Graduate students and postdoctoral scholars often struggle to make ends meet, despite playing a crucial part in driving research and innovation. The cost-of-living crisis, which took root in many countries in late 2021, has worsened the situation.

Respondents to a November 2022 Nature survey of early-career academics reported sometimes having to get groceries from food banks. Despite this, most governments have not significantly revised the value of scholarships or postdoctoral remuneration. In Canada, where I am a PhD candidate, federal funding for scholarships and fellowships had remained stagnant for more than 20 years.

But that changed in April 2024, when the Canadian government announced an extra Can$2.6 billion (US$1.9 billion) for graduate student and postdoctoral compensation in its budget. The funding nearly doubled the value of federal scholarships and fellowships, and sets a new benchmark for students not directly covered by federal awards. This drastic change in government policy is, in large part, the product of a grass-roots activism campaign that I lead, called Support Our Science (SOS). Students in other parts of the world could use our methods to achieve similar results.

First, collective organization is key. Our biggest mistake was thinking that one-off, high-profile meetings would create impact. We quickly learnt that individuals talking in isolation, even to those with decision-making power, such as Members of Parliament (MPs), would be unsuccessful. This early lesson led to the formation of SOS. Although we developed a formal organization, with an executive council and a board of directors, it can be helpful to keep the structure informal in the beginning; simplicity encourages inclusion and wider sharing of responsibilities. Whatever the structure, the campaign needs a memorable name to capture the attention of politicians and the wider public.

Second, settle on a simple, repeatable message and a set of actionable recommendations early on. For us, this was increasing the value and number of scholarships and fellowships and tying remuneration to the prevailing inflation rate. Once a consensus is achieved, it’s important to stay laser-focused on the message and repeat, repeat, repeat. The more successful the campaign becomes, the more likely it is to be pulled in different directions. We refrained from taking on provincial or institute-level issues and stayed focused on the federal government, because we felt this had the potential to create the biggest impact.

It is also important to shape the talking points around the language of the government and its current priorities. In the Canadian context, our campaign focused on making life affordable for young people; the role of financing in ensuring that research training remains accessible to a diverse cross section of society; and the need for Canada to attract and retain top talent. The messaging can vary depending on what resonates in each country.

Third, relay the message in as many ways as possible. Only with a large and consistent volume of e-mails, phone calls, social-media posts and petitions will policymakers start to take notice. We began with an open letter to the government that amassed nearly 7,000 signatures, including those of several well-regarded Canadian scientists.

We then launched four MP-sponsored petitions to the Canadian House of Commons and campaigns by e-mail, phone and Twitter (now X) — all timed to garner attention during crucial budget-decision periods in the parliamentary cycle. We created a page on our website where a graduate student, postdoc, tenured faculty member or supporter could send a personalized message to their local MP or the prime minister and other key ministers.

A key turning point for our movement was the nationwide walkout on 1 May 2023, born out of the disappointment of not receiving any funds in the 2023 budget. More than 10,000 researchers from 46 Canadian institutions took part, and the media covered the protest extensively.

Fourth, make connections and build trust. It’s important to be stubborn and not get discouraged when the big meetings don’t happen right away. In the long run, gaining the trust of local parliamentarians, key ministerial staff and departmental policy advisers gave us the opportunity to be a part of ongoing conversations and to have a seat at the table when decisions were eventually made.

Collaborating with players outside academia and government is important, too. Research institutes, hospitals, companies and charities all have advocacy groups representing their interests. As academics, we had relatively little expertise of government relations, and like-minded advocacy organizations kindly provided advice. Along with 11 research lobbying groups, SOS formed the Coalition for Canadian Research in 2023 and aligned on one set of recommendations. A clear, actionable path from the entire research community is more likely to be successful with the government than is a mosaic of varied recommendations.

For any graduate student or postdoc thinking of engaging in advocacy, I’d say: go for it! The scale of the challenge can feel overwhelming, but if we succeeded in Canada, then it’s possible to do so elsewhere, too. The collective voices of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars are too powerful to be ignored.