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THE BLACK HOLE

Really scraping the bottom… can’t we at least get parental leave during a postdoc?

By DAVID KENT | MAY 12 2014

Editor’s Note: Today the Black Hole continues its series of posts dedicated to postdoctoral fellows with kids. Two current postdoctoral fellows (Jenn and Erika) who have recently had children whilst pursing science at the very highest levels have kindly agreed to share their experiences. We are really excited to be able to provide them a forum that will hopefully stimulate some changes in how we can do a better job of supporting the offspring of our best and brightest. Today’s post urges granting agencies and universities to guarantee paid parental leave for its fellows.

Paid parental leave is absolutely essential if we want to retain the best and brightest minds in academia.

Paid parental leave is the bare minimum of what should be provided for highly trained researchers with PhDs and it has instead become one of the hot button issues for early career researchers. One of the most stressful aspects of being a postdoctoral fellow is the lack of security and the financial instability. This can be absolutely crippling once you introduce babies into the mix. Postdocs tend to survive on short term contracts, fellowships or grants and are often frantically trying to figure out where next year’s paycheck will come from.

A repeated refrain here at the Black Hole is that postdoctoral status in Canada is notoriously uncertain. Are we students? Trainees? Employees? This lack of defined status has immediate downstream effects on our ability to secure paid parental leave and the consequences are that bright young researchers throw in the towel on an academic career.

So how does parental leave currently work for postdoctoral fellows? In Canada, postdocs tend to be supported either by fellowships or paid directly from a supervisor’s grant. Your ability to receive paid parental leave will depend on 1) how you are paid and 2) where you work.

1) Type of pay:

a) Fellowship (e.g. NSERC, CIHR, SSHRC): If you are supported by a government fellowship, then you are entitled to interrupt your award and take unpaid parental leave for up to three years. Note that you cannot work or pursue studies during your leave and you must be devoted full time to child-rearing. You can apply for paid leave for a maximum of four months if funded by NSERC or SSHRC, or six months at CIHR, but this is subject to the availability of funds. But what about employment insurance (EI)? Most Canadians who are employed full-time are eligible for a full year of paid parental leave through EI. Note that most NSERC postdocs receive a T4A which means that they do not pay into the Canada Pension Plan or EI (though they do pay income tax). Since they are unable to pay into EI, postdocs on a fellowship cannot receive parental benefits through EI.

b) Fellowship (external agency): It depends on the individual fellowship. Many externally funded fellowships do not provide a paid parental leave. In this case, these fellowship postdocs do not qualify for EI (they receive a T4A) and will get ZERO paid leave unless the educational institutions provide an additional mechanism for support; see below. Refer to Jenn’s story about this last week.

c) Supervisor grant: If you are paid from a supervisor’s grant, then hopefully you are issued a T4 which allows you to pay into EI. This would permit you, as long as you meet the requirements, to take a full year of paid leave (at 55 percent of your salary). If you are not paid on a T4, you might want to start asking “why not” (though readers should be aware of the consequences of reclassification!)

2) Location:

a) Parent-friendly Canadian universities: Some Canadian universities have passed rules that require a paid parental leave be available for all postdocs. For example, all postdocs employed by UBC, regardless of how they are paid, receive six months of parental leave topped up to 95 percent of their salary. Postdocs who pay into EI can then collect 55 percent of their salary for the remaining six months of the year (fellowship postdocs cannot since they don’t pay into EI – see above). Note that postdoc salaries that are administered through non-university affiliations (e.g. the provincial health authority) are often not covered by these university policies. So be sure you know how and where you get paid!

b) Parent-UNfriendly Canadian universities: Other Canadian universities research institutes do not have set policies, in which case postdocs are on their own to figure it out.

(Editor’s note: we will not name and shame individual universities here, but would ask readers to explore their university’s policies and practices – feel free to comment below though!)

c) Non-Canadian universities: What about postdocs affiliated with universities overseas? Good luck. Do your research, figure out your options. A key thing to remember is that if you officially leave Canada (i.e. file with the government, cancel your provincial health coverage) it takes three months after you return to Canada to re-instate your coverage to become eligible to receive full standard healthcare again. So make sure you plan accordingly!

Wish list

Want to keep women in science? Want to allow men to be equal partners in parenting? Guarantee a full year of paid parental leave!

  • Treat all postdocs like employees, let us pay into EI and CPP.  Many countries do this.
  • Government fellowships need to provide a full year of paid leave instead of four to six months.
  • ALL fellowships should come with benefits. It’s a disgrace for postdocs to earn a prestigious fellowship only to discover that they will not be entitled to a paid parental leave. Many women planning to have a family will not be able to apply for “prestigious” fellowships as they won’t be able to take a paid leave, putting them at a disadvantage.
  • Increase postdoc salaries from the Canadian average (over two thirds of Canadian postdocs earn less than $45,000) to a level that will allow a family to survive.

Share your story

Erika and Jenn have shared their stories about the challenges associated with obtaining paid maternity leave as a postdoc. We are looking for feedback and more stories – did you experience something similar? Have you found yourself in an altogether different scenario? Let us know in the comments below. We will touch on these and other issues in future posts.

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
David Kent is a group leader at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute. His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Anne Dalziel / May 14, 2014 at 12:21

    Great article – this is an issue that many PDFs are not aware of, and I agree that it is really at the root of many of the gender-issues in science.

  2. MLB / May 15, 2014 at 08:41

    I am a (Canadian) Postdoc in the Netherlands. Here, we are really staff, there is no question about it, and have all the same rights and responsibilities as faculty members. I pay into a pension, unemployment, etc. and get 4 months of paid parental leave (this is the national standard). My office also has to provide a quiet/private space where I can pump/store milk once I return to work. A pretty comfortable system I think.

  3. Benoit / May 16, 2014 at 14:41

    After more than 3 years being a postdoc (NSERC fellowship holder), I decided to quit not only because I was unable to find a job in my field, but also because there was not benefits from the governement (no retirement pension, no unemployment insurance…) or from the university . Now I work for 18$/hour in something completely different of what I expected before I start my postdoc. Never advice someone to do a postdoc in Canada…

  4. Steve Maltby / May 30, 2014 at 00:55

    I must say that we have been surprised by the treatment here in Australia (especially considering the dismal state back in Canada).

    Post-doc fellows are treated as staff, including retirement funding, reasonable salaries and paid parental leave. This includes 6-months of full-pay, which can be spread over 12 months of leave. As my wife and I are both post-doctoral fellows with the same university we are able to share (but not overlap) this leave, which means that we’ll each get the opportunity to spend time at home with our new baby.

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