Postdoctoral fellows at Canada's largest university will soon find themselves facing better working conditions and--finally--official status.

On 27 June, the University of Toronto's (U of T's) Governing Council endorsed a proposal whereby postdocs would be considered as "trainees," begin receiving benefits (a dental and drug plan and access to athletics facilities) "at a favourable rate," and receive a minimum stipend of $25,000 per year. The policy is designed to ensure that working conditions for postdocs are stated clearly and, more importantly, guaranteed in a contract.

The new policy, which can be found in the two "Post-Doctoral Fellows" documents listed here, becomes effective 1 September. For the first time, postdocs will be registered and tracked through a central office that will also coordinate trainee workshops, such as career-planning sessions. Existing postdocs at U of T can continue to work under their original terms until 30 June 2004, when the policy is expected to be fully implemented.

The policy is viewed as a significant step forward for the more than 1000 postdocs at the university, and it comes almost 3 years after a 13-member task force was convened to address the issues of postdoctoral guidelines or lack thereof. Task Force chair Umberto de Boni was reported as saying that the new policy clearly outlines postdocs' obligations as well as rights and demonstrates that the university recognizes their contribution to research and the university culture as a whole.

But not all postdocs think that they got the best deal possible. "I think the health and dental benefits are definitely needed, but earning $25,000 seems pretty bleak especially in an expensive location like Toronto," says Vlado Zeman, a postdoc in the chemistry department at U of T.

Vice provost Vivek Goel tells Next Wave Canada that the minimum stipend "was felt to be the immediate initial level that could be borne by all disciplines." While stipends in many disciplines are already higher than this level, according to Goel, some postdocs are currently earning "well below this minimum level." The university administration will apparently review stipend levels on an annual basis.

A perhaps more contentious issue in the policy is the defined period of appointment. In accordance with the stringent policies set out by the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and McGill University in Montreal, the U of T policy states that postdoc appointments should be set for a maximum 3-year period and can be extended for an additional 3 years only in "special circumstances." The reasoning for this, says Goel, is that the university considers that postdocs are in a transition between doctoral training and a permanent position, and therefore "2 to 3 years should be the norm." "This is meant to benefit postdocs and avoid their exploitation," he adds. Goel hopes it may even encourage postdocs to gain different experience in other institutions.

The new policy encompasses those postdocs who are on the university campus. As for postdocs at affiliated hospitals and research institutes, Goel expects that they would be covered by their home institution's policies. Nevertheless, the administration hopes to eventually reach a harmonization agreement with affiliated sites to ensure that the same minimum set of protections for postdocs is in place at each institution. "We would work together with those institutions to identify what those minimum protections would be," Goel explains.

This could prove to be a sticking point for some affiliates who already consider themselves well ahead of the game in terms of postdoctoral guidelines. Amira Klip is director of the Research Training Centre (RTC) at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. In the last 2 years, RTC established a comprehensive set of guidelines for postdoctoral appointments. The RTC guidelines differ from the proposed U of T standards on several key issues, including the duration of appointment (up to 6 years), a minimum salary of $35,000, and employee status for postdocs. Klip tells Next Wave Canada that the principles are integral to RTC's training mission and cannot be changed, and therefore "the process of harmonization will have to take into account our differences and respect them." On a more conciliatory note, Klip says, "We are happy to share our process with U of T and to learn from them where we have not made progress yet." Any dialogue generated between university administration and its affiliates would surely only further improve the postdocs' lot.