The Re-conceptualization of the Postdoctoral Experience


Canada, as a nation, finds itself at an interesting juncture in the first decade of the 21st century. It is faced with the inescapable fact that it has a pressing need for a large number of highly qualified personnel (HQP). Almost half of the professorial staff in our universities will retire between now and 2010, opening some 30,000 professorial posts that will need to be filled. And according to Canada's Innovation Strategy plan, we'd like to move from 14th to fifth place in the international ranking for research and development (R&D), which, the government estimates, will require that we hire an additional 50,000 researchers in the nonuniversity sectors of the economy.1

At present, Canadian universities graduate 4000 Ph.D.s each year, which translates to 40,000 over the next 10 years. This is only half of the projected 80,000 HQP that the country expects it will need by then.

So, how do postdocs fit into this picture? They have an important role to play, but I'll need to outline a chain of causes and effects before I can describe that role properly.

One way to increase the numbers of HQP is to increase the number of students admitted into graduate programs. However, this would create difficult problems with regard to shortages of space and research supervisors, not to mention problems in providing funding for the additional numbers of graduate students.

Another way to attain the necessary increase is to accelerate times-to-completion of graduate degrees. This makes the turnover in universities faster, liberating space for new graduate students every 3 to 4 years instead of every 7 to 8 years. The impact of faster times-to-completion is that graduate students are likely to be slightly less productive in their graduate years than universities and granting agencies have become accustomed to. More specifically, over the last 10 years the number of publications expected of students has increased from perhaps one at the Ph.D. level to at least one at the master's level and three or more at the doctoral level. This means that the period of postdoctoral training will be very important. It will be a time to consolidate the research done at the Ph.D. level, to hone publication skills, and to expand research directions and capabilities.

The net impact is that the number of postdocs should swell and the amount of support given to them will need to increase, both materially and pedagogically. The Canadian and provincial governments will need to increase their funding to the granting agencies so these agencies can, in turn, provide more money for postdoctoral fellowships. In addition, the doors need to be opened to postdocs from other countries by providing income tax exemptions to these people at both the federal and provincial levels. The Quebec government has set an excellent example by removing provincial income tax for international postdocs.

Such a scenario has implications for how a postdoc is defined and how a period of postdoctoral research/scholarship is construed. If the doctoral years can be considered as a period of education, then the postdoctoral years might best be considered as a period of research residency or internship. In fact, legal precedent in Quebec has determined that the postdoc period is a " stage de recherche" or a "research internship." According to this definition, postdocs are not considered to be employees. And they are differentiated from research associates, who are hired by a research supervisor to meet a particular need.

One recent example at my university helped me understand this distinction between a postdoc and a research associate. A certain professor described to me the special value of a certain postdoc in her laboratory by saying, "I brought him here because he was the only person in the world who could do this particular technique that I need to advance my lab's research." I responded by asking whether the person she was describing was in fact a research associate and not a postdoc.

Another way of looking at this is that the postdoctoral experience should, I believe, serve the postdoc in the first instance and the research supervisor in the second instance. In that sense, it is a period of training designed to meet the needs of two people but with the professor's being responsible for the postdoc and not vice versa.

Given this, I believe that it's time for Canadian universities to reconceptualize postdoctoral training, updating the practices that came into play 10 or more years ago. Up until the 1990s, the practice in our universities went somewhat as follows: A professor would arrange, usually with no involvement of the department or any central university administration, to hire a postdoc. There were no guidelines to help define the postdoctoral experience, no minimum levels for payment, and no clearly stated rights or responsibilities. In fact, at my university, the central archives contained no documents pertaining to postdocs until 1994.

This notion of the reconceptualization of the postdoctoral experience reminds me of a conversation I had with my father 3 years ago. He was 93 at the time, a retired American senior university administrator who, some 45 years earlier, had been in charge of initiating graduate studies at a state university. One day, after I had finished reading aloud to him the Association of American Universities' document on postdocs, he sat quietly for a moment before saying, "This reminds me of where we were with graduate studies about 50 to 60 years ago in the United States. We needed to figure out their educational content and how to administer them."

The Canadian research-granting councils now require that universities have guidelines in place for postdocs that stipulate minimum payment and the permissible duration of the postdoctoral experience and that identify who has administrative responsibility for postdocs. The province of Quebec requires that postdocs be registered in much the same way as students are. This has meant the establishment of fairly rigid governmental criteria for postdocs, along with governmental audits of whom the universities can rightly consider to be a postdoc. Such registration has enabled the Quebec universities to identify, communicate with, support, and plan for their postdocs.

The reconceptualization of the postdoctoral experience as one that is closer in nature to a residency period than to an employment position might eventually lead to other new developments. For instance, there might need to be clear admissibility criteria for postdocs that might possibly include standards for English language ability, a change in the locus for making the offer of acceptance, and a shift of the overall responsibility for postdocs from an individual professor to an academic unit. In addition, universities might want to develop clearer notions of what kind of activities and content the postdoctoral experience should and should not include.

As we progress further in increasing the numbers of postdocs and in developing the nature of the postdoctoral experience in Canada, I expect we'll begin to encounter a fine line between the overbureaucratization of the postdoctoral process and the necessary definition of the standards, rights, and responsibilities of all involved. The need for highly qualified personnel in Canada and its implications for enlarging the postdoctoral pool are certain to affect the future of postdocs and their experiences in our universities.

1 L. Vinet, "Challenges in Addressing Canada's Future Needs for HQP in Science and Engineering," Keynote Speech to a Workshop of the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council. Montreal, PQ (2002).

Martha Borgmann Crago is the Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at McGill University and Vice President of the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS).

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