Saturday, January 7, 2012

The problem with postdocs

Yesterday I made the super-annoying discovery that I am not going to qualify to receive any kind of maternity benefits from the government. The reason for this is the uncertain position postdocs hold with respect to universities. In Canada, postdocs are typically not classified as "employees" of the university. Nor are they students.

In the words of CAPS-ACSP (the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars),
"[I]t is widely acknowledged that the current diffuse organization of postdoctoral training leaves this class of highly qualified personnel in an especially vulnerable position. Not graduate students, not faculty members, postdocs have so far slipped between the cracks of the recognized workforce of the scientific community and represent a heterogeneous group of poorly defined ‘apprentice’ scientists. As such, postdocs generally do not have well defined expectations of employment, appropriate employment rights and responsibilities, commensurate or even normalized pay scales, performance evaluations, employment benefits such as proper health care, pensions, occupational health insurance, or procedures for resolving conflict. To date, the treatment of postdocs within Canada is inconsistent at best, and largely ignored, at worst."

They also have an excellent FAQ on what a postdoc is, anyway, and how it is classified in Canada. I guess I fall into Category 4: "The Postdoc with no official status."

The thing I don't really understand is why universities are so reluctant to give postdocs better benefits and status. I suppose that classifying postdocs as employees opens the door to the potential of collective bargaining, and who wants that (from the perspective of the administration)? Certainly not York. Unfortunately, postdocs are typically in their late twenties to mid thirties -- prime childbearing age. And in some disciplines (say math) it is not atypical for an individual to rack up four or five years of postdoc before being considered a serious candidate for a full-time (tenure-track) position. It probably isn't the greatest idea to reproduce in your first year or two of a new job, in fact, it is probably best to wait until you actually have tenure, another five or six years. By that time the fertility train may have long since departed.

It is a sad state of affairs in my mind. It seems so openly hostile toward women pursuing academic careers, or indeed toward any individual who wants to take an active role in the early life of their children.

Before I fill this page with complaints though, I will say that I feel lucky to be in a position where the (small) amount I would have been bringing home via EI benefits isn't absolutely critical (due to the fact that P. now has a tenure-track position, and will NOT be taking advantage of the oh-so-generous paternity leave on offer there: time without pay, but that is another can of worms). I also should acknowledge, as I have before, that being a postdoc is a truly excellent job in other ways, especially as a pregnant lady. I don't envy the women in my prenatal yoga class who are working nine to five jobs. It is a luxury to be able to sleep in on the days when the 4am boxercise routine in my belly keeps me up for hours. But the overall situation for postdocs is no good.

Who could provide a better final word than PHD Comics:

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