Postdocs on the margin

ShaunKhoo belinda-lay (1)  Dr Shaun Khoo and Dr Belinda Lay are behavioural neuroscientists who have been working in Canada since 2017.
Shaun works at the University of Montreal and his ORCID is 0000-0002-0972-3788.
Belinda works at Concordia University and her ORCID is 0000-0003-0522-9480.

Photo by Brendan Church | unsplash.com
Photo by Brendan Church | unsplash.com

Looking for an international postdoc? Watch out for the not-student, not-employee trap!

You’d think that when you finish your PhD you’d finally stop being “just a student”. After all, once you have completed your university’s Higher Degree Research programme, there is no such thing as an Even-Higher Degree Research programme (at least in Australia). However, if you embark on an overseas postdoc, as many Australian PhDs do, you may soon discover that you are very wrong.

In Canada, but also other many other parts of the world, postdocs can be simultaneously classified as both employees and students. This can be a confusing situation to be in, especially if you’re used to the Australian system where if you’re going to get a degree, you’re a student, but otherwise you’re a worker. Having spent nearly 5 years postdoc-ing in Canada, we would like to help our fellow travellers figure out this conundrum so you can have a better idea of things to watch out for if you’re considering a postdoc position overseas .

Taxing times

One of the biggest differences between a student and an employee is tax. A PhD student who wins a $35,000 Canada Graduate Scholarship gets $35,000. But a postdoc who wins a $40,000 fellowship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research pays over $3,000 in federal tax, leaving them barely better off than the PhD student. Before 2010, the classification of postdocs was more ambiguous and some Canadian postdocs were claiming federal income tax exemptions. But then the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars decided to formally ask for clarification. The move backfired and, since 2010, postdocs in Canada have been consistently classified as employees for federal tax purposes.

Unlike Australia, Canadians can get taxed at both the federal and provincial level. At the provincial level, if we’re being paid by a fellowship scheme that is filling in its provincial tax slips correctly, the Quebec government thinks we’re students and lets us go tax free. But at other times, the Quebec government thinks we’re employees and taxes our income. In that case, once provincial taxes are taken out as well. Postdocs can quite easily get taxed into even greater poverty than PhD students.

Sometimes an employee, sometimes a student

Universities classify postdocs as both employees and students at different times. This often has frustrating effects that can directly impact on both productivity and wellbeing. Sometimes, our universities treat us as students. For example, as postdocs, we have had to pay fees to be issued with a student ID card or apply for admission to our programme. At other times, we are treated as employees and forced to pay into the university pension plan. But if we want to see our wages rise, like other employees, that’s a hard no.

The student/employee trap can also get in the way of doing our jobs. When the University transitioned to Office 365 in early 2021, one of us lost access to university email. The reason? “You’re not an employee.” It took over a week to resolve, involving supervisors, department chairs, HR and IT. Sadly, the fix was incomplete because a couple of months later, while having difficulty accessing the university VPN to remote access lab computers, IT once again replied, “You’re not an employee.”

In fact, software licensing in general is a time when universities are happy to classify postdocs as students. Most universities will purchase site licences for major software packages. These can get quite expensive, so some software will be available to both staff and students while other, usually more specialist research packages, will be for staff only. As postdocs, we’re more likely to need the specialist research software but, for the purposes of software licensing, we are again not employees.

We’re not always students either. We are not eligible for discounted student rates for public transport. If we wanted to enrol in the international student health plan and access its benefits, we wouldn’t be able to. After all, we’re not students. But this means that if we want or need additional health insurance coverage, we miss out on the discounted student insurance policy and have to pay full retail price. Many postdocs are likely skipping this coverage altogether due to cost, meaning that graduate students can have better access to healthcare than we do as postdocs.

There is a pattern here

The classification of postdocs as students has absolutely no basis in our day-to-day roles. Postdocs do not take courses and do not get a degree or graduate at the end. Canada’s federal government is right – postdocs are not students but professionals in a period of paid training. Our pay may not match that of doctors or lawyers, who have an analogous career stage, but that discrepancy should be highlighted as a reason to raise our pay so it is commensurate with our qualifications and skills.

Instead, the very clear pattern for postdocs is that whether you’re a student or an employee depends on which one best benefits and protects institutions. If being an employee is convenient for the university, like when postdocs do research that attracts funding and prestige, then maybe a postdoc is an employee. But if calling a postdoc an employee means having to give us access to an email account, VPN connection or more expensive software, we are suddenly not-employees. In that case, it’s usually convenient to call us students so they can justify not paying us well or charging bogus fees. But if it means giving us any kind of benefit as a student, we are once again employees (or at least, not-students).

Avoid the not-student, not-employee trap

If you are considering an overseas postdoc, watch out for the not-student, not-employee trap. Universities love to promote themselves as inclusive, welcoming and supportive but then systematically exclude postdocs from both employee and student benefits. So, even if you find a great supervisor or research team who can give you valuable experience, consider whether the institution will also treat you as a valued employee or just another piece of cheap disposable labour.

3 comments

    • Hi Jenny

      In Australia, postdocs tend to be classified clearly as employees. I don’t think there is much ambiguity about it – the pay is from the university on the university’s pay scales.

      In the US I believe the situation is more like Canada.

      In Europe I am not too sure but I haven’t heard anyone complaining about the ambiguous classification over there.

      Liked by 1 person

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