Postdoc Trap

Alexander Berezin 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 
research subcontractors.

The released funds should be used to create 
INDEPENDENT (not "paid-through-the-professor") 
PDF positions.

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).   

Alex Berezin


Dear Alex,
     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 
in Canada.
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 
you don't.
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 
suggest otherwise.
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 
promote cooperation!
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 
much deadwood?
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 
immeasurably wasteful.
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 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.


More information about the Bioforum mailing list