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The Black Hole

The storm is brewing: Postdocs are speaking out…


Lucie Low, newly elected Vice Chair, Finance of CAPS and a current non-Canadian postdoctoral researcher at McGill has just published in Nature a scathing critique of Canada’s system which promised her more than it delivered, and further suggesting that

…Canada will lose some of its brightest minds

This was of course inspired by the continuous rage that is being felt in the postdoc community after being told in Budget 2010 that their fellowships were definitely not classed as scholarship income – an issue we’ve reviewed here and agree with Lucie that the comparison to medical residents, lawyers, and accountants is remarkably unfair.

Perhaps more worrisome than singly annoyed postdoctoral fellows who feel wronged by a tax decision though, is the set of statistics that Erika just forwarded to me about the most recent NSERC competition.  In 2011, the rates of funding for trainees were as follows:

  • 50% of MSc applications were funded (828 of 1640 applications)
  • 52% of PhD applications were funded (876/1684)
  • 9% of Postdoc applications were funded (133/1431)

This is compared with 2008-10 numbers which are:

  • 74-75% of MSc applications
  • 66-68% of PhD applications
  • 21% of PDF applications (250-286 successful)

Yes – that’s right… 9% funding success and ~50% fewer funded postdocs.   It seems that now is not the best time to be coming to Canada to perform postdoctoral research.  In fact, things don’t appear to be good for people (particularly in the life sciences) across the world with talks of (and formation of) postdoctoral fellow unions, advocacy groups like the National Postdoctoral Association, and even a depressingly accurate caricature of postdocs from a comic strip about graduate school.

A LinkedIn group has emerged called PostDoc Forum with some very lively discussion in recent months including A Flood of Life Scientists: The Practical Guide to Escaping the Crowd by Escaping the Bench and discussion on Why Your Mentor Sucks (and how to fix it) from Biodata blogs.

All in all it seems that junior academics are teething quite viciously.  One of our very first entry on this blog was about the human resources crisis in biomedical science and it appears that people are starting to notice, get frustrated, and speak out.  Granting councils, governments, universities and prospective PhDs take note – some serious work needs to be done in order to defuse this potentially huge waste of talent and training.

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. Mel / June 30, 2011 at 23:16

    Your MSc and PhD numbers for 2011 appear to have gotten reversed from the NSERC website, but the message is the same. Interesting that the success rate for the PhD $35000 tax free awards (therefore similar take-home to the $40000 PDF awards) was 17% (291/1684) this year compared to the measley 9% PDF success rate. So you actually now have a much better chance of making the same salary as a grad student as even getting PDF funding? So glad I’m finally done 🙁

  2. Sanda / July 1, 2011 at 00:39

    This year it was easier to get a professorship position than an NSERC PDF. The standards were simply ridiculous and some disciplines had no chances in front of others. 3 earth sciences PDFs in Canada. I guess not enough Nature and Science material from this area.
    Putting everything in perspective: in 2011 you need more than 12 papers (high or very high impact journals) and proved leadership skills, to be considered non-academic staff (at least at my univ.) and be payed 40,000$/year.

  3. Dave / July 1, 2011 at 08:40

    @Mel – Thanks for the eagle eye as always Mel. I’ve changed it back and added in a link to the NSERC page with the announcement. Also I agree with the CGS/PDF discrepancy – this is a huge problem resulting in many of our “best and brightest” taking a pay cut to progress in their field.
    @Sanda – Your concerns underpin one of the biggest problems that CAPS is trying to tackle… the inconsistent status of postdocs across our country. Their Nov 2009 survey shows that status as trainee vs. academic staff vs. student is remarkably variable. Sadly, as we’ve certainly whinged about before, it seems that publications (more specifically those with high impact factors) are the only real currency measured in fellowship applications – earth sciences are one of many disciplines that Canada is very strong in that are getting the short shrift.