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The Black Hole

Too much Talent? SSHRC’s “solution” to the postdoc boom

BY DAVID KENT | JUL 30 2013

Today, we are very pleased to have a guest blog post from the Humanities and only a touch of familial guilt was used in its procurement. Dr. Eddy Kent, an assistant professor in the University of Alberta’s English and Film Studies department, puts in his two cents on SSHRC’s announcement earlier this month about its postdoctoral fellowships….

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The Black Hole, says the masthead, is devoted to “issues of interest to early-career scientists in Canada.” Hopefully, you’ll put up with a contribution from someone who teaches English Literature about changes afoot at the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Since they form part of a larger set of changes coordinated across the TriCouncils, the recently announced revisions to SSHRC’s postdoctoral fellowship program are significant to early-career scholars across the academy.

In July 2012, SSHRC announced the renewal of the Talent program. For those unfamiliar with SSHRC lingo, Talent is responsible for funding students and postdoctoral fellows. They set out a three-year timetable, including specific plans for postdocs. In July 2013, right on schedule, they announced the following changes for the 2014-15 competition year.

  1. Postdoctoral Fellowships awards will increase from $38,000 per year to $40,500 per year for up to two years, while provision for a separate research allowance will no longer be offered.
  2. Applicants will be eligible to apply up to two years after completion of a PhD (instead of the previous three-year window).
  3. Applicants who have previously held a postdoctoral award from SSHRC, CIHR, or NSERC, including a Banting postdoctoral fellowship, will no longer be eligible to apply.
  4. Postdoctoral Fellowships evaluation criteria will align with other SSHRC grants, which assess proposals based on three main criteria: challenge, feasibility and capability.

It is the first two points that warrant serious attention, since they signal the declining status of the postdoctoral fellow in Canada’s academic research culture.

More money?

The increase in the value of the PDF looks positive. However, since the research allowance was worth $5,000, it is revenue neutral. When I held my SSHRC award in 2008-09, for example, I received $38,000/yr plus the research allowance, for a total value of $81,000. Next year’s winners will receive $40,500 for two years and no research allowance, for a total value of $81,000. This shell game provides no net benefit to an award holder. Factor for inflation—the Bank of Canada’s handy CPI calculator reports a 6.6% increase from 2008 to 2013—and you can see a substantial erosion of a SSHRC PDF. The poor situation is magnified further when you consider the current tax status of a fellowship (taxable income) compared to a research allowance which can be partially deducted against research expenses.

Cui bono?

This may surprise readers of this blog, who are likely more familiar with the CIHR and NSERC components of the Tri-Councils, but until now SSHRC accepted applications from candidates for up to three years post-PhD. That has now been reduced to two with a maximum limit of three lifetime applications per candidate. This probably sounds like a good deal for those readers wrestling with NSERC’s rule that allows you to apply only once – ever. Still, the basic principle holds: the Tri-Councils are reducing the number of candidates in any given year.

What benefit this might be to individuals is unclear. Some of my colleagues have suggested it would level the playing field, where currently the freshly-minted PhD competes with someone three years out. I haven’t seen any data to confirm or disprove this, but there are structural reasons that suggest such worries are overblown. Unlike the sciences, postdocs in the humanities and social sciences are not common; if you don’t hold a SSHRC, then you’re most likely working as a contract or adjunct lecturer. So the very fact that someone is applying for a SSHRC postdoc two or three years out means they are presently unlikely to be in a position that allows them to accelerate their research projects. A 3/3 or 4/4 teaching load is not especially conducive to one’s research.

If it doesn’t help individuals, the question cui bono? must be asked. In this vein, some have suggested, cynically, that the change is really an effort to massage the all-important success rates. Ian Milligan, a historian at the University of Waterloo, has studied data from SSHRC and assembled a revealing graph.

Ian Milligan graph

A steady increase since 2001 in the number of applications coupled with a relatively flat number of awards has led to a plummeting success rate. The simple solution — the one Milligan characterizes as “hamhanded” — is to reduce the denominator in this ratio. 

I really hope that this is not the case, since that represents hundreds of real individuals. Putting aside the humanitarian concerns for a moment, it’s important to acknowledge this change makes little economic sense for Canadian society, given that the vast majority of these applicants are PhDs from publicly-funded Canadian universities and a smaller majority will have also received doctoral funding from SSHRC. The increasing applicant pool is a consequence of the major (and laudable!) Canada-wide investment in graduate training over the last 15 years. Every unsuccessful applicant therefore represents a lost investment. This is why success ratios are so important to SSHRC, which needs to justify itself to senior federal bureaucrats and politicians whose vocabulary is increasingly that of investment and tax dollars.

Solutions

If the proposed revisions to the program succeed, then we might expect the number of applications next year to drop by a third to around 650. Assuming a similar number of PDFs are awarded, the 2013 success rate could thus rise to 23%, back in line with the ratios for 2000-2009.

But what’s good for SSHRC’s advocates to the federal government does not serve the interests of would-be postdoctoral fellows. These revisions mean that less money will be made available to fewer people overall. Dispiriting stuff, and hard to reconcile with Talent’s stated goal “to develop the next generation of researchers and leaders across society, both within academia and across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.”

I’m sympathetic to SSHRC’s predicament. It works within budgets allocated to them by the federal government. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have pled austerity and refused to invest significantly in postsecondary research. The Canadian Association of University Teachers reports that “between 2007–2008 and 2011–2012, funding for SSHRC will have declined by over 10 per cent in real terms. NSERC’s funding is down a more modest 1.2 per cent, while core support for CIHR will have declined by 4.1 per cent.”

So, barring a major change in federal policy, what is to be done? There is of course another and, I would argue, more equitable way to bump the success ratio back toward 20%: change the numerator, the number of awards granted.

Let me suggest how this might work. SSHRC’s 2011-12 budget for grants and scholarships was $332.3 million. The precise numbers for the PDF program are not readily available but a rough guess (150 awards * $81k) would put it at around $12 million. It might be less than that, since not everyone holds the PDF for the full two years, but let’s not quibble. Twelve million is less than 4% of the larger budget. To increase the number of awards by 50% (75 new awards) you’re looking at an extra $6-7 million dollars (or 2% of the overall grants and scholarship budget).

Redirecting that 2% away from other programs (Insight Grants, doctoral or masters fellowships, etc.) would be difficult. It also wouldn’t address the eroding value of a SSHRC PDF due to inflationary pressures. But it has to be fairer than doing nothing. The public has spent significantly to train more researchers, but it now appears that having invested so much in these highly-trained, highly-qualified, and dare I say Talented people we are refusing to support them at this most critical juncture. SSHRC must act more responsibly, supporting more from this vulnerable group at the most vital transitional stage of their research careers.

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Brent Pym / July 30, 2013 at 15:38

    Thanks, Eddy, for the detailed post. You raise an interesting point about how changes to the eligibility rules that abstractly seem to “level the playing field” might not actually have that effect because of the day-to-day lives of the people who are applying.

    A similar situation seems to be playing out with NSERC’s new one-application-per-lifetime rule, which was instituted a year ago. Here’s the exact wording of the policy, taken from [ http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/Students-Etudiants/PD-NP/PDF-BP_eng.asp ]:

    “Effective as of the 2013 competition, you can only apply once to the NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowships (PDF) Program; however, applicants whose first PDF application was submitted prior to the 2013 competition may submit a second application provided they are within the eligibility window.”

    In short, the policy didn’t fully take effect in the last competition: if we assume that the number of PhDs awarded is not changing too much from year to year, then we expect that the number of people eligible for the 2013 award should be about the same as for 2012. But look what happened to the number of applicants:

    2008: 1169
    2009: 1220
    2010: 1341
    2011: 1431
    2012: 1254
    2013: 802

    That’s a 36% drop in the 2013 competition. How could that be?

    I, for one, decided not to apply, even though I defended my thesis in June 2013. I figured that my application would be stronger next year and that I should therefore not waste my single instance of eligibility, especially since there would be people applying who had been out of the PhD for some time and would therefore have better publication records. In my field (mathematics), it is quite common to have one or less publications at graduation time; the thesis results are often published post-completion and thus the one-year difference can have a dramatic effect on one’s CV.

    I presume that similar thoughts occurred to many people in my cohort. On the other hand, it seems that people who had previously applied had nothing to lose in applying again. So, my hunch, which I cannot substantiate without further data from NSERC, is that a significant portion of the decline is due to people in my cohort making the same decision that I did.

    Fortunately, I was able to line up postdoctoral work for the next few years through other channels. As a result, I will probably never apply for an NSERC PDF. Thus, I have done my part to improve its dwindling success rate. Have other readers of this blog done their part, too? I’d be interested in hearing their reasons.

    PS: perhaps readers will remember that in 2003, Ontario high schools cut their programs from five years to four, and thus two cohorts of student graduated in the same year. At the time, much ado was made about creating space for all these students in universities. While there’s obviously no direct connection with the NSERC situation, it amuses me that this sudden bottleneck in the NSERC PDFs occurs right at the time when many double cohort members, such as myself, are finishing their PhDs.

  2. Erin J. Campbell / August 7, 2013 at 11:59

    I was very disappointed by the changes to the eligibility rules this year. I wish these changes had been announced sooner, since I have been coaching a post-doc applicant who did not win last year and we have already invested a significant amount of time revamping the application. Alas, we just found out she is ineligible since her PhD was awarded in 2010. This seems grossly unfair, to change the rules so late in the season. Anyone with any hope of winning would already have an application well in hand. An April announcement would have been appreciated. I agree with Eddy Kent that we need to support this crucial transitional moment in the careers of our emerging scholars. I am truly shocked by this change in the rules.

  3. Eddy Kent / August 8, 2013 at 23:50

    Erin: That’s incredibly frustrating and, which is worse, not unique. A couple of my colleagues are in the same boat, with potential postdoctoral fellows suddenly rendered ineligible. I wonder if SSHRC might be convinced to grandfather these changes, as they did last year when changing the rules for the NSERC PDFs. In that case, the rule change limited the number of lifetime applications to one, but (as Brent points out in his comment above) for the first year of the revised program, NSERC accepted applications from students who applied but were unsuccessful the previous year.

    Brent: I think your hunch is right, and that the rule change is causing a great deal of unnecessary “strategizing” on the part of prospective PDF applicants. (You’re not a specialist in game theory by any change??). Another consequence of this change is that NSERC/SSHRC PDFs help junior faculty, who may not have operating grants large enough to self-fund many postdocs. Instead, established researchers with large operating grants are likely to attract more of the better postdocs (like yourself, I’d bet). And so, the rich get richer.

    • Brent Pym / August 12, 2013 at 14:39

      I hadn’t realized that the eligibility rules at SSHRC were suddenly rendering people ineligible—very frustrating.

      You are correct that I will be supported by established researchers over the next few years, and I agree that overall, the changes seem likely to 1) reduce the freedom of postdocs in selecting their research program and 2) make it more difficult for junior faculty to hire postdocs. However, my understanding is that due to the small faculty grants in mathematics, it is common for several faculty members to combine their resources to hire a single postdoc. Perhaps that will, in a strange way, mitigate issue 2) a bit in math—not sure about other disciplines.

      And no, I have no game theory background; my field is geometry. On that subject, I must deliver some disturbing news: the Internet just became sentient! The CAPTCHA that I’m presented with while submitting this comment contains the word “Poincaré”…

  4. Eddy Kent / August 13, 2014 at 00:58

    Time for an update, in light of the 2013-14 SSHRC PDF competition stats.

    2012-13: 145 awards, 986 applications
    2013-14: 182 awards, 903 applications

    While it’s great to see almost 40 new PDFs , the number of applicants has declined by over 80. I can only assume that this is a direct consequence of the reduced eligibility window. I will add (cynically) that the success rate has edged across the desirable 20% threshold.

  5. David Kent / August 19, 2014 at 05:01

    Total rubbish…. this is the kind of number fixing that makes me sad. How’s this for another “fear”, in five years, we’ll have so many more people in the new eligibility window that they’ll start doing a pre-screening (or LOI) at the administration level (i.e., without peer review) to tell people not to apply in order to keep the magic 20%…