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Limiting the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Canadian postdoctoral scholars

May 4, 2020
By: 
Christine Gibb
Postdoctoral Researcher
University of Toronto
Noushin Nabavi
Science Policy Fellow
Government of British Columbia/University of Victoria
Qutuba Karwi
Postdoctoral Researcher
University of Alberta
Emma Griffiths
Research Associate
University of British Columbia


On behalf of the

Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars / l’Association Canadienne des Stagiaires Postdoctoraux

Every day as a postdoc counts. As such, the slowing of research and teaching, and the closing of work spaces such as laboratories, university classrooms, conference venues, and field sites due to the COVID-19 pandemic have rather unique and potentially career-altering repercussions for postdocs.

A postdoc is a temporary position awarded in academe, industry, nonprofit organization, or government primarily for gaining experience conducting research and other scholarly activities towards establishing an independent research/scholarship career. Postdocs bolster the research productivity of universities, and contribute to the teaching and research training of undergraduate and graduate students across all academic disciplines.

Why is the time aspect so crucial for postdocs? Construed as a winnowing period for weeding scholars out of academia, the postdoc is normalized as one of the most productive and important periods in an academic career trajectory (Müller, 2014). Contracts have clearly defined start and end dates. Postdoctoral scholars, by the very nature of their contracts and the normative expectations of their positions, must focus on accumulating maximal academic capital per unit time (Müller, 2014). This is particularly true given that most funding agencies and institutions in Canada have now adopted 3-5 years (depending on discipline) after the attainment of a PhD as the maximum duration that any individual can hold a postdoctoral position. Thus, delays of lab experiments and fieldwork, cancellations of summer courses and conferences, or their conversion into virtual-only events, can have very real and detrimental consequences for postdocs whose career prospects are largely contingent on data collection, research production, teaching experience and the development of professional contacts under very real time constraints.

Our recent survey of 220 Canadian postdocs confirms the importance of pandemic-related interruptions (CAPS, 2020). For example, 77% of respondents have had to cancel travel plans for conferences, meetings and lab visits (Figure 1A), 37% note that their current position has been or may be impacted (Figure 1B), and 31% have had or expect disruptions in their job search (Figure 1C).

The competitive nature of academia, coupled with individuals’ professional goals and systemic expectations of intense productivity, mean that postdocs are unwilling or unable to slow down. Postdocs fear long-term impacts on their careers, and with good reason, since they are at an especially vulnerable position in the faculty career trajectory, so the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be career-altering for many of them. Our survey data indicated that while 47% of postdoc respondents are able to work remotely and 35% have been able to adapt to remote work, 16% of respondents are unable to adapt their work for home, and 2% cannot work remotely at all (Figure 2).

COVID-19 has professional and personal impacts on postdocs. Over 70% of respondents ranked their research activities as “affected” to “very affected” by the pandemic (Figure 3). Concerns include: disruptions to ongoing research projects and the costs of resuming halted projects in the future; difficulties in accessing laboratories and locally-networked data; and forgoing travel funding. Postdocs also encounter teaching challenges, such as rapidly converting courses designed for classroom-based instruction into online courses. In addition to these professional challenges, postdocs must manage social isolation and juggle multiple roles at home - including providing 24/7 care labour for children while continuing professional responsibilities for some. Finally, access to mental health services is always critical for postdocs (Van Bentham et al., 2020) and problematic due to variable employer-provided benefits (Jadavji et al., 2016), so the pandemic may exacerbate challenges related to wellbeing.

Variation in postdoc status further complicates access to critical benefits during the pandemic. Depending on the source of postdoctoral funding and the policies in place at the institution where a postdoc holds their appointment, a postdoc may be variously classified as a ‘student’, ‘trainee’, ‘employee’, ‘visiting researcher’ or other (Sparling, 2019). Benefit eligibility is generally determined by status. Currently, many postdocs who do not have employee status (e.g., those funded by external funding agencies) are not eligible for Employment Insurance. Many of these postdocs will be eligible for the federal government’s other key financial aid program to help Canadian workers weather the pandemic - the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). However new postdocs who have not yet earned the minimum income of $5,000, will be ineligible for the CERB.

Canada’s postdoc talent comes from around the world, and the pandemic aggravates problems related to the existing patchwork of immigration policies for postdocs, ranging from institutional and funding agency policies to variability in federal work permit requirements and rules (Sparling, 2018). For example, as foreign workers, international postdocs must leave Canada at the end of their fellowship or risk becoming ‘illegalized’ in this country. The strict within-Canada and international travel restrictions in place at present make this process difficult and potentially dangerous, if not impossible. Even if international postdocs whose positions end during the pandemic manage to stay in Canada, work options are limited due to the overall slow-down of the economy and the closed nature of their work permits. Without a position, many international postdocs will find themselves and their families without health and dental insurance, and because their temporary social insurance numbers expire with their contracts, these postdocs are ineligible for the CERB .

The challenges facing postdocs in Canada have been severely exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and these challenges now need to be addressed or we risk losing an entire cohort of postdoctoral scholars.

In the short-term, the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS) recommends:

  • Paid extension of fellowships, including access to university facilities, for a period at least equivalent to the length of university, school and daycare closures;
  • Continuity of benefits during the pandemic and fellowship extension;
  • Free and automatic extension of visas for international postdocs;
  • Extension of deadlines for use of funding earmarked for fieldwork, conferences, or other scholarly endeavours for a period at least equivalent to that of the work interruption;
  • Clear and timely dissemination of COVID-19 policies to postdocs from funding agencies, higher education institutions and postdoctoral unions;
  • Appropriate accommodation of work expectations given the particular situation of individual postdocs;
  • Adequate support for home-based telework options for postdocs, including appropriate technological tools.

In the longer term, CAPS calls on higher education institutions and funding agencies to address the variance in postdoc status across disciplines, institutions and locations in Canada by granting postdocs employee status. Not only will this help mitigate challenges faced by postdocs in times of crisis, but it will also ensure adequate compensation and benefits for all postdocs outside crisis periods. Finally, CAPS implores future employers of today’s postdocs to be compassionate in reviewing this particular period on our CVs when our productivity may appear significantly lower than usual.

Nation-wide, scholars, higher education institutions, funding agencies, unions and governments have responded to the current crisis with unprecedented speed, creativity and collaboration. We urge these stakeholders to address the particular needs of Canadian postdocs in their immediate and long-lasting responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars / l’Association Canadienne des Stagiaires Postdoctoraux aims to improve the lives, training, and work experience of all Canadian postdocs - including international postdocs working in Canada and Canadian postdocs working abroad. The vision that guides this mandate is one of a strong community in which all Canadian postdocs are provided fair and reasonable compensation, benefits, rights, privileges, and protections, as well as a supportive social network and effective support, training, and career development opportunities. Find us on LinkedIn.

References:

CAPS. (2020). Survey results of COVID-19 and the Canadian postdoctoral experience. Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars-L'Association Canadienne de Stagiaires Post-doctoraux. [in preparation].

Jadavji NM, Adi MN, Corkery TC, Inoue J, Van Benthem, K. (2016). The 2016 Canadian National Postdoctoral Survey Report. Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars-L'Association Canadienne de Stagiaires Post-doctoraux. Available at http://www.caps-acsp.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/2016_CAPS-ACSP-National_Postdoc_Survey_Report.pdf

Müller, Ruth. (2014). "Racing for What? Anticipation and Acceleration in the Work and Career Practices of Academic Life Science Postdocs." 15 (3). doi: 10.17169/fqs-15.3.2245.

Sparling, J. (2018). “2018 Canadian Postdoctoral Immigration Report.” Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars-L'Association Canadienne de Stagiaires Post-doctoraux.

Available at http://www.caps-acsp.ca/en/caps-acsp-2018-canadian-postdoctoral-immigrat...

Sparling, J. (2019). “2019 Pre-Budget Brief: Investing in Canada’s Postdoctoral Training System”. Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars-L'Association Canadienne de Stagiaires Post-doctoraux. Available at http://www.caps-acsp.ca/en/caps-acsp-2019-pre-budget-brief-investing-in-...

Van Benthem, Kathleen, Christopher Corkery, Jiro Inoue, Mohamed Adi, and Nafisa Jadavji. (2020). "The Changing Postdoc and Key Predictors of Satisfaction with Professional Training."  Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education ahead-of-print. doi: 10.1108/SGPE-06-2019-0055.