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The Black Hole

Despite improved wages, troubling trends emerge from postdoc survey


Last week, the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS) released its most recent survey of over 2,000 postdoctoral fellows across Canada. It is the third such survey (the others were 2009 and 2013) and offers the first robust longitudinal data set to help us understand the core issues facing the most uncertain and precarious phases of the academic career path. The good news is that some progressive action has been taken, but two troubling trends emerge from this recent data – the appalling and persistent lack of benefits (this post) and the push away from attracting international scientists (next post) to work in Canada.

Readers may recall that one of the original drivers of this blog’s creation in 2009 was the taxation change that catapulted the take-home salaries of hundreds of PhD students above that of their postdoctoral colleagues. Nobody was particularly upset with giving scholarships tax-free status, but the decision exposed the fact that postdoctoral fellowships often fell into a murky zone of uncertain status – sometimes employees, sometimes trainees, sometimes students. Their salaries and the accompanying benefits were lower than average and nobody likes to have people with less training and experience taking home more money.

CAPS has been fighting the wage and status battle on behalf of postdocs nationally and their regular survey has been an instrumental tool in delivering facts and figures to policymakers. After all, it is difficult to fix a situation that you do not understand. As a result, the tax issue has more or less been sorted out and, according to the 2016 survey, postdoc wages are rising (albeit quite slowly). Progress takes time though and I’d be optimistic that salaries will continue to improve.

What hasn’t improved and represents a shocking black mark on the Canadian scientific environment is the lack of benefits available to postdoctoral fellows. A sizeable fraction (13 percent) report having no access to basic medical coverage and half of the respondents do not pay into Canada Pension or Employment Insurance.

Think about that… half of a cohort of highly skilled, doctorate holding scientific researchers with an average age of 34 have never paid into a pension plan and have no protection if they lose their job or go on parental leave.   No wonder CAPS feels that their advocacy mission is not yet completed.

The knock-on effects of this highly uncertain and insecure career path are significant. We see people leaving science for financial stability and/or family reasons and the impacts on mental well-being are exacerbated by longer and longer training periods.

In fact, one of the more interesting aspects of the 2016 CAPS survey was the inclusion of questions surrounding mental health. The report contained the following statement that set off some serious alarm bells:

75% of respondents indicated experiencing negative thoughts, feelings, or conditions related to their mental health (persisting for at least one month).

When you look at the list of mental health issues, it is really quite scary:

1 in 3 postdocs have felt hopeless

1 in 3 have experienced persistent anxiety

1 in 3 have had panic attacks

1 in 4 have been depressed

And… 7 percent had thoughts of self-harm / self-loathing (i.e. ~150 PhDs across the country)

This is the kind of stuff that goes unnoticed and undocumented and while I am not suggesting an all out re-organisation of the academic career structure, there is a clear need for identifying and addressing mental health issues – kudos to CAPS for collecting these data.  These sorts of data make an even clearer case that if we want to keep the best and brightest working on complicated problems in universities and research institutes across the country, then there is a desperate need to create a more stable and nurturing training environment.

Stay tuned for my next post in a couple of weeks on attracting and retaining international talent in Canada.

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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