‘French brain drain worse than imagined’

Lack of opportunities and local hiring practices have stopped many French scientists from returning to their homeland, a new study says

February 16, 2017
People at the 'Step into the Void' installation in the French Alps, France
Source: Reuters
Adieu: scholars abroad might miss out on permanent positions because they lack the vital contacts in French academia

France’s brain drain of young scientists may be far worse than imagined as Gallic researchers are choosing not to return home after their postdoctoral studies abroad, a study says.

Previous studies undertaken in the 1990s estimated that about 7 per cent of French PhD graduates who went abroad were still there three years after graduating, but research by University of Burgundy scholars now suggests that the non-returnee rate to France is closer to 60 per cent.

According to a survey of 400 young PhD students who had worked internationally after graduating between 2003 and 2008, some 57 per cent remained abroad after three years – with one in three in either the US or the UK.

Some 41 per cent of those surveyed had not returned to France altogether, according to the paper by Claire Bonnard, Julien Calmand and Jean-François Giret, titled “International mobility of French PhDs”, published in the European Journal of Higher Education.

The study of France’s academic brain drain follows repeated warnings by Emmanuel Macron, the favourite to become France’s next president, that the country is not doing enough to win back its most talented young graduates. The 39-year-old former investment banker last week also called on US scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to come to France if they were disillusioned by the stance on climate change taken by the new US president, Donald Trump.

However, structural problems in France’s academic labour market may explain why many top postdoctoral researchers are not returning to their homeland, according to the study.

While 65 per cent of PhDs say that the need to get international experience is an important reason for leaving France, acquiring such international experience does not always assist their search for an academic job in France later in their careers, the researchers suggest.

Leaving France results in a “loss of contact [that] may mean young researchers who have been abroad are deprived of valuable information about employment opportunities”, with “most recruitment…done locally in the form of lecturing positions”, the paper states.

Going abroad might also cause French scholars to miss out on permanent positions because “researchers or teaching and research staff find academic tenure [in France] very early on, in the few years after completing their PhDs, and very seldom later on”, the article adds.

The advantages of an international postdoc might, therefore, be outweighed by the “severing of the young PhD’s ties with the national employment market and…the loss of their social capital”, it concludes.

Vincent Carpentier, reader in the history of education at the UCL Institute of Education, who, like many expatriate French scholars, stayed in the UK after gaining postdoctoral experience, said that gaining an assistant lecturer role straight after receiving a PhD remains crucial for scholars in France.

“In France, it is very important to find a job immediately after your doctorate – those three years after your doctorate are the key window for getting a job,” said Dr Carpentier.

“Some people will look to come back, but the academic labour market is very centralised and rigid – people tend to be employed in the university where they got their PhD early on, and it’s seen as a job for life,” he added.

Henri Berestycki, dean of research at Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University, said he believed that the salaries offered to mid-career researchers in France also made it difficult to bring back top talent.

“Salaries are much higher elsewhere than those we offer in France, so this is a problem for recruiting mid-career researchers who have a proven track record,” Professor Berestycki said.

“They are also uniform and do not distinguish between good people and very good people,” he added.

However, Professor Berestycki, a mathematician who worked at the University of Chicago in the 1970s, said he did not believe that there was a particular problem for postdocs seeking to return to France.

“It may be true for some subjects, but it is not the case for science, where appointment panels see international mobility as a very good thing,” he said.

“We still have many advantages in France – the quality of life is very good and the students are high quality, which is an attraction for many academics.”

France’s readiness to recruit internationally had made competition for research positions more intense, but this is simply an “effect of globalisation”, Professor Berestycki added.

The study, which is based on data collected in 2012 by France’s Centre for Studies and Research on Qualifications (Cereq), also says that the lack of prestige for the PhD in the general French labour market is a key factor behind the migration of French researchers. Instead, top French corporations favour graduates from elite grandes écoles, which are thought to promote a more diverse skill set than what are seen as overly theoretical PhDs.

“Unlike in [some other] countries, such as Germany, obtaining a PhD is not seen as a prestigious achievement that is recognised in the career structure,” it reports.

While some leading scientists might inevitably stay abroad in countries with “substantial research and development capacities and a tradition of immigration”, it is still important to consider new recruitment strategies, such as more mid-career tenure opportunities, which provide “incentives for young PhDs who have gone abroad to return” the paper concludes.


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Reader's comments (1)

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