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I graduated with my PhD in ecology in the fall of 2011, and was one of the lucky 9% of applicants to be awarded an NSERC post-doctoral fellowship.  My current position comes to an end in 5 months, which means I’ve beating the bushes for more funding for salary since last September.  The academic job market in Canada for early-career researchers is, in a word, abysmal.  Most universities employ only one or two researchers who use birds as their study organism (regardless of whether the researchers call themselves “ornithologists”, “population ecologists”, “behavioural ecologists” or some other moniker).  So until these individuals start retiring, there’s little hope for landing a term, let alone tenure-track, appointment.  Of the 10 or so academic jobs for which I was even remotely qualified in 2011-12, I received one interview (which was noted as being extraordinary), and no job offer.  This year to date, it’s been another 10 applications, and 2 government exams, but still no bites.  So postdoc-ing it is.

A major source of postdoc money for ecology in Canada comes from NSERC.  In 2012, the success rate of the 1254 applicants to NSERC’s post-doctoral fellowship program was 7.8%.  That’s 98 NSERC-funded postdocs, of which I classified 11 as ecologists.  To top it off, NSERC has revised its guidelines so that individuals may only apply once in their career for an NSERC PDF (which itself falls only a few years after reducing the funding for masters students in the PGS/CGS-M program to 12 months).  The end result will be PhDs putting off their NSERC applications for a few years until all those PhD papers are out, and ultimately making it harder for recently-minted doctors of philosophy to apply for fear of brutal competition from later early-career researchers.

There’s the Banting Post-doctoral Fellowships program, a prestigious award, of which 70 are awarded annually among the three Canadian funding councils (NSERC, SSHRC, and CIHR).  Last year, 21 of these were to NSERC applicants, of which one or two could be considered ecologists.  Not great odds there, even if one’s application is endorsed by the university (can be < 50% of institutional applicants).  I was one of the “lucky” ones, after spending a month putting together an application that my university endorsed.  The result: ranked 146/180, with 23 fellowships awarded.

Well, there’s always the NSERC Industrial R&D Fellowship (IRDF).  Researchers in my field have often paired with a non-profit research-based NGO.  At least they could up to 01 December 2012, when not-for-profit organizations are no longer eligible to be host organizations for IRDF fellows.  There are not a lot of companies doing work in ecological research that would quality to host an IRDF position.

Finally, there’s the Visiting Fellows in Government Laboratories (VF) program.  What’s not readily apparent is that NSERC provides no funding for this program at all – the salary and research costs must be borne by the government supervisor out of his/her base research funds.  Finding an extra $47,000 per year is no small task, especially with overall reductions to government research funding at Fisheries & Oceans, and Environment Canada, and the increasing trend of using contracts.

I was a recipient of an NSERC post-graduate scholarship during my PhD, and now I hold a post-doctoral fellowship.  NSERC has invested over $140,000 in my training and development as a scientist and contributing member to the Canadian research community (this is not counting any input from my supervisors’ NSERC Discovery grants, for example).  By the time the various research costs of a MSc, PhD, and one year of a post-doc are thrown in, the overall amount easily doubles, if not triples.

My research has no direct possibility for commercialization, and doesn’t affect economic policy – it’s basic and applied research in ecology, and conservation.  A 2009 survey by the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS) found that half of all respondents were paid from their supervisors’ research grants, while only 18% received their salary from the Tri-Council funding agencies.  Given that the mean NSERC Discovery grant in Ecology & Evolution is about $28,000 per year, being paid by one’s supervisor isn’t a viable option for most postdocs (or, in fact, most faculty).

Times are tough for post-doctoral ecologists in Canada.  That’s not to say that times aren’t though for other research disciplines – I’m sure it is.  But with unprecedented global ecological change, urgent conservation needs for Canada’s biodiversity (especially in the Arctic, where working is already expensive), and a reduction in government’s scientific capacity, something’s got to change.

So for the interim, it’s looking like piecemeal contract work, prolonged employment uncertainty.  I don’t pretend like I’m the only one facing the situation of a brutal job market, reduction in postdoc funding opportunities, and gutting of federal scientific research, but it sure does hit home when I have to find a way for my 6-year-old laptop to keep chugging along a little longer

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