Academic Orphans

The so-called professional life of a Canadian postdoctoral fellow could be improving soon. After 3 years of debate, five of the largest Canadian universities (the University of British Columbia, the University of Ottawa, McGill University, Queen's University, and the University of Toronto) have each produced a set of guidelines and policies to establish official status and offer improved services and benefits for postdocs. Other universities are expected to follow suit.

Although they thrive on a labor force rich in postdoctoral fellows (postdocs, or PDFs), Canadian universities have never deigned to write a postdoc job description. That leaves PDFs in a frustrating and ambiguous position. They are not eligible for pensions, dental or drug plans, maternity leave, employment insurance, or tax deductions. Vacation time and sick leave allowances are often left to the discretion of the advisor. Postdocs are often treated as students under the Academic Code of Behavior, yet they have no access to appeals procedures open to students. "The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) tries to respond to the needs of our postdoctoral fellows in our policies and practices. Unfortunately, postdoctoral fellows often fall through the cracks in that they are working professionals but are neither students nor employees," says Carmen Gervais, program officer of the NSERC Scholarships and Fellowships Division.

In 1999, NSERC, in consultation with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, developed a Statement of Principles that provides guidelines on the treatment of postdoctoral fellows in Canadian universities. The NSERC initiative was in response to a national survey of postdoctoral fellows published in 1998 (see related article). Academic institutions were strongly encouraged to establish their own procedures, or improve on existing ones, to ensure that postdoctoral fellows are fully integrated into university policies. Based on this and other similar reports, several universities and research institutions set up committees and task forces in the last 3 years to put forward recommendations for PDF guidelines and policies.

Before any guidelines can be put in place, however, NSERC noted that universities must first define what constitutes a postdoctoral appointment. As a result, most of the named institutions now classify postdocs as individuals in training, within 5 years of being awarded a Ph.D. degree, who are primarily engaged in research with minimal teaching or other responsibilities, and are in a temporary appointment that does not constitute an employment contract with the university. In addition, each institution fashioned its own set of guidelines for registration and appointment, compensation, benefits and services, and responsibilities, based on the Statement of Principles. Martha Crago, dean of graduate studies at McGill University, told Next Wave that "most of the recommendations were approved by the Senate first time around [April 2000], which is a statement of how willing the academic community is to address these issues."

Not every issue passed so easily. Postdoc compensation is a particularly contentious issue. Most universities are now moving toward establishing a minimum stipend level for postdocs, which is reviewed annually and takes into account the recommended stipends set by federal granting agencies. But a few holdouts argue that such a limit could compromise the financial flexibility of principal investigators (PIs) and positions could disappear because the PI cannot afford to pay the postdoc salary at the minimum level. Nor could the universities agree on the duration of a postdoc appointment. British Columbia and McGill have implemented a stringent 3-year term for postdocs, 6 years is recommended at Toronto, while Ottawa and Queen's have not set a limit.

Now that the universities have most of their recommendations in place, they face the challenge of putting them into practice. The road to implementation is not always smooth. Umberto De Boni, chair of the University of Toronto Task Force on Postdoctoral Fellows, said the Toronto report remains a work in progress. "The University of Toronto is a big, diverse university and there have been many discussions [about the report] and there are many pros and cons to the recommendations," he added. All the same, Gervais says that many universities now have at least taken the important first step of developing a policy pertaining to postdoctoral fellows.

McGill's guidelines have been received quite well, Crago tells Next Wave. "Many postdocs are surprised by how well they are covered, although they do not like the hassle of registering," she said. But despite the advances, Crago believes that there is still plenty of room for improvement in PDF policies. She named health care benefits, career counseling, and ethics workshops as just some of the needy areas.

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