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Why Canada’s immigration regulations may be pushing postdocs out

Postdoctoral researchers have to reapply for a work permit annually, and don’t always qualify for permanent residency.
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.

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Visa and immigration requirements in Canada are making it difficult for international postdocs in the country to complete their programmes, and might also prevent them from remaining in Canada as permanent residents, finds a report from the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS).

The report, based on a 2016 survey of 2,109 current and former postdocs from across Canada, documents a host of immigration-related complaints from international researchers. More than 40% of postdocs from other countries listed “visa and work permit issues” as a major challenge. Among other things, respondents noted that they have to reapply for work permits every year, an arduous process that takes time and energy away from their work. And when inevitable confusion or questions arise, many say that they get little or no help from their institutions. One respondent “was explicitly told I had to ‘sort it all myself’”.

The system needlessly complicates the lives of international postdocs and probably prevents some from staying in the country, says Joe Sparling, chair of CAPS and the author of the report. “I think it’s a shame,” he says. “If you’re going to let people into your country to do research, let them do research. Don’t make them renew their paperwork every year.”

Nobody is keeping an official count of Canadian postdocs, but there are some signs that the number of international researchers in the country has dropped precipitously in recent years. In the 2016 survey, 29% of respondents said they were in the country on work permits, compared with 38% in 2013.

Sparling thinks that the apparent decline might be due, in part, to Canada’s Express Entry immigration programme, which was instituted in January 2015. Because of a quirk of the programme, postdocs have trouble documenting sufficient ‘skilled work experience’ to apply for permanent residency. “For a postdoc, it’s pretty insulting when you work 60 hours a week doing research at a Canadian university but the government tells you that is not Canadian work experience,” he says.

Whatever the cause, any reduction in the number of international postdocs is bad for Canadian science, Sparling says. “They bring a new perspective, and they help build international collaborations. We still have a decent population of international postdocs in Canada. But if we don’t fix things, it will get to the point where we are hurting.”

Anni Hämäläinen, vice-chair of operations for CAPS, has just wrapped up a postdoctoral position in epidemiology at the University of Montreal and is preparing to start a new postdoc in her native Finland. She says that immigration hassles aren’t the only reason she decided to leave Canada. Still, she feels that the system needs to be simplified and clarified for the sake of future researchers. “It’s not a logical procedure,” she says. “I’ve applied for two work-permit renewals, and it hasn’t gotten any easier.”

Nature 562, 155 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-06852-w
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