Unmuzzled Postdoc


I was lucky enough to be contacted by someone doing a Visiting Fellowship at a government lab recently who was willing to share their experiences “from the inside”. Always welcome of another perspective, I think this is a valuable one for anyone considering ticking the VF box on their NSERC postdoctoral applications, and provides some valuable information to let people know what they’re getting into.


Postdocs are a desperate bunch. We’re in the weird in-between world of not quite students, but not yet in permanent employ. Many of us float around for a few years (a little contact work here, a bit of consulting there…) in the search for a steady income.

With the success rates of NSERC postdocs at an all-time low, many of us are turning to alternative funding options, including the “Visiting Fellow in Government Labs” program that’s run through NSERC. It sounds appealing – $47,000 a year to work with high-calibre government scientists on applied questions. But there’s another side.

First off, NSERC contributes $0 to the VF program.  Yes, that’s $0.  All the funding comes from the government researcher’s budget.  So while you can apply to the VF program through NSERC and get put on a list of “pre-approved” candidates, until someone with $47,000 comes along, you’re out of luck. NSERC basically acts as a screening tool, and an annoying façade.

You see, even if you do partner with a government scientist (either before you apply, or from the pre-approved candidates list), the first line in your letter of offer will be something like “nothing in this letter of offer is to be construed as an offer of employment with the Government of Canada”. What?  Here’s how it works.

The government department that wants to “hire” you passes the $47,000 on to NSERC, who then dishes it out to you in convenient monthly instalments.  NSERC acts like the middleman.  And what does this mean for you? You’re not considered an employee. Except when you are. Stay with me.

Government postdocs through the VF program aren’t considered employees for what I would call the benefits – you can’t apply for internal job competitions, you don’t pay into the pension, and receive no benefits.  In my department, this also means I can’t get access to my work email anywhere but my Windows XP desktop at work (and the firewall keeps me from checking any other web-based email).  As postdocs, we’re often working long/odd hours at home, or trying to wrap up that manuscript in the evenings or whenever we have time.  Not so. But wait, there’s more!

As a government postdoc, you’re held to the same policies and standards as your pension-earning, full-time indeterminate boss.  This includes talking with media & the public, and travel.

Postdocs are supposed to be networking with other professionals, and trying to find work.  This often happens at scientific conferences, but imagine trying to plan your travel when it all has to be approved by several levels of management, could be denied, or even granted too late to go (or if you do go, the cost is insane).  Obviously not good for early-career researchers.

There’s no formal orientation to all of this – you’re expected to stumble through it on your own (or have your immediate boss explain things to you).  But many research scientists (or even entire divisions) have had so little experience with the VF program that they’re learning along with you.  In a perfect world, the VF program would be a gateway to identify likely candidates for federal research jobs, but sadly, the program’s potential is lost on the vast majority of people that make such decisions.

But if you choose to go down this route (and trust me, it’s not all bad), here are a few tips from the other side:

-expect a bureaucratic nightmare for at least your first month. Security clearance for your building, setting up your computer/email address, and whatnot will take longer than you might think.

-unlike all of your other payroll deposits, the first one will be a paper cheque, so check your mailbox (or see your admin staff if they squirrel cheques away somewhere safe)

-the environment is VERY different from what you might know from a university.  There are no undergraduates, and very few grad students/other postdocs.  Everything you do that might have been covered by your university department (e.g., phone, photocopying, stationary) is now tied to your supervisor’s research budget.

-talk with your boss ASAP about any travel you want to do; 6 months’ lead-time is not uncommon (especially for international travel).

Being a government postdoc can give you a unique perspective from another side of the research table, and it can be very rewarding.  Just be prepared, because it’s not what you expect.

-Muzzled Postdoc