University Affairs: Low pay and ambiguous job status frustrates Canadian postdocs

A new survey of postdoctoral scholars in Canada paints a portrait of early career researchers who are generally satisfied with their research environment but frustrated by their ambiguous employment status, poor compensation and inadequate training. The online survey (PDF), released on Oct. 2, was conducted this past spring by the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars and Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization that supports industry-university research involving graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The survey’s 1,830 respondents represent a wide range of disciplines and work primarily at universities but also at research hospitals, government laboratories and private companies.

“The good news is that postdocs are very satisfied with the research environment they work in. It underlines how strong Canadian universities are in research,” said Rob Annan, vice-president, research and policy, at Mitacs and a co-author of the survey report. More than three-quarters of respondents indicated they were “completely” or “somewhat” satisfied with their level of supervision and independence, and roughly seven in 10 were satisfied with the resources and facilities at their workplace and their general work environment.

However, in terms of their administrative and employment status, “postdocs feel a bit like they’ve fallen through the cracks,” said Dr. Annan. They are treated as employees for taxation purposes but their workplace status varies from institution to institution, and they generally don’t have the same benefits as other employees.

Approximately two-thirds of Canadian postdocs earn less than $45,000 annually, the survey revealed. Many postdocs do not have access to their institutions’ health or dental insurance plans or are ineligible for employment insurance and pension contributions. Less than half of respondents are satisfied with their salary or stipend, and only 29 percent of respondents are satisfied with their access to employment benefits.

“After years of advanced formal education, most respondents do not perceive themselves as students or ‘trainees’ but as similar to other employees at their institutions, deserving of access to the same employee benefits,” the report noted.

Dr. Annan said the findings point to a fundamental underlying question: Who are postdocs and what do we want from them? Until recently, postdoctoral training was seen as a transitional period from the PhD to a professorship. However, the number of postdocs has climbed while hiring of new faculty has slowed. As a result, the majority of postdocs will not obtain faculty positions, said the report, leaving these scholars uncertain about their career options. Fewer than four in 10 postdocs were satisfied with their career development or their professional training opportunities, the survey showed.

These issues echo concerns voiced for years about the need for PhD training to be much broader than preparation for a faculty job. “It feels like the postdocs are now where we were with graduate students maybe five or 10 years ago,” said Dr. Annan.

“We don’t want to see [postdocs] in this sort of academic parking lot. We need to provide opportunities for training and bridge-building outside the academic track,” he said. “How can we ensure that the investments that have been made in their education are maximized both for them as individuals and for us as a society?”

Dr. Annan said nobody is to blame for this state of affairs: “It’s really a case of things just sort of evolved this way.” But everybody needs to join in to address these challenges, he said.

Aside from identifying postdocs’ concerns, the CAPS-Mitacs survey also provides an up-to-date profile of the Canadian postdoc (CAPS conducted a previous survey in 2009). The average postdoc is 34 years old; 53 percent are male; more than two-thirds are married or in a common-law relationship and one-third have dependent children; over 50 percent are landed immigrants or on work visas.

by Léo Charbonneau. Article available online here