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Canada vs US postdocs survey

postdoc career decisionWhen I left my postdoc position at the University of Michigan , I had considered joining a lab here in Vancouver. It is something I look into from time to time even now. After all, I loved research and it’s what I’m trained for.

I had asked a few people here what being a Canadian grad student/postdoc is like. They told me how things weren’t as competitive here as in the States. This went along with what I heard about grant funding being easier to come by in Canada.  After all, there’s much fewer people applying to the same grants, so even if the total funding from the government is less, you have more chance of getting funded.  Additionally, people tell me that the professors here are a lot more respectful to their students.

When I left the States, things weren’t going well. Not only were we next to Detroit that was going bankrupt, the government had cut down on grant funding so that almost all the labs were suffering. At the last research meetings I went to late last year, everyone was complaining and getting ready to jump ship:  not to industry, but to other schools, thinking things might be better at a bigger institution. (Not so much….)

Then I got a chance to read the newest report from CAPS-ACSP and Mitacs who surveyed 1,830 Canadian postdocs and I compared it to the Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey project of the 7,600 US postdocs surveyed in 2003-2004.  Now there’s data to back up all the complaints.



The average age for postdocs is 34. There are slightly more males than females. Most are married. One-third have children. Over half of the postdocs are immigrants. 

A few surprises:

Many Canadian postdocs don’t get health/dental plans. I can understand the insurance and pension contributions, but no health care benefits?!  But then wait, it’s Canada. With socialize medicine you can go into any walk-in clinic without having to pay to see a doctor. I still get surprised every time. Additionally, prescription drugs are cheaper here than in the States even with health insurance.  So I guess no health insurance in Canada isn’t AS much of a big deal as in the US.


The majority of “foreign” postdocs in Canada are from the US (9.1%), followed by France (8.2%) and UK (4.9%).  China comes in 4th place at only 4.4%.  For US postdocs on the other hand, 24.9% are Chinese citizens, followed by India at 12%.  I suppose it’s true that Chinese students place very high values on a US degree and very few consider Canada as a potential place to do research unless they have strong ties with Canada.

Untitled4Another thing I’m surprised about is that people are relatively happy with work/life balance in Canada. I know in the states it’s pretty much mandatory that postdocs work nights and weekends and come in on holidays. Work/life balance has always been something of a concern. But then again, I did hear the same concern from UBC students just the other day. Could it be that rather than people being relatively ok with work/life balance compared to other things, what this chart is actually showing us is just how postdocs are pretty unsatisfied about most things, especially benefits as mentioned above.

The expected bad stuff we’ve all been hearing about:

postdoc pay

Postdocs make very little money compared to their level of education.This chart says it all. Postdocs and grad students earn little more than people with only high school diplomas. Yet even now, from time to time, I think about returning to academia to do a postdoc. We can tell ourselves: what we lose in dollars, we gain in pride.

But things have been getting better. Nowadays, even grad students get payed in the $20Ks. But back in 1995, postdocs only made $28,000 a year. That was the year my mother came to the US to get her PhD and supported our family of 3 on only ~$15K a year as a grad student. She and others like her were the best and the brightest from China. The upper class lifestyle I enjoyed under my grandfather’s roof in China was quite different from the free-lunch-from-school-because-we-qualify-as-low-income-family life in the US.

In 2004, the median income for postdocs in the US was $38K, an increase of $10,000 in 10 years. But that increase is likely to stop now as funding from the US government gets tighter and funding becomes more competitive. Perhaps the increased number of grad students each year is adding to the problem since more and more people are competing for the same grants.

In Canada now, 2/3 of postdocs earn <$45k. Not too bad. But compared to an engineer fresh out of college, their starting salaries could be in the $80Ks in the US. Is it worth it in the end? That really depends on where your passions lie and what makes you happy.

The other major issue: There are few faculty positions for a growing number of postdocs; so logically, the majority of postdocs are not going to become professors.  This is a complaint I heard over and over again even as a grad student. Yet, each year the PhD programs are receiving more applications and accepting more students.  Since the majority of the PhDs can’t become faculty members, where will they go?

Untitled2The training we receive are specially geared towards a career in academia, though not to say that you don’t gain valuable skills in academia that serves you well in the outside world. Yet, perhaps because academia is so closed off from the “real world”, people don’t feel prepared for anything other than a straight path further into academia towards the coveted but potentially non-existent faculty positions.  That’s why resources such as this blog and other websites are so important in providing “a way out” to show that all is not lost.  I know of quite a few miserable people who have been a postdoc for way too long, earning very little money and finding little joy in their likely dead-end career. But there ARE so many opportunities out there for people who has a PhD.

The chart here from the 2003 Sigma Xi survey I find fascinating.  While for each skill, there is a large percentage of people who felt that they had no training for it during their time as postdocs, it is still possible to gain these skills in a lab setting. Sure not everyone will get the opportunity to obtain access to workshops or coursework for these skills, it is still possible to create opportunities and take on responsibilities proactively to gain such skills. But then again, it really depends on what your PI is like. Some Profs consider their grad students and postdocs’ time their own. So any time taken to do something that’s not helping their research is a waste of time. Sometimes even grant writing is considered a waste of time away from bench work and is discouraged. That way, it becomes even harder for postdocs and grad students to advance their careers.

But as I’ve found out myself, there are always opportunities if you know where to look. And where there isn’t, you just have to make ones for yourself.


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