Expanding Opportunities to Retain Young Talent in Canada: Promoting career development and independence for early-career researchers

May 16, 2018
Cornelya F. C. Klütsch and Catarina C. Ferreira
Postdoctoral Fellow and Instructor
Department of Biology, Trent University, Canada
Guest Scientist
UFZ - Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research, Germany & Department of Biology, Trent University, Canada

The Canadian scientific community is delighted that the federal government has fully committed to evidence-based decision-making with a historical investment in infrastructure, capacity building, and research budgets. However, it will be crucial to allocate this investment strategically to align it with a long-term vision to retain trailblazing knowledge and expertise and to transfer it efficiently into channels that maximize the impact of Canadian science (such as market applications or evidence-based policymaking). Foundational pieces of this machinery are early-career researchers, who paradoxically are facing an increasingly precarious career outlook.

Early-career researchers (here, used interchangeably with postdoctoral researchers or postdocs) are consensually defined as people professionally conducting research after the completion of their doctoral studies, before they land permanent positions in academia or elsewhere. Specific conditions for postdoctoral researchers vary depending on specifics of the cultural and lab settings and may encompass additional training, teaching, managing and advising/supervising/mentoring functions, aside from developing research with various degrees of supervision from senior advisors. Despite their high skill level, many postdoctoral researchers are not considered employees by their host institutions. Instead, they are often viewed as a combination of researcher-trainee and individuals as “professors in training”, although they hold highly specialized skills and expertise that allow them to make invaluable contributions to research and society at large. For this reason, this segment of the scientific community is widely considered to be the workhorse driving academic research and innovation, and an asset to academic, industry, and public service sectors.

Importantly, this stage was classically seen as an interim, temporary career development step towards scientific independence, and more permanent positions (for example, tenure-track in academia) within a fairly linear career pathway. Things have changed, though. While it is typically advised that this stage does not exceed ~5 years, an over-supply of PhD graduates in many fields (see b), has officially turned this postgraduate phase into the de facto next career step after the PhD that often well surpasses the 5-year mark. For example, 15.5% of early-career researchers in Canada expect to be a postdoc for five or more years while 33% of respondents have already done 4+ years of postdoctoral research (private communication, Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars). Moreover, a shift has been witnessed in the age distribution of postdocs from 2009 to 2016, where 31% of current postdocs are 35+ years old b. These numbers may be reflective of the “postdoc pile-up” phenomenon where individuals now routinely complete multiple positions before finding permanent employment, in a cycle that can last for over 10 years c. The opportunities available for early-career researchers to launch their careers are therefore dim, and nowadays only ~3.5% will actually advance to permanent academic research staff positions in Europe compared to 15–20% in the US and Canada c,d. This creates a career limbo for early-career researchers that typically ends either voluntarily (e.g., by switching career paths) or when opportunities cease.

Funding structures at the root of the problem
In Canada, the primary source of funding for about one-third of postdocs is their advisor’s research grant while CIHR/NSERC/SSHRC fellowships are the second most commonly reported sources of funding b. Interestingly, the mean gross annual pay of an early-career researcher in Canada is ~ 47,798 Canadian dollars (CAD; b). This is considerably lower than the average annual starting salary of CAD 60,979 for employees holding a master’s degree d, and reveals a fundamental mismatch between societal expectations towards these highly skilled professionals and the systems in place to reward them. In addition, in our own field of conservation science, only a handful of postdoctoral fellowships are available in Canada (e.g., Banting, Mitacs, NSERC, and Liber Ero). Some of these, like the NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowship, have rather rigid eligibility criteria that decrease accessibility for the majority of postdoctoral researchers. For example, they allow a one-time application within two years of obtaining the PhD (exceptions include maternity leave), meaning that potentially highly talented researchers that did not make the cut the first time around, will be eliminated from the candidate pool forever; they are only accessible to Canadian citizens and permanent residence holders which puts international scholars at a significant disadvantage and lowers their chances of establishing a scientific career in Canada.

To make matters worse, most fellowships have a maximum duration of two years. Although we speculate that the intention might be to decrease the average time spent on this postdoctoral stage, in our own experience, this time frame stands in stark contrast to the increasing work load associated with high-in-demand large computational data analysis and the increasing requirements for more senior positions. These types of larger scale projects call for a different skill set that includes leadership, project management, and independent thinking which often requires multiple years, and hence, multiple postdoctoral positions to acquire. Under these circumstances, researchers, particularly non-Canadians, will be more likely to apply to advertised postdoctoral positions and be employed by a senior researcher, which implies that they will conduct mainly non-independent research for the principal investigator’s research group. Considering one key characteristic of the early-career research position should be promoting individual independence, we strongly question that 2-year postdoctoral appointments, that are, at least partially, dependent on senior researchers, allow for these developments to occur.

So, what to do?
In order to support early-career researchers achieve better research outcomes, through independent research programs that meet societal needs and drive innovation, while advancing their financial status and improving their long-term career prospects, we propose the following changes to the current Canadian postdoctoral funding landscape:

a. Increase duration of postdoctoral appointments and turn them into appropriate work contracts: A number of European countries, like the UK, Germany and Portugal, have introduced junior leadership research programs to stimulate scientific employment (e.g. e,f). These work contracts offer competitive salaries and include social benefits and facilitate the independent establishment of a research group without the reliance on a senior principal investigator. These programs usually run for ~5 years and may or may not succeed an initial postdoctoral fellow phase of several years. The longer lifespan of these funding schemes allows for large-scale international collaborative projects to be developed and therefore, present career development opportunities that foster self-determining research experiences.

b. Open up access to alternative funding sources: Similarly, programs like the NSERC Discovery grant program should not only be accessible to senior faculty researchers but be opened up to postdoctoral researchers as principal investigators to support long-term independent research fairly early on. This could be combined with the introduction of tiers based on years of experience so that competition is more equally distributed. For example, two experience levels (i.e., junior: 5 years of postdoctoral experience) would allow increased equity in the application process and diminish the competition of very early-career researchers with more senior, established colleagues. This would support the retention of young talent in the pool and present alternative means to guide postdoctoral researchers into independent research settings by letting them develop additional separate research projects.

c. Support opportunities to develop funding acquisition skills: One skill that postdoctoral researchers need to master to succeed in any field of research is grant writing. Mandatory feedback of funding agencies to applicants outlining strengths and weaknesses of grant proposals would not only increase motivation to re-apply, but also improve grant writing skills, ultimately increasing fundraising success. In any case, limits to the number of application submissions should be avoided to ensure that good proposals have another chance in the next funding cycle to retain talent in the system.

d. Remove artificial time restrictions for fellowships : Recently, the UK’s Wellcome Trust removed time constraints based on the number of years since a researcher was awarded their PhD from their fellowship schemes g. The goal is to put the emphasis on achievements providing flexibility for researchers by including in the pool those who might have not followed linear career paths. Similarly, the EU’s prestigious Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions selects for candidates based on outstanding professional trajectories and accomplishments (and not age or length of time since PhD) which might include some with incursions in sectors other than the academic. Increasing accessibility to people who, for different reasons, might have left academia for a while to work in business, industry, consultancy, policy, publishing and more will increase diversity and equality in academia, while retaining the much needed eclectic expertise to address interdisciplinary research questions.

e. Earmark unfunded proposals with a Seal of Excellence : The European Union has introduced a seal of excellence for projects submitted to H2020 that have not managed to receive funding due to budget constraints but that have been earmarked as excellent and of high scientific value ( The idea is that it will support the search for alternative funding from other sources (e.g., industry). This initiative could be introduced to postdoctoral funding as well to ensure that early career researchers have incentives for applying repeatedly and to alternative funding.

f. Consolidate and promote mentoring schemes across Canada: A successful career in science is not just about talent, sometimes chance plays a part, as does talking to the right people. Mentoring is pivotal to increase chance in our careers, as it provides collegiate support, valuable advice, and networking opportunities beyond the academic setting that could be instrumental to place early-career researchers in the right place at the right time. Fullbright Canada, Apra Canada, and the Trudeau Foundation, to name a few, all offer mentoring programs that link researchers, fundraisers, and others in different fields of research. However, to the best of our knowledge, not all fields enjoy structured mentoring opportunities (e.g., conservation science), and not all of these nurture connections to industry, NGOs or government. Therefore, a way forward could be to consolidate existing and develop further mentoring schemes in fields that lack them to ensure that early-career researchers have access to multiple and diverse opportunities for career development.

Although we consider that these recommendations would improve the status of early-career researchers in the short-term, we also acknowledge that these will not solve the long-term structural problem of a low number of permanent positions across all sectors. As the Minister of Science and Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, Kirsty Duncan has put it, to go “big, so that researchers can go even bigger” j requires additional steps to ensure that postdoctoral researchers are not stuck at these intermediate levels, and trapped in a loop of multiple postdoctoral positions or contract teaching appointments c. To that end, Budget 2018’s provision of $210 million over five years for the Canada Research Chairs Program is a promising initiative in providing longer-term career prospects for early-career researchers. However, only with sustained and strategic long-term funding will it be possible to retain and foster the large talent pool Canada needs to meet future societal challenges.

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