Postdoctoral scholars are the backbone of academic research, and yet they face a number of serious challenges in Canada, including poor pay, uneven work benefits and a lack of recognition for their training and expertise, according to representatives of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars participating in a panel discussion at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa in November. “It’s a bad situation,” said Krishnamoorthy Hegde, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique and one of the three CAPS executive members speaking on the panel.
Joe Sparling, the chair of CAPS, explained that a postdoc is meant to be a temporary position for a PhD graduate designed “to provide mentorship and advanced training for a career as an independent researcher and/or a faculty member in academia.” The problem, said Dr. Sparling, who recently completed a three-year postdoc at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary, is that less than 20 percent of current postdocs will secure a tenure-track faculty position. This has resulted in a “hypercompetitive job market” and lengthening training times, he said.
According to a 2016 survey by CAPS, the average postdoc in Canada is 34 years old. That same survey found that Canadian-funded postdocs earned an average of $46,600 a year, with nearly half earning less than $45,000. By comparison, the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships for doctoral students are worth $50,000 a year.
Jenna Haverfield, the third panel member, is currently supported by a CIHR Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Centre for Research in Reproduction and Development at McGill University. Commenting on postdocs’ average income, she said: “When you think about it, this is comparable to entry-level positions that require little to no training, like retail positions or working in transport. And yet we have 10-plus years of [postsecondary education] experience and we’re getting similar pay.”
Adding to this, Dr. Sparling has calculated that the forgone wages for an individual doing postdoctoral training, compared to a PhD graduate who went straight into a non-postdoctoral position, ranges from $27,000 to $35,000 per year. What’s more, former postdocs have a higher unemployment rate than PhD graduates who didn’t do a postdoc.
“Basically, there is no evidence that former postdocs ever surpass or even catch up to the average Canadian PhD who went straight into the workforce,” said Dr. Sparling. “So, there is basically no evidence for a labour market advantage for postdoc training, which means that, for the average postdoc, you lose money for every year you train.”
Another impediment for postdocs is that there are no set rules for the types of benefits they receive, like health and dental benefits, parental leave and vacation time. Dr. Hegde noted that some postdocs have reported taking on a second job in order to get benefits or leaving their postdoc because they were expecting a child.
On the brighter side, an increasing number of postdocs are being recognized as employees by their universities, rather than as students or trainees, which gives them access to workplace benefits. However, postdocs who receive their funding through external awards are still not considered employees and have limited or no benefits.
“We have postdocs all across Canada who are getting paid different amounts, having different benefits and having different statuses,” said Dr. Haverfield. “We’re all doing the same job, we all have the same training, so we all ought to be getting the same compensation.”
Regardless, the biggest problem remains employment outcomes, said Dr. Haverfield: “They’re really poor.” With so few postdocs getting tenure-track faculty positions, most must pursue alternative careers, yet only 16 percent of postdocs in the CAPS survey said they had access to professional career counselling. “We have a lot of talented people coming through and we’re not looking after them,” she said. “They’re the forgotten postdocs who don’t have the support to transition into different careers. Canada can benefit from their skills.”
Recommendations for improvement
The CAPS executive has drafted a list of four recommendations for policy makers to improve the lot of postdocs, which the panelists presented at the conference. Dr. Sparling said these recommendations were drawn largely from CAPS’ 2019 pre-budget brief to the federal finance committee and the association’s submission to the Canada Research Coordinating Committee consultation.
The four recommendations are: monitor the postdoctoral training system and track outcomes; establish minimum standards of postdoctoral support; classify all postdoctoral scholars working in Canada as employees; and establish a uniform national policy on postdoctoral training.
The first recommendation, on monitoring and tracking, is “probably the one recommendation everyone could get behind,” said Dr. Sparling. He added, in an email following the event, that CAPS is consulting with Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada about the possibility of adding postdoctoral data to the University and College Academic Staff System, or UCASS, a product of Statistics Canada. CAPS is also seeking funding to support and expand the National Postdoc Registry that it established in 2017 to track labour-market outcomes of former postdocs trained in Canada.
As for recommendation two, Dr. Sparling said CAPS is developing a white paper with recommendations regarding minimum support standards for all postdocs working in Canada and those working abroad who are supported by Canadian funding agencies. In its pre-budget brief, CAPS called for a minimum gross annual income for postdocs starting at $47,500, increasing by two percent for each additional year of postdoctoral training. It also recommended that tri-agency fellowships start at $50,000 – excluding the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships, which are already at $70,000 a year.
“We hope to unveil [the white paper] early in the new year … and to update it every few years based on new survey data and changing labour conditions,” Dr. Sparling said. CAPS also plans eventually to rank institutions in terms of how well they meet these standards “so that postdocs can be better informed regarding the working conditions and postdoctoral policies at institutions across the country,” he said. “This will provide an incentive for institutions to adopt more supportive policies in order to remain competitive for the best and brightest postdocs.”
The third recommendation – classifying all postdocs as employees – is a complicated one, Dr. Sparling acknowledged, as it is unlikely that the research granting councils have the power to implement such a policy on their own. Employee status can also depend on specific regulations of the Canada Revenue Agency.
The details of the final recommendation – a uniform national policy on postdoctoral training – will depend on the success of implementing the other three. “At a minimum, we hope to get a national policy in place … that specifies that all postdocs must be treated as trainees regardless of their employment status. The alternative is postdocs not being eligible for training or career development opportunities, which is antithetical to the very definition of what a postdoc is,” Dr. Sparling said.
Watch an interview with Dr. Joe Sparling at CSPC 2018: