The Strange Case of Postdocs in Canada

May, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

Are they students? Are they staff? Universities in Canada can’t quite seem to decide just what exactly a postdoc is. To be fair a postdoc is in a strange in-between place; s/he is no longer a student, but not yet a professor (even though he or she may conduct original research and teach undergraduate and even graduate students). This might not seem such an important issue at first glance. But there are enormous work-related, benefits, and tax implications that hinge on the definition of a postdoc. And as a postdoctoral fellowships becomes an almost mandatory step toward tenure-track positions, the implications loom large for many of us.

After 10 or 15 years of post secondary education, for many PhDs the next step will be a postdoctoral fellowship. Not only do these fellowships potentially afford  time to revise dissertation manuscripts for publication, design  courses, and solidify professional networks, they act as another step forward toward tenure-track positions. Ideally they come without teaching requirements, but might include teaching responsibilities from one or two courses per year or more depending on the fellowship. But as faculty hires plummet, and PhD numbers expand, this step is becoming increasingly necessary in order to remain competitive.

So far this doesn’t seem so bad. We all know that academia is becoming ever more competitive and positions ever fewer. Nothing shocking there. The issue, however, is that for many postdocs the issue of defining their position is critical. Many postocs while not enjoying the tax benefits of students also miss out on employment benefits offered faculty and staff.

The issue came to a head last year when after Le Devoir reported that Quebec universities, which had offered postdocs the tax exemptions given to students, had been instructed by the Canadian Revenue Agency to stop doing so. Now disallowed from the benefits of students and without access to those of staff, postdocs got the worst of both worlds, along with a substantial, unplanned, and significant loss of income owing to increased taxes.

Many fear that in order to gain any tax exemptions, postdocs might be defined as some kind of student or trainee. The Ryerson Free Press suggests that a new category of trainee might institutionalize and formalize yet another time-consuming step to professional stability that does little to help postdocs, but everything to maintain universities’ access to qualified but low-payed labour. And both statuses might come with new fees and costs for debit-ridden individuals already strapped for cash in the years before achieving tenure-track appointments. Both the Ryerson Free Press and the Protect Canadian Postdocs site, in fact, are already reporting postdoc “trainee” fees being levied at the University of Toronto.

This issue has become so fraught that two scholars at Canadian institutions have created the Protect Canadian Postdocs website to follow developments and highlight the situation faced by postdocs at their own and other universities. Untenured, they choose to remain anonymous to avoid aggravating their university administrations and threatening their own careers. With less to lose, Tom Spears of the Ottawa Citizen last month likened some postdocs to “indentured servants, with lots of degrees.” Now many fear that in addition they may become cash cows for cash-strapped universities.

No doubt great benefits come with postdoctoral work that gives recent PhDs a foothold on the academic ladder. But postdocs’ relationship to universities needs to be explicitly determined to avoid even further creating an underclass of high-skilled, low-payed teacher-researchers in the Canadian academy.

A number of sites and online petitions have sprung up in protest:

Canadian Postdoc Tax Petitions

Petition to Maintain the Competitiveness of a Postdoctoral Researcher in Canada

This blog was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
6 May 2010.

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