Panel 508 - Where the rubber meets the road: The real life impact of policy on Canadian postdocs

Conference Day: 
Day 3 - November 9th 2018
Takeaways and recommendations: 

Where the rubber meets the road: The real life impact of policy on Canadian postdocs

Organized by: Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS)

Speakers: Dominique Bérubé, Vice-President, Research Programs, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council; Joseph S. Sparling, PhD, Chair, Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars; Krishnamoorthy Hegde, PhD, Postdoctoral Scholar, Institut national de la recherché scientifique and At-Large Member, Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars; Rachel Fernandez, PhD, Associate Dean, Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, University of British Columbia

Moderator:  Jenna Haverfield, PhD, Postdoctoral Scholar, McGill University and Vice-Chair Membership, Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars

Takeaways and recommendations

  • There is an increased reliance on low-cost labour to drive academic research.

  • Postdoc training times are lengthening: up to 8 years and over 20 publications may now be required to become competitive for faculty positions in some fields.

  • Less than 20% of current postdocs are likely to attain tenure-track faculty positions in Canada, yet there is often little exposure to non-academic career opportunities.

  • The postdoc population is aging. The average age of Canadian postdocs surveyed in 2016 was 34 years. 2/3 of postdocs are married and 1/3 have children.

  • Most postdocs make under $45,000 per year.

  • All postdocs pay full federal income tax; most also pay full provincial income tax.

  • There is no evidence that former postdocs trained in Canada ever surpass or catch up to the average Canadian PhD graduate student who enters the workforce directly.

  • The majority of postdocs working in Canada (and particularly those supported by grants/institutional awards rather personal fellowships) are now categorized as employees – largely due to unionization efforts across the country over the past decade.

  • There is a wage disparity among postdocs: salaries for doing the same work can vary by >50%.

  • Access to paid parental leave for postdocs depends on their source of funding.

  • Access to health and dental benefits is highly variable, and depends on employee status.

  • Postdocs as employees may lack training opportunities available to non-employee postdocs (i.e., trainees such as fellowship holders).

  • On average postdocs work more hours per week than the average Canadian, yet 25% of postdocs do not have access to paid vacation.

  • It can be difficult for international postdocs who are not recognized as employees to stay in Canada because their work is not typically recognized as ‘skilled Canadian work experience’.

CAPS recommendations:

  1. Monitor the postdoctoral training system and track outcomes:

    • Postdoctoral data could be collected through the Full-time University and College Academic Staff System (UCASS) run by Statistics Canada.

    • U15 institutions could play a bigger role in collecting postdoc data, possibly more detailed than what Statistics Canada would collect, and better for tracking long-term outcomes.

    • CAPS has now established a National Registry for all current and former postdocs who trained in Canada, which may provide a wider net for tracking long-term outcomes in the future.

    • What gets measured gets acted upon, so together with CAPS National Postdoc Surveys (conducted every 2-3 years) these approaches would help to drive evidence-based improvements in Canadian postdoctoral policy in the future.

  2. Establish minimum standards of postdoc support:

    • Recommended minimum standards should be established at the national level.

    • CAPS could play a role in establishing these standards, perhaps in consultation with other stakeholder groups.

    • Best if these standards were adopted, endorsed, and recommended by the Tri-Agency and other funding bodies.

    • A mechanism for public reporting of institutional postdoctoral policies and working conditions should also be established to promote transparency and adherence to minimum standards, as an incentive for institutions to adopt the recommended standards.

  3. Classify all postdoctoral scholars working in Canada as employees:

    • Unionization of postdocs across Canada has resulted in the majority of postdocs now being classified as employees, with the exception of externally-funded postdocs, such as Tri-Agency fellowship holders.

    • CAPS believes that externally-funded postdocs should also be classified as employees given current EI regulations and the nature of postdoctoral work.

    • Neither the funding agencies nor the individual institutions have the power to implement such a change, so federal and provincial advocacy will be required to achieve this goal in the future.

  4. Establish a uniform national policy on postdoctoral training:

    • Create an overarching policy for what the training system looks like across the board.

    • Who will create the policy, and where will it have teeth?

    • The Tri-Agency has limited power to enforce broad policies on our postdoctoral training system since they do not fund most postdocs directly and control of post-secondary institutions fall under provincial control.

    • Consider changing the conditions that universities need to meet in order to use grant money to support postdocs.

  • The current funding model through the tri-councils means there are more postdocs, but they are generally poorly compensated.

  • With respect to most fellowships, the Tri-Agency views their support as partial, not full, salary support, whereas institutions tend to make policies in line with the opposite view.

  • With respect to the training ‘pipeline’ – we need a better analogy – one that puts the graduate student at the centre of a hub, with a postdoc as one branch and a variety of other potential careers for PhDs (those that do not require a postdoc) as other branches. In reality, the latter branches are those that most PhDs and postdocs end up following.