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The Black Hole

Sick of studenthood, early career researchers want employee status


One of the most popular topics on our site over the years has been the taxation and administrative status of postdoctoral fellows. The budgetary changes and the resultant discrepancy between postdoctoral and graduate student take-home pay galvanized Canadian postdoctoral fellows across the country and was a primary driver of the enthusiasm that formed the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS). Five years on and a lot of settled dust later, it appears that post-PhD researchers want to be treated like grown-ups.

The original 2009 CAPS survey was completed when it was potentially beneficial (depending on your university, province and tax forms) to be classified as a trainee rather than an employee. The newest survey was completed after Budget 2010 when it became obvious that postdoctoral fellowships would be fully taxable. The result – over 75% of postdoctoral fellows would prefer to be classified as employees, with 70% of those currently classed as trainees or students preferring to have employee status.

How will Canada’s universities, funding bodies and research institutes respond to this preference?

One interesting wrinkle will be the handling of external fellowships. Contributing to pension and employment insurance is not free and if all postdoctoral fellows were to be employees, somebody would need to pick up the tab (would granting agencies allot monies for such contributions? Would universities be responsible, or would it come off the stipend of the fellowship itself?). Perhaps postdoctoral fellowships themselves would be viewed as training awards that exist outside of a standard employee/employer relationship. This is what happened to me as an externally funded fellow in the U.K. – no pension, no employment insurance, etc. Now I’m paid from my supervisor’s grant and am an employee at the university.

Overall I would note that, for the most part, the U.K. and Europe administer post-PhD researchers as employees. In my limited experience, much less venom is spouted concerning salaries and compensation. Things are still bad when it comes to career prospects and stability, but it seems that most early career researchers have access to a decent salary and benefits. The story is much more mixed in the United States, with some centres offering incredibly lucrative packages and others offering virtually nothing.

It is worth reminding people that the current federal government already categorizes postdoctoral fellows as employees: “Unlike post-secondary students enrolled in courses and pursuing a degree or diploma, post-doctoral fellows can be compared to a number of other professionals such as lawyers, medical residents, and accountants, where there is a period of paid training at the beginning of their careers (Jim Flaherty, Minister of Finance in a letter to CAPS). (N.B. the comparison doesn’t stack up well when remuneration/benefits are considered.)

So, my advice to universities, granting agencies, and research institutes – listen to everyone else. As said in the CAPS survey, “In short, postdocs are adults: in the middle of their lives, but at the beginning of their careers.” These people are professional scientists and deserve to be treated as such.

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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