Paying dues

The PSAC (Public Service Alliance of Canada) has taken it upon themselves to recruit a new group of people to the unionized world: post-doctoral fellows. A call to all has gone out to sign a letter to President and Vice-Chancellor Amit Chakma to show your support for 35 “workers” at the University of Western Ontario.

Let’s read the letter shall we:

“I am writing to support Postdoctoral Associates at the University of Western Ontario and urge you to negotiate a fair contract with these workers as soon as possible.

Postdoctoral Associates at UWO have some of the worst working conditions on campus.

These highly-educated scholars do cutting edge research for UWO and have been trying for two years to negotiate a first collective agreement with the university.

Now, after 24 months at the bargaining table, postdocs are being told that they deserve to earn not even $1 an hour above the minimum wage in Ontario. It is shameful that the university is offering a guaranteed salary of only $25,000 per year for a 44-hour work week. That’s only $10.93 an hour, just 68 cents above the minimum wage – and $21.57 an hour less than UWO pays its Teaching Assistants, who are graduate students!

I am appalled to hear that UWO wants to deny postdocs the basic rights and working conditions that are enjoyed by all other full-time employees of the university. The Postdoctoral Associates are asking for a decent benefits plan, reasonable rules to govern overtime pay and an adequate number of sick days.

Faculty, administrative staff and tradespeople at UWO have access to a full extended health care plan, including prescription drug, dental and vision care benefits; overtime after 37.5 or 40 hours in a week; family-related leave; and up to 15 weeks of sick leave.

Postdoctoral Associates are asking only for working conditions on par with other employees on campus. After spending more than a decade earning at least three academic degrees, these workers deserve fair treatment and reasonable compensation.

I urge you to negotiate a fair contract for Postdoctoral Associates at UWO.” 

AHHHH!! AHHH!!! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagghhughguhugh-flurble!

Neat. Not only is the union being disingenuous, but they are misleading the public to think that there is an issue here. For the layman, a postdoc is a recent graduate of a PhD program who is working towards an academic career. Post doc positions usually last one to two years and is then followed by a professorship running a research program and teaching or other bigger and better things. To be clear, this is not a permanent position.

Post docs are like Higgs Boson particles. No one's quite sure what they are, we know they're there because of the work they do, and when you do get a hold of one, they're gone before you're able to study them.

First, postdocs are salary workers, with open hours. To calculate this as an hourly wage is not accurate – post-docs show up when they want, go home when they want, and work as hard as they would like. If they want to work a 80 hour work week (as one of our friends was prone to doing) they are welcome to. If they want to go see a movie in the middle of the day (as another had a propensity for), go for it! Furthermore, to compare this salary to the TA hourly wage is apples to oranges. Teaching assistants are a part time job and are there to supplement the grad student income (in Flora’s department, grad students make $15-17k a year), while taking a load off the professor. Representing the information as “less than TAs make” implies that the TAs are making 3x as much as post-docs, which is not the case at all.

The wage referred to in this letter is the university’s minimum standard to allow post docs to live more comfortably than they did as grad students. Please note, however, that it is not the money the university is paying, but rather, the guaranteed minimum for post-docs negotiating a contract with the principle investigator (PI, the professor who runs the lab) they’re working under. This monetary value is also variable by department – although the university standard may be a certain number, many departments choose to exceed this in order to attract students to the program. Most important to note is that this salary is paid, not be the university, but the post doc’s supervisor. This money comes out of the PI’s operating budget, the majority of which is federal and provincial research grants. The university is only creating the minimum code, and any department, institution or PI are welcome to create their own standards which exceed that minimum.

Also not forthcoming in this letter is the fact that the majority of postdocs receive grants and funding from other sources, which again, exceed the university’s minimum. These funding sources are not guaranteed, of course, as they are competitive. The student must apply to different organizations and win this funding, based on their research accolades and academic merit. However, these awards are common and pay reasonably well. The Heart and Stroke Foundation’s post-doctoral fellowship award is a $40k/annum stipend for two years. The Big Three federal funding bodies (CIHR/NSERC/SSHRC) offer prestigious awards ranging from $50-70k/annum. All other post doc awards that I’m aware of remain in the $35-80k/annum range. All of these awards are non-taxable. For those of you playing along at home, by the union’s arbitrary calculations, that’s $15-35/hour for a 44 hour work week. Fortunate graduate students with independent funding get $7. Fuck off.

From Piled Higher and Deeper

Of course, it’s not just about the money. Post docs are fellowships. This means that they are independent to the University but still hold the title of student. Like other professions (Medical, engineering, etc.) a graduate does not receive full accreditation to practice their discipline until they can prove their competence in practical application. Engineering, for example, requires a person to work for four years under a qualified engineer before they can stamp drawings. For the four years, the individual enters a fellowship with the Engineering firm where they receive nominal pay and training on all aspects of their discipline. Science is the same way. During this time, the post doc learns new techniques they can apply to their own future research program, gains practical independent research experience, and buffs their publications and awards record. It is nearly impossible to begin your own research program without one, and recent university cutbacks have lead many talented academics to do multiple post-docs to pad their CV sufficiently to receive an academic position.

Pictured: Flora, Circa 2016

Entering a contract with a Union as a post doc could be detrimental to their careers. Science in Canada is struggling as it is, with the Conservative government clawing back funding in all sectors of research, making money availability tighter than ever. PIs with well established research programs, doing ground breaking research are losing major funding sources. 30 years ago, the top 25% of funding applications were funded – now 10% is the norm. Not only would demanding more money out of the pockets of PIs result in them being unable to hire post-docs, but it hurts the post-docs themselves. If you are unhappy with your university’s minimum standard, it is your job to make yourself an attractive applicant for funding. Coddling post-docs and saying there, there, you can have $40k a year too without needing to work hard utterly defeats the point of the post doc (padding your CV), and shoots them in the foot for when they do gain an academic position. If you do not know how to obtain funding as a post doc, life only gets harder as a professor. Funding is based on your hard work and initiative, as it should be. The university’s minimum salary is there to prevent PIs from forcing post docs into slavery. I would be shocked if a significant number of post docs ever received such a salary, as even the “bad” funding sources seem to give $40k/annum.

Let’s also be clear that if the postdoc wanted more money, they could work in the private sector rather than for the university. Research is a tough world – everyone in academia knows this. Graduate students are drilled over and over again – funding is hard to get. Research is hard to do. It does not pay well, you will have no outside life. Most prominent researchers who talk to students actively discourage them from pursing science, unless they really, really love doing it. Grad students are prepared for the ups and downs of their academic future. These people are there because they want to be there and money is not and should not be a factor.

From Dent Cartoons

“The university does not want to give them benefits or a reasonable number of sick days.”

As I said above, the hours are open ended for these fellows. They can come and go as they please as long as after the 1-2 years they demonstrate progress in their area of research. As mentioned earlier we know postdocs that show up when they feel like it, and others who work nearly 20 hours a day. Both enjoy their position and both demonstrate exceptional research when asked to do so. Again, it’s also important to remember that this is merely the minimum standard. Most PIs are not unreasonable and freely give stress leave, sick leave, maternity leave, etc, regardless of these minimum standards. Happy students means a productive lab.

“Postdocs have the worst working conditions on campus – their hourly wages are lower than student teaching assistants, housekeepers and clerks”

The working conditions are the same as every one else. They work in labs, libraries, coffee shops, and even their own homes. So, maybe they are dirty people but that does not mean the university should go clean up the bedrooms of all the PhD students on campus. Flora is presently working long hours on her thesis and is getting paid to do so – if she cared about an hourly wage, she could work 2 hours per day and be paid handsomely, or she could (as she is doing) work hard and get it done. It’s also important to reiterate that this wage is dependant on merit and is standardized by the university in the same way minimum wage is controlled by the government. If these fellows want more money, it is only a few funding applications way.

“After spending more than a decade earning at least three academic degrees, these workers deserve fair treatment and reasonable compensation.”

Most PhDs don’t also have a Masters. The majority transfer to the PhD program from an MSc. Either way, a PhD does not require an MSc (merely an honours Bachelor’s degree or enrolment in a Masters) so certainly these individuals do not hold at least three. They hold at least two. Indeed, this concluding statement only seeks to further reinforce that this is a poorly informed letter, reactionary, and based on gross misrepresentation of academia, either intentionally or unintentionally. Unionizing post docs will only serve to damage their career in the long term by reducing the number of post doc positions available, and fails the primary objective of post doctoral training – preparing them for the real world.

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One response

  1. When I initially left a comment I appear to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on whenever a comment is added I get 4 emails with the same comment. Is there a means you are able to remove me from that service? Thank you.

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