The Postdoc Trap
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 supervisor.
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 possibly 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 swim.
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.
Link Out: The Postdoc Trap by Steven C. Smith