The UK’s Brain Drain (been there, done that)

Professor-Stephen-Hawking-001

Back in 2006, I remember sitting in my local UK Job Centre finding out how I could claim for unemployment benefits.

I can see it now, the moment I explained to my liaison officer that I had been looking for work but received little interest. She looked at me and said, candidly, “Have you thought about not mentioning you have a PhD? It might help.” She smiled.

What? I now need to hide my qualifications if I want to get a job? Isn’t that a little counter-intuitive? Actually, as it turned out, she was right. Many of the jobs I had applied for didn’t require a postdoc to do them; why would a company hire me when they can hire a younger postgrad with lower salary expectations?

Up until that moment, I was still hopeful that I might be able to land an academic position; possibly back in my coronal physics roots, but funding was tight, and I hadn’t done enough networking during my PhD to find a position (I had been too busy scoping out the parties and free booze at the conference dinners).

So there I was, with all the qualifications in the world with no career prospects and a liaison officer who deemed it necessary to advise me to forget the last four years of my academic career. It was a low point in my life, especially as only a few months earlier I had been enjoying one of the highest points in my life: graduating as a doctor in Solar Physics.

Fortunately for me, I had another option. My girlfriend (now lovely wife) was living in the US, and although searching for a job in the UK was a priority for us (we were planning on living in the UK at the time), I knew I could try my luck in the US as well. So after a few months of searching, I cancelled my Job Centre subscription and moved to the other side of the Atlantic.

I had just become a part of the UK’s “brain drain” statistic. I had qualifications, but I was in a weird grey area where companies thought I was over-qualified and funds were in short supply for me to return to academic research.

A lot has happened since those uncertain postdoc times, and although I tried (and failed) to pick up my academic career in solar physics in the US (it turns out that even the sunny state of California suffers from a lack of solar physics funding), the job climate was different. Suddenly, having a PhD was a good thing and the world was my oyster again.

To cut a long story short, I’m happily married, we own five rabbits (don’t ask), we live just north or Los Angeles and I have a dream job with Discovery Channel, as a space producer for Discovery News.

Although I’d like to think that if I was currently living in the UK, I might have landed an equivalent career, I somehow doubt I would be as happy as I am right now with how my academic qualifications helped me get to where I am today.

Why am I bringing this up now? Having just read about Stephen Hawking stepping down as Lucasian professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University and the Guardian’s report about the risk of losing British thinkers overseas, I wonder if employment opportunities have improved since 2006. What’s most worrying is that there appears to be this emphasis on making money as quickly as possible, rather than pursuing academic subjects. However, in my experience, having a PhD doesn’t mean you can even land a job in industry, you might be over-qualified.

Giving up on that tradition of deep intellectual discovery in favour of immediate economic benefit is a huge mistake. You lose the gem of creative, insightful, long-term thinking. That is what Britain has done so spectacularly in the past, and to give that up is a tragedy.” –Neil Turok

A special thanks to Brian Cox, who tweeted the inspiration to this post.

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4 responses to “The UK’s Brain Drain (been there, done that)

  1. The exact same thing goes for Denmark (and, I suspect, the rest of Europe). When I quit my academic career after 3 years of post.doc'ing and moved home (I was living in the US), having a ph.d. scared potential employers. Luckily after 7 months unemployment I fell into freelance web-development which is great. The industry says they need highly qualified employees, but it's not true. It's more like a kind of bragging: our jobs are so interesting you need to be really smart to do them, and there are not enough smart people. But when they meet smart, well-educated people they look at the job opportunity and think: “wait a minute, we can't hire this person, she'd get bored in a couple of months and then leave, this job needs someone not quite so smart and well-educated, we thought we were more interesting than we actually are”. It comes down to culture, and I doubt that changes in a couple of years.

  2. The exact same thing goes for Denmark (and, I suspect, the rest of Europe). When I quit my academic career after 3 years of post.doc'ing and moved home (I was living in the US), having a ph.d. scared potential employers. Luckily after 7 months unemployment I fell into freelance web-development which is great. The industry says they need highly qualified employees, but it's not true. It's more like a kind of bragging: our jobs are so interesting you need to be really smart to do them, and there are not enough smart people. But when they meet smart, well-educated people they look at the job opportunity and think: “wait a minute, we can't hire this person, she'd get bored in a couple of months and then leave, this job needs someone not quite so smart and well-educated, we thought we were more interesting than we actually are”. It comes down to culture, and I doubt that changes in a couple of years.

  3. Pingback: “We are looking forward to the next few months – they will be challenging” « Where the Sun hits the sky

  4. Pingback: is a phd past the point of diminishing returns? » weird things

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