berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Tue Mar 4 18:45:37 EST 1997
* THE POSTDOC TRAP * by Steven C. Smith
The following is the (re)posting of the article by
Dr. Steven C. Smith "THE POSTDOC TRAP" from the
March 1997 issue of the "University Affairs"
(bulletin of the Association of Universities and
Colleges of Canada). By no means the issues raised
in this article are limited to Canada, and readers
in USA and other countries are likely also find
this material interesting.
The root to the problem is that, bluntly speaking,
that there is TOO MUCH money in the granting system,
and in addition to it, it distributed too unequally.
Grants of the priveleged grantees are well too
high - they allow these professors to hire en masse
a relatively cheap research labour to do the work
which they (professors) can and must do themselves.
Therefore, the solution is the REDUCTION of the
NSERC/MRC individual grants and a more equitable
distribution system. This will encourage professors'
own work and discourage them from being essentially
The released funds should be used to create
INDEPENDENT (not "paid-through-the-professor")
It is obvious, however, that the granstmanship
establishemnt will resist all attempts to shake
their overfunded cheap labour latifundias.
Smith's article also dispells the misleading
notion of "excellence", so popular in the policical
demagoguery of today (e.g. the so called "Centres
of Excellence" - we see more and more of them
today but you need a good lense to discover
any trace of real excellence there).
In response to your request, below is a copy of
"The Postdoc Trap", as downloaded from the AUCC website.
Please feel free to post it anywhere you like, and to
pass it on to anyone who might be interested. I have
no idea who holds copywrite, but I certainly don't mind,
and I don't think University Affairs would mind, as
long as credit is given. Good luck.
---------- Forwarded message -------------------
The Postdoc Trap
(reprinted from University Affairs, March, 1997)
What is to be done with Canada's highly trained young
scientists, languishing in dead-end positions or
pushed south of the border because of the lack of
jobs ? Steven C. Smith, a postdoctoral fellow in
Dalhousie University's biology department, argues for
salaried, soft-money grants to keep these scientists
So, you're a new PhD in science? Congratulations!
You're anticipating the benefits accrued from long
nights in the lab, in front of the computer, or in
the field. In the halcyon days of the '60s, some
called your degree "the meal ticket." No longer.
Now your parchment just gets you entry into the
twilight zone of the postdoctoral fellow.
Welcome to the postdoc trap and life between the
cracks of academia. Since you're neither student
nor faculty member, your university likely won't
know how to classify you. A non-person, you have
few rights, no advocacy groups and no
representation on governing bodies. You're alone.
If you're among the lucky few with a fellowship,
you'll get roughly a secretary's salary, but no
pension plan, dental plan, drug plan, maternity
leave or employment insurance. Fall sick, and your
salary's terminated. Taxes may not be deducted,
so you'll have to budget carefully to pay them.
If you're less fortunate, you must find a professor
with a grant large enough to pay your salary, which
may be smaller than a fellowship. You still get
no benefits, and you're beholden to your
For this you must do world-class research. Publish
or perish like a professor, but while a prof might
lose his or her grant, you could lose your income
and possibly your career. And since you can't apply
for grants, you can't control project funding.
Although officially frowned on, it's enlightened
self-interest to include your supervisor on
publications. Your supervisor must also publish
or lose the grant that supports you.
You may also want to gain some teaching experience.
You'll teach the same courses as a prof, but for
a fraction of the wage and no benefits. Faculty
collective agreements don't apply, since you're
part-time. Disagree with working conditions, and
no one represents you. If a student sues you,
your university might not defend you.
Teaching properly also takes time from the research
you're paid to do. If research productivity declines,
you could be forced into the underclass of
"itinerant scholars," who teach incessantly just to
survive. These instructors have no future, but are
a boon to universities. Cheaper than "real"
professors, they do the same teaching, bring in
the same student fees and can be dropped any time.
Alternatively, you can do a quick-and-dirty job,
sacrifice less research time and get a deservedly
poor student evaluation. Or you can forego teaching
and concentrate on research, but have no teaching
experience on your CV.
You could also find yourself supervising undergraduate
(and possible graduate) students. While you may enjoy
this, you won't be paid for it. And since you likely
won't be their official supervisor, you can't sign
their forms, allocate funds for their work, pay them
or defend them if they get into trouble.
Why are highly-qualified personnel subjected to this
Dickensian treatment? Actually, an entire mythology
surrounds postdocs. It has four tenets, each
demonstrably false yet frighteningly persistent.
Myth 1: "The best time of your life."
This originated when postdoc stages were short,
and jobs plentiful. Without course and thesis
requirements, nor teaching and administrative
obligations that force many dedicated professors
away from the lab, you could concentrate on the
science you loved doing. But today, is there no
teaching or supervision? Not really. You may not
be required to teach, but may not advance if
In addition, you'll face many personal pressures.
You can't buy a house, since you don't know if
you'll have a salary or where you'll be next year.
If you have a partner, you face more problems.
If your partner is not a scientist, he or she may
not understand why you work nights and weekends,
vacations are rare, and you move so often. If your
partner is a scientist, there are different
worries. Stay together and one partner may remain
unpaid or stagnate at work, through no fault of
their own, and begin to resent the "successful"
partner. Alternatively, you may reluctantly split
up in the hope that one of you will find employment.
If so, the unwritten agreement is usually that
the other will follow. But universities often
won't hire spouses, so the one who follows may
see his or her career wither just when things
should finally be improving.
Other problems await those who want a family.
Bring your child into your world of no security
or stability and you'll lose precious time for
your research. Without maternity leave, you may
lose your income. Furthermore, it may create a
fatal gap in your research record. And if you
postpone having children, you face an inexorably
ticking biological clock.
Myth 2: Training.
A persistent myth, this is a common justification
for poor wages and other abuses. But is a postdoc
just a trainee - a super-graduate student? Recent
history and the positions offered to postdocs
In the '60s and early '70s many profs were hired
fresh from grad school. Postdoctoral "training"
was unnecessary. Were PhDs so much better then?
Talk with profs from these days and you discover
many initially struggled with teaching and writing
grants. But they had stability and support, and
often succeeded brilliantly. Not surprising:
anyone who survives grad school is obviously
committed and willing to work hard. Are today's
graduates less dedicated? Not likely, or they
wouldn't submit to the arduous process of grad
school. Given the same opportunities, they'd
likely do as well.
If postdoctoral "training" was once unnecessary,
why have it now? As the golden age ended, research
jobs became scarce. So postdoctoral positions
were created as a holding pattern for graduates.
Circling like vultures, postdocs waited for older
professors to die off. As fewer profs were
replaced the stack grew. Postdoctoral "training"
became the norm.
The concept is self-reinforcing. It created a
pool of highly-trained, specialized talent that's
readily available, cheap and disposable. Postdocs
do research, help with supervision and teaching,
and are easily "trained" since they teach
themselves - it's what they learned in grad
school! Doubt this? Check the ads for postdoctoral
positions. Most require demonstrated (read
"published") expertise. Indeed, postdocs are
often hired to bring new techniques into a lab.
Some university administrators believe they're
doing postdocs a favor by training them to teach.
But the "training" is the same as for earlier
profs. You're responsible for a class - sink or
Myth 3: Excellence.
Imposed by politicians outside science, and
perpetuated by winners within, this is based
on the truism that competition removes the chaff
and makes a better product. This social Darwinism
may be true in politics and business, but science
is, theoretically, based on cooperation,
collaborative effort and free dissemination of
information. How can you cooperate while brutally
competing with your peers for severely limited
resources? Furthermore, science explores the
unknown, so it's likely counterproductive to
guess which approaches are or are not "excellent."
In the ultimate farce, the system foists
competition for "excellence" on science, then
uses competitive "collaborative grants" to
Like all scientists, postdocs encounter the
same self-defeating foolishness. The success
rate for Medical Research Council postdoctoral
fellowships is 15 per cent. For the Natural
Sciences and Engineering Research Council
fellowships, it's 25 per cent. Are 75 to 85
per cent of scientific PhDs so poorly trained?
Is this a search for excellence, or a colossal
waste of human resources? However, the idiocy
continues. "Only excellent postdocs get
fellowships." Good for your ego if you get one,
but more a question of creative grantsmanship
and blind luck; the success rate is approaching
that of winning the lottery.
Myth 4: Too long in the market.
This last myth seems particularly pervasive in
Canada. It's epitomized by a quote from Ralph
Korteling in University Affairs (May 1996): "If
someone is in the job market a long time ... they
haven't met the standards elsewhere." Interestingly,
we also read that Dr Korteling's university
currently has a hiring freeze. Have they stopped
producing PhDs during that time? Undoubtedly not.
It's also reported that Dr. Korteling's department
gets about 60 applications for every position. Is
his department (and every other) producing this
To be fair, Dr Korteling is voicing a prevalent
view from Canada's ivory towers, especially among
those hired in the glory days. If you were good,
worked hard and earned your PhD, you were rewarded
with employment. If not, something was wrong.
But in an age of cutbacks, hiring freezes, and
shrinking faculties, you're not only squeezed out
of grad school and into the trap, but if you don't
get out soon, you're cut off. And it's your
fault, not the system's!
Worse, this myth blatantly contradicts the "training"
myth. Isn't more training better? Apparently not.
Furthermore, faculty collective agreements which
link starting salaries to experience make it
fiscally preferable to hire those with less
"training." Then again, why hire at all? A postdoc
has the same expertise and works for minimal wages
and no benefits.
This myth also pervades granting agencies. A
personal anecdote is instructive. Starting out,
I was good (lucky?) enough to get an NSERC
fellowship. I began applying for jobs. After two
years, I was no longer eligible for NSERC
support - one per customer, and within four
years post-PhD. So I applied for and got a
two-year MRC fellowship, potentially renewable
for one year. Very good, or very lucky? The job
hunt continued. No success. But when I applied
for the renewal, MRC replied that I was
"highly qualified and very productive" and
didn't need any more "training."
The implication's clear. Rather than a valuable
member of the Canadian scientific community, I'm
a scientific welfare bum who should stop mooching
and get a job. No wonder many young Canadian
scientists are saying (in the words of a friend):
"Thanks for the bucks, I'm off to the States."
Dismantling the trap
So how do we end this shameful waste of talent?
Some have suggested that granting agencies should
waste less money on students, since many students
must eventually abandon their careers or leave the
country. However, this approach does nothing to
solve the present problem, and worse, it is
fatally shortsighted. Canada needs highly trained
and dedicated scientists.
As well, with professors facing cutbacks,
shrinking faculties and increased teaching and
administrative loads, grad students and postdocs do
an increasing share of the research in Canadian
universities. Staunch the flow of graduate students
and Canadian research would be choked. But this
is no excuse for creating a class of well-trained,
disposable indentured servants. If we must produce
highly qualified people, it's time to offer them
opportunities to use their expertise to benefit us
all. To do otherwise isn't merely unjust, it's
To me, it's evident. We need salaried soft-money
grants to keep the people we've trained in Canada
and productive. The idea's not new. The U.S. has
start-up grants with salaries for senior postdocs.
The U.K. and other EC countries have similar
programs. They recognize the difficulties of
finding employment and are supporting their young
scientists. Rather than cutting them off, some
programs are specifically for postdocs with five
to 15 years' experience. These countries wish
to protect their investment in expertise. It's
merely enlightened national self-interest.
We must act now! We need soft money positions
for Canadian scientists today. Let's stop wasting
our precious human resources. Post this article
where your students and postdocs can see it. Pass
it on. Send a copy to your MP. I welcome
comments, good or bad - but constructive, please.
Let me know how you feel. I will keep all comments
confidential and, if I receive sufficient feedback,
will report back to University Affairs.
Steven Smith can be reached by e-mail at
scsmith at is.dal.ca or by phone at (902)
494-3335 or by fax at (902) 494-3736.
University Affairs also welcomes your
letters in response to this article.
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