Canary in the Coal Mine #1: The Changing Human Resources in Academia

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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 ).


Canary in the Coal Mine Part II: Tying of SSHRC funding to economic outcomes

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About Dave

David grew up in St. John's Newfoundland, completed a Bachelors degree in Genetics and English Literature (UWO, London, ON) and completed doctoral studies in stem cell biology at the Terry Fox Lab (UBC, Vancouver, BC). He coordinated the UBC Let's Talk Science Partnership Program from 2004-2007. David is currently completing postdoctoral research at the University of Cambridge, UK and also writes for the Canadian Stem Cell Network Blog
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17 Responses to Canary in the Coal Mine #1: The Changing Human Resources in Academia

  1. Nicole says:

    In the Fall of 2005, I noted the impressive ratio of women to men (nearly 3:1) in an undergraduate behavioral neuroscience course at a major U.S. university. I thought surely this was a sign of progress – that women are not only matching, but surpassing men in numbers among the ranks of researchers in neuroscience. Indeed, women outnumber men at the baccalaureate level in the U.S. in nearly all natural science fields . Seventy-seven percent of the people graduating in psychology, one source of applicants to neuroscience graduate programs, are female1. At the graduate level, too, numbers appear to be evening out between the sexes, with more women enrolling than men in graduate school in the biological sciences, and nearly as many women as men earning doctoral degrees1. Undoubtedly, more women are present in neuroscience-related faculties around the U.S. today than ten or twenty years ago. Does this mean that the obstacles to women in neuroscience, undeniable not long ago, have vanished, or at least become insignificant? Hardly.

    The obstacles to women in the sciences appear to begin quite late in the process of career building. Clear evidence of obstacles does not arise until one counts the number of faculty hired. It seems that women are hired less often than men at the assistant professor level, and only half of those who start an academic career are promoted to full professor. According to an article published in the journal Science, this can be partially explained by unconscious biases in the hiring and promoting process “when evaluators rated writing skills, resumes, journal articles, and career paths, they gave lower ratings on average if they were told that the subject of evaluation was a woman.”2 In addition, women who do manage to achieve these milestones have lower median salaries than their male counterparts1. This is why education on salary negotiation are so important. Women need to feel comfortable demanding equitable salaries, and learning how to do so professionally and convincingly is an important part of this.

    I would argue that the obstacles to women in neuroscience, though less overt now than they once were, are still present. The obstacles that remain are more difficult to identify and remove; they have taken the insidious form of personal choice, the veneer of individual culpability. In my opinion, these obstacles range from societal and cultural expectations to economic realities to open discouragement. I believe the onus is on the universities to initiate changes in hiring practices and promotion/salary reviews.

    1 National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2007, NSF 07-315 (Arlington, VA; February 2007). Available from

    2 Handelsman J et al, 2005. Science. 309: 1190-1191.

  2. Nicole says:

    On another note, I will point out that academia is a rare type of career that forces individuals to uproot numerous times and move wherever the job opens up. For example, I completed my undergraduate work at the University of Michigan. I was told that I should go elsewhere for graduate work, so I moved to Wisconsin to do my PhD. Then of course a postdoc should be done at a different institution, so I came to UBC. Is it surprising, then that after a couple postdocs, people get tired of moving? I simply can’t picture myself going back to the midwest, even if I thought I could compete against the 200 other postdocs who have more publications on their CV. I find myself quite fortunate, in that my heart is not set on research as a career. I love teaching and training work, so I am finding my own niche for that and anticipate great satisfaction in my job (dare I call anything but a tenure-track appoitnment a career?). If not, I would still be floating around, wherever the job ads should take me, cutting personal ties every 2-3 years, until I ended up in a tenure track position, albeit at a lower salary than a decent plumber. It makes me wonder at times: if you don’t get a job straight off, why would you ever pursue such a life?

  3. Beth says:

    One thing I’d like to add to this is that while things like the CGS and Vanier Scholarships exist, the vast majority of PhD students *don’t* get them. Many graduate students have scholarships in the $16K to $18K range (imagine trying to live on that in a city as expensive as Vancouver!) and many students don’t have any funding at all. So put yourself in my shoes – you finish your PhD after 11 years of post-secondary with $70K in student loan debt … and then are expected to take a postdoc salary in the $33K $37K range! I’ll talk more about this in my upcoming post on why many new PhDs turn to non-academic jobs instead of going down the postdoc route.

  4. Dave K says:

    Hi Nicole,
    This was a dicussion that took many hours of our time – it seems that women are very well represented (in the medical sciences at least, I know that the story is still starkly different in the physical sciences and math/engineering) at the undergraduate and graduate and even PDF levels… but when it comes to new PI positions, it is severely unblanced. I have heard that there are some universities (McGill is notable) who are trying to address this quite strongly making it mandatory to bring a female candidate through to the short list for every position (this might be a single department in McGill, I’d love for someone to clarify/expound) – it seems silly that we need to resort to such policies, but the fact of the matter remains that women are simply not being hired (or even being paid) at the same rates as men. I’ll write a good blog on this later in the month where I detail all of the resources we found on this – stay tuned!

  5. Dave K says:

    Beth… you’re definitely right that many students get no scholarships and have to TA to scrape through… It still boggles my mind that UBC continues to have no guaranteed funding of significant value (yes, I mean the tuition waiver program that they had does not count) for its PhD students…

    But… an important note is to look at CIHR awards last year:
    374 CGS Banting and Best Awards
    12 regular doctoral awards

    2008 numbers:
    202 CGS
    62 regular doctoral awards

    Robert, a friend of mine from the Netherlands asked me if I had figured out the political motivations behind scholarship funding in Canada and the short answer is no, not completely… but this type of skewing toward “best and brightest being rewarded” makes me think that Canadian policy makers believe that we need to do more to retain the top 5% of students at the expense of giving out more awards to more people… this is mirrored in the SSHRC funding policies which I will rant about in a couple of days.

  6. Beth says:

    Wow, I hadn’t realized there had been such a big shift away from the lower value awards to the higher value ones. Any idea how many applicants there were?

    Also, it’s kind of funny to think of the top 5% as the “best and brightest,” which sort of implies that the other 95% of PhD students aren’t intelligent!

  7. SubC says:

    In my experience as a postdoctoral researcher (in biomedical field) in alberta, the typical postdoc salary is closer to 40K. While the average postdoc in the UK may be receiving 10-15% more (as shown above), the higher cost of living probably negates the benefits.
    The median duration of PhD (7.9 yrs) is defintely NOT true for Canada !! This is probably US data, in Canada the figure would be somewhere between 5 and 5.5 years (I had served as student rep in my grad school years and got to know a bit).
    The point about the CGS/ Vanier scholarships is a very good one though ! Makes you think if there is such a thing as less intelligent PhD!

  8. Dave K says:

    Hi SubC – first off thanks for your comments, this is certainly the type of discussion that we want to have taking place on the site. I’ll expand on some of the points that you raise in your comment on Beth’s Why PhDs leave academics blog in my next entry entitled “Say NO to the 2nd PDF” – some of what you bring up there is especially relevant to this issue of alternative careers.

    With respect to the comments in the current comment:
    1. Thanks for sharing your personal experiences at UofA – this is valuable information to have, it would be great if there were official quotable sources for the average PDF wage at UofA, if you have this type of info, please do pass it along to myself or to the CAPS folks. Currently, I hear many bad stories (you are right your PI being a first port of call, but for some this is regarded as a difficult route) and salary numbers are all over the place. It seems every field and even every lab/department have their own “value” placed on training. The CAPS group is definitely on the right track by collecting this type of data.

    2. Cities like Toronto and Vancouver are every bit as expensive as living in Cambridge so I don’t think your statement regarding cost of living is entirely fair – of course a PDF in London, UK would be a totally different kettle of fish, so I grant you that one.

    The other thing that is increasingly happening over here is the post doc “career” choice at institutes like the Sanger Centre and the Babraham Institute where PDFs get paid at much nicer salaries, have excellent benefits, and substantially more (though not complete) job security etc – i.e.: a real job.

    3. As for the stats, yes, they are American numbers, and I’m trying to get the same sort of broken down information from Stats Canada – for now the only statistics I have (if you have other official numbers, please do pass them along!!!) is that the average age for PhD completion is 36 (markedly skewed by Humanities and Psychology) and the average overall length is 5 years and 9 months. Anecdotal information suggests that medical science students have “longer” PhDs, but they often start earlier and don’t do MSc’s – we’ll see if I can grab the proper national statistics though.

    Thanks again for stimulating discussion though – keep reading!

  9. SubC says:

    Thanks for the comments, Dave.
    My feeling is that most postdocs in biomedical field get around 40K or so which is similar to what is paid by CIHR (which pays my own fellowship) and Heart and Stroke foundation. I have heard horror stories about social science postdocs getting barely 30K but I haven’t verified this myself.
    The StatsCan data about average PhD duration of 5 yrs and 9 months sounds quite right. In my alma mater (U of Calgary) the Faculty of Medicine required a PhD to be finished in 7 yrs. In my 5 yrs there, I recall only one individual who took that long ! 5-6 yrs seems to be the norm both in U of A and U of C.

  10. Dave says:

    Hi SubC,

    In the CAPS report which surveyed ~20% of total CDN PDFs:

    20% of PDFs in our country get less than 35,000
    35% get between 35,000 and 40,000

    This is over 55% of people that get less than or equal to $40,000. Almost 80% make less than $45,000.

    This is, to my knowledge, the first report of such numbers and the area is dying to have more rigorours research performed. We’ll try hard to keep things up to date here and be very clear about the difference between anecdote and actuality by sourcing as much as possible and putting disclaimers out there for things that we aren’t sure about.


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