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Reimagining the Canadian Postdoctoral Training System

October 12, 2018
By: 
Joseph S Sparling, PhD
Chair, CAPS/ACSP

For decades now research funding in Canada has failed to keep pace with the constant pressure to increase productivity and output in order to maintain a position of relevance for Canadian science and innovation on the world stage. It is within this context, that our academic research ecosystem became increasingly dependent on graduate students and postdoctoral scholars (postdocs) as an inexpensive source of labour to help drive our nation’s research and innovation agenda.

The dependence on a trainee labour force in academic research has contributed to increased recruitment of postdocs, but it has also corrupted the purpose of our postdoctoral training system. The original purpose of that system was to provide training and experience for young researchers to pursue careers as academic research faculty. The fact that postdocs assisted in research production during their training was a benefit to the system, and the relatively poor compensation and benefits provided in return were largely viewed as a fair trade-off for the promise of a more lucrative and prestigious career. While not everyone realized those goals, in the past, the average postdoc was at least thought to benefit from their additional training and most of those who did not end up in academic research faculty positions expected to find jobs in line with their advanced training and abilities.

Sadly, this is no longer the case, as the PhD has become so common relative to the availability of positions that require that level of training that its value has declined to the point where it now takes 22 years for the average PhD-holder to realize any labour market benefit from their additional training1. The situation has become even bleaker for postdocs, as there is no evidence that the average postdoc trained in Canada today ever recovers the income lost during their postdoctoral training2,3.

The failure of the Canadian postdoctoral training system to address this issue results from many factors, but the near-complete lack of federal and provincial oversight is probably chief among them. In the absence of overarching government policies, institutions have largely been left to develop their own policies pertaining to the training and labour conditions of postdocs. This approach has led to our current system, which is rife with disparity, incentivised to prioritize the need to maintain low labour costs over the need for adequate support and training, and generally incapable of monitoring, let alone adapting to, the changing needs of the next generation of Canadian researchers.

Our training system now fails to deliver on the promise of a faculty position for >80% of the postdocs in training now1, and while there are non-monetary benefits to postdoctoral training that cannot be captured by simple labour market outcome measures, surely a training program that harms the average trainee financially in the long-term cannot be considered a success. Surely, as a nation, we can do better than that.

The Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS/ACSP) is dedicated to precisely that goal and in our recent Pre-Budget Brief to the federal government4 we provided a road map for reimagining the Canadian postdoctoral training system as a purpose-built entity that ensures a minimum standard of support and reduced disparity with respect to income and access to statutory and workplace benefits and pensions for all postdocs. We believe that the system that trains postdocs should be one that recognizes the value of all postdocs to the Canadian research and innovation enterprise and should thus, at a minimum, provide:

1) a reasonable minimum income relative to the advanced qualifications of postdocs;
2) a commensurate salary system where salary increases with additional years of postdoctoral training and experience;
3) uniform access to benefits, protections, and rights for all postdocs; and
4) other supports (access to on-campus health, mental health, and childcare services) commonly provided to students and faculty at Canadian universities.

While some institutions now provide access to benefits, protections, and rights to a portion of their postdocs, the fact is that those advances have nearly all come about through unionization and legal battles between postdocs and their institutions, not by voluntary institutional reform. As such, it seems clear that top-down federal and/or provincial intervention will be required to establish overarching policies around postdoctoral training and labour conditions in Canada. We call on the federal and provincial governments to implement that intervention.

Postdocs play a major role in shaping the future of Canadian research and innovation, and are thus integral to the future success of our country. It is time that we recognize that by addressing the failings of our postdoctoral training system. To do so will cost money, but to not do so may cost us a lot more in the long run.

REFERENCES
1. Edge, J & Munro, D (2015). Inside and outside the academy: Valuing and preparing PhDs for careers. Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada.
2. Ferguson, SJ & Wang, S (2014). Graduating in Canada: Profile, Labour Market Outcomes and Student Debt of the Class of 2009-2010. Statistics Canada.
3. Sparling JS & Jadavji NM (2016). CAPS Official Report to the Advisory Panel for Canada’s Fundamental Science Review. Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars / l'Association Canadienne des Stagiaires Postdoctoraux.
4. Sparling JS (2018). 2019 Pre-Budget Brief: Investing in Canada’s Postdoctoral Training System. Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars / l'Association Canadienne des Stagiaires Postdoctoraux.