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The Black Hole

Let the Discussions Begin!

BY MARIANNE | MAY 12 2010


Quick Hit:
A big welcome to our second guest blogger Marianne Stanford, current chair of the CAPS group. As a follow up to Carl’s excellent article on the CRA’s response to the CAPS letter on Post Doc status. This is exactly the type of discussion that needs to be had and The Black Hole site is happy to be able to give it some e-presence. Please weigh in and let us know what you think and look forward to summaries each quarter that will synthesize the ideas in these articles and your comments!

Firstly, I would like to commend Carl Wonders on a thoughtful and valid assessment of the potential implications of the CRA ‘clarification’ on postdoctoral fellow (PDF) taxation. I’d like to follow up on that discussion from examining the issue from a different angle. I personally have been a PDF for 6 years, at two different institutions in Ontario, a president of a postdoctoral association and more recently the Chair of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS). My opinions are my own, not solicited or contributed to by CAPS, but certainly formed by my many discussions with that group. I personally in the past 6 years have been classified as the typical ‘no distinct status’ that most PDFs in Canada share, an ‘employee’ PDF of a research institute and most recently as a ‘trainee’ or academic PDF receiving tax exemption on my stipend. The ideal situation for a PDF in Canada has in the end little to do with exactly how they are paid or taxed, but requires that they are appropriately compensated for experience, extensive education and enormous contribution to the scientific endeavour.

Indeed, considering that many graduate students and technical scientific employees bring home considerably more than the average PDF indicates that this needs to change. How that change is enacted must be carefully and thoughtfully done so as not to penalize the current PDFs nor prevent new PhDs from entering the Canadian PDF system.

Having PDFs treated akin to medical residents is a wonderful idea, but no matter how it appears to be stipulated by the CRA it isn’t feasible in the current system. Why? Frankly, it is due to how we are compensated. PDFs, by in large, are paid from public research fund budgets through granting agencies – either directly through fellowships or indirectly through competitive grants earned by our mentors. Residents, who perform clinical duties are paid from health care budgets, not academic research ones. In our case, the granting councils, particularly the Tri-council of NSERC, SSHRC and CIHR have a lot to say about the nature of our tenure. They have explicitly said that the postdoctoral period is one of extended training and not one of employment. Thus, this explains the modest stipend levels and why like graduate student scholarships, PDF fellowships should be tax exempt. Obviously this message did not reach the CRA or the government of Canada. So, assuming that they rather than granting agencies, provinces and academic institutions gets to decide who is a legitimate trainee, where do we go from here?

The obvious choice is employment. The problem with this is the assumption that a simple change in status will result in higher wages, extended health benefits, job stability and overall better conditions for PDFs. It will by its nature allow PDFs to contribute to EI, CPP, RRSPs, but I emphasize the word CONTRIBUTE. That does not necessarily mean a higher wage to cover those contributions. Indeed, in my personal experience, employment status in and of itself only resulted in a smaller paycheque. That may sound glib, because it did results in significant changes to the nature of my relationship as a PDF, and provided me a number of basic rights that I lacked prior to the change. However, I was in a good lab, with a great mentor and a clear career path. When we approached our institute with our new found ‘employee’ status looking for benefits we thought we were due, we were promptly informed that we were a ‘temporary, contract employee’ not entitled to the extended benefits of permanent research staff. By its very nature, a postdoctoral period is NOT a career, thus is temporary, even up to 6 years. Thus, access to anything other than basic employee deductions is likely to require significant negotiations and will depend on employee relations within the individual institutions. This is not something that will be mandated nationally, unless instituted by those who provide our funds – the funding agencies. Thus, before any PDF seeks employment status they need to be clear of its implications. Unless and until we can first lobby for reasonable and well earned compensation (closer to the $70,000/year the government suggests we receive than the $38,000/year average stipend that currently exists) than a change in status will likely hit the individual PDF very hard, in the pocketbook. On the other hand, for the first time in history, both the government and the CRA have provided us with solid evidence that the current system is not appropriate and requires significant change. They must now mandate the national community (particularly the publically funded research councils) to enact this change in a reasonable and proactive way.

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  1. Carl / May 12, 2010 at 17:20

    Marianne,
    Thanks for the quick turn around! I agree with a lot of what you said, and I never intended to make it sound as though becoming an employee was a trivial matter. I especially agree that the change really needs to come from either the government or funding agency levels rather than at the universities. In fact, there is such disparity between individual institutions throughout Canada (as your own experiences show), that nothing short of a national mandate though the funding agencies themselves would have much power at all.

  2. Physics PhD / May 17, 2010 at 22:03

    When I worked part-time at Canadian Tire I also was not in a career, but I appreciated getting vacation pay and other benefits of being an employee. I can only imagine how badly they would have taken advantage of me if I was classified as a trainee.

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