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Margin Notes

The needs of postdocs continue to be ignored

That’s the conclusion from a new survey of postdoctoral scholars in Canada.


The Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars released this morning the results of a new national survey of postdocs. The survey captured not only demographic information – who are postdocs in Canada? – but also their primary concerns. (The full report is here and we also have a news story on the survey on our website here).

This is the second such survey of postdocs by CAPS; the first one was done in 2009. That first report referred to “a postdoctoral crisis in Canada,” and while this latest report eschews talk of a crisis, it’s clear from the latest survey that things haven’t changed much for the better.

One of the recurring issues is the uncertain or ambiguous status of postdocs. Officially, CAPS defines a postdoc as “an individual holding a recently completed research doctoral degree (or medical professional equivalent) in a temporary period of mentored research or scholarly training.” That sounds straightforward enough. However, in reality, postdocs’ employment or administrative status is far from clear – they may be classified as employees, students, independent contractors or trainees. Moreover, their classification within an institution doesn’t necessarily correspond with their federal or provincial employment or labour classification. (Among survey respondents who stated a preference, 75 percent indicated that they would prefer to be classified as employees.)

This ambiguity is reflected in postdoc workplace benefits – some have access to their institutions’ health or dental insurance plans, while others don’t. Some are eligible for employment insurance and pension contributions, others aren’t so lucky. What’s truly surprising – to me, at least – is how this confusion reigns among the postdocs themselves. Asked in the latest survey if they had something as simple as vacation leave, 21 percent answered they didn’t know. Nearly a third of respondents were unsure if they had sick leave benefits and almost 40 percent didn’t know if they were eligible for parental leave (35 percent of respondents have dependent children).

One thing postdocs are pretty sure of is that they’d like to be paid more. The average Canadian postdoc is 34-years-old and presumably has spent a minimum of 10 years pursuing postsecondary education (from undergraduate studies to the completion of a PhD), and yet approximately two-thirds of them earn less than $45,000 annually. Moreover, postdocs expect to be in this “academic parking lot” (a term CAPS uses) for some time: nearly half expect to do at least two postdoctoral appointments.

Another message from the survey is that postdocs – like PhD graduates in general – are becoming increasingly aware that a career path leading to a faculty appointment isn’t likely to happen (even though 80 percent said their original goal was to become a university research faculty member). The report states baldly: “Barring significant changes in the supply of postdocs or the demand for new faculty, only a minority of postdocs will obtain a faculty position.” And yet, half of the survey’s respondents reported having no exposure to non-academic careers, and 87 percent either had no access to career counselling or were unsure if they had. Further, over half of postdocs received no training in areas such as project management, conflict resolution, group or lab management, writing, or intellectual property. That’s shocking. Postdocs obviously would benefit from broader training and more exposure to non-academic training opportunities.

If all this sounds familiar, it should. This is exactly the same conversation we have been having for at least a decade now about PhD training. University after university in Canada now offers professional development workshops and other resources to help grad students transition to careers either within or outside of academia. Meanwhile, as this new report notes, “the needs and concerns of postdocs have been largely ignored.”

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. M.S.Fageria / October 2, 2013 at 14:10

    I found this article interesting. I have recently completed a doctoral program in Forest Genetics. Following the completion of my doctoral program I have been accepted the position of Postdoctoral Fellow (Physiology). In Canada, I believe postdocs are considered as a student and they are not eligible for employment insurance. Departments are shrinking. Professors do not want to retire because of poor economy. Universities prefer to hire sessional instructors. Universities usually pay CD 5000 for a course. So, their chances are very low getting faculty positions. I know a couple of postdocs. They have been working as postdoc in North America or Europe for 3-10 years. They know that they will not get any faculty or permanent positions. They are tired doing postdoc. But they do not know anything else to do. This is true that postdocs would benefit from broader training and exposure to non-academic training opportunities.