It's no secret that landing a full-time academic job at a university in Canada can be difficult. At the best of times, it is highly competitive. Many postdocs are searching for alternatives that allow them to stay within their chosen fields but keep their career options open. With positions at universities at a premium, many postdocs are looking to span the gap by turning to government programs. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) is offering early career scientists and engineers postdoc fellowships to work with research groups and leaders in Canadian government laboratories and research institutions.

The Visiting Fellowships in Canadian Government Laboratories (VF) program can place applicants in any one of the 13 governmental departments or institutions that participate in the program, such as Agriculture Canada, Environment Canada, Fisheries and Ocean, National Research Council, and Natural Resources Canada, to name just a few. Individual laboratories within each of these federal agencies specialize in everything from parasitic diseases to space robotics and offer postdocs hands-on experience at state-of-the-art facilities.

"While this may not necessarily be the way to get a government job," says Candace Robinson, team leader for the physical, earth sciences, and ecology NSERC fellowship programs, "it is a good way to get experience in government and see if it's something that you like."

"The beauty of the VF lies in its flexibility," says Robinson. Unlike other fellowships awarded by NSERC, this particular one is not restricted to Canadian citizens and encourages applications from abroad. "We get a lot of foreign applications every year from countries like Russia and China. It is a very unique program; I don't know of any other like it in Canada," she adds. The awards, however, are subject to a citizenship quota: Two-thirds of awards must be made to Canadian citizens or permanent residents.

Funding for the VF is also unique in that it comes directly from participating federal agencies looking for applicants to fill positions within their own departments. Although it is not an internal NSERC program per se, NSERC does administer the entire application process. After taking in the applications, Robinson and her staff organize the selection process and do all the paperwork. Her office also represents the point of contact for agencies that wish to participate in the VF program. "If a governmental department is interested in the program, they come to us, and we tell them about the program and create a memorandum of understanding, which states what our relationship is and what money they would have to pay us," Robinson says.

Current value of the fellowship stands at $40,800 Canadian per year, renewable for up to two additional years at the discretion of the government department. This is a fixed amount set by the treasury board and based on the salary of a level-one government research scientist. In some disciplines this figure may seem low, and so it is possible to get a "top-up," according to Robinson.

"We do know of departments who have a hard time finding people, since some fields do have higher salary rates," adds Robinson. So in order to attract higher caliber researchers, departments can raise the amount to a maximum of $50,663, which is near the level two government scientist salaries. The agency must be prepared to justify the top-up, however, based on the person's experience and competitiveness in the field.

Program Details

Another distinguishing factor with the VF is that there are no application deadlines; applications are processed as they are received throughout the year. VF is open to anyone who has finished a Ph.D. from a recognized university within the past 5 years, including those planning to wrap up their degrees within 6 months. There are no restrictions as to an applicant's current employment status.

Applicants propose locations for their fellowship tenure and can name any of the participating departments. NSERC sends out the application to the corresponding department, and an internal selection committee evaluates it based on criteria set forth by both the agencies and NSERC. Points of interest include academic excellence, research ability or potential, communication and interpersonal skills, and leadership abilities. Also, the location of tenure needs to be justified and the potential benefits for the government and department explained.

The selection committee then sends back to NSERC the successful applications, and they are put in an inventory for 1 year. The inventory is placed on a secure site on the Internet, and the various managers from each of the participating departments can check the Web site to see if there's anybody who's interested in coming to their lab.

In the 2002-03 fiscal year, NSERC received 446 applications for the VF, and 177 fellowships were given out. In 2003-04, application numbers rose to 491 with 174 fellowships awarded.

"The number of offers made is really due to the budgets of the individual departments, and that changes from year to year," Robinson points out.

It takes about 3 months from the time an application is submitted to NSERC to receive a decision about who gets on the "inventory list." Getting on the inventory list doesn't guarantee a fellowship. "It is up to the department looking to fill the position to make the choice before we can send out an offer," Robinson adds. Those unsuccessful may reapply anytime, but past VF holders are barred from applying again.

Although the funding is to be used for living expenses, if the fellowship holder stays for more than 6 months, an additional supplement is made for travel costs. This feature can be particularly beneficial for foreign students. A parental leave benefit has recently been added to the program.

When the job market for scientists is tough--as it often is--it may be advantageous to go off the beaten track to gain experience in a venue outside of the academic bubble. Robinson sees the VF program as an option for early career researchers to broaden their professional horizons and take that critical step from the training phase to permanent job. "We [at NSERC] are offering young scientists the opportunity to work with top government institutions and the best research leaders around," says Robinson.

For more information on the Visiting Fellowship in Canadian Government Laboratories, visit NSERC's Web site at http://www.nserc.gc.ca/sf_e.asp?nav=vfnav&lbi=3d

Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at afazekas@aaas.org.

Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Next Wave and may be reached at afazekas@aaas.org.