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The Black Hole

Brain gain: keeping international scientists in Canada

BY SONJA B. | JAN 19 2014

We are very pleased to have a series of posts from Sonja B. in the coming weeks on the experiences of an international student moving from Europe to Canada. The idea of the posts is to stimulate a discussion amongst international scholars in Canadian science labs to help each other wade through the sometimes confusing and difficult process of immigrating. The first post is below and will be followed next week by Part 2.


Immigration issues are increasingly relevant to trainees at higher education institutions in Canada. At my alma mater, the University of British Columbia, international students comprise 14% of the undergraduate population, and 25% of grad students; the number of foreign trainees is even higher at the postdoctoral level, with 38% of postdocs in Canada here on temporary work visas. Many of these highly skilled individuals consider staying in Canada permanently, but the immigration process is lengthy, complicated and expensive, though potentially very rewarding.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on immigration issues relevant to international trainees in science. I hope readers will find this a useful springboard for further discussion and share their thoughts and experiences with us in the comments section. This series of blog posts should not be considered legal advice, but rather the intention is to create a framework to facilitate sharing ideas and experiences. We will attempt to link to official sources wherever appropriate, encourage our commenters to do the same, and we will remind readers to consult the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website as the only authoritative and up-to-date source of information.

My experience

As a newly minted permanent resident in Canada, the challenges and frustrations of the application process are still fresh in my memory. Perhaps the biggest obstacle I encountered was the inability to get questions answered; the application forms were replete with ambiguous and at times conflicting instructions, but there was nowhere I felt I could turn to for help. The Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) call centre was always busy; my calls would inevitably be dropped before I was able to get through to an agent, and so I ended up having to make educated guesses in the many areas in which there was uncertainty (the recently added Help Centre on the CIC website was definitely a positive development!).

With time, I discovered a few online forums where applicants shared their stories of success and failure. Some of these anecdotes were helpful and were backed up with references to official (if obscure) documents; many were not. The only other reliable source of advice seemed to be to contact an immigration lawyer, which was incompatible with my grad student budget. It would have been extremely helpful to have institutional support throughout the immigration process, in the same way that most universities guide their trainees through the process of applying for grants and fellowships, etc; however, most of the time, I felt I was on my own.

The journey

Several options exist for international trainees wishing to stay in Canada permanently. In this post, I’ll cover a few routes available to “economic class” applicants. I won’t delve into the “family class” pathways partly because of the wealth of information already available online, and also because they contain no special provisions for university graduates and other highly qualified personnel.

The three main options available to international trainees (including recent graduates from Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD programs, grad students and postdocs) wanting to immigrate to Canada are the Provincial Nominee Program, the Federal Skilled Worker Program, and the Canadian Experience Class.

Provincial Nominee Program

The Provincial Nominee Program was established in an effort to give provinces more control over recruiting new immigrants. Provinces first assess applications and nominate candidates for permanent residence; these are forwarded to the federal agency CIC for further processing and issuing of permanent resident visas to successful applicants. In my home province of B.C., recent college and university graduates can apply to immigrate through the PNP if they have a permanent job offer; MSc or PhD graduates in the natural, applied or health sciences do not need one. The B.C. PNP does not require an applicant to have any work experience, so this is a pathway students can potentially pursue if they want to start the immigration process immediately after graduation. The eligibility criteria vary considerably by province; some provinces do not require applicants to have a permanent job offer; others additionally include a minimum period of work experience as a prerequisite to apply. People with postdoctoral experience may also be eligible to apply as skilled workers through this program if they have a permanent job offer. At the time of writing, the processing time for the second step (i.e., by CIC) was 17 months; it’s unclear how much time the provincial-level assessment takes.

Federal Skilled Worker Program

The PhD student stream of the FSW program allows international doctoral students to apply for permanent resident status while they complete their degree. The requirements specific to this stream are to have completed at least two years of study towards a PhD (or have obtained one within the past 12 months), be in good academic standing, and not be the recipient of an award that mandates the return to one’s home country. Additional requirements specific to the FSW program apply, including demonstrated language ability, a minimum of one year of skilled work experience (not necessarily in Canada), as well as possession of a Canadian or Canadian-equivalent diploma, degree or certificate. A maximum of 1,000 applications are processed under this stream each year; the current processing time is 25 months.

Canadian Experience Class

The Canadian Experience Class is one of the fastest and fastest growing paths to permanent residence, the current processing time being only 13 months. It also has relatively few eligibility requirements compared to the PNP and FSW programs, the biggest ticket item being 12 months of skilled full-time work experience in Canada. The program has been promoted by CIC as a mechanism to retain international student graduates who wish to stay in Canada, although there are currently no special provisions made for university graduates. In effect, this means that anyone who meets the eligibility criteria (including, potentially, postdocs!) may be able to acquire permanent residency through this route. It’s worth noting that, unlike the PNP in many provinces, applying through CEC does not require a permanent job offer – something that many scientists working in academia will know can be difficult to acquire.

Part 2 of this series will follow next week and will break down some of the specific challenges faced by different classes of applicants to this program, including recent university graduates, grad students and postdocs.

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  1. SC / January 21, 2014 at 12:30

    The process is pretty straightforward for PhD students and recent PhD graduates from Canadian universities. It does get more complicated for postdocs though. The International centres on university campuses are usually a good resource to utilize. The website of Candian immigrant magazine also has a good Forum where experts offer their opinion on specific cases. Just a word of caution though, be wary of those peddling information for money- if you are smart enough to be a researcher, you should be smart enough to figure out CIC too.
    Finally, good luck and Welcome to Canada !!

  2. Sonja B. / January 21, 2014 at 13:42

    Hi SC,

    Thanks for your comment and kind words! I’m thrilled to be here.

    I also balked at the idea of paying for help with tasks that I should (theoretically) be able to figure out on my own. That said, I don’t think research training is adequate preparation to deal with government bureaucracy, not at all. I used to joke that it could even be a disadvantage; attention to detail is a requirement and an impediment simultaneously. If you’re sensitive to the ambiguous wording on many of the forms, it can take a long time to decide on an appropriate answer. I think the immigration process poses particular challenges to non-native English speakers, who comprise a large portion of research staff in many disciplines.

    I haven’t heard many people at any career stage describe the immigration process as straightforward – but maybe things are getting better.

    My university’s “international centre” were exceptionally helpful when I was applying for study permits, temporary resident visas, and the like, but assistance with immigrating to Canada permanently is not among the services they provide, and I can see why – the process is infinitely more time-intensive. They do bring in CIC officials for Q&A sessions from time to time, which I found helpful.