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Commentary / Postdoctoral precarity and ethical quandary

Commentary / Postdoctoral precarity and ethical quandary

By Andrea Reid

“Learning is super cool,” said a student as she was leaving my office one sunny afternoon this past March. Nearing the end of her undergraduate degree, she was considering applying for graduate school. Knowing I had recently completed a PhD, she came to my office prepared with thoughtful questions about my experiences and decisions I made along the way.

My student was beginning to see herself differently. Academic theory and dialogue were opening a new way of understanding the world. Graduate school seemed like an exciting avenue for further exploring the wonders and insights of reflective inquiry. That afternoon, we had an energizing conversation about teaching, learning and thinking that reminded me why I chose to pursue a PhD.

Our interaction also raised ethical questions: How can I offer a realistic picture of graduate education and its prospects without crushing a student’s dreams? What are my responsibilities as a postdoctoral fellow and adjunct professor in a position to influence students, but with little power to affect conditions within the university at large?

I love critical theory and I believe in the value of higher education. A moment of insight or inspiration in an undergraduate classroom can ignite a life-long love of learning that becomes intimately bound up with a deeper part of the self, generating emotional and psychic investments in a certain vision of academic life. It is the strength of these affective ties, however, that make academic workers susceptible to exploitation.

Rather than the beginning of an exciting life of intellectual and emotional enrichment, Adrianna Kezar, Daniel Scott, and Tom DePaola argue that “graduate school is merely the first stage of a long victimization process that leverages fear of sunk costs to keep highly trained scholars trapped in a casual labor market that was actively and not accidentally built.”

Long-term structural changes within higher education have led to the proliferation of precarious employment, particularly for those in teaching positions. At Queen’s University where I work, 41% of classes are taught by adjunct staff, a percentage that will presumably increase with the administration’s recent freeze on the hiring of full-time positions.

Unsurprisingly, many doctoral students come out of their PhDs feeling disillusioned and demoralized, feelings that carry over into postdoctoral life. Beat down by years of grant rejections, financial insecurity, and the poor job prospects that await them, the end of the PhD can feel less like a significant milestone and more like an existential crisis.

I have had several conversations with friends who, upon finishing their PhDs, are questioning not only the value of the contributions they can make to the world but also their capabilities and intelligence in general. What is happening here goes far beyond imposter syndrome, indicative of a serious problem with the doctoral experience and the academic system more broadly.

Since the 1970s, Canadian universities have consistently increased the number of doctoral programs and degrees granted while simultaneously decreasing the number of full-time and tenure-track positions. Consequently, more PhDs are taking on extended postdoctoral fellowships, positions that function more as a source of cheap labour and less as a stepping-stone to secure employment.

At Queen’s, for example, the minimum postdoc salary is currently $35,958, equivalent to $18.69 per hour for a 37- hour workweek. Postdocs are also denied access to on-campus health care services and are barred from applying for the university’s community housing.

Like me, many postdocs also work as term adjuncts and supervise undergraduate students. These student-facing roles put us in the ethically ambiguous position of encouraging interest in academic research, knowing that we might lead students into similarly precarious positions.

As universities across Canada hosted a series of receptions and showcases for National Postdoc Appreciation Week, postdoctoral fellows at Queen’s, represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada, prepared to enter bargaining. No longer restricted by Bill 124, we are pressing for fair wages that keep up with the cost of living and asking for basic rights like access to health care.

We don’t want fancy receptions. We want the resources to support ourselves and our families. Research showcases make universities look good but don't alter the material conditions of our lives. By taking our concerns seriously, universities have a chance to show sincere appreciation for the work that postdocs do and improve our working conditions.


Andrea Reid is a post-doctoral fellow and adjunct professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University.

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