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The Black Hole

Canary in the Coal Mine #1: The Changing Human Resources in Academia


Canary in the Coal Mine #1

This past year, I came across a set of statistics that made me cringe. They underscore a dramatic shift in the human resources in academia, specifically in the medical sciences.

2006 median length of PhD = 7.9 years
Average age at which a PhD is obtained = 32.7 (31.3 in Science/Engineering)
# of faculty hires who had recently (1-3 years) obtained a PhD
74% (1972) down to 44% (2006)
(60% to 31% at research universities)

From 1993 to 2003, recent (1-3 years) science and engineering doctorate recipients holding tenure and tenure-track appointments at academic institutions has decreased from 18.4% to 9.0%. When observed 4-6 years following the awarding of a degree, these numbers increase to 26.6% and 19.8% respectively. That’s just under 1 in 5 PhD holders in academic jobs, which is something that Beth will write on quite extensively. This is further complicated by the fact that not all people who start a PhD actually finish it (which is also in the 30-40% range in many disciplines, something being explored by the PhD Completion Project )

These statistics and many more fantastic resources are available for post docs, albeit with an American focus, on the National Post Doctoral Fellow Association and the websites. The newly developed Canadian Association of Post Doctoral Scholars ) is trying to collect statistics on Canadians PDFs with a recent survey of over 1000 PDFs.

The training period has lengthened significantly and adjustments need to be made to address the growing concerns of young scientists. Since 1995, the average age to obtain a first RO1 grant (American operating grant) has increased from 37 to 42. If one generously assumes a 5 year startup package, this means that trainees are finishing their post doctoral fellowships at age 37 instead of age 32. These individuals – who do not have permanent positions – share a unique set of experiences and challenges.

Is the increased length of a post doc an inherently bad thing? Probably not. Are there concerns and can they be addressed? Probably. So, what can be done?

I’ll try and tackle some of the key concerns:

1. Funding Levels

a. While everyone can probably find a series of reasons why they are underpaid, PDFs in Canada have a particularly strong case. When you think of going further in your career, having your salary slashed as your training increases is not something that springs to mind. With increasing numbers of graduate students obtaining Canada Graduate Scholarships ($35,000 tax free) and Vanier Scholarships ($50,000 tax free), a salary slash is exactly what many future PDFs are being asked to take with the average PDF salary being located in the $33,000 to $37,000 range (with tax deductions).

b. Irrespective of the CGS/PDF discrepancy, PDF funding is remarkably low considering the training that one has already undertaken. As an example of the low wages that PDFs are paid, comparison can be appropriately made to high school teachers who, while critical in preparing future generations for tertiary education, typically obtain their first teaching position around age 25 earning ~$37,000/yr, and by 35 to 40 years of age can be earning ~$70,000/yr ( see table ). In contrast, PDFs typically earn ~$35,000/yr from age ~28 to ~37 with no uniform systematic process for wage increases. Compounded on this are typical PDF starting salaries (and subsequent regular pay raises) in the UK and other nations of 27,000 GBP, which, even with the weak pound, comes out to well over $45,000.

What can be done?
a. Scale the PDF wage to accommodate experience levels (i.e.: number of years of post doc experience)
b. Establish a maximum number of years as a PDF before mandating re-classification as research associate (potentially with the option of mutual waiving of this reclassification if PDF and supervisor agree)
c. Have the Tri-agency (NSERC/CIHR/SSHRC) councils agree to tie minimum and scaled salaries to their funding packages (i.e.: if a PDF works on this project, they will be paid X amount for Y years of experience which increases over time)

2. Increased number of children
With increased age comes an increased frequency of little ones and a complete dearth of resources for new parents in the PDF Black Hole. Some research institutes have created reasonable and successful programs (subsidized childcare, lengthy and financially workable parental leave policies, etc), but this has come at the hands of extremely progressive (and very rare) leadership from within particular institutes. These policies are extremely variable within universities.

This is further compounded by the fact that new parents returning to their training have just spent 6-12 months outside of a field is at the leading edge, often setting them even further due to the inability to keep pace with the research in the field. This in itself is not critically unmanageable, but when one considers that PDFs and young principal investigators are under constant pressure for job competition or tenure, it looks even more challenging and puts a huge burden on the spouse (god help them if they’re both young academics looking for jobs as professors!)

3. Extended Benefits
Some excellent examples of resources available or support provided are:
a. For international PDFs, McGill University has subscribed temporary emergency medical coverage with a private insurance carrier for postdoctoral scholars who will be subject a 3-month bridge (waiting) period. This temporary insurance will be offered to registered at no cost for the Postdoc, and with cost for accompanying dependents.
b. The University of Alberta has a full fledged University Postdoc Supplemental Health Plan which is mandatory (but you can opt out if your spouse has a better plan) and costs $435 (single) and $1284 (family) and is FULLY covered by faculty member or department.
(if you know of a Canadian University or research institute that has good or bad benefit programs for PDFs, comment below or email me“!)
In the end, one of the very best things that young scientists can do is to share information with each other. Some people have found creative solutions at their institutes and the wheel is being constantly reinvented. Please feel free to post here to let us know your story, but even more important, get in touch with your local PDF or graduate student group or with the Canadian Association of Post Doctoral Scholars ).


Canary in the Coal Mine Part II: Tying of SSHRC funding to economic outcomes

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. Nicole / November 2, 2009 at 18:33

    In the Fall of 2005, I noted the impressive ratio of women to men (nearly 3:1) in an undergraduate behavioral neuroscience course at a major U.S. university. I thought surely this was a sign of progress – that women are not only matching, but surpassing men in numbers among the ranks of researchers in neuroscience. Indeed, women outnumber men at the baccalaureate level in the U.S. in nearly all natural science fields . Seventy-seven percent of the people graduating in psychology, one source of applicants to neuroscience graduate programs, are female1. At the graduate level, too, numbers appear to be evening out between the sexes, with more women enrolling than men in graduate school in the biological sciences, and nearly as many women as men earning doctoral degrees1. Undoubtedly, more women are present in neuroscience-related faculties around the U.S. today than ten or twenty years ago. Does this mean that the obstacles to women in neuroscience, undeniable not long ago, have vanished, or at least become insignificant? Hardly.
    The obstacles to women in the sciences appear to begin quite late in the process of career building. Clear evidence of obstacles does not arise until one counts the number of faculty hired. It seems that women are hired less often than men at the assistant professor level, and only half of those who start an academic career are promoted to full professor. According to an article published in the journal Science, this can be partially explained by unconscious biases in the hiring and promoting process “when evaluators rated writing skills, resumes, journal articles, and career paths, they gave lower ratings on average if they were told that the subject of evaluation was a woman.”2 In addition, women who do manage to achieve these milestones have lower median salaries than their male counterparts1. This is why education on salary negotiation are so important. Women need to feel comfortable demanding equitable salaries, and learning how to do so professionally and convincingly is an important part of this.
    I would argue that the obstacles to women in neuroscience, though less overt now than they once were, are still present. The obstacles that remain are more difficult to identify and remove; they have taken the insidious form of personal choice, the veneer of individual culpability. In my opinion, these obstacles range from societal and cultural expectations to economic realities to open discouragement. I believe the onus is on the universities to initiate changes in hiring practices and promotion/salary reviews.
    1 National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2007, NSF 07-315 (Arlington, VA; February 2007). Available from
    2 Handelsman J et al, 2005. Science. 309: 1190-1191.

  2. Nicole / November 2, 2009 at 18:44

    On another note, I will point out that academia is a rare type of career that forces individuals to uproot numerous times and move wherever the job opens up. For example, I completed my undergraduate work at the University of Michigan. I was told that I should go elsewhere for graduate work, so I moved to Wisconsin to do my PhD. Then of course a postdoc should be done at a different institution, so I came to UBC. Is it surprising, then that after a couple postdocs, people get tired of moving? I simply can’t picture myself going back to the midwest, even if I thought I could compete against the 200 other postdocs who have more publications on their CV. I find myself quite fortunate, in that my heart is not set on research as a career. I love teaching and training work, so I am finding my own niche for that and anticipate great satisfaction in my job (dare I call anything but a tenure-track appoitnment a career?). If not, I would still be floating around, wherever the job ads should take me, cutting personal ties every 2-3 years, until I ended up in a tenure track position, albeit at a lower salary than a decent plumber. It makes me wonder at times: if you don’t get a job straight off, why would you ever pursue such a life?

  3. Beth / November 2, 2009 at 20:17

    One thing I’d like to add to this is that while things like the CGS and Vanier Scholarships exist, the vast majority of PhD students *don’t* get them. Many graduate students have scholarships in the $16K to $18K range (imagine trying to live on that in a city as expensive as Vancouver!) and many students don’t have any funding at all. So put yourself in my shoes – you finish your PhD after 11 years of post-secondary with $70K in student loan debt … and then are expected to take a postdoc salary in the $33K $37K range! I’ll talk more about this in my upcoming post on why many new PhDs turn to non-academic jobs instead of going down the postdoc route.

  4. Dave K / November 3, 2009 at 09:25

    Hi Nicole,
    This was a dicussion that took many hours of our time – it seems that women are very well represented (in the medical sciences at least, I know that the story is still starkly different in the physical sciences and math/engineering) at the undergraduate and graduate and even PDF levels… but when it comes to new PI positions, it is severely unblanced. I have heard that there are some universities (McGill is notable) who are trying to address this quite strongly making it mandatory to bring a female candidate through to the short list for every position (this might be a single department in McGill, I’d love for someone to clarify/expound) – it seems silly that we need to resort to such policies, but the fact of the matter remains that women are simply not being hired (or even being paid) at the same rates as men. I’ll write a good blog on this later in the month where I detail all of the resources we found on this – stay tuned!

  5. Dave K / November 3, 2009 at 09:36

    Beth… you’re definitely right that many students get no scholarships and have to TA to scrape through… It still boggles my mind that UBC continues to have no guaranteed funding of significant value (yes, I mean the tuition waiver program that they had does not count) for its PhD students…
    But… an important note is to look at CIHR awards last year:
    374 CGS Banting and Best Awards
    12 regular doctoral awards
    2008 numbers:
    202 CGS
    62 regular doctoral awards
    Robert, a friend of mine from the Netherlands asked me if I had figured out the political motivations behind scholarship funding in Canada and the short answer is no, not completely… but this type of skewing toward “best and brightest being rewarded” makes me think that Canadian policy makers believe that we need to do more to retain the top 5% of students at the expense of giving out more awards to more people… this is mirrored in the SSHRC funding policies which I will rant about in a couple of days.