such numbers will always help potential trainees make decisions about where they would get the best training for what they want to do (and it doesn’t have to be academia). Imagine wanting to do science writing or science policy as a career and worrying that a science supervisor would not train you properly if you were not dedicated to becoming an academic. If a supervisor has a track record of producing trainees who enter these careers, perhaps they would get your nod as future supervisor. People are the products of universities (not data!) and those people go off into a wide array of important careers – we need to get serious about how we evaluate an academic’s training record.
There will be complaints from academics if such a system were mandated, but the pros far outweigh the cons in my opinion. Academics will likely complain that it is difficult to track down what some people are doing, and while I agree this might have been the case 20 years ago, the Internet makes just about everybody findable with a few clicks and tools like LinkedIn are making this job even easier (not to mention that even the biggest research groups would only have to track down five to six trainees per year).
Another complaint will be that young academics will not have a track record and risk getting defined by their first few students/postdocs. While I share this concern, I think it would also prod these academics to invest in the careers of their students and postdocs and maybe even get a little more creative with their trainee statistics pages (e.g., four of five of my trainees have been awarded fellowships since arriving in my group, etc.).
The best part of all of this is that it would give funding organizations access to the information so they can evaluate academics on their training record. Some funding agencies already try to collect this, but most of what I have observed so far relates to a supervisor’s ability to train academics and this data is almost always kept in a database and not made public.
We cannot afford to be complacent about the the quality of training at our institutions and need to make such changes sooner rather than later – and granting councils should not be afraid to put some teeth into their policies when it comes to training record, no academic is better than the sum of their trainees.
People often ask me what I would do if I were in charge of fellowships for Canadian trainees. In response, I will often slip into my usual refrain of making investment in people the basic tenet of any fellowship program. As it currently stands, the career track for academics artificially selects for those that can handle small amounts of stability and an incredible amount of career uncertainty. Many believe that a fellowship program that fights against this is dreaming a dream too big, but there is one organization working its tail off to combat the tide and Canadian funding agencies should be taking notes.
The European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) is at the forefront in fellowship program design. Its long-term fellowship program for postdoctoral fellows has the following components:
- useful eligibility rules
- child care allowance
- dependent allowance
- travel allowance
- parental leave
- part-time work policy (such that fellows can do 3 or 4 day weeks and remain funded)
- private pension plan
- Fellow’s Network
And EMBO is not a boutique funding organization (the 2013 Spring competition awarded 100 fellowships) so they’ve clearly figured out a way to invest in a broad set of useful programs for the diverse life situations that young scientists find themselves in. For this post, I want to highlight three of these components as things which every major trainee funding organization should consider implementing straight away:
Useful eligibility rules:
EMBO is realistic about who it wants to fund and makes no bones about telling those that do not fit the criteria that their application will be thrown into the bin straight away. Statements like: “Applicants must have at least one first author publication accepted in press or published in an international peer reviewed journal at the time of application” make it very obvious that if you don’t have a paper, you will not be getting a fellowship. This cuts down on wasted application time and reduces peer review burden.
Private Pension Plan:
One of the most drilled home messages of financial advisers is to start pension savings early. This is not only advisable for the Canada Pension Plan (where each year helps you earn more later), but also private pension plans where compound interest relies on early starts. Early career researchers, often located in foreign countries, will often not get enrolled into any sort of pension plan until their mid-late 30s due to the transience of academic training. EMBO therefore created its own, internationally transferable, pension plan for its fellows – genius.
One of the greatest travesties of the Canadian trainee funding system is the lack of connectivity that the funding organizations have with the recipients of their money. While former trainees will remain on mailing lists sometimes, that’s about as good as it gets. After funding expires, fellows often drop off the face of the earth. EMBO, it seems, has figured this one out too – their FellowsNet is highly interactive and also appears to be for life (can someone confirm this?). It is not simply about record keeping, but rather is about creating a community of like-minded individuals who build lifelong friendships and collaborations.
From my own experience, my hat needs to be tipped in the direction of CIHR for their progressive research allowance policy. This funding allowed me to have decision making power over which conferences I attended and avoided many awkward discussions about where funding would come from. I can see the movement in the right direction at CIHR, and thankfully there are groups like EMBO doing the trail-blazing – all we need to do is follow along.
I just finished a bit of a marathon read which gives advice to early career researchers on how to best situate themselves for success in research. The guide, Charting a course for a successful research career was written by Emeritus Professor Alan Johnson and offers some good advice for early career researchers. Its audience is extremely broad (international early career researchers in all disciplines) and the tone is quite conversational and as a consequence I found it slightly ethereal and felt the take home messages were sometimes difficult to extract. Nonetheless, a targeted read through the table of contents for the section(s) most applicable to you should get some useful tidbits out, so do take a look.
Overall, the guide insists that early career researchers must take control of their own career and focus on planning – with this I could not agree more. We have long advocated on this site the real need for PhD students and postdoctoral fellows to regularly assess their career options. Nobody else is as concerned with what you do with your training (mothers excepted) so please do not stick your head in the sand without considering how much you want to pursue academic research – the environment is too competitive to simply drift into your career.
Check out some previous posts on this topic if you are interested:
- The importance of leaving academic science on good terms
- Novel ideas for the biomedical research workforce, anyone in Canada listening?
- Engaging early – changing direction before graduation
- Introducing career streams into academic research
- Career streams in academia: Who foots the bill?
- To postdoc or not to postdoc?
- Professionals in High Demand
- Old Debate, More Participants: What do 80% of PhD holders do for a career?
- Say NO to the Second Post Doc!
For those planning on pursuing an academic career, Professor Johnson makes an excellent point that should not go unnoticed. Think ahead. Not just about where your project will go or what the next cool technique is, but make sure you are thinking about where science is going. Johnson suggests reading vision statements of universities, granting councils and political parties and asking how your research will be funded in 10 years. This is sage advice and will position you much better for hiring committee questions around your future “fundability”.
When I was in Canada going to university in the late 1990s/early 2000s, there was a massive push on training engineers – Nortel was booming, RIM was emerging, and all roads led to the tech sector. When Nortel collapsed, the ripple was felt across the entire sector and many young engineers found themselves without jobs, some of whom are now in completely different fields. Is the life sciences/genomics explosion of the last decade traveling down the same path and will early career researchers who have not thought broadly about their research find themselves on the outside? Currently, Canada is investing quite a lot into regenerative medicine and genomics research and the country is well-respected in both areas, but the industrial biotechnology sector appears to be unable to attract substantial capital. If this continues, will the industrial sector be able bear the huge number of trainees we are producing?
Of course, we cannot predict the future, but it behooves young researchers to keep their heads out of the sand and think about the future – not only of their own careers, but of their field and the other fields around them.
My last post generated a fair amount of commentary both here on this site and on Reddit. It seems that many people have experienced exactly what NIH Director Francis Collins described: they’ve been made to feel like failures for leaving academia. If the vast majority of PhDs and postdoctoral fellows will not become tenure-track academics, then we should be embracing non-academic careers as the default pathway for most trainees. This requires a huge cultural shift away from seeing trainees as generators of science and toward viewing trainees themselves as the product. Making supervisors and institutes accountable for the trainees they produce, keeping lab sizes down to a size where meaningful mentorship can be maintained, and recognizing the value of non-academic careers are all key to making this shift successfully.
Tracking former students and postdocs in a meaningful way
A recent phenomenon at granting agencies has been to track the outcomes of students and postdocs, both in terms of how long they are in the lab as well as what they are currently doing for a job. A big question that spawns from this is whether particular professions or outcomes are more or less valued? If so, who decides if it’s more valuable to create a PhD-level patent lawyer vs. a sessional instructor vs. a professor? I am not sure how this information is used and I worry that it is simply to ask the question “How good is this professor at creating new professors?”
As I mentioned in my last post, the product of a university should, above all else, be its people. We consistently fail this goal by nearly exclusively valuing the production of papers and patents irrespective of what happens to the trainees involved in producing them. Instead we should be measuring a successful research PI by evaluating – in a meaningful fashion – their training and teaching abilities.
Bigger is not always better
One of the most frustrating things about measuring the “productivity” or “success” of a lab is that it is almost always done as a cumulative exercise. Rarely do you ask the question, “What is this professor’s productivity per lab member?” Not too long ago, there was an eye-opening study that showed research productivity plateaued at $750,000 of research funding and got noticeably worse as funding went up (as measured by number of publications and their average impact factor). Even this, though, did not break down the production per person, though it can be reasonably assumed that better funded labs have more people.
Big labs produce more papers, that’s very true – but how many careers are buried in the wake of such “productivity”? It would do grant evaluators well to ask how many trainees and employees does each lab have and how is the lab’s publication record distributed over those people. Anecdotally, I can cite several examples of small labs with excellent productivity that get crushed in grant evaluations for having a thin publication record – a “publication per lab researcher” metric would do such labs a great service and push the heads of larger labs to ensure that everyone in their group is being taken care of properly.
Seeing the forest for the trees and the Selfish Gene
On the note of taking care of one’s trainees, I fail to understand why professors don’t see “non-academic” career options as valuable to them. Yes, professors can have tunnel vision when it comes to doing things that benefit their lab moving forward, but surely minting new academics is not the only way to have a positive working relationship with your former trainees.
If you produce a journal editor, might thaey not end up working at a journal in your field? Would you rather have them respect the lab for the way it is run and the science that emerges from it or that they be bitter about their final few months/years and be spreading bad vibes throughout their new circles?
If you produce an industry researcher, might they not end up working for a company in your field? Good relationships with companies have often sprouted collaborations that benefits both the academic and industrial partners both through shared reagents, shared expertise, and good product development opportunities. Even the most selfish professors should be able to see this logic and be keen to have students of all career motivations leave their labs as happy as possible.
Changing the perception
I have long wondered whether people are better motivated by negative or positive reinforcement. Should we reward those professors that invest in training students and postdocs with diverse career goals or should we penalize those that neglect their university duties? As it currently stands, there does not appear to be much reward for those who invest in training and teaching and there appears to be a sizable cohort of professors who are not well-liked by their trainees.
I suggest measuring output based on all the trainees that pass through a lab by noting where they go and how well they were supported and I would also incorporate productivity per researcher into evaluation metrics. Such measures would stimulate professors to consider carefully those that they take on board and I believe would bring down overall lab size of large labs and increase the productivity per research dollar.
Over the years, our site has had many articles on two major themes: the education and training of scientists, and the effective transfer of knowledge between academic science and other sectors (e.g., industry, policy, science outreach).
Last week, Nature published a short interview with NIH Director Francis Collins concerning the policies being adopted to improve the training situation in biomedical sciences. Briefly, postdoc stipends will be increased along with the number of grants that encourage early career independence, and funding will be made available for training programs that prepare students for a broader set of career options. These are all welcome changes, of course, but I fear the problem of communication between sectors will remain unsolved unless trainees and educators fundamentally shift the way they view “non-academic” careers.
After admitting to not exposing his own trainees to multiple career options, Collins highlights the problem that I will spend the remainder of the article speaking to:
I worry that a number of them (postdocs) are receiving the message that if they don’t get a tenure-track position, they have failed. The good news is that nearly all postdocs are likely to be employed in interesting positions, but many will not travel a narrow academic path.
This is where the human element comes into play. Postdoctoral fellows are generally clever and successful people; they’ve finished at or near the top of their classes in high school and university and clearly like asking questions about things that have yet to be answered. The difficult disconnect comes when, for the first time in many of these people’s lives, they are being told, “No, sorry, you’re not good enough to go down that path, just go figure something else out.”
Many people will counter with arguments about huge swathes of postdocs who actually do not want to have a tenure track position. While data are being collected on this, the relationship that these postdocs have with academic science remains problematic. Observing and competing with the ambitious few who make it, it is reinforced over and over that these young scholars are not good enough to be at the top. This is completely and utterly appalling – it is a damaging cycle and it is sapping the motivation of our best and brightest.
The real problem comes when the majority (Collins quotes greater than 75%) of these people obtain non-tenure track jobs. Just like all the nasty emotions that flare up when you are rejected in a relationship, science leaves the bitter taste of failure and the defensive walls get built up. Is it possible that such walls are still intact when it comes to dealing with academics in future positions? I have visions of disgruntled former academic postdocs (getting more disgruntled as the human resource crisis escalates) being in science policy and industry positions and making the gap between governments, industry and academia grow even larger. We need to find ways to support the choices of trainees earlier and resist the demonization of non-academic career choices.
Research labs at universities should be places of training, not small businesses. Having a skilled worker move on to something else is potentially bad for business, but should be seen as an excellent end product for a university.
I am certainly not advocating for the pampering of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, but there are several approaches that I will propose in my next post to take better advantage of the huge investment that we make in the training of these young scholars. Career training programs like those the NIH will support are a good step, but until postdoctoral fellows stop flying under the radar of their supervisor when they partake in such programs, we’ll still be constructing walls that will need to be torn down later.
Today we are very excited to have a guest post from one of Canada’s new Banting Fellows, who has asked to remain anonymous. You may be surprised to read this person’s assessment of Canada’s “Cadillac” award for postdocs. The most challenging question, from our perspective, that our blogger raises is: Are universities buying the fellowships?
One year ago, the Government of Canada launched the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship to much fanfare. The program aims to “attract and retain” top-tier international talent and position award holders “for success as research leaders of tomorrow.” Despite some initial reviews, there has been little evaluation of how the scheme is faring. My aim here is to provide my own perspective as a life scientist holding a Banting at one of the largest universities in Canada.
The goals of the Banting fellowship are certainly laudable. Foremost, they aim to provide early career scientists with the flexibility and support to establish an independent research career. The trouble with the awards, however, is that they only last for two years. This prevents award holders from establishing a presence as a leader because they cannot apply for research grants from the tri-councils on a two-year, non-faculty position, nor supervise graduate students, because they’ll be out of a job before the students finish! Ultimately, I think the lofty ambitions of the program will go unrealized because of this limited tenure.
Other countries, such as Britain and Germany, have similar mechanisms to recruit the world’s top postdoctoral talent. The difference is that they recognize that becoming a research “leader” means just that, the ability to lead a group of researchers in developing a comprehensive body of work. Top programs in these countries that Canada should be emulating include the Royal Society University Research Fellowships, Advanced Fellowships offered by the UK research councils and charities, and Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.
Obviously, offering longer fellowships comes at a cost. One option would be for the tri-councils to halve the number of Bantings and increase the funding to four years. This could be achieved by reducing the value of the award. Personally, I care very little about my salary, and I imagine that other researchers that are passionate about their work, place monetary gain well beneath their work. I would happily be paid half of my current salary if my Banting lasted four years, allowed me to apply for a CIHR Operating Grant or NSERC Discovery grant, and supervise graduate students. A second option would be to create new, longer-term fund schemes such as by re-allocating fund from other budgets. Such actions would put serious support behind new investigators in Canada and parallel many of the international funding programs mentioned above, which have both short- and long-term fellowships for candidates of differing experience and achievement.
My second gripe with the Banting fellowships is their definition of “institutional support.” This is very vague on the program website, so what exactly does (or could) it entail? No doubt anecdotal, but I am compelled to recount a tale of a friend of mine who is exceptionally successful in his field (physical sciences) and has worked at several of the top institutions in the world. You would expect him to be a prime candidate for a Banting and indeed, he applied for a Banting at one of the best universities in Canada. But because this university has an excellent reputation, it offered him no additional financial support. They felt that their reputation was sufficient reason for him to come to their institution, in addition to the collaborators that were there. In the end, he did not receive a Banting, despite being highly qualified with a strong research proposal.
By contrast, my own university has been exceptionally generous with their financial commitment to my research, demonstrating strong support to the Banting committee. Ironically, despite my host institution’s support, there are few staff members that I can engage with, especially when compared to my colleague’s choice of research environment. While this is a sample size of two, I cannot help but feel suspicious that some universities may be using the offer of “institutional support” to, in effect, “buy” fellowships to raise their profile. My host university has provided no benefits aside from research money, yet I would happily trade some cash for the potential to supervise graduate students.
To summarize, while I’m certainly better off that I’ve held a Banting, I can’t see how they are any different from a standard PDF. At my university, it makes no difference whatsoever that I hold the award – all post-docs are equally treated as “non-employees”! It seems to me that all the Government of Canada has done by creating this program is generated two salary tiers for PDFs, without additional benefits. To me, this seems like a huge misdirection of very limited resources by a government so preoccupied with fiscal accountability. The government needs to extend the fellowship duration and work with universities to deliver tangible research benefits if the program is to achieve its purpose and positively contribute to Canada’s growth.
This past weekend, I attended the inaugural meeting of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Administrators in Ottawa. As with most inaugural meetings, there was a combination of excitement and confusion but it appeared that the overall theme was one of identifying common ground and working together in the most productive way possible.
The stated aims of CAPA are to share best practices and to promote the environment for successful postdoctoral scholarship and training. The organization is made up of senior administrators and staff from universities and research organizations across Canada that focus on postdoctoral fellow issues. The steering committee currently comprises David Burns (UNB), Graham Carr (Concordia), Richard Fedorak (U of Alberta), Mihaela Harmos (Western), Sue Horton (Waterloo), Martin Kreiswirth (McGill), and Marilyn Mooibroek (Calgary). While not formally involved in the steering committee, postdoctoral fellows are consulted through the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars via guest status at teleconferences.
Many interesting items arose in the meeting and it would be hard to properly include them all, so I will restrict myself to some of the items that I found most interesting (all topics are found here, please write me if you would like more information):
Survey of stakeholders
Mihaela Harmos presented the results from 34/50 respondents to the stakeholder survey run in 2011. There are apparently 8,900 postdoctoral fellows in Canada, 45% of whom are not originally from Canada. Only half of these postdocs have minimum stipends and just 2/3 have some sort of benefits package available to them. Of these, approximately 25% pay for 100% of their benefits. Does such inconsistency exist for other professionals in training (e.g., accountants, lawyers, medical doctors)? Readers will know our opinion on this already.
In any event, such surveys will be interesting to monitor in the future to track changes in the quantity and quality of postdoctoral research support in Canada.
Legal status of postdoctoral fellows
We had an informative presentation by Lisa Newton, a lawyer based at Queen’s University, who shared some important points about the legal status of postdoctoral fellows. A major case came out of U of T this year that said postdoctoral fellows were employees of their universities. According to Ms. Newton, provinces look to the Ontario Labour Relations Board for precedent, so this will likely impact future rulings as they crop up.
As Queen’s postdoctoral fellows have recently unionized, Ms. Newton had particularly good insight and listed off some of the key challenges specific to collective bargaining for postdoctoral fellows:
- Job postings (timelines, impact on international recruits)
- Seniority (specializations of postdoctoral fellows are very different)
- Hours of work / overtime
- Postdocs are rarely discussed in university IP discussions whereas faculty members are typically considered. Generally it is thought “he who creates, owns”, what about postdocs?
- Mix of PI-funded and independently funded postdocs complicates collective bargaining
In discussions later on that day, it came up that there are union representatives pressuring postdoctoral fellows at several universities to unionize – have any of our readers experienced this?
NSERC CREATE numbers
As fast as my little pen would move, I scrambled to copy down NSERC’s numbers for its CREATE program. I’ve not seen these presented on their website in such a breakdown, so I thought it would be useful to share.
The vast majority of CREATE grants are for 1.65 million over 6 years and are meant to fund trainees under themed programs of research. CREATE does not fund actual research costs and 80% of the funds go into trainee stipends with the other 20% being for coordination and travel. So, who do they support?
This may well be the topic of another blog post about the CREATE model which has its benefits and drawbacks. For now, it is interesting to note how these awards stack up against the US National Institutes of Health recommendation from earlier this year which was to shift the balance away from grant-funded postdoctoral fellowships in favour of fellowship and training awards. The NIH shows that postdoctoral fellows who obtain merit-based awards (e.g.: fellowships) are more likely to gain independence sooner. It would be very interesting to see what comes out of CREATE in terms of times to graduation, publication record, and age of independence for these trainees vs. NSERC’s fellowship/scholarship funded trainees.
On a side note, in another session the topic of transition awards in Canada (e.g., NIH K99/R00 awards) was brought up and it seems that the biggest challenge for these from granting councils is to figure out where the money could come from. It seems they’ve made these awards a priority at the NIH – perhaps our leadership will see them as valuable as well.
Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS)
Luckily, the CAPA meeting also meant that many of the CAPS Executive Committee were in town and we took the chance to meet the day before the conference to carve out the key components of that organization. Members were very active in the CAPA meeting drilling home the three primary concerns of Canadian postdocs that the member university representatives agreed on:
- The need for clarity on the status, timeline, and treatment of PDFs at universities and partner institutes.
- More extensive professional development for PDFs (both academic and non-academic).
- Communication and collaboration between CAPS and CAPA and the national granting agencies.
There were several pleas made for more involvement of postdoctoral fellows in establishing policy that affects them (e.g., the NSERC decision to restrict fellowship applications to once per lifetime) and it seemed that the message was well-received, but the proof will be in the pudding as we move forward. Stay tuned for updates on the CAPS website and we’ll continue to give regular updates of advocacy efforts on this site.