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The Black Hole

Inaugural meeting of Canadian Postdoctoral Administrators: will fanfare = results?


This past weekend, I attended the inaugural meeting of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Administrators in Ottawa. As with most inaugural meetings, there was a combination of excitement and confusion but it appeared that the overall theme was one of identifying common ground and working together in the most productive way possible.

The stated aims of CAPA are to share best practices and to promote the environment for successful postdoctoral scholarship and training. The organization is made up of senior administrators and staff from universities and research organizations across Canada that focus on postdoctoral fellow issues. The steering committee currently comprises David Burns (UNB), Graham Carr (Concordia), Richard Fedorak (U of Alberta), Mihaela Harmos (Western), Sue Horton (Waterloo), Martin Kreiswirth (McGill), and Marilyn Mooibroek (Calgary). While not formally involved in the steering committee, postdoctoral fellows are consulted through the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars via guest status at teleconferences.

Many interesting items arose in the meeting and it would be hard to properly include them all, so I will restrict myself to some of the items that I found most interesting (all topics are found here, please write me if you would like more information):

Survey of stakeholders

Mihaela Harmos presented the results from 34/50 respondents to the stakeholder survey run in 2011. There are apparently 8,900 postdoctoral fellows in Canada, 45% of whom are not originally from Canada. Only half of these postdocs have minimum stipends and just 2/3 have some sort of benefits package available to them. Of these, approximately 25% pay for 100% of their benefits. Does such inconsistency exist for other professionals in training (e.g., accountants, lawyers, medical doctors)? Readers will know our opinion on this already.

In any event, such surveys will be interesting to monitor in the future to track changes in the quantity and quality of postdoctoral research support in Canada.

Legal status of postdoctoral fellows

We had an informative presentation by Lisa Newton, a lawyer based at Queen’s University, who shared some important points about the legal status of postdoctoral fellows. A major case came out of U of T this year that said postdoctoral fellows were employees of their universities. According to Ms. Newton, provinces look to the Ontario Labour Relations Board for precedent, so this will likely impact future rulings as they crop up.

As Queen’s postdoctoral fellows have recently unionized, Ms. Newton had particularly good insight and listed off some of the key challenges specific to collective bargaining for postdoctoral fellows:

  • Job postings (timelines, impact on international recruits)
  • Seniority (specializations of postdoctoral fellows are very different)
  • Hours of work / overtime
  • Postdocs are rarely discussed in university IP discussions whereas faculty members are typically considered. Generally it is thought “he who creates, owns”, what about postdocs?
  • Mix of PI-funded and independently funded postdocs complicates collective bargaining

In discussions later on that day, it came up that there are union representatives pressuring postdoctoral fellows at several universities to unionize – have any of our readers experienced this?


As fast as my little pen would move, I scrambled to copy down NSERC’s numbers for its CREATE program.  I’ve not seen these presented on their website in such a breakdown, so I thought it would be useful to share.

The vast majority of CREATE grants are for 1.65 million over 6 years and are meant to fund trainees under themed programs of research. CREATE does not fund actual research costs and 80% of the funds go into trainee stipends with the other 20% being for coordination and travel.  So, who do they support?

Year Awards Undergrads Masters PhD PDF
2009 20 100 132 148 46
2010 20 60 133 136 35
2011 18 100 137 237 44
2012 17 82 127 125 44
Average 18.75 4.56 7.05 7.17 2.25


This may well be the topic of another blog post about the CREATE model which has its benefits and drawbacks. For now, it is interesting to note how these awards stack up against the US National Institutes of Health recommendation from earlier this year which was to shift the balance away from grant-funded postdoctoral fellowships in favour of fellowship and training awards. The NIH shows that postdoctoral fellows who obtain merit-based awards (e.g.: fellowships) are more likely to gain independence sooner. It would be very interesting to see what comes out of CREATE in terms of times to graduation, publication record, and age of independence for these trainees vs. NSERC’s fellowship/scholarship funded trainees.

On a side note, in another session the topic of transition awards in Canada (e.g., NIH K99/R00 awards) was brought up and it seems that the biggest challenge for these from granting councils is to figure out where the money could come from. It seems they’ve made these awards a priority at the NIH – perhaps our leadership will see them as valuable as well.

Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS)

Luckily, the CAPA meeting also meant that many of the CAPS Executive Committee were in town and we took the chance to meet the day before the conference to carve out the key components of that organization. Members were very active in the CAPA meeting drilling home the three primary concerns of Canadian postdocs that the member university representatives agreed on:

  1. The need for clarity on the status, timeline, and treatment of PDFs at universities and partner institutes.
  2. More extensive professional development for PDFs (both academic and non-academic).
  3. Communication and collaboration between CAPS and CAPA and the national granting agencies.

There were several pleas made for more involvement of postdoctoral fellows in establishing policy that affects them (e.g., the NSERC decision to restrict fellowship applications to once per lifetime) and it seemed that the message was well-received, but the proof will be in the pudding as we move forward. Stay tuned for updates on the CAPS website and we’ll continue to give regular updates of advocacy efforts on this site.

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. Karel Casteels / November 13, 2012 at 13:45

    Thanks for getting those CREATE numbers, but can you clarify what the entries in each row represent? Is it the number employed in 2011/2012? Or total since the programs began? Or…?

    • David Kent / November 13, 2012 at 14:05

      Hi Karel,
      Thanks for your comment – my impression (though it was a presentation and not from an official document) is that these are the numbers supported during that year. So, if an trainee was only in the program in 2011, they would only be listed under 2011. What is not clear, is whether or not someone is counted for a whole year if they are only part of the program for a few months – I would imagine that the numbers include everyone, but could also be corrected on that… any updates from NSERC folks would be kindly appreciated of course!

  2. Dawn / November 13, 2012 at 17:24

    Thanks for the informative post Dave. It’s always positive when people and especially members of senior administration are talking about postdocs, and I’m glad that CAPA has met officially. I’ll be interested to follow the Queen’s postdoc unionization as it unfolds.

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