The Canadian Diaspora: Postcards From Scotland

Reality Check

To be honest, the first time I became aware that there might be a problem in pursuing a research career in Canada was not until the first year of my Ph.D. at McGill University. During my time at McGill, it became quite obvious that there was a growing malaise among postdocs and junior faculty. This uneasiness and pessimism among researchers seemed to be directly linked to the dramatic decline in science and medical research funding that followed the recession of the late 1980s. Young scientists were having difficulty finding jobs in Canada (see sidebar), and those with positions were underpaid or were struggling to obtain funding. Many of the postdocs I knew in Montreal were in their second or third postdoctoral position, some returning from abroad. Most hoped to find faculty positions in Canada.

A few left for faculty appointments in the U.S., but with wilting prospects in academic science in Canada, many of my friends eventually found jobs in industry or left research altogether--one of them became a dentist. The one trend I could see was that researchers that left for postdoctoral work abroad seemed to fare better in finding positions than those who stayed in Canada.


During my time at McGill I was the Web master for the Division of Experimental Medicine. I noticed that many jobs were available in research labs across Montreal, but this information was not being disseminated efficiently. So, I decided to create an Internet job board called Experimental Medicine Job Listing (EMJL). EMJL has grown in popularity quite dramatically since its inception in 1996 and now posts jobs available not only in Montreal but worldwide. If you are a young student thinking about a Ph.D. or a recent Ph.D. looking for a postdoctoral position, EMJL could be just the place for you.

The Decision to do a Postdoc in the UK

Undaunted and perhaps naive, I decided one of the best things I could do to further my career was to go abroad for postdoctoral studies. My Ph.D. supervisor really enjoyed his time as a postdoc in Glasgow, working for the Medical Research Council's (MRC's) Virology Unit. I was also eager to work in Scotland, and this happily coincided with my career plans to work in the field of nuclear structure and function. Edinburgh just happened to be a hotbed of research in this area. So, I applied to work at the MRC Human Genetics Unit, a leading research institute in chromosome biology. My decision to come to Britain was also made easier by the fact that I had British ancestry, which allowed me to obtain a 4-year work visa through my grandmother.

I was also lucky enough to be awarded a Canadian Medical Research Council postdoctoral fellowship, which I was able to take to the UK. However, a word to the wise--Canadian postdoctoral awards do not go far in Europe, so if you're thinking of coming over here, make sure that you negotiate "top-up" funding from your institution. Canadians are also eligible for funding from the European Molecular Biology Organization, the Human Frontier Science Program, and the Burroughs-Wellcome Foundation, all of which provide stipends in either U.S. dollars or Euros--currencies with a much better exchange rate against the British pound.

I had several criteria in mind when I chose to work in the UK. The first was the resources of the lab and institute in general. Already frustrated with working with shoestring budgets in Canada, I wanted to work for a well-equipped and well-funded lab. UK labs are well funded in comparison to Canada and can almost compete dollar for pound with the U.S. In particular, the Wellcome Trust and charities such as the Imperial Cancer Research Fund are able to keep research labs funded independently of the inevitable seesaw of government budgets. A very palatable effect of better funding in the UK is the "can-do" attitude and rapid integration of new technology by British researchers. Consequently, I have had access to techniques and reagents that I would not have had the chance to use in most Canadian labs.

Secondly, I chose a project that would provide the possibility of leaving the lab with my own project, keeping in mind that it is much easier to write start-up grants and apply for funding if you already have preliminary data and materials to start your research. I also considered the transferable skills that could be developed during my postdoctoral studies and would perhaps be useful in a career outside of research. For instance, the MRC offered free courses on bioinformatics, management skills, public speaking, and teaching. These are skill sets that could aid a postdoc in many careers and are not just applicable to research. Many researchers may decide to go into business as consultants, into law as patent agents, or into publishing as journalists. My policy has been to keep my options open. I also found that shared cultural values and the absence of a language barrier made working in the UK easier than going to France or Germany, two other European countries with strong research infrastructure and well-funded laboratories.

The Decision to Return to Canada

Having lived in Scotland for 3 years, I decided that I would like to return to Canada. One reason is that the career path of British researchers involves extended postdoctoral studies in comparison to Canada--2 to 5 years longer. Many lectureship positions are available in the UK, but faculty positions are few. Second, most postdoctoral awards in Canada stipulate that the candidate should have fewer than 4 years postdoctoral experience, which represents a serious limitation to my options. In addition, the recent creation of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) has raised my hopes, and the hopes of many expatriate Canadian researchers, of obtaining a faculty position in Canada.

The CIHR publicly announced its intentions of curtailing the growing "brain-drain" of Canadian researchers abroad with the creation of 2000 research chair positions over the next 5 years. The first round of these awards has provided funding to help retain senior faculty at universities across the country, presumably opening up positions for younger faculty. But the reality is that even with faculty retiring and university departments lamenting the growing need for lecturers, very few faculty positions are available. My response to this situation was to create a Web site called CanOasis, which I hoped would allow expatriate Canadian researchers to share job information. Through this site, five researchers have already found faculty positions, three of them in Canada.

The Struggle for Academic Positions

The consensus among CanOasis members who have gone through the process of faculty interviews, including myself, is that there is a very clear bottleneck with respect to start-up funding for junior scientists. The current failure rate for first-time applications is about 80%. Because of this obstacle, many universities are reluctant to hire younger, less established researchers, as it is unlikely they will be successful in obtaining start-up funds. This translates into longer postdoctoral studies for young researchers, and I too am planning on a second postdoc, this time in Canada. Although the CIHR provides transitional funding through the recent creation of a Senior Research Fellowship, I fear many researchers may become discouraged and either take appointments in other countries or will leave academic research altogether.

In spite of these problems, most expatriate researchers I have talked to would love to come back to Canada. Perhaps the CIHR should look at providing more transition awards and eliciting the help of charities, as in the UK, to sponsor salary awards for junior scientists. Such measures would go a long way in helping Canadian researchers like myself secure employment back in Canada.

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