The (false) headline conveys the sporting analog of NSERC’s new policy on Postdoctoral Fellowship Competitions:

Effective as of the 2013 competition, you can only apply once to the NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowships (PDF) Program; however, applicants whose first PDF application was submitted prior to the 2013 competition may submit a second application provided they are within the eligibility window.

What’s going on? Why would Canada choose to limit the pool of participants competing for advanced training opportunities in science and engineering? A recent letter to the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars by NSERC’s Director (Scholarships and Fellowships Division) Serge Villemure gives the following reasons:

In recent years, NSERC has seen a growing disparity between the number of applications submitted to the Postdoctoral Fellowships (PDF) program and the number of awards available. As a result, NSERC has decided to reduce the maximum number of applications an individual may submit in a lifetime to its PDF program from two to one. This change to the eligibility rules will contribute to a better alignment between both the number of applications submitted and the awards available, thereby streamlining the application and review processes. Limiting the number of applications an individual may submit to the program will not impact the the current budget projections or the number of anticipated awards available.

The success rate for the postdoctoral fellowships competition in 2011 was 9.3% and in 2012 the rate was 7.8%. (The tables and visualizations are appended below.) Another strategy to confront the “growing disparity” is to invest more money into Canadian human capacity for research and development by expanding the number of awards. However, changes in NSERC policy over the past decade have transferred investment away from its mission supporting discovery and the training of highly qualified personnel into many new programs aimed at commercialization of research. Restricting Canada’s young scientists to one postdoctoral fellowship competition per lifetime has “better alignment” with the transfer of funds toward commercialization, but it is a bad policy change.

Funding support for graduate programs from Ontario (and likely from other provinces too?) is frequently limited to four years. This means that faculty and departments are under pressure to have their graduate students complete their PhD in four years. Unfortunately, many students do not meet this timeline. Funds to pay for extensions of PhD studies into a fifth and sometimes a sixth year must come from other sources and are often uncertain, conditional upon adequate progress, and may involve expanded teaching responsibilities. Graduate students know all this.

Consider the point of view of a graduate student. Suppose the key advances for the student’s thesis are completed during the summer between the third and fourth year of studies and the student starts writing the thesis during the Fall of the fourth year. The funding uncertainty for the fifth year motivates the student to want to finish the PhD in the fourth year. To maintain a career in science, the student needs to also spend that Fall preparing job and fellowship applications, a process that can take up a lot of time and mental energy. The student’s application materials (research statement, letters of recommendation, thesis abstract) will be not as strong as they would be if the thesis were entirely nailed down. Nevertheless, the funding uncertainty for the fifth motivates the student to submit postdoc applications in the fourth year.

What happens next? In this situation, students sometimes get a postdoc but more frequently don’t. When they don’t, they stay on for another year and often make substantial advances. Their science comes together during the fourth year and the summer thereafter. They have a working draft of their thesis at the start of the fifth year and can concentrate on applications. Instead of merely talking about the student’s potential, the letters of recommendation can reference accomplishments. Students who fail to land a postdoc offer in their fourth year often emerge as extremely strong candidates in the next year.

PhD students will soon be asking graduate advisers for advice: should I apply for an NSERC postdoc now or should I wait until next year? The right answer was both. Under the new policy, the answer is not clear. A certain outcome: some excellent candidates will be forbidden to enter the competition because they applied the year before.

NSERC’s new one-postdoc-competition-per-lifetime rule combined with the funding uncertainties around fifth and sixth year support are a lethal combination. The victim is Canada’s scientific research capacity.


I’ve set up a “hive” on BuzzData (an open social media platform for discussions around data) focused on NSERC. My view is that there is a need for respectful discussion about Canada’s research and development policy driven by transparent data. So far, there are four public Datarooms devoted to the following topics:

Others are welcome to join the hive.

NSERC Funded PDFs data (Thanks David Kent.)

  • Awards/Applicants (Year)
  • 250 / 1169 (08)
  • 254 / 1220 (09)
  • 286 / 1341 (10)
  • 133 / 1431 (11)
  • 98 / 1254 (12)

(Extracted from NSERC’s Scholarships and Fellowships Competition Results.)

The acronyms appearing in the tables are defined as follows:

  • CGS M/PGS M (one-year scholarship for the first or second year of graduate studies);
  • CGS D2/PGS D2 (two-year scholarship tenable during the first five years of doctoral studies);
  • CGS D3/PGS D3 (three-year scholarship tenable during the first five years of doctoral studies); and
  • PDF (two-year postdoctoral fellowship).

Visualizations by Brent Pym:

  2012-08-21 Addendum (New visualizations by Brent Pym.)