Postdoctoral Scholars

Updated: Aug 14

What is a postdoctoral scholar?

Postdoctoral scholars/fellows, often called postdocs or PDFs, are highly educated and skilled individuals who hold a doctoral degree (e.g., PhD, MD or equivalent) and engage in research, teaching and/or other scholarly activities in a variety of settings (including universities, government agencies, research institutions, etc.). Postdocs are an essential component of Canada’s knowledge-based economy, and carry out a wide variety of duties, such as conceiving, conducting and evaluating basic and applied research, grant writing, authoring and peer-review of manuscripts, teaching classes, supervising and mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, presenting results at conferences, sitting on administrative panels, and much more.

These positions are sometimes perceived as 'training', which perpetuates the low wages of many postdoctoral positions. However, postdoctoral scholars work full time and contribute greatly to Canada's science and research sectors, and as such, should be adequately compensated for their highly trained and skilled labour.

How are postdoctoral scholars funded?

Postdoctoral funding can come from a variety of sources such as internal funding paid directly by the supervisor (i.e., principal investigator of the project), fellowships administered through universities, industrial funding and Tri-Council postdoctoral fellowships. Tri-Council postdoctoral fellowships are administered by Canada’s three major research funding agencies: the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). According to the 2020 Survey conducted by Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars, 50% of postdoc respondents in Canada are currently financed through their supervisors’ funds, while a fifth of current postdocs reported to have received Tri-Agency fellowships, and 10% obtained institutional or departmental fellowships.

Why does funding need to increase?

The average Canadian postdoc is 34 years old and has over eight years of post-secondary education experience. Many people complete their doctoral degrees with little to no savings and then must decide what to pursue next. The standard of pay for a postdoc (e.g., NSERC PDF $45,000/yr) is equivalent to entry-level positions one can acquire with minimal training - in fact, this pay disparity means that individuals who pursue a postdoc after completing their doctoral degrees give up about 1/5th of their earning potential in the 15 years following their doctorate [1].

Many doctoral students decide against pursuing a postdoc, as the low pay makes it challenging for them to achieve important life milestones (e.g., owning a home, saving for retirement, marriage, children, travel, etc.). Low pay in a postdoctoral position is even more challenging as grad school rarely provides an individual with the opportunity to generate savings they can use to get through a period of low income. This has a disproportionate effect on those who do not have the ability to live below the poverty line for an extended period of time. Further, there are hidden costs of postdoctoral work that are rarely financially compensated, such as the expectation to move cities and the precarious nature of these positions (most postdocs are 1 - 2 years in length).

[1] Powell, D. 2017. The price of doing a postdoc. Science. doi: 10.1126/science.caredit.a1700003

A Canadian postdoc has a doctoral degree and is, on average, 34 years old. Competitive Tri-Agency Postdoctoral Fellowships are valued at $45,000/yr. When we consider the cost of living in major Canadian cities, $45,000 is not enough to cover yearly expenses.

* Yearly expenses include rent for a 2-bedroom apartment, utilities (phone, internet, electricity), groceries for a household of 3, transportation, and preschool. Expenses ranged from $42,252 to $79,104/yr. Data are available here.

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