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In my opinion

How Canada short-changes its graduate students and postdocs

Indexing scholarships and stipends is a simple yet effective way to maintain early career researchers’ standard of living.

BY SHAUN KHOO | MAY 18 2021

What’s one thing I get as a postdoc in Canada that I didn’t get as an Australian PhD student? An annual pay cut. Not in the number of dollars – that stays the same – but in terms of what that money can buy. In Australia, PhD scholarships are indexed every year which helps keep the value of a graduate stipend more or less in line with how inflation raises prices. Meanwhile, my Canadian landlord sends me a letter every year to raise the rent, but my fellowship remains stuck on what it was when it started. It turns out that I, like basically every other student or postdoc in Canada, am enjoying a steadily eroding standard of living.

How much is missing?

How badly the lack of consistent indexing affects Canadian researchers depends on how long it has been since funders last raised the value of their stipends. This is because the way prices change each year is small – rent or utilities might go up by a few dollars a month, the price of milk might go up a few cents. But it adds up over time. My funder, the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Santé (FRQS), last raised its postdoctoral fellowships relatively recently, from $30,000 in 2017 to $45,000 in 2018. The Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator shows that $45,000 in 2018 would be worth around $47,269 in 2021. That means that this year I am missing out on about $2,000 or 4.4 percent.

The situation is much worse for federally funded graduate students. In 2021, master’s and doctoral students with a Canada Graduate Scholarship (CGS) receive exactly the same as they did in 2004 – $17,500 for a master’s student and $35,000 for a doctoral student. If the tri-council agencies had not let graduate student living standards remain the same for the past 17 years, the scholarships would now be worth 34 percent more. In other words, today’s master’s students should be getting $23,513 and doctoral students should receive $47,026, which is also, sadly, more than what a postdoc gets. For comparison, over the same period of time, Australian doctoral scholarships increased 54 percent, from $18,484 to $28,597. If you ever wonder why graduate students are so stressed and unhappy, consider that their living standards are now significantly lower than they were in 2004.

Good news vibes

Why do Canada’s funders let the living standards of early career researchers go backwards? Perhaps, one reason is that it saves money. Raising the value of a stipend intermittently, while giving out the same number of awards, means saving the difference between the awarded amount and the inflation-adjusted value of the award. As shown above, FRQS saves $2,269 per postdoc fellowship in 2021 and the tri-agency funders save $6,013 per master’s and $12,026 per doctoral scholarship. However, these savings aren’t turning into a larger number of scholarships – NSERC awarded more than 1,000 CGS doctoral scholarships annually from 2009 to 2011, but since 2012 has awarded fewer than 900. CIHR and SSHRC also saw peaks in CGS doctoral awards around 2009-2011 of over 800 and near 1,400 respectively. But since 2014, annual CGS doctoral awards have dropped to under 400 for CIHR and around 1,300 for SSHRC.

Another reason might be that intermittent increases can create some very occasional positive press coverage. In Australia, no one talks about how the government raises the value of PhD scholarships each year. It’s just done. But when NSERC announced an increase to the value of undergraduate student research awards in December 2020, it attracted mostly positive attention. On Twitter, NSERC president Alejandro Adem announced a “long overdue” increase in undergraduate awards from $4,500 to $6,000 claiming, “supporting undergraduate research in science and engineering is a key priority for Canada.” At 270 likes, Adem has not written a more popular tweet since.

Sifting through Canada’s open government data shows that the last time NSERC raised the value of undergraduate research awards was in 2002, when they went up from $4,000 to $4,500. CIHR’s undergraduate research program is much smaller and ad hoc, with awards worth between $4,950 and $5,500 in 2009 and $5,000 in 2020, while SSHRC does not target undergraduates in their talent program. If we took NSERC’s $4,500 from 2002, it would buy $6,352 worth of stuff today. In other words, NSERC’s recently increased undergraduate awards still don’t match their 2002 value. Moreover, even after the 25 percent contribution from a student’s university required by NSERC, the rate of pay for 16 weeks of full-time work is merely $11.72/hour. For comparison, the federal government’s proposed minimum wage is $15/hour. Having supervised undergraduate interns, I know that these programs are demanding and don’t always leave room for part-time jobs after hours, so the relatively low value of these awards can exclude less well-off students. Is undergraduate research really a key priority when the value of the award left in place for nearly 20 years is worth less than minimum wage?

Simple solution

Fortunately, the solution is simple: Canada’s federal and provincial funders should, like Australia, index scholarships and stipends by inflation. Leaving the value of awards unchanged for 15 to 20 years at a time shows that early career researchers are just not important to Canada. As the price of rent, food and utilities goes up, so too should researchers’ income. Canada’s early career researchers work hard to create new knowledge and solve society’s problems. We don’t deserve a pay cut every year.

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  1. Rafi / May 24, 2021 at 14:50

    I do not think Canada really cares about innovation. In Canada, we are mostly dependant on the innovation done in the USA and sometimes in Europe. Canada is basically a service-based industry. We have felt the need for innovation during this pandemic, however, I do not think we will learn anything from this.

  2. Shiva Nourpanah / May 28, 2021 at 09:46

    Great commentary and I would like to add that when you look outside the federally-funded grad and post doc awards, you see even more of a mish-mash of RAships, grad student and post doc funding which really don’t follow any sort of standard at all.
    I have been awarded SSHRC awards at both the doctoral and post doc level, and I have to say that as a single mom with 2 kids, without additional work and top-up funding, I would not be able to live on the awards alone.
    Also it should be mentioned that the SSHRC post doc (don’t know about the others) does not carry health benefits- and again, in general, health benefits are a mixed bag for grad students and post docs depending on how the funding is structured and it’s not something you can take for granted.