CANADA: Graduates flocking to US - a good thing?

Canada is having difficulty retaining its PhD graduates, according to a recent report that finds 12% headed to the United States. But what some might fear is a brain drain may actually point to what one leading academic is calling a 'brain chain', where graduates pick up important international research skills.

Looking at the characteristics of doctoral graduates from Canadian universities who lived in the US at the time of the 2007 National Graduates Survey, the recently released Statistics Canada study found that, by 2007, 12% of the 4,200 PhD recipients who had graduated from Canadian universities in 2005 were living in the US.

The factor most commonly cited for attracting doctoral graduates to the US was quality of research facilities or the commitment to research in that country.

While the study points to a worrying exodus of highly educated Canadians, the news is not necessarily cause for alarm, said Douglas Peers, the former president of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies and the Associate Vice-President, Graduate, and Dean, Faculty of Graduate Studies at York University in Toronto.

"Most of those going to the US were going for post-docs, which is not necessarily a bad thing," Peers explained. "Particularly if they've been doing most of their research in Canada, it's not a bad thing to get more experience abroad."

Peers called what is happening a 'brain chain', where diverse and multicultural research experiences are valued. "What we want to talk about is a brain chain which encourages people to move in between large and increasingly complicated research networks," said Peers. "Having people move around is important because you don't want to become isolated, particularly when so much of the really important research nowadays is truly universal in scope."

Peers found that the StatsCan study lacked sufficient information regarding whether or not the graduates will actually return to Canada. Measuring graduates two years after they moved to the US is far too early to determine long-term residency, since most postdoctoral programmes take up to four years to complete, he added.

While Peers said it was important for graduates to have research experiences abroad, Canada has been making some efforts to ensure that they are not going elsewhere for lack of resources at home. Canadian universities have now identified offices on campus to support post-doctoral studies, and researchers are increasingly dedicating funds to recruit post-doctoral researchers to work on their projects, said Peers.

A new post-doctoral funding envelope by the federal government to encourage the best Canadian and foreign researchers to take up post-doctoral positions in Canada, called the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships, was launched in September.

In addition, areas of post-doctoral study that have traditionally lagged behind medicine and health sciences have gained in popularity and recognition in the last decade.

"There's long been a history of post-docs in areas like medicine and health sciences, but in the last 10 years there's come to be a growing recognition that there's a value in post-doc positions across the board," said Peers. "So there's been a growth in numbers and Canadian universities are starting to ramp up and grow to accommodate that."

Given the current expansion of post-doctoral areas of study, and governmental and university-based efforts to encourage post-doctoral research, current realities may prove to differ from the survey data.

"The data being circulated captured what was happening at the top of the market, when there was a lot of money in the system and a lot of optimism," said Peers. "Now that we've gone through this recession I think it'd be very interesting to do a comparison with those data as to what's happening now.

"From what I've heard there aren't the same number of opportunities in the US right now."