Canary in the Coal Mine #1
This past year, I came across a set of statistics that made me cringe. They underscore a dramatic shift in the human resources in academia, specifically in the medical sciences.
2006 median length of PhD = 7.9 years
Average age at which a PhD is obtained = 32.7 (31.3 in Science/Engineering)
# of faculty hires who had recently (1-3 years) obtained a PhD
74% (1972) down to 44% (2006)
(60% to 31% at research universities)
From 1993 to 2003, recent (1-3 years) science and engineering doctorate recipients holding tenure and tenure-track appointments at academic institutions has decreased from 18.4% to 9.0%. When observed 4-6 years following the awarding of a degree, these numbers increase to 26.6% and 19.8% respectively. That’s just under 1 in 5 PhD holders in academic jobs, which is something that Beth will write on quite extensively. This is further complicated by the fact that not all people who start a PhD actually finish it (which is also in the 30-40% range in many disciplines, something being explored by the PhD Completion Project )
These statistics and many more fantastic resources are available for post docs, albeit with an American focus, on the National Post Doctoral Fellow Association and the websites. The newly developed Canadian Association of Post Doctoral Scholars ) is trying to collect statistics on Canadians PDFs with a recent survey of over 1000 PDFs.
The training period has lengthened significantly and adjustments need to be made to address the growing concerns of young scientists. Since 1995, the average age to obtain a first RO1 grant (American operating grant) has increased from 37 to 42. If one generously assumes a 5 year startup package, this means that trainees are finishing their post doctoral fellowships at age 37 instead of age 32. These individuals – who do not have permanent positions – share a unique set of experiences and challenges.
Is the increased length of a post doc an inherently bad thing? Probably not. Are there concerns and can they be addressed? Probably. So, what can be done?
I’ll try and tackle some of the key concerns:
1. Funding Levels
a. While everyone can probably find a series of reasons why they are underpaid, PDFs in Canada have a particularly strong case. When you think of going further in your career, having your salary slashed as your training increases is not something that springs to mind. With increasing numbers of graduate students obtaining Canada Graduate Scholarships ($35,000 tax free) and Vanier Scholarships ($50,000 tax free), a salary slash is exactly what many future PDFs are being asked to take with the average PDF salary being located in the $33,000 to $37,000 range (with tax deductions).
b. Irrespective of the CGS/PDF discrepancy, PDF funding is remarkably low considering the training that one has already undertaken. As an example of the low wages that PDFs are paid, comparison can be appropriately made to high school teachers who, while critical in preparing future generations for tertiary education, typically obtain their first teaching position around age 25 earning ~$37,000/yr, and by 35 to 40 years of age can be earning ~$70,000/yr ( see table ). In contrast, PDFs typically earn ~$35,000/yr from age ~28 to ~37 with no uniform systematic process for wage increases. Compounded on this are typical PDF starting salaries (and subsequent regular pay raises) in the UK and other nations of 27,000 GBP, which, even with the weak pound, comes out to well over $45,000.
What can be done?
a. Scale the PDF wage to accommodate experience levels (i.e.: number of years of post doc experience)
b. Establish a maximum number of years as a PDF before mandating re-classification as research associate (potentially with the option of mutual waiving of this reclassification if PDF and supervisor agree)
c. Have the Tri-agency (NSERC/CIHR/SSHRC) councils agree to tie minimum and scaled salaries to their funding packages (i.e.: if a PDF works on this project, they will be paid X amount for Y years of experience which increases over time)
2. Increased number of children
With increased age comes an increased frequency of little ones and a complete dearth of resources for new parents in the PDF Black Hole. Some research institutes have created reasonable and successful programs (subsidized childcare, lengthy and financially workable parental leave policies, etc), but this has come at the hands of extremely progressive (and very rare) leadership from within particular institutes. These policies are extremely variable within universities.
This is further compounded by the fact that new parents returning to their training have just spent 6-12 months outside of a field is at the leading edge, often setting them even further due to the inability to keep pace with the research in the field. This in itself is not critically unmanageable, but when one considers that PDFs and young principal investigators are under constant pressure for job competition or tenure, it looks even more challenging and puts a huge burden on the spouse (god help them if they’re both young academics looking for jobs as professors!)
3. Extended Benefits
Some excellent examples of resources available or support provided are:
a. For international PDFs, McGill University has subscribed temporary emergency medical coverage with a private insurance carrier for postdoctoral scholars who will be subject a 3-month bridge (waiting) period. This temporary insurance will be offered to registered at no cost for the Postdoc, and with cost for accompanying dependents.
b. The University of Alberta has a full fledged University Postdoc Supplemental Health Plan which is mandatory (but you can opt out if your spouse has a better plan) and costs $435 (single) and $1284 (family) and is FULLY covered by faculty member or department.
(if you know of a Canadian University or research institute that has good or bad benefit programs for PDFs, comment below or email me!)
In the end, one of the very best things that young scientists can do is to share information with each other. Some people have found creative solutions at their institutes and the wheel is being constantly reinvented. Please feel free to post here to let us know your story, but even more important, get in touch with your local PDF or graduate student group or with the Canadian Association of Post Doctoral Scholars ).
COMING UP IN A FEW DAYS:
Canary in the Coal Mine Part II: Tying of SSHRC funding to economic outcomes