In 2009, the newly created Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars undertook its first survey of postdoctoral fellows, or PDFs. The results revealed that the average fellow in Canada was between 30 and 35 years of age, earned under $40,000 and had limited access to extended health coverage or other benefits.
This workplace snapshot was taken at a time of great unrest for PDFs, as the federal government had recently changed its taxation policy to make student scholarships – but not postdoctoral fellowships – tax-exempt. As a result, a substantial cohort of PhD graduates who continued in academic research as PDFs now earned less pay than they received during their graduate student years.
In an effort to see if the situation has changed, CAPS has launched a new survey of PDFs and is encouraging all postdoctoral fellows in Canada to take part. Jeremy Mitchell, former chair of CAPS and leader of the current survey, said there is a pressing need for more complete and up-to-date data. “During my stint as chair, I had to spend a lot of time thinking about how varied the circumstances and priorities of different PDFs can be,” he said. “How does a university craft policies that meet all those different needs? How does Canada? We need to start with a clear picture of who Canadian postdocs are.”
The survey is being carried out with the assistance of the not-for-profit organization Mitacs and the higher-education consulting firm Academica.
Before the 2009 survey, there was only limited evidence about the plight of Canadian PDFs. The survey, which was completed by nearly 1,200 PDFs, gave substance to the arguments of researchers that they weren’t being adequately supported. This was followed by several negative reports, such as in Nature magazine, on Canada’s lack of support for PDFs and also led the formation of groups such as CAPS and the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Administrators.
Canada is not the only country facing these human resources issues. In the life sciences sector in the U.S., it is common for PDFs to undertake more than one transient position, often in different cities, and spend five-plus years vying for a tenure-track position that only a minority will actually obtain – all of this occurring after their lengthy PhD training (a median of nearly seven years in 2011, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health). The average age for a researcher in the U.S. to get their first RO1 operating grant – the main grants from the NIH – is currently 42 years.
The lack of data in Canada
Perhaps the best example of how little is understood about PDFs in Canada is that the 2009 survey estimated there were 6,000 PDFs working in Canada. However, as reported at the inaugural CAPA meeting last year, university administrators put that number closer to 9,000, which is likely still an underestimate as many PDFs come with international funding or work as industrial fellows outside of universities.
Rob Annan, vice-president for research and policy at Mitacs, praises CAPS for undertaking the new survey. “There is so little data on the experience of Canadian PDFs, and this represents a significant gap in our understanding of the research and higher education landscape,” he said.
The current chair of CAPS, Chris Corkery, said the primary goal during his tenure “has been to improve the quality and reach of our representation of postdoctoral scholars. We’ve increased interactions with the Tri-Council funding agencies, CAPA, individual institutions, and international postdoctoral associations.” CAPS also now holds regular conference calls and an annual meeting that connects individual university PDF associations with each other.
The need for data stretches beyond policy as many PDFs are having to make career choices without adequate information. “A tightening academic job market combined with increased PhD graduation levels means career planning and preparation will need to adapt,” said Mitacs’ Dr. Annan. “But making informed decisions about how to adapt – both at the individual and policy level – requires data.”
The transient and focused nature of postdoctoral positions presents a challenge to collecting data, said Julie Peters at Academica. “The greatest challenge we face [in the survey] is the reality that there is no comprehensive list of PDFs in Canada,” she said. “In the absence of this, there is always the danger of missing an important segment of the population. That is why it is so important to get the survey out through multiple channels to try and reach PDFs at a large variety of institutions and in different types of positions.”