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In my opinion

How administrative ambiguity and devaluating language hurts Canadian postdocs

Redefining how university and institutional administrations see this vulnerable population of highly skilled workers is an important first step toward countering inequity and mending the gender gap in academia.


This past summer, the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS) proposed to its members to change the French version of its name, l’Association Canadienne des Stagiaires Postdoctoraux (ACSP). The reason behind this proposed change was to remove the word “stagiaire” which translates to “student, intern, or trainee.” While this is a term often used in Canadian francophone academia, we at CAPS believe it does not truly reflect the role and responsibilities of postdocs. The overwhelming positive response of our members, who voted in favour of the name change, confirms that this resonates with many postdocs in Canada. Thus, we proudly present our new French name: l’Association Canadienne des Postdoctorantes et Postdoctorants (ACPP), and we would like to illuminate the significance of this small change.

Our initiative to remove the word “stagiaire” is not a solitary event. Indeed, our discussion with postdocs at francophone Canadian universities have indicated that this term undermines and minimizes their position in academia. This opinion is also reflected in the 2019 report by the Comité intersectoriel étudiant (CIE) des Fonds de recherche du Québec, that advises the Fonds de recherche du Québec, the Quebec government and university institutions to stop using the word “stagiaire” when referring to postdocs. Another indication of the changed perspective on the word “stagiaire” in this context is the decision of the Université de Montréal to honour the request of their (unionized) postdocs to refer to them as “la personne postdoctorante” in their recently renewed collective agreement, rather than “stagiaires postdoctoraux,” as was the case previously. While at first glance the term “la personne postdoctorante” could be perceived as circuitous, it does continue to offer an innate inclusivity as it does not refer to the gender of a postdoc.

CAPS/ACPP honours and supports the widely felt need to stop using the term “stagiaire,” as well as its English equivalent “trainee” when referring to postdoctoral scholars and research associates because – especially in academia – precise language and definitions are important. We hope that a clearer definition of the postdoc role will be a first step in recognizing one of the key difficulties that postdocs face in Canada, and that this will allow us to work towards change. In other words, defining what a postdoc is and is not might help universities and employers to harmonize their postdocs’ employment status. Currently, at Canadian institutions they can be classified as a student, employee, guest/visitor or faculty.

Which of these employment categories a postdoc is placed into often depends on their source of funding. Postdocs who are funded internally (i.e., paid through a grant held by a supervisor) are typically considered an employee. (In this case, postdocs pay income tax and usually contribute to and receive mandatory or supplementary benefits, although these are often less extensive compared to other academic employees.) However, postdocs that have managed to attract their own financial support aren’t often considered employees, and therefore do not benefit from collective insurance, retirement plans, housing or child benefits, and parental leave. Although some fellowship providers accommodate parts of these benefits, this is highly variable and not guaranteed.

This approach of allocating postdocs into employment status groups based on their funding leads to the strange reality that two postdocs with equal experience who work in the same research group on similar projects can receive significantly different financial compensation and have different access to benefits. Moreover, a postdoc who has started out as an employee but receives a fellowship later in their project – which is seen as a distinctive achievement that is highly valued in academia – can lose all access to their previous benefits as a consequence. For us at CAPS/ACPP, this reality is difficult to understand or defend, and we urge Canadian employers and legislatures to harmonize postdocs’ access to benefits in a way that reflects equity.

Pointing the way with our recent name change, we would like to make the position of CAPS/ACPP very clear: postdocs are neither interns nor students. They have successfully obtained the highest academic degree, a doctorate. Postdocs do not receive a diploma at the end of their projects as there is no official parcourse that they need to conclude. Instead, they design, conduct and coordinate research projects, mentor and teach, attract funding, contribute to community outreach and peer-review, and write and publish. We agree that postdocs are still learning how to expand and improve these skills to become a principal investigator (PI), team leader, or professor. But so too are PIs, team leaders and professors, because there can never be stasis in academia, which is an environment of continuous learning and improvement. Calling postdocs trainees based on their willingness to learn and improve currently serves as a justification to not acknowledge them as employees. Shouldn’t training then be most of what they’re doing?

In a best-case scenario, postdocs might define a personal development plan together with their supervisor to ensure that they obtain the skills they still need to develop. In reality, many postdocs are hired for a skillset that they are expected to apply to generate maximum publishable output in the shortest amount of time. As a consequence, postdocs often lack access to non-academic professional skills development, which could help them to secure non-academic positions. It is worth noting that the number of Canadian postdocs far exceeds the number of openings for faculty positions each year. That makes obtaining non-academic professional skills crucial for securing employment following a postdoctoral fellowship. Outside of academia, such professional development plans are common practice for people holding entry-level postgraduate positions, without anyone calling these highly skilled workers a student, stagiaire or trainee, and worse, refusing them access to social benefits.

Just as the responsibilities of faculty members have diversified and the requirements to obtain such a position have drastically increased over the years, the workload for postdocs has grown as well. In 2020, we surveyed 847 current and 169 former postdocs across the country. The results (which will be published on the CAPS/ACPP website in the spring) show their average age is 33, they are typically married or in a steady relationship, they work 45 hours or more a week, earn $51,375 before tax on average (although 25 per cent of current postdocs still earn less than $45,000), and have $2,250 in monthly expenses without dependents (61 per cent) or $3,250 if they have children (39 per cent). About two-thirds of current Canadian postdocs can take short-time paid leave, half have extended health benefits, and one-fifth have no access to provincial health care. Only half reported they had exposure to alternative academic career development opportunities.

Importantly, whereas there are similar numbers of current postdocs in Canada who identify as female (50 per cent) or male (47 per cent), based on our collected data, gender is strongly correlated with the employment status and types of positions held by former postdocs who concluded their last appointment between 2015 and 2019. Female former postdocs were more likely to be unemployed or employed part-time (20 per cent versus 7.5 per cent) and less likely to hold positions as tenured or tenure track faculty (26 per cent versus 49 per cent) when compared to their male counterparts, suggesting that the postdoc appointment is a critical career step that raises gender disparities. Female postdocs in 2020 were significantly more likely to report additional income unrelated to their postdoc, were more likely to report the lack of extended health benefits as a barrier to seeking help with mental health issues, and mentioned benefits as part of the reason they would prefer a different employment classification (74 per cent versus 52 per cent). All of this suggests that treating postdocs as students or trainees and not recognizing them as employees or part of faculty hurts women in academia in particular, and contributes to the lack of progress toward gender parity in STEM faculties.

In sum, working as a postdoc, which is an important transition time that demands the fulfillment of many faculty tasks, should not be devalued by referring to postdocs as interns, trainees, students, or “stagiaires.” In our opinion, redefining how university and institutional administrations see the postdoc position, perhaps acknowledging them as scholars, junior faculty, researchers, or research associates, is an important first step on the path to mend the gender gap in Canadian academia and to ensure that this vulnerable population of highly skilled workers can experience greater financial security and access to health plans and benefits, which are taken for granted in other career paths as well as in many developed nations outside of Canada.

Willemieke Kouwenhoven is vice-chair of francophone representation at CAPS/ACPP and a postdoctoral fellow in neurobiology at Université de Montréal. Sarah Grasedieck is vice-chair of surveys and data at CAPS/ACPP and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia. Edris Madadian is chair of CAPS/ACPP and an AMTD global talent postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo.

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