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The Black Hole

Half of Canada’s early career researchers are not Canadian


Over the coming weeks, I’ll be breaking down the fantastic information found in the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars 2013 Survey of Canadian Postdocs. To start this, I thought I would focus on the most surprising finding in my mind: 53.1% of the 1,830 respondents were either landed immigrants or holding a work permit. This is an incredibly high fraction that represents a huge opportunity for Canada, but only if policies and programs are designed to maximize the influx of such talent.

Plenty of non-American talent

Many of Canada’s postdoctoral fellows travel abroad and many find themselves in the United States, but the converse is not as frequent as many people think. Indeed, just 8% of international postdocs are from the U.S. whereas both France (13%) and China (12%) supply higher numbers of international researchers to the Canadian workforce.

When asked why they moved to Canada for research, facilities and resources were chief amongst reasons, showing that Canada has clearly created an excellent research environment. However, without the correct numbers and types of jobs available following this temporary period of research, it is not surprising that many leave the country. Funnily enough, the major challenge cited by international postdocs is not something remarkably academic or specialized, but rather “transitioning to life in a new country” and “visa/permit issues”- surely Canada can do a better job of making its talented young people feel more welcome.

You may ask why Canada should invest in these young researchers when they will all run away back to their home country? Again, the CAPS survey sheds light on this issue, showing that only 25% of researchers on work permits and just 3% of immigrant researchers have definite plans to leave Canada. There is a huge opportunity to capture this bright class of motivated young people to drive economic benefit for Canada, but we again do very little to support this permanent relocation. 

Where does this leave Canadian researchers?

Jonathan just posted last week about attracting and retaining talented researchers, pointing out both the importance of international experience and the need, in Canada especially, to create jobs for researchers. Those jobs do not have to be academic jobs, but they do have to make the case for staying in – or coming back to – Canada for long-term employment.

As a Canadian-funded postdoctoral fellow working outside the country, I have lamented the lack of connectivity between Canadian funding bodies and institutions. My PhD and postdoctoral training cost CIHR $210,000 in salary alone and they have done virtually nothing to encourage my return. Indeed, funding agencies, institutions and companies do very little to attract its early career scientists back to Canada (both Jonathan and I can attest to this) both for academic and non-academic jobs. I think that two main problems exist:  1) lack of networks 2) poor programming for its fellows.

When one is looking for a non-academic post (industry, science writing, consulting, law, etc.), you are much more likely to do this locally. In my own case, a move to industry in one of the Cambridge biotech science parks would be much easier than trying to figure out the lay of the land in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. This is mostly because I regularly meet and interact with scientists who are employed with these companies and are collaborating with academics at our university.

EMBO, and countries like the UK and Australia, have come up with ideas on how to do this. EMBO created a “Fellows Network” that meets regularly and interacts with academics and non-academics; the U.K. encourages international applicants to its independent funding programs (Career development awards) and Australia ties the latter portion of grant funding to a fellow’s “return to Australia.” As far as I can see, Canada lags in this area and desperately needs to rethink its  policies if attracting Canadians to return to work in Canada is a goal.

Overall, Canada needs to support both cohorts of talented researchers in order to capture the best and brightest minds to drive critical and inventive thinking that forms the baseline for discovery and innovation. Creating programs to bring back internationally trained researchers and encouraging Canadian trained international researchers to put down roots are not trivial tasks especially when the people making these decisions are (as described in the CAPS survey) adults “in the middle of their lives, but at the beginning of their careers.”

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Elisabeth Kosters / October 21, 2013 at 18:05

    Hmm, science is a global endeavour. As long as Canada doesn’t lose significant numbers of scientists, does it matter whether the ones that are working in Canada are new Canadians or born Canadians?

  2. Deborah Cook / October 23, 2013 at 14:06

    Canadian graduate and postgraduate students are usually treated as second-class in Canada, and especially in institutions like the University of Toronto and McGill (one need only look at the ratio of Canadians hired to foreigners in these institutions).
    No, of course, as Klosters points out, non-Canadians may well be just as good as Canadians. But the converse also holds: Canadians are just as good as non-Canadians. It’s time the supposedly best institutions in this country woke up to the value of Canadians.

    • Ricardo Scrosati / October 23, 2013 at 14:57

      The big problem is not whether Canadians are better or worse than non-Canadians (there are bright people everywhere). An important issue is that many non-Canadians are able to bring with them scholarships from their home countries, which are hard to get in Canada for Canadians. Thus, it’s a logical outcome to find a high number of non-Canadian graduate students in Canadian universities. The day NSERC and other federal funding bodies significantly increase scholarships for Canadians, our universities will be able to hire more Canadians.

  3. P / October 23, 2013 at 15:39

    First, thank you for your article. Second, I would like to share my own experience.

    I moved to Canada from Europe in 2006. Before I arrived, I admired Canada because of the reputation it has in my home country and because of the stories of my grandmother about Canadian soldiers during the WW II and their humanitarian acts. After I stepped a foot on Canadian soil, I just fell in love with the country. I can recall a feeling that is hard to come by caused by reality exceeding my expectations. I could literally sense becoming a better person day after day just by being immersed in a wonderful society that opened for me a door to a better education and a better life. I made great friends and decided to become a permanent resident, because I could not imagine of a better place to live in. I completed an MSc and a PhD in applied math, and during my graduate studies I won a university-wide award for two consecutive years and published a decent contribution in my field. When the time came to look for a job, I was in for a shock. Frankly, I am grateful to some good friends who were bluntly honest with me. One told me “as soon as your alma mater stops receiving subsidy for you from the government, interest in you is lost”. The other, “you are welcome to stay in Canada, if you are willing to forget about the years you wasted in grad school and become a taxi driver so that your kids can grow up here” (Nothing wrong with being a taxi driver, just quoting his words. On a second thought, maybe there is something wrong if you have three graduate degrees.)

    The trick used by the job market outside academia to filter out immigrants is “Canadian experience”. Although I had professional experience from when I lived in my country, and although I taught classes throughout graduate student, one of biggest obstacles I faced was the lack of “Canadian experience”. For the record, I took in-class and online courses (leading to certificates) about the “culture in the Canadian classroom” and about dealing with equity and people with disabilities. But, getting to the problem of not having Canadian experience actually meant that I had already passed the other main obstacle (rarely that was the case): “whom do I know at the place where I want to work?”. The bottom line was that I should not even bother applying for jobs if I could not point out a family member already working there. Unfortunately, I have no family in Canada.

    I applied to everything in sight. The biggest waste of time was absorbing the information at the career services at my university about “selling” myself to prospective employers, cold calls and cold visits, and the “science” of job seeking, in general.

    As for postdocs in Canada, I had zero success. Maybe I am a lousy researcher. Perhaps. However, since I did not want to stall academically, I started looking for opportunities outside Canada and just by going by the book and through formal procedures—that is, by applying to internationally advertised openings at places where I knew no one—I ended up being funded by a research agency of the US army (a quite prestigious one, for that matter) and a science foundation of a foreign country, at the same time (both grants allow this simultaneous funding). After I was offered a renewal of my contracts before I even reapplied, I thought “maybe I don’t suck that much”.

    While working outside Canada, I kept applying for jobs in Canada whenever the opportunity arose, because Canada is now my second home, it still has a special place in my heart, and because I long for the day I will return (although it now seems like a distant possibility). It turns out that the fuss about “international experience” is quite misleading. Leaving Canada pushed me further back in gaining the venerable “Canadian experience” employers pretend to look for.

    Over the years, I developed a blend of skills that are not targeted to faculty positions (e.g., scientific software/coding) and, actually, I am one of those people who honestly prefer industry over academia. However, reluctant as I am to accept it as a conclusion and as much as I despise conspiracy theories, I lean towards the verdict that the non-existence of jobs for highly qualified people, of R&D, and of start-ups based on scientific and technological innovation is not accidental. I will not elaborate on this, but it seems that as long as oil can be sold to the neighbours, all is well.

    • BS / October 24, 2013 at 01:21

      Nail on the head there my friend… oil. Until something else matters more than oil in this country, few industries will flourish. Money is too easy with oil and it is immediate. My wife, a recent graduate, and myself in the final year of my PhD in Neuroscience, have had quite a rough time finding employment in science. We live in Alberta where oil is king and the cost of living is more than it should be because of it. Consequently, we’ve made the difficult decision to leave what we love and go into the only industry that seems to pay. My wife’s last post-doc paid $3300/month before taxes. Her living allowance as a receptionist in the oil field is $5000/month tax free and her wage on top of that is $30/hour. And believe me this is chump change for the oil business.

      Money isn’t everything, but we are two examples of Canadians trained as scientists who are leaving that life behind because there appears to be no future. I can certainly identify with most things you say P. Thanks for sharing.

  4. SC / October 24, 2013 at 11:43

    Lots of good points and thanks for a (largely) civil discussion. Just thought I would bring up 2 more issues:
    1. It might be better to focus on the international graduate students more than on postdocs. In my experience, these are the people who are much mor elikley to settle down here and contribute to Canadian science and industry. Younger age, less encumbrances, easier acculturation and (most importantly) having a Canadian degree all helps to varying extent.
    2. Secondly, only a small proprotion of international postdocs and grad students (even fewer) come with funding from their home countries (typically Japan and Gulf states), these are also the ones least likley to settle down here (unlike the majority from Eastern Europe or South/South-east Asia who rarely bring their funding), so the question of unfair advantage doesn’t matter in most cases.

  5. Rosa / October 28, 2013 at 16:43

    My husband and I are both Canadians. He has a PhD and did post-doc work at Harvard, and while he was in Canada, he won every award and grant his field offered. I have 2 Masters degrees. Between us, we have a total of 7 degrees, 4 of those graduate degrees. Neither of us ever had to pay a cent for education – we were outstanding students, and everything was paid, with a combination of scholarships and teaching assistantships/research assistantships. I had a job in Canada, but it was well beneath my skills. He could not find anything other than adjunct work, which pays starvation wages and is uncertain. We left. We live in the US now, and have green cards. It’s unlikely we’ll be back. I feel like Canada poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into our education – and then didn’t have a thing to offer us when we finished. Great, you’re brilliant, fabulous students and researchers, we’ll pay for your education – but once you graduate, well, your degrees and $5 will get you coffee at Starbucks. We wanted to stay, and spent several years cobbling together various underpaid jobs, moving around the country looking for 2 full-time jobs appropriate to our education and experience, anywhere. No such luck. So we left. Great ROI, Canada. Spend all this money to educate your best students, then there’s nothing for them.