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Postdoctoral scholars in Canada call for better recognition, funding and career training

The association representing postdocs unveiled four key policy recommendations at a conference in Ottawa.

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | DEC 10 2018

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.

Dr. Joe Sparling. Photo courtesy of CAPS.

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:

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  1. Reuben Kaufman / December 13, 2018 at 12:50

    To University Affairs, 13 Dec 2018

    With regard to this statement:

    “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.”

    This article, similar to many others on the topic, focusses primarily on the financial advantages/disadvantages of a postdoctoral position. In the opinion of this retired professor, however, that’s much too narrow a focus. After gaining my PhD (1971) I had a 3-year post-doc in England and a 2.5-year one in Switzerland, before returning to Canada for my academic career. Yes, my salary from then on was undoubtedly lower than for someone who could enter the professoriate 5-6 years earlier; (I seem to recall that my starting salary as assistant professor was $18,000 compared to the $19,000 I earned as a postdoc in Switzerland!). But how can one put a monetary value on the incredible life experiences one gains from spending some years in a society/culture significantly different from the one in which one has grown up? I would not have traded in those experiences abroad for any amount of financial reward.

    So I would very much encourage new PhD graduates to gain postdoctoral experience somewhere beyond the borders of Canada, whatever the sacrifice of ultimate income. And then I hope it is followed by as much happiness as I had during my 35-year career at U. Alberta.

  2. Mark Khosa / December 20, 2018 at 13:38

    I did my postdoc for two years 2012-2014 from University of Alberta, and since then I’ve been looking for job.

  3. Peter Stys / December 20, 2018 at 17:59

    I would like to respond to a few points mentioned in this article. I am a neurologist/neuroscientist at University of Calgary (in fact I was Dr. Sparling’s post-doc supervisor). The main limitation in the arguments expressed in this article (and likely discussed at their conferences) is the overarching emphasis on financial compensation. While everyone would like to make more money, many of us have career goals that extend beyond just salary considerations. When I completed my clinical training, I accepted a salary cut (very substantial compared to my colleagues who then went into full time clinical practice) to do a research post-doc in the US. I did this gladly, I was very grateful for the opportunity to build a research career, and enjoyed what were one of the best years of my professional career. Income was not a major consideration at the time, as I considered this an investment in my own future.

    What is missing from this article is the important point that a post-doc is still a trainee: as training progresses, undergrads pay thousands in tuition, grad students then start to receive studentship income while still paying tuition (so enjoy net income), and post-docs receive fellowships/salaries not far from the national average (https://careers.workopolis.com/advice/how-much-money-are-we-earning-the-average-canadian-wages-right-now/), and without having to pay tuition, move up the scale even further.

    The other important point that is not mentioned is that when a post-doc joins a lab, he/she enters a fully resourced environment, where the focus is on building his/her career while taking full advantage of the taxpayer-funded opportunities. It should be noted that an employee on the other hand, by and large is expected to work for the benefit of the employer; if the benefit is mutual, then all the better. So there may well be unintended implications if post-docs are re-classified as employees (now often unionized), as the recommendations seem to prescribe.

    I do agree with a number of points raised, namely that science and academia are “hypercompetitive”, but so are many fields these days: there is nothing unique about academia, and in general, people need to train and work harder, and for longer, than in the past, to get ahead. I also lament the fact that only 20% of post-docs will secure a coveted tenure-track faculty position. But how many applicants are accepted to medical school to obtain a coveted MD (as it turns out less than 4% per your own publication: https://www.universityaffairs.ca/features/feature-article/medical-school-admissions-process-skewed/)? And then a residency of one’s choice? Or law school?

    The point is, we live in an increasingly complex and competitive world, with academia being no exception. And there are still many opportunities for wonderful careers in science for those willing to make the sacrifice, put in the time & work, and remain focused on their goals. Finally, and most importantly, luckily living in a free society allows everyone to make alternate career choices and NOT pursue a post-doc if the job satisfaction is inadequate and the prospects seemingly so dismal. So if catching up to the “average Canadian PhD” is your goal, then by all means, skip the post-doc and enter the job market. In the end, there are many lots in life far less appealing than doing a post-doc for a few years.

  4. Harrison Njaru Mbogo / December 29, 2018 at 06:11

    Keep he candle burning

  5. Zamy / January 16, 2019 at 17:18

    I Iike (sarcastically) how ex-postdocs who eventually found their paths in academia being idealistic about making financial sacrifices, gaining life experiences, etc. while undergoing postdoc training. The speed of change between 2018-2019 is arguably way faster than it was between 1980-1990. They are almost two different worlds. Trust me, if you did your postdoc for 5 years in the 80s, you do not want to repeat that experience today given the economic and social challenges we are facing globally.

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