academic shadow

The 2013 state of Canadian postdocs

The Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS) recently released the results of their 2013 survey (the full report can be found here and an executive summary here). The survey received responses from 1,830 postdocs across Canada, which amounts to about 20% of all Canadian postdocs.
The premises for the survey were to

  1. Present demographic data about the Canadian postdoctoral population
  2. Identify the primary concerns for postdocs and compare their concerns to the ones identified in a similar survey from 2009


The demographic data shows that the average Canadian postdoc is 34 years old and equally male (53%)  or female (47%). More than 2 out of 3 (69%) are in a serious relationship, and 35% have dependent children. Over 50% of Canadian postdocs are not originally from Canada (i.e. on work visas or landed immigrants).
From the CAPS 2013 survey report
From the CAPS 2013 survey report
The postdocs in the survey were mainly from the Life Sciences (46%), Physical Sciences/Engineering (32%), Social Sciences/ Humanities (14%), and Interdisciplinary (8%). My time as a Canadian postdocs fits perfectly with these demographics (when I started I was 34 year old, common-law with a child, permanent resident arrived from Denmark and working in the life sciences), and I thus dare call myself an average Canadian postdoctoral fellow. As such, I was not surprised to identify with every single key point raised in the report, and I have discussed several of them in previous blogs like this one on low compensation and benefits, and this one on being called a trainee after 8 years of university.

Salary and benefits

While Canadian postdocs are generally satisfied with their research environments (which speaks highly of the present quality of Canadian research organizations), they are dissatisfied with their low salaries (which raises concerns for the future quality of Canadian research organizations). Around two-thirds of Canadian postdocs (63%) make less than $45,000 per year. Before taxes. The standard salary from the three major funding agencies in Canada (CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC) is only $40,000. A number that hasn’t gone up by a single dollar in many years (see here for NSERC awards since 2008), and most postdocs have thus received de facto pay-cuts over the last many years due to inflation. As one survey respondent writes:
Coming to Canada for a postdoctoral ‘training’ is a financial disaster in every way.
On top of this comes the lack of benefits. Most Canadian postdocs do not receive general benefits like parental leave or extended health care. Even the few organizations that do provide benefits (like University of British Columbia), still don’t offer a pension plan to their postdocs. Since the survey also shows that half of all postdocs spend 3 or more years in a postdoc position, many thus spend a significant percentage of their career without benefits or pension.
I don’t think that it is fair to expect someone to go through an extended period of education, and then 3-5+ years of temporary, low paid employment as a ‘trainee’ with no benefits, probably in several different locations before they can even start to apply for permanent employment. The uncertainty is incredibly difficult, especially at a time when people are trying to maintain long term relationships and start families.

The classification grey-zone

Part of the problem lies in the classification of postdocs as something of a grey zone between student and employee, cleverly called a trainee. A whooping majority of over 75% of postdocs would prefer to be classified as employees with the taxes, employment insurance, extended health, pension plans and lack of student-discounts and everything else that comes with being an adult (who went to school for more than 20 years to become über qualified). However, only about one-third of them are employees (a big chunk of those only became employees after a law-suit against UofT in 2012). The rest are trainees, students, contractors and others. Most of the postdocs classified as students or trainees also felt rather insulted by this classification in light of their level of expertise and education.  This might seem like an easy-to-fix problem, but as always, there is money at the root of it. Most large organizations in Canada have an obligation to provide benefits and pension plans to their employees, while they have no such obligations to their students and trainees. Classifying postdocs as something other than employees thus save the research organization a lot of money. Especially since the Tri-Council funding agencies (CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC) do not include such expenses in their awards, and the extra money therefore has to come out of the university/hospital/etc.’s pocket. Or out of the postdoc’s salary, which is also sometimes the case.

Career prospects and qualifications

The vast majority of postdocs (81%) have a faculty position as their ultimate career goal, and state that their postdoc position is a stepping stone towards that goal. Unfortunately, reality shows that, if Canada resembles the US, less than a quarter of postdocs will actually achieve that goal, according to the US national science board.
PhD to faculty ratioThat obviously means that two-thirds of postdocs will end up working in non-faculty positions as something else, as I previously wrote about in my post “alternative careers are the new norm in science“. There is nothing wrong with that per se, except that most postdocs dont really have the qualifications for a non-faculty position. They have qualifications for academic jobs coming out of their ying yang, but for the industry, government, management….not so much (apart from the translatable qualifications of researching, applying for money and such). PhD’s and postdocs are trained to become faculty, and many find themselves lost and confused when that doesn’t happen. The “academic tunnel vision” permeates the entire system and it leaves no room for preparation for a non-academic career. 87% state that they have no access to career counseling or are unsure if they have access (at UBC for instance, the postdocs are the only group who does not have access to such, as students have their own career counselor program to which postdocs do not have access, and staff and faculty have another career counseling program, again closed to psotdocs). You could make a good argument that postdocs need career counseling more than anyone (except maybe grad students).
I am constantly stressed that I won’t be able to get a job as a university professor, but I really don’t have a satisfactory ‘plan B’ if this doesn’t work out.
When asked if they had received any exposure to non-academic career opportunities as postdocs, half reported no exposure at all, and less than one in ten (7.7%) reported that they had a lot of exposure. That leaves a lot of postdocs with no training or exposure to the non-academic career path in which they will eventually wind up.
From the CAPS 2013 survey report
From the CAPS 2013 survey report
CAPS finishes off its report with two major concerns that are in urgent need of attention. I will just copy-paste them into this blog, and hope that the stakeholders of Canadian research communities will read them and take action
“First, many postdocs are unhappy with their administrative or employment status and with the corresponding salary and benefits. Postdocs would like to be treated as employees, and to receive benefits and compensation commensurate with their work and experience.Second, respondents are very concerned that, after investing years as postdocs, their career opportunities remain uncertain. Successful transitions from postdoctoral scholarship to independent careers are in Canada’s interests as well as those of Canadian postdocs. Canadian postdoctoral appointments should be supported with appropriate and relevant career development opportunities.”

So have the concerns changed since 2009 (see the 2009 report here)? The percentage of postdocs with student or trainee status has gone down from 38% to 36%, which is hardly significant. In 2009, 79% reported a salary of $45,000 or less. That number was 63% for salaries less than $45,000 in 2013. That might represent an improvement.
However, in light of Tri-Council not changing their awards at all, it is probably more likely to reflects a change in the survey set-up from 2009 to 2013: the significant number of postdocs receiving exactly $45,000 would have been included in the 79% earning $45,000 or less in 2009, but not in the 63% earning less than $45,000 in 2013. I suspect this accounts for most of the difference, if not all. Adding inflation rates to the picture, postdocs overall might have even taken pay-cuts since 2009.
The conclusions to the 2009 report are very similar to the ones from 2013, and there seems to be a lot of work ahead for the Canadian research communities, if they want to continue attracting the high-quality researchers they currently enjoy.