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Canada’s accidental brain drain

An expat explains how a temporary leave to study in the U.K. turned into a life abroad – and what the government could do to bring him back.

By ADAM CRYMBLE | JAN 23 2017

Growing up in small-town Ontario, I always had a nagging feeling that Canadians who moved abroad were traitors. They had shunned our country for monetary gain, or sunshine or fame. But I’ve become one of those people – part of the nation’s brain drain – and I can assure you that it was entirely accidental.

Like me, every year hundreds of Canadians head abroad to do PhDs or postdocs, intent on gathering international experience, and every year a few of them don’t come back. In my case, I was drawn to the U.K. to do a PhD in history and, two years after finishing, I am still there, now working as an academic historian. I’d like to share how that happens and what Canada might do to prevent it from happening again and again.

I did not go abroad to get a “better” education. This is what the British think draws international students, but this is a patronizing assumption and not a reflection of reality for most. For me, the move was part quest for adventure and part practical desire to get my PhD completed quickly so that I could get on with a career.

Back in 2009 when I was looking for programs, I was warned that the average length for completing a history PhD in Canada was seven years, compared to only three or four in the U.K. My spouse had already put in the time to get a PhD in Canada and doing it again just was not attractive. We went abroad to get it over with.

This situation plays out around the world as students operate in a global education market. A Greek expat who also moved to the U.K. to do a PhD gave me similar reasons for his decision: Greek PhDs take six years and, in his case, a move abroad let him forego a compulsory year of military service. Greece, too, suffers from a brain drain.

My wife and I left for England feeling firmly Canadian. At first, I worked away in the library and my wife, an academic engineer, began climbing the greasy pole of the British higher education system to pass the days until we could return home. As it happens, she discovered that the Canadian education system makes you an attractive candidate abroad. The warm and genuinely welcoming Canadian demeanour puts interview panels at ease, without seeming contrived or overbearing. Our broadbased education means that we have learned from a wide range of disciplines. This makes for flexible and naturally interdisciplinary scholars who stand out in a good way against those who have gone through the specialized British system, which emphasizes depth over breadth. In going abroad to acquire experience, we found that we had, in fact, imported valuable experience that is in short supply in the U.K.

Before we left Canada, only my father-in-law, himself an expat, foresaw the erosion that would take place as our ties to the country were stretched and Britain began to feel more like home. It started for us with that realization that the qualities that made us typical in Canada made us exceptional abroad. Then the experience goes something like this: after a lonely first year, new acquaintances slowly become friends. You meet many of them through higher education. This means that you share concerns about the state of research and teaching, and you bond while complaining of the latest ill-conceived policy of the British education secretary, or the home secretary’s new visa policies for international students. In time, you’re not sure what has changed in Canadian higher education since you left and you don’t know if Canada even has an education secretary. You know you could look it up but it doesn’t feel all that important.

Soon, six years have passed and you realize that you do not know how to be a Canadian academic

Meanwhile the years pass, and you begin to speak the secret language of a foreign education system. You learn the must-know buzzwords (“impact”, “outreach”, “the Research Excellence Framework”) and the answers to key questions British interview panels will ask. These are terms that may mean nothing or something else entirely to Canadian scholars. You have no idea because no one is there to tell you the Canadian buzzwords. You don’t even know what month of the year Canadian job advertisements are most likely to appear.

As a PhD student, you are given your first teaching experience overseas. You are introduced to a host of British scholars who can offer advice and feedback on your work, and who might drop a positive word on your behalf at the right moment. Your supervisor does not know any Canadian scholars and so neither do you.

As you near the end of your studies, your supervisor tells you about the “Junior Research Fellowships” at Oxford and Cambridge, and encourages you to apply because this is what most British PhD students do. You know about the short-term postdoctoral fellowships through Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and its Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, but no one here is really talking about them. And even if you got one, they require a move back to Canada. A move down the road to Oxford now seems less disruptive for a temporary post. Soon, six years have passed and you realize that you do not know how to be a Canadian academic.

It’s not like this for everyone. It is not unusual for some PhD students from low- or middle-income countries studying at British universities to have jobs waiting for them back home at universities where they were already teaching. This is part of an attempt by these countries to up-skill their professoriate. Although it would be entitled of me to suggest my wife and I deserve Canadian jobs over the other wonderful candidates out there, it would be equally entitled of Canada to assume those with Canadian passports will return home without job security.

communication is key

None of these barriers to returning are insurmountable and we probably could have overcome most of them ourselves. We could have learned about the Canadian hiring season in the pages of University Affairs or elsewhere online. We could have forged connections with Canadian academics. We could have gotten our heads around what tenure involves. But we just didn’t need to – don’t need to. And the onus is not on us. My wife and I have academic jobs and a house and wonderful neighbours in Britain. We have left and we have found personal success. We would be expensive to woo back. Instead, Canada should become intent on preventing others like us from becoming part of the same accidental brain drain.

As in any long-distance relationship, communication is key. No one from back home is keeping in touch to encourage our return or to provide advice for how to do it. There is not even a government statistic, as far as I know, of which we are a part. Other than our family and friends, nobody even seems aware that we’ve left.

Ending the brain drain should be a priority for the federal minister of innovation, science and economic development

Canada has relied upon its supposedly self-evident and enduring allure to bring expats back. It has assumed that we would all long for hockey, poutine and fresh-fallen snow (and yes, sometimes we do). But we also fell unexpectedly in love with London, or Palo Alto, or Melbourne, or wherever we studied. Canada’s allure does not exist in a vacuum. Students abroad need to be regularly reminded of why they should return. And this should happen from the day they board their flights to leave because it is then that the romantic connection to Canada is strongest. A friendly and responsive avatar (if not a real face) that keeps in touch on social media, provides a quarterly newsletter of opportunities, facilitates a virtual community of scholars in similar situations and offers advice for making the transition back home would be an inexpensive but effective means of retaining ties with Canadians studying abroad.

Models for this already exist: scholarly societies provide this functionality for subject specialists, keeping scholars abreast of calls for papers, upcoming conferences and job opportunities, as well as tips for emerging scholars. There are scholarly societies for those who study Canada but, as far as I can tell, none for Canadian expats studying diverse fields.

Ending the brain drain should be a priority for the federal minister of innovation, science and economic development – the same portfolio responsible for SSHRC and NSERC. Although responsibility for education rests constitutionally with the provinces, the brain drain is a national problem and this federal office should take the initiative to keep expats in touch with Canadian higher education and keep those bonds strong. And not just for the select Commonwealth Scholarship and Trudeau Scholarship students, but for all Canadians doing PhDs or postdocs abroad. If university alumni-affairs departments can track us down on the other side of the world, so can the Canadian government.

Canada loses too many of its best and brightest. A few salaries spent on keeping in touch and enticing back those who left temporarily to study abroad is surely a good investment in Canada’s future.

Adam Crymble was born in Canada and currently lives in London. He is a lecturer of history at the University of Hertfordshire in England.

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  1. Tiina / January 25, 2017 at 7:34 am

    Initially, I was going to work in the US “for a year or two”. 15 years later there are no plans to return. I feel that sentiment of being a labelled a traitor for leaving friends and family. And folks here can sense I’m not american either. I wish Canada would make an effort to bring us back.

  2. Brian Lewis / January 25, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    The trouble with Dr. Crymble’s analysis is that the only way for Canadian academics to be repatriated is to displace foreign workers from Canadian universities. As a Brit who has taught in a Canadian university for over two decades (and who has become a Canadian citizen along the way) I have to declare an interest. But, although economic nationalism and protectionism have become newly popular in North America, I fail to see how reducing the international freedom of movement for academics will be beneficial for Canadians or enhance the reputation of Canada’s universities.

    • Adam Crymble / January 26, 2017 at 3:09 am

      I’m not so sure there’s a zero-sum game being played here. A society with a greater number of highly skilled and talented people need not employ them all in higher education and research in order to keep them in the country. But there does need to be some draw to bring people back.

  3. J. Gary Knowles / January 25, 2017 at 8:23 pm

    I found this an intriguing article even as I felt it just a little simplistic. The author is enjoying life in Britain, and so he should. It sounds like he has made very conscious decisions to settle there. Great! I have a somewhat different but parallel story. I came to North America, the USA in particular, to pursue graduate studies and received considerable financial incentives to do so. Earlier I’d been refused entry to Canada. After a decade and a half of working in American universities I found a rewarding academic home in Canada. Culturally I fitted in, something that had not happened for me in the States. I had intended to return to my home region, Australasia, but came to feel more at home in North American institutions. Meanwhile I kept close contact with academics and family back home. I was regularly involved in conferences in Australia, New Zealand and other countries of the South Pacific. Publishing opportunities emerged from such connections. This was my way of keeping in touch with academics and my place of origin. I don’t need others to oversee such involvement as the author seems to infer. The free passage of academics throughout the world brings advantages to all involved. Let’s not institutionalize any aspect of this free exchange of ideas and experiences. We each have personal agency to make concerted efforts to return “hone” if that’s what we really desire.

    • Adam Crymble / January 27, 2017 at 2:44 am

      I’m sure there are many cases that follow a similar narrative to yours. And I can appreciate that you don’t feel you needed anyone to oversee your ongoing connections with your point of origin. Nevertheless, the ‘brain drain’ is usually framed as a problem for Canada. Something that should be prevented moving forward. This piece addresses that by offering some suggestions on how or why it happens.

      I can understand why academic readers might not see global migration as a negative – especially those on the job market. But then again, maybe it’s not academics who are worried about brain drains.

  4. Professor Kelley Lee, Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Global Health Governance Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University / January 26, 2017 at 8:43 am

    I read Adam Crymble’s insightful article on Canada’s accidental brain drain with a chuckle. I too “accidentally” remained in the UK – in my case, a total of 25 years – after intending to earn my DPhil and promptly return home again. The latter didn’t happen for both personal and professional reasons. Meeting and marrying my spouse was a starter. As a junior house officer in the National Health Service, my future husband faced several more years of exhausting medical boot camp before he could be fully unleashed on the great British public. Meanwhile, after finishing my DPhil, I secured a 2-year contract as a Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. My only thought at the time was, “Great, I can now pay off my student loans!”

    Little did I know that I’d be there for the next two decades. A series of short term contracts followed and then the coveted “permanent contract” (not to be confused with tenure). Five became ten years, and then 25. Having only known Canadian universities as a student, my intellectual home truly became British academia. As I progressed steadily through the ranks, from research fellow to professor, my life seemed like one of David Lodge’s campus novels (especially when I got to travel to Bellagio like Morris Zapp). I went to pubs (never the Maple Leaf!), figured out what people were saying on EastEnders, and even started to like some British food. My one concession to my Canadian roots was a continued passion for hockey which I continued to play. Overall, the start of my UK-based career coincided with the introduction of email and eventually spanned five prime ministers. Then, after 25 years, it was time to come “home”. I often tell people that I left Vancouver alone with two suitcases, and returned with a shipping container, a British husband and two children with dual nationality.

    I don’t see my experience as a “brain drain” so much as a “brain gain” or even “brain exchange”. Yes, other than my family and the Canada Revenue Agency, my homeland didn’t seem to notice I was gone. There was far more keeping me in the UK during my sojourn than called me back again. The UK provided me with invaluable opportunities to secure research funding, write books and papers, collaborate with leading scholars, gain leadership skills, travel the world, and even make the occasional media appearance. My career was made in the UK for which I will be forever grateful. Now that I am back, I am sharing my knowledge, skills and experiences with other scholars and students. For this reason, I prefer not to see the creation of human capital as a zero sum game. My journey there and back again does not feel like a loss for one country and a gain for another. Rather, my ability to live and think from a planetary perspective undoubtedly would not have come about if I hadn’t made that fateful decision to leave. As multicultural as Canadian society is, it can also be remarkably insular. All countries can be. It is only by taking yourself away from the familiar, and challenging yourself to experience anew, that you grow. Thus, I encourage more Canadian students to study and stay abroad if the opportunity comes along. You will be changed. And you will change those around you. The world gains as a result.

    • Claire / January 26, 2017 at 2:06 pm

      “As multicultural as Canadian society is, it can also be remarkably insular. All countries can be. It is only by taking yourself away from the familiar, and challenging yourself to experience anew, that you grow. Thus, I encourage more Canadian students to study and stay abroad if the opportunity comes along. You will be changed. And you will change those around you. The world gains as a result.”

      Thank you for this eloquent statement. Absolutely. My first teaching job was abroad, in Aarhus, Denmark, and it changed my life. I don’t want to be living in the United States at the moment, but being outside the (yes, insular) Canadian pool exposes me to different perspectives. I wouldn’t expect to be courted by Canada to return (although I would like the right to vote!); I’ve already benefited. I want to advance knowledge of Canada beyond its borders. I’m an export, as well as an expat. And when I compare the international origins of the faculty at the small school where I teach now, to the almost-all-white-and-Canadian faculty of the school where we were I wonder if the Canadian academy would benefit from more “brain exchange” worldwide.

  5. Johanna / January 31, 2017 at 4:28 am

    I must admit to being thoroughly lost as to the argument of this essay.

    1. The so-called brain-drain was a function of the 1990s, and mostly (at the time) referred to the mass exodus of nurses, doctors, and other licensed professionals whose credentials translated easily in the US market. The brain drain was a function of cheaper, but quality, education in Canada, and higher wages/lower taxes in the US. The problem of the brain drain was that Canadian public investment didn’t result in Canadian public gains.

    As such, one could make an argument that the author’s high school / undergrad career “went to waste” upon employment abroad, but the same could be said for stay-at-home parents, artists & others who contribute to society but don’t necessary bring in large incomes (and subsequently large tax payments to the state). An argument I doubt the author intended to make.

    2. The second major problem with the brain drain was that jobs in Canada were not being filled by the very people the public system had trained to fill them. We were short doctors & nurses & HS math teachers. But we’re currently – and never have been, far as I know – short on history teachers. SSHRC & NSERC are oversubscribed (applications are rising year for year). Competition at all universities is incredibly stiff for funding, lab space, teaching gigs etc.

    It’s currently a plus for the system if some people go abroad to find their calling. Those are then not tax payers Canada lost, but individuals who never entered the unemployment (or under-employment) statistics. In Britain, you’re a historian; in Canada, you’re probably getting a B.Ed. to survive.

    3. “Ending the brain drain should be a priority for the federal minister of innovation, science and economic development – the same portfolio responsible for SSHRC and NSERC.”

    Why? When each academic job in Canada has 40-50 (and sometimes over 100) applicants. When Universities are struggling for funding, research is being curtailed everywhere, when Trudeau hasn’t rolled back the cuts made under Harper, why? Why not spend that money on creating jobs for those Canadians who have a burning desire to BE in Canada?

    I left Canada too – first for a bigger funding package in the US, then for a happier life in Europe, but I’m under no illusions that Canada misses me. My family does (as does yours!), because it’s a net loss for them that I’m gone from their daily lives. But the idea that Canada should miss me is patently absurd.

    Sure, on an emotional level, wouldn’t it be nice if Canada called me back (everyone wants to be missed!); but rationally, I still have too many friends on the job market, brilliant scholars looking for any opportunity to either return to Canada (or just to the academic fold), too many colleagues scrounging for research funding, lab space etc already in Canada, to ask that MY return be made a priority by any Minister.

    If anything, this piece makes clear how much the author has integrated into Britain. The current vicissitudes of the academic job market (shrinking pay, adjunctification, department cut-backs, hiring freezes) in Canada don’t seem to register in the slightest. And this article – despite being about Canada – counts as “impact” for the REF, does it not?

    I don’t mean to be a jerk (the Canadian “sorry gene” is still strong!), but especially for historians, employment in Canada is a near miraculous proposition right now & it’s frustrating to see those with full employment (albeit elsewhere) wish for additional privileges while others go entirely without.

    We’re not in a situation where the government is lavishing attention on those who stay, while ignoring those who left. And if there is additional money & energy to spend, there is no reason to prioritize those who wanted to just “get it over with,” over those who made their commitments to the Canadian educational system and are invested in continuing that tradition.

    • Adam Crymble / January 31, 2017 at 1:29 pm

      Thanks for the comment Johanna.

      I don’t ask for anything for myself. As I said, I’ve got a job and nice neighbours. But on a national level, I do believe that losing talent is bad for any country. If overseas PhD programmes are forming a leaky pipe of talent, I think that’s worth reflecting on as a country. Especially if it can be plugged relatively easily.

      I’ll reiterate, not all people with PhDs need academic jobs to contribute to Canadian society. That’s a stereotype we all need to get over. Most people contributing meaningfully to the world don’t work in universities, and never have.

      And no, articles like this don’t count as ‘impact’ for REF because it’s not based on research. This is just me sharing my experience with the country I grew up in. Every once and a while we expats turn our attention back ‘home’ for a while.

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