Trainee researchers struggle to make ends meet after the government clarifies tax rules for grants.

Staff, student or employee? The employment status of Canadian postdoctoral researchers remains unclear — and many are struggling with the tax issues that arise from the ambiguity.

Some of Canada’s postdocs are categorized as associates with benefits, others are fellows with no employee status and, until recently, some had a tax-exempt status on a par with students. “We fall into this no-man’s land,” says Marianne Stanford, chair of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS) and a postdoctoral fellow at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute in Ontario.

Earlier this year, the federal government put an end to the tax-free wages that some postdocs had been enjoying since 2006. “Now there’s a two-tier system in labs where some of the people earning the degrees are getting more than those who already have them,” says Stanford. The move was a blow to postdocs, some of whom were recruited with the promise of tax-free earnings, and who put up with the wages because they were tax-free — although many feel they’re underpaid relative to their level of education.

The tax-free wage came about in 2006 when the federal government introduced tax exemption for fellowships and awards. But as the government made clear in March, the exemption was only intended to apply to students enrolled in an educational programme. In a 2009 CAPS survey of 1,200 postdocs, 23% were not paying taxes on their fellowships. Many of those were in Quebec, where the provincial government considers postdocs to be stagières, or trainees, lumping them in with students.

→ Keep on reading the story in Nature

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