A Few Thoughts on SSHRC Changes to Grad/Postdoc Support: A Mixed Bag

Taking a break from the normal technical and history blogging, I wanted to weigh in on the changes that were announced this morning to SSHRC’s support for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. These programs were one of the most important supports during my graduate and early career stages, and as a beneficiary of a few of them I wanted to weigh in. These are critical changes, changing the terrain for people that have built career anticipations on the existing system, and a series of very real human impacts are going to flow out of them.

What is problematic?

Many of the postdoc changes are distressing and need some clarification. This is a critically important program, and all of this needs to be layered on top of the overall declining success rate (it was ~ 25% in 2006-07, down to 20% by 2008-09, and then 15% in the most recent 2011-12 competition).

Most importantly to me, this provision needs some tweaking and readjustment (emphasis is mine): “Adjust the SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship eligibility criteria to limit eligibility to applicants applying within two years of completion of the PhD (instead of the current three-year window), and to those who have not previously held a postdoctoral fellowship from any source.”

Many currently employed postdocs are, in effect, holding postdoctoral positions that are ‘postdocs’ in name only. The digital humanities is replete with postdoctoral opportunities that are essentially staff positions in libraries and research centres (as Miriam Posner eloquently pointed out). These are often incredible opportunities for professional development and building an alt-ac career, but they  are not highly-intensive research-focused positions like the SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship. Taking an otherwise named staff position would not disqualify one. Similarly, other postdoctoral fellowships are essentially Contractually-Limited Positions (CLAs) or Visiting Assistant Professorships (VAPs) (I’ve picked the first 3/3 teaching load postdoc I could find through a search engine, but it’s far from alone): they have taken the postdoc moniker to increase positional prestige, but in essence offer high teaching loads and little research support.

Similarly, postdocs are not all equal in length. Would taking a three-month postdoc disqualify somebody? What about a year? One is already taking a gamble on a SSHRC postdoctoral application, why add the extra dimension of not taking a short-term postdoc that might disqualify one for this longer one?

Would somebody who took such a postdoc be disqualified? Presumably, if they had been contract teaching under similar contractual conditions they would not be. This needs to be clarified.

Secondly, the window is now shrunk to two years rather than three. Many graduate students engage in a delicate dance around when they apply, choosing to forgo and application in order to maximize their chances of success in the following competitions. Without a grandfathering clause, some students have had expectations suddenly shifted under them. While this is unavoidable in any regulation change, given that this affects careers (subsidized by public monies), some pause would have been in order on this front.

Otherwise, the changes are okay. The purported increase in value from $38,000 per annum to $40,500 per annum is okay, although it’s made common by the removal of the $5,000 research allowance. That said, given that research allowances are currently delivered as salary (and presumably thus taxable), this is probably a positive move.

What is probably good?

For graduate funding, the decision to let SSHRC Doctoral Fellowships be taken at any point during a five-year period is a good change: too often, we front load our graduate student funding (during course work and comprehensive exams), and let funding support reduce during the crucial research and writing phase. That said, the four-year window of the SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship was a real breather for humanities graduates.

The programs continue to move towards a short timeframe goal for graduate education. While I think this is generally a good thing, programs need to react: we can’t give students a four-year funding window, without the supports and program structure to allow completion during that timeframe.

These are just a few quick thoughts on the program.

4 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on SSHRC Changes to Grad/Postdoc Support: A Mixed Bag

  1. Great post, Ian. I wonder also about the ramifications in the language they use around moving to a ‘co-delivery’ model for postdocs akin to PhD and MA scholarship funding; will this tie a postdoc more firmly to a specific institution? I have heard of situations in the past where postdoc holders have had changes in support, or lack thereof, from a host institution, or personal situations, affect their planned research path, and SSHRC allowed them to shift to another institution rather seamlessly. This sounds like it will be much less possible in their new model, which, though a minority of cases, could be problematic.

  2. Hi Jamie,

    I was curious about that and asked around on twitter. It appears that what this means is that they’re going to a two-stage adjudication. Right now, with SSHRC graduate student applications, universities divide them into two lists: the A-list sent on for national evaluation, the B-list that’s not.

    Postdocs are different: everybody gets put into the pool. This way, the university will winnow the pile first.

    I’m not terribly enamoured with this model, to be honest, but it certainly fits into the overall thrust to get the pile of applicants smaller!

  3. Ah ok, thanks for the clarification. The risk is certainly to simply replicate results, rather than actually reflect growth of candidates during the course of a PhD. I wonder if there are other ways to help ‘winnow’ the pool at the national level?

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