The High Price of Low Funding: How Poor Graduate Student Support is Hurting Canada’s Scientific Community

Published On: August 2023Categories: 2023 Editorial Series, Editorials


Alexa D'Addario



Thomas Bailey



Stephen Holland

Vice President

Zier Zhou



Jacky Deng



Madelaine Empey



A collection of photos of two white men, two white women, and a Asian man and woman
Disclaimer: The French version of this editorial has been auto-translated and has not been approved by the author.

The stakes just got a little higher in the ‘publish or perish’ game. 

Graduate students are the backbone of the research community, but are all too often stressed, underpaid, and overworked. Many graduate students rely on government funding either in the form of stipends from research grants or directly through scholarships to carry out their research. Despite this need, the Liberals’ 2023 fiscal budget lacks any investment in Canada’s research community, leaving many frustrated and concerned for their future. Amidst a 40-year high in inflation, the government has failed to step up, leaving graduate students in the dark to struggle with the ever-increasing costs of living and tuition. 

A recent survey conducted by the Ottawa Science Policy Network (OSPN) found that doctoral students receive an average stipend of $23,700 per year. These researchers receive less than 80% of the federal minimum wage into their late 20s and early 30s and often have to pay annual tuition fees of up to $10,000 from this stipend. For talented individuals, who in many cases already hold a Master’s degree, financial support at this level for full time work can pose challenges. 

Unsurprisingly, the survey showed that over 80% of graduate students have experienced stress and/or anxiety about finances at some point during their graduate studies, and over 30% have considered leaving due to their financial struggles alone. 

Federal scholarships provide one of the few benchmarks used by universities, departments, and supervisors when setting funding levels for graduate students. For example, the NSERC Postgraduate Scholarship (PGS-D) has a value of $21,000, comparable to the average stipend of doctoral students. However, the PGS-D has not increased in 20 years – it would now be worth $31,500 today after accounting for inflation. PGS-D is just one example of this severe lack of funding; no other federal scholarship has increased since 2003, creating a mismatch between the needs and realities of stipends that can carry over even to those funded through research grants. 

Stagnation in funding poses a risk to diversity in science. Indicative of this, the OSPN survey showed that respondents from several non-white ethnic groups or those who were studying as international students were more likely to experience increased financial struggle. Diversity and innovation go hand in hand, each one essential to the other. Without diverse perspectives, we risk missing out on the questions and studies most relevant to the experiences of the ever-evolving Canadian population. It’s not just about representation; it’s about ensuring we’re not limiting ourselves to a narrow set of ideas and approaches and sustaining cutting-edge, relevant research and innovation in Canada. 

The current award structure can also lead to stratification between students with different privileges and increase the economic inequality in higher education. Despite the dramatic decline in the inflation-adjusted value of federal awards over the last 20 years, the results of the OSPN survey indicated that the approximately 20% of graduate students who receive some kind of government award experience less financial struggle compared to those who do not. This is likely due to the number

of incentives that often accompany government-issued awards, such as full or partial tuition waivers or additional excellence scholarships from their university. 

Winning these awards is a highly competitive process which depends on factors such as academic track record and prior research experience. This can benefit students from more privileged backgrounds, who may have been more able to participate in research over the summer as an undergraduate. 

Science and research play a crucial role in Canada’s progress and prosperity, with state-of-the-art innovations that improve the lives of everyday Canadians. Lack of adequate graduate funding threatens the country’s future as graduate students hold the key to solving pressing challenges. As graduate students are being undervalued and underpaid, they are forced to abandon their studies due to financial struggles. 

To address the insufficient funding of early career researchers, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and professors from 46 academic institutions participated in a Nationwide Walkout on May 1st demanding an increase in federal funding for graduate students and post-doctoral researchers. In the nation’s capital, NDP MP Richard Cannings and Bloc Quebecois MP Maxime Blanchette-Joncas, supported these calls to drastically improve the financial well-being of students in Canada. 

In recent weeks, grassroots organizations like Support Our Science and the Science and Policy Exchange have testified in the House of Commons, including to the Standing Committee on Science and Research. These testimonies have urged Members of Parliament to enact policies that will combat the financial distress experienced by graduate students and postdocs in Canada and sustain the future of innovation and science in Canada. 

After decades of neglect, research remains critically underfunded. Canada can and should be a research destination rather than an after-thought of our international friends and rivals. It’s time for the federal government to invest in supporting graduate students and sustaining scientific research, ensuring that Canada remains at the forefront of knowledge and innovation for generations to come. 

Byline: The Ottawa Science Policy Network is a student-led group at the University of Ottawa focused on improving access and awareness about science policy among students and advocating for policy to improve the Canadian research environment.