With the number of PhD graduates far outpacing the number of available academic positions, many upper year students have begun to re-evaluate the value of a postdoctoral fellowship. Although it may seem like the obvious next step for most graduate students, it is a decision which warrants serious thought. From personal interviews and a recently published survey conducted by the Canadian Association for Postdoctoral Scholars, we discuss some of the current challenges and concerns facing postdoctoral researchers in Canada.
A postdoctoral researcher is defined as “an individual holding a recently completed research doctoral degree (or medical profession equivalent) in a temporary period of mentored research or scholarly training.” Postdoctoral fellows can also be defined in an exclusionary fashion; they are no longer students and not quite faculty members. This lack of a strict job description is the source of countless problems and one of the reasons that the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS) was founded in 2007.
Canadian Postdoc Statistics
This past year, CAPS surveyed an estimated 20% of postdoctoral researchers in Canadian research institutions from various disciplines including life sciences, physical sciences, engineering, social sciences, and humanities. The survey was designed to identify the strengths and weaknesses of postdoctoral training in Canada. The average age of respondents was 34 years old, with an equal male (53%) to female (46%) representation. The survey identified that 35% of postdoctoral researchers have dependent children and over 50% are either landed immigrants or have work visas. Although the majority of respondents were satisfied with their research environment, resources and level of supervision, the key issues identified were administrative ambiguity, low compensation, benefits, and insufficient training.
Defining the Postdoctoral Position
Since there is no strict definition for a postdoctoral researcher, job titles often range from employee, associate, trainee, to student. Employee status was the preferred definition for postdoctoral researchers across Canada as it included benefits and would bring taxable income above $43,973, which is the current mean salary. The consensus amongst most postdoctoral researchers that I interviewed was that $37,500 ($31,875 after tax) was the average salary in life sciences.
This past year, on-campus University of Toronto postdocs became unionized to ensure proper compensation and benefits. “Without employee status, salary, benefits and parental leave is completely subjective to your [supervisor]”, observes postdoctoral fellow Dr. Patrick Brauer. Since principal investigators are struggling with some of the lowest federal funding grant rates, the majority of postdoctoral fellows are paid the minimum recommended salary. Dr. David Prescott comments that “salary and benefits are something that we are willing to sacrifice for the chance of becoming a PI”. The feeling that “it could be better, but we will be fine,” resonates with many postdocs in the Immunology department. Professor Dr. Michele Anderson reminisces on her own postdoctoral experiences as a time to “really focus on the science and expand new ideas without having to complete degree requirements at the doctorate level.” This thought was echoed by every person I spoke to, postdoctoral fellow or faculty member. However, low funding rates drive professors to decrease lab technician and research associate employment which leads to an increasing role for postdoctoral fellows as academic mentors. The lack of a defined role for postdoctoral fellows is something the federal granting agencies and supervisors should reconsider, as postdoctoral fellows are a major driving force for cutting-edge research in Canada and around the world.
Increasing Job Insecurity
Akin to the growing concern in every job sector, job insecurity and the fear of unemployment is preoccupying the minds of PhD graduates and postdoctoral fellows alike. Professor Dr. Tania Watts points out that credential inflation is increasing competitiveness for jobs in every field, including science. Since only 20% of junior academics – another ambiguous term for senior postdoctoral fellow – become professors, there is growing concern for job availability inside and outside of academia. This reality is compounded by the average age of a scientist when awarded his/her first grant – 42 years old. Dr. Zúñiga-Pflücker, Chair of the Department, acknowledges that “the major difference between a PhD and a postdoc is that a postdoc has no definable endpoint; and that endpoint is defined by things such as the job market which you have absolutely no control over.”
Most institutions put the sole responsibility on postdoctoral fellows to pursue other career opportunities. In the survey, 87% of respondents identified as having “no access to career counseling or are uncertain of their access”. Postdoctoral researcher Dr. Jason Fine is aware that “when looking for your first non-academic position, it benefits to have flexibility.” The National Institutes of Health has strongly recommended career training for both PhDs and postdoctoral fellows, but implementation will take time. Tania remarks that due to its temporary nature, “a postdoctoral position is not really a typical job, but a transitional position and what you aim to gain from a postdoc depends on the stage of life you are in. You should constantly re-evaluate at each year.”
A Science Overhaul is Overdue
The issues that concern postdoctoral researchers stem from all levels of the academic system, which has recently been under considerable scrutiny. A bottom-up solution which shortens PhD degrees and increases career outreach services in combination with a top-to-bottom approach of allotting more grant funding to alleviate the financial burden should be considered. Unfortunately, the role of research institutes is not to fulfill the needs of students and postdoctoral fellows, but to continuously publish novel findings and secure increasingly competitive research funding. In some cases, PhD students in their final years of study are the mainstay to this scientific productivity. Professor Dr. Goetz Ehrhardt notes that “in Canada, graduate students, not postdocs, are driving university-based research, which differs greatly from the [situation] in the US”. This dependence on graduate students has led to incentives for increased enrollment. However, in the end, a surplus of PhDs will only contribute to a surplus of postdoctoral trainees.
Despite all of these concerns, the majority of Canadian postdocs are happy with their research projects and environment. In other words, there is still a yearning for scientific knowledge. The postdoctoral position does require sacrifice but can also be an unparalleled time to explore and grow as an independent scientist. Becoming informed of the shortcomings of a postdoctoral position in Canada, which is similar to the situation in other countries, will provide insight into the right decision for you. Hopefully, having these kinds of conversations about the difficulties facing young scientists will lead to better opportunities at every level.
I would like to thank helpful discussions and interviews with Drs. Michele Anderson, Juan Carlos Zúñiga-Pflücker, Mahmood Mohtashami, Patrick Brauer, Goetz Ehrhardt, Tania Watts, Ali Abdul Sater, David Prescott, Jason Fine, and Jason Dumelie, who all provided insightful information for this article.
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