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New postdoc awards welcomed in 2010 federal budget

Universities say government’s proposal for new fellowships will help them to recruit top scholars.


The federal government’s 2010 budget delivered a measure of good news and bad news to postdoctoral fellows, by pledging to create a generous postdoctoral fellowship program but putting in place income tax changes that could remove a tax benefit for some postdocs.

First the good news. The budget provided $45 million over five years to Canada’s granting councils to create up to 140 fellowships a year to help universities attract “top-level talent to Canada.” The fellowships will be valued at $70,000 a year for two years.

“It’s a recognition that if we want to be innovative as an economy we need postdocs,” said Carolyn Watters, dean of graduate studies at Dalhousie University and past president of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies.

The program is expected to give a boost to efforts by universities to recruit international scholars. Government sources said that the new fellowships will be open to both domestic and foreign applicants.

Universities have sought the creation of high-profile doctoral and postdoctoral scholarship programs to compete more effectively with other countries that have similar programs. The presidents of 13 research-intensive universities, in an open letter published by several newspapers in the Canwest chain, said the 2010 budget gave universities “a clear signal to get on with the job of laying the foundations for a sustainable economic recovery.” They singled out the postdoc fellowships as “a very positive initiative” that would “attract top postdoctoral trainees and support the internationalization of graduate studies in Canada.”

The value of the fellowships is much higher than postdocs currently earn. A recent survey found that a majority of Canadian postdocs earn between $35,000 and $45,000 a year before taxes. “We feel [the new program] should raise the bar with respect to monetary compensation for other postdoctoral positions,” said Jesse Greener, president of the University of Toronto Post-Doctoral Association.

The announcement of the generous fellowships prompted some of same reaction as the Vanier graduate scholarships when they were launched by the federal government in 2009 with a similar goal of helping universities attract top-notch doctoral students from Canada and abroad.

“I think a lot of my colleagues would feel that the investment is wonderful and it’s great that the government has perceived a need to support postdocs more in their research endeavours and the production of high-quality personnel throughout the country,” said Martin Kreiswirth, dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies at McGill University. “But that money could be disbursed in smaller amounts and actually have a larger effect.”

Meanwhile, on the tax side, the budget proposed that postdoctoral fellows wouldn’t qualify for income tax measures that make students’ scholarships, fellowships and bursaries tax-exempt. A minority of the country’s 6,000 postdocs (including those at most Quebec universities, the University of Alberta, Dalhousie University and the University of Ottawa) had been taking advantage of the students’ tax exemption to claim the full amount of their stipend tax-free. Those at other institutions weren’t able to do so because of their classification status.

Universities classify postdocs variously as trainees, students, employees or contractual workers, depending on the duties they perform and other factors. And some universities have different classes of postdocs in the same institution. This has led to an uneven situation across the country, with only some receiving employment benefits and only those with trainee or student status qualifying for the tax exemption.

Marianne Stanford, chair of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars and a postdoctoral fellow at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, an affiliate of the University of Ottawa, said the tax change will result in a steep pay cut for many postdocs. She said it also could result in some graduate students on tax-free scholarships earning more than their more senior, postdoctoral colleagues.

Dr. Watters of CAGS said the ruling is helpful in some respects because it provides clarification for universities that have been struggling with the issue. But, she added, it will disadvantage those postdocs who have accepted work contracts assuming their salaries would be tax-free. She said it might put Canadian universities at a disadvantage when it comes to recruiting foreign postdocs. CAGS plans to ask the government to delay implementing the measure, which is set to take effect this year.

Still, not everyone saw the tax ruling in a bad light. Dr. Greener, head of the U of T postdoc association, said his group welcomed the change. Currently, many of the 1,500 postdoctoral fellows at U of T and its affiliated research institutions qualify neither for the tax exemption nor for employment benefits. “We kind of had the worst of both worlds,” he said.

The ruling, he hopes, will allow postdocs to argue more effectively that they are employees who ought to be entitled to full job benefits. “We are anticipating having a new conversation with the administration in light of this ruling,” he said.

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  1. Dr.Doinglittle / March 23, 2010 at 16:37

    wow – here is one less reason to do a PhD in Canada. These new postdocs will be $35,000 each year for two years max, but now fully taxable as income. This means they are really worth $28,000-30,000 net – much less than prior post-docs. Why bother when you can make twice that amount in an entry-level non-university job with no fixed term?

  2. Dr.Doinglittle / March 24, 2010 at 11:19

    correction to my above post – the new post-docs are $70,000 each year for two years. This means the amount taxed as income will be between $15,000-20,000 depending on your province.

  3. NA / March 25, 2010 at 09:55

    The current success rate of SSHRC postdoc is about 15% which is way lower than the previous success rate of 25%. This year, out of 890 applicants, 147 were successful, and a good size of applicants were categorized as recommended by the scientific committee but not funded by the council. A polite way of saying no to these good enough citizens.

    NSERC postdoc is even more competitive.

    What’s the hell this new announcement? Are they really serious about retaining Canadian postdocs, let alone attracting international postdocs.

    Conservative government don’t see that postdocs are large enough gang of voters who would make them win next election. Who cares about excellence in science, technology, innovation and development?

  4. postdork / April 13, 2010 at 13:45

    Quite simply, the budget negatively impacts Canada’s competitive edge due to lack of support for research and development in Canada, and it’s ability to train, retain and attract world-class scholars and researchers. Here are some key reasons:

    1)Postdocs are not considered employees by their host institutions, thus cannot receive any benefits of being gainfully employed (CPP, EI, health benefits, insurance, unionization, etc…), yet as of Budget 2010, we have to pay employment income tax.

    2)Postdocs are not considered students by their host institutions, and as a result do not qualify for additional financial support such as student loans or credit lines from banks or other financial institutions. Nor do we qualify for student discounts. Moreover, in most cases, postdocs must repay their outstanding student loans (often from more than 10 years of university education).

    3)Postdocs are by definition doctors (mostly Ph.D’s, but some hold medical degrees as well) and are thus considered “highly qualified personnel” with several post-secondary degrees, certifications and accreditations. Starting salaries for individuals who forgo a postdoctoral fellowship are paid (conservatively) more than double the typical merit-based PDF.

    4)Postdocs are not considered independent researchers (“primary investigators”), thus do not qualify for research grants to support their research activities, or to draw a salary.

    5)As of the new budget due to taxed fellowships, postdocs now make about the same or less than some Ph.D students and Masters students – with scholarships from the same funding agencies.

    6) Canadian funding agencies (CIHR, NSERC, SSHRC, etc…) set their postdoctoral stipend levels based on the assumption that postdoc stipends are tax free. Will postdocs get a raise to compensate? I seriously doubt it.

    The PDF fellowships of $70 000, while laudable, will only be available to the top ~2% of postdocs in the coming years. What about the other 98%? What about the current postdocs who are ineligible to apply to these new fellowships? This reeks of political BS. Hardly “good news”.

    Here are some things you can do to help make a difference:

    1) Get informed:

    2) Sign the petition:

    3)Write your MP:

    Use the CAPS letter template

    4) Join the Facebook group

    CAPS facebook page

    5) Pass this information along to other post-docs, supervisors, university officials, funding agencies, etc…

  5. Someone Concerned / April 14, 2010 at 13:25

    I agree with the first comment – though the Budget provides clarity, what the article doesn’t address is the fact that where PDFs were non-taxed, their stipends were structured accordingly by their PIs. In short, the ‘take home’ was the same across the country. Now with this budget PDFs in QC and other places are taking a tax hit of $5000 in the middle of the year without any due notice. Families are loosing their child benefit support. Above all of this, the new program will actually spend LESS in five years than the Canadian Government will bring in in three years off the backs of the PDFs who are now being taxed. It’s not a reinvestment at all, it’s hitting hard working, low paid, expert researchers – and it’s doing it without any consideration that they too might be struggling in a year of hardship.