Recognizing the Forgotten Workers: Redefining Graduate and Postdoctoral Training

Author(s):

Tim Xue

Science & Policy Exchange

Volunteer

Julia Messina-Pacheco

Science & Policy Exchange

Vice President - Editor

Gavin M. Douglas

Science & Policy Exchange

Co-President

headshots of three authors of this editorial
Disclaimer: The French version of this editorial has been auto-translated and has not been approved by the author.

It is hard to imagine an industry where workers’ salaries have not changed for 20 years. Amazingly, this is the reality for graduate students and (for a slightly smaller stretch) postdoctoral fellows in Canada. These researchers earn wages that often mean they are below the poverty line, which they need to endure to continue their pursuit of passion in research. 

The difference in the actual and expected changes in graduate student scholarships really tells it all, as shown here based on average nationwide wage increases from the Bank of Canada:

Graph showing the tri-agency awards over time.

The call for increased Tri-Agency graduate student scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships was one of many recommendations featured in the report by the Advisory Panel on the Federal Research Support System. This advisory panel was established by the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, and the Minister of Health to advise the federal government in modernizing the system of federal support for research. This report emphasized what many graduate students and postdoctoral fellows had known for many years: Canada lacks support for training and maintaining highly qualified talent in research and innovation. 

Prior to this report, a group of researchers across Canada came together to form Support Our Science (SOS), a grass-roots organization advocating for increased pay for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in Canada. As its initial step, SOS submitted an official petition (e-4098) to the Government of Canada on August 8, 2022, urging the increase in federal support for graduate and postdoctoral funding. A subsequent pre-budget proposal was submitted to the Ministry of Finance advocating for a similar increase. However, all efforts were ignored by the Government of Canada when drafting the 2023 Canadian Federal Budget. In response to the disappointing outcome of the 2023 Budget, SOS organized and coordinated a national walkout on May 1, 2023, involving graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from 45 universities across Canada.

There are many potential reasons why the Government of Canada is not adequately addressing this issue, but we believe one key reason is that government officials, and the public more widely, do not fully appreciate the value researchers provide during their training. Furthermore, the academic and non-academic activities performed by graduate students and postdoctoral fellows yield many economic and societal benefits, ranging from green technology to cures for diseases, which we will expand on below. 

Graduate students: not the typical students

Despite the fact that they are called “students”, students in graduate and professional schools, such as medical and law schools, have vastly different responsibilities and academic curricula than the majority of students. They are expected to learn and apply advanced analytical and interpretive skills to seek out new and highly specific knowledge. The knowledge and skills acquired are instrumental to generate economic and societal impacts through innovations and discoveries made in the lab, which in turn facilitates research translation and implementation as well as  better policies for research. In addition, to supplement their income and sometimes even as an obligation in order to receive a stipend, graduate students take on teaching roles in undergraduate courses and mentor other students. All of these responsibilities are often fulfilled by working well beyond typical full-time work hours in an academic institution.

Perhaps most importantly, graduate students are major contributors to scientific literature. They spend years working on experiments, analyzing data, and drafting the scientific articles that summarize their hard work. Since such articles represent a large portion of scientific publications, the work of graduate students is central to the Canadian research ecosystem and supports a substantial part of the innovation process in the country.

Postdoctoral fellows: they wear many hats

While graduate students, particularly in the initial years of their program, are still in training in the science and innovation ecosystem, postdoctoral fellows (PDFs) are generally experts in their domain. These individuals have extensive experience in the research process, which they obtain by pursuing advanced graduate studies. A PDF is an expert in a specific field of research where they are advancing their knowledge and skill set by leading several independent research projects, establishing and coordinating collaborations, writing research grants and papers, and reviewing publications. Outside of these core responsibilities, a PDF is also commonly a part-time manager taking care of the lab logistics and project coordination, a full-time mentor in supervising and training undergraduate and graduate students, and a part-time technician facilitating the successes of others’ projects by lending their expertise and knowledge. To fulfill all these responsibilities, a PDF typically has to work well over 40 hours per week. Similar to graduate students, these positions are sometimes perceived as “training”, which is contradictory to their level of responsibilities in a research team, knowledge, and skills. After all, they are like all other professionals: they keep learning everyday, improving their skill set and deepening their highly specialized knowledge, and as such, they should not be considered simply as “trainees”. Although they are typically treated as employees for taxation purposes, their workplace status varies from institution to institution, and they are generally not entitled to the same benefits as other employees in these institutions. Also, their salaries or fellowships often are not sufficient to allow them to buy a home or start a family, which can deter them from further pursuing a career in research.

Work performed by graduate students and postdoctoral fellows should be better valued

Herein we have briefly overviewed a non-exhaustive list of how graduate students and postdoctoral fellows provide value in addition to gaining expertise themselves. The value of these researchers should not be conflated with those in undergraduate programs: their contributions to scientific discoveries are more akin to those of employees than of students, and their contributions are of enormous scientific and economic value. These discoveries are frequently translated into industry and new businesses, where many are co-founded and led by these highly-trained experts. In return, these new small-medium-sized businesses, such as AbCellera Biologics, Notch Therapeutics and Acuitas Therapeutics (contributor of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine), stimulate the creation of new jobs for skilled professionals that grows the Canadian economy and middle class. We hope that the government and the public will come to better understand these dynamics and that this will help policymakers better appreciate the pertinence of the recommendations made in the recent Advisory Panel on the Federal Research Support System report.