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Evidence-based arguments to increase federal funding to scholarship, fellowships, and research grants

The Role of Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars

 

Graduate students and postdoctoral scholars are the workforce making discoveries, conducting research, and creating new innovations at Canada’s universities. The term graduate students, or those pursuing a Masters or Doctoral degree, might conjure an image of students passively learning. This is misleading. Graduate students are conducting novel research that pushes the boundaries of their discipline. This requires full time work either in the lab or the field, and often graduate students will also contribute to teaching at their university. Graduate students are trained to be leading scientists, engineers, medical professionals, social scientists and artists. Postdoctoral scholars have already earned a Ph.D. and are some of the most highly trained and educated members of our society. In their roles, they are full-time employees continuing to advance research. Graduate students and postdoctoral scholars generate solutions to some of the largest problems facing our society, including creating new treatments for diseases, building equitable societies, improving adaptation and resilience to climate change, finding new uses for artificial intelligence, and much more. Their discoveries improve our well-being and fuel our economy. We need their talent and innovation to help Canada thrive more now than ever before. 

How do we currently pay Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars?

 

Most graduate students and postdoctoral scholars are paid through Tri-Agency federal scholarships and fellowships and through grants given to their faculty supervisors.

Ask

All four of these asks are key to improving the research funding ecosystem in Canada.

  • Federal scholarships and fellowships set the national standard for what is considered adequate pay for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.

  • If the scholarships and fellowship values increase without an accompanying increase in research grants to faculty, students who are not directly supported by scholarships and fellowships will not experience any increase in pay.

  • These asks will make Canada more internationally competitive, reduce barriers to education, and increase research output as graduate students and postdoctoral scholars will not have to hold multiple jobs and split their focus.

ASK 1: Scholarship and fellowship values have not kept pace with inflation

Graduate scholarship (CGS-M, PGS-D) values have not increased in 20 years. Postdoctoral fellowships (PDF) have had a modest increase in that same time.  Since 2003, there has been 52% inflation (Source: Bank of Canada).

Recommendations from the SRSR committee of a 25% increase are too low and would only take values to 2015 in terms of inflation since 2003.

Ask 1
Ask 2

ASK 2: Graduate enrollment has doubled since 2003

The number of graduate scholarships (CGS-M, PGS-D, CGS-D) decreased in 2010, and has remained relatively steady since. However, in that same time period graduate student enrollment in Canada has doubled.

Increasing the value  of scholarships is not enough - more need to be available to support graduate students.

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Data from Statistics Canada

Ask 3

Number of NSERC postdoctoral fellowships

Number of doctoral graduates

ASK 3: Double the number of postdoctoral fellowships

The number of postdoctoral fellowships (PDF) has decreased 40% since 2010, while the number of doctoral students has doubled. Without an appropriate increase in postdoctoral fellowships Canada will not secure a supply of highly-qualified Canadians with leading research skills.

Ask 4

ASK 4: Most graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are paid through research grants

Increased pay for all graduate students and postdoctoral scholars can only be achieved by increasing the value of research grants along with scholarships and fellowships.

Individual research grants, such as the NSERC Discovery Grant, have been stagnant during the past 5 years, despite 17% inflation in the economy

Average NSERC grant 2016-2020

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How would these costs breakdown over time?

Rationale

Imprtnt

Graduate students holding a Tri-Agency award cannot afford to comfortably live in the Canadian cities where they study

Postdoctoral scholars are full time employees. The  $45,000 stipend is there fore also taxed as income.

Based on a conservation cost of living (2 bedroom apartment, groceries, transportation) postdocs cannot live without going into debt in any major Canadian city.

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What is a livable wage for graduate students? Laframboise et al. (2023) provide an estimate for 15 Canadian universities.

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Fifty years ago, Canada had the second-highest labour productivity among the G7. Today, we have the second-lowest, ahead only of Japan. Canada has the lowest spending on research and development among the G7,  with no increase in the last 20 years. In 2017, the Naylor Report noted Canada’s declining investment in research and development.

Canada’s federal graduate scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships are not competitive among international comparators. For example, in the USA, the equivalent doctoral scholarship provided by the National Science Foundation is valued at $65,000 CAD, compared to the $21,000 for the PGS-D and $35,000 for the CGS-D.  Similarly, the NSF postdoctoral fellowship is valued at $106,000 CAD, compared to the $45,000 offered by the Tri-Agency fellowships.

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A 2016 report found that one in four STEM graduates left Canada for work, citing higher pay as a top reason. As of 2019, the McGill Trace Report estimated that 38% of all newly trained Ph.D.s in the humanities, social sciences, and fine arts Canada leave for better opportunities in other countries, mostly the USA and Europe.  A 2023 Globe and Mail article highlighted the stories of graduate students who have left research or chosen to do their postdoctoral research in other countries because the financial situation in Canada was untenable.

 

When these individuals leave, that investment in them is lost, including the loss of future opportunities and innovations that would have been gained by retaining these individuals in Canada. Given 15% inflation since 2019, and an increasingly competitive market for talent attraction and retention, it is likely that Canada is now losing over $1B annually in lost talent investments.

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TESTIMONIALS

What is it like to be a grad student or postdoc in Canada?

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We asked: what is your experience navigating funding as a graduate student/postdoctoral scholar and how has it affected your quality of life?

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In the current funding landscape, I’m forced to choose between my passion for research or the financial stability of myself and my family

I’m getting out of Canada when my PhD is over, I don’t want to struggle as a postdoc

I don’t feel worthy and valued. I feel like a second-class citizen

I never knew that to do science in Canada would mean to live in poverty. But I don't blame anyone, as it is my fault that I chose Canada

Graduate Student Testimonials

Postdoctoral Scholar Testimonials

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