Brain drain claims third of New Zealand's PhDs

The extent of New Zealand's brain-drain has been revealed in a new study which shows only around two-thirds of doctoral graduates are employed in this country in the years immediately following their graduation.

The study, done by the Ministry of Education, tracked PhD students who graduated in 2003 to see how many were employed in New Zealand during their first four years in the labour market.

It found that four years after graduating, only 65% were employed in jobs here. An estimated 26% were overseas. Young doctoral graduates – those under 30 – were the most likely (57%) to be absent from the New Zealand labour market.

In comparison, 72% of those who graduated with a master's degree and 75% of those who graduated with a bachelor's degree were employed in jobs within New Zealand four years after graduating.

Ministry of Education principal research analyst Dr Warren Smart said the time period in the study was not long enough to know how long these talented people were likely to be lost to the New Zealand labour market.

"Although there is a clear earnings premium for those who attain a doctoral degree, the specialised nature of a doctoral degree means that there will always be a tension between the limited opportunities for graduates in New Zealand and the reality that sometimes graduates will seek out opportunities overseas. This is especially the case for a country like New Zealand with a limited number of specialised research positions," said Smart.

On the plus side, around 25% of the 60 non-New Zealand residents who completed their doctoral studies in 2003 had stayed on in New Zealand and were employed here.

"Although we lose some New Zealand domestic doctoral graduates overseas, some of the loss is offset by international students staying on after their studies," said Smart.

Dr Tom Wilson, 28, graduated with a PhD from Canterbury University in 2009 and now lectures at the university on hazards and disaster management. He was tempted to move to the United Kingdom to pursue career opportunities but was persuaded to stay in New Zealand when an opening came up in his specialist field at Canterbury University.

"It was very fortunate timing," said Wilson. "I was in the right place at the right time."

In making his decision to stay here, Wilson said he was also conscious of the fact that hundreds of thousands of dollars had been invested in his education.

"I really did feel I had an obligation to give back to New Zealand. I know that sounds kind of cheesy, but it really underpins my thinking quite strongly."

At some point in his career, though, Wilson thinks he will need to move overseas: "Longer term, some time overseas would be very beneficial for my career, there's no doubt about that."

Professor Lucy Johnston is the dean of post-graduate studies at Canterbury University. She is not surprised by how many PhD graduates end up working overseas after they complete their studies, as the options for them in New Zealand are limited. Academic positions at universities are "few and far between" and there is little funding for post-doctoral research.

"There's not always suitable employment for them here," Johnston said. "Think about somebody with a PhD in biochemistry. They could carry on being an academic here, but if their research was to do with the development of drug protocols, for example, and they wanted to go into industrial research, the opportunities within New Zealand just aren't there because we don't have any major drug manufacturing companies.

"We're producing PhD students for a global market and in some cases they have to go offshore to make the most of their skills."

When they came back to New Zealand – as many did eventually – they brought additional skills and experience home.

Sunday Star Times