Brain Drain – A Personal Tale

September 26th, 2009

During the course of the previous summer, I had far fewer tasks and responsibilities assigned to me than I am accustomed to dealing with. As a result, I turned to my usual boredom-preventing pastime: books. When I was in middle and high school, this typically meant reading science-fiction and fantasy, but this time most of my favorite fantasy authors didn’t have anything new out, and I wasn’t interested in browsing the shelves (yet again) in search of new material. So instead, based on a conversation with a friend I decided to try a few books in politics and philosophy instead.

It was in the process of reading one of these that I first encountered the concept of the “Brain Drain.”  Mentioned in the context of Britain’s program of socialized medicine it explained how, since the late 1950s, many of the most intelligent British doctors, researchers, and scientists had been moving from their home country to greener pastures located in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and especially the United States. The book in question then proceeded to explain that this was the natural and inevitable result of socializing a field because socialized systems consistently fail to reward talent, innovation, and ability.

Coincidentally, at around the same time I was reading that book a friend in my apartment complex started dating a woman from France who was in the country for a postdoc-stint at the local university. There was a pool room in the complex, and since my friend was an avid pool player I was often able to find them there, either playing pool or talking. Since I knew that his girlfriend was French, I struck up a basic conversation with her in the language. This eventually led to a conversation (in English) about some of the differences between France and America, during which she casually mentioned that obtaining a doctorate in France was actually not a very respected thing to do.

My jaw dropped.

As someone pursuing a master’s degree in engineering, the idea that obtaining an advanced technical degree would not be respected was something that had literally never occurred to me. Not having very much respect for a doctorate in literature was something I could understand (though even that, to me, would depend on the doctor); not having very much respect for a doctorate in physics, mathematics, chemistry, or engineering was almost incomprehensible.

When I asked her how such an attitude could possibly have come about, she explained that professors and PhD doctors in France (along with MDs, but that’s another post) don’t make very much money in an absolute sense, nor do they make much more money than their non-PhD countrymen. As a result, most people saw putting in so many years to obtain one as a waste of time.

When I asked her how much French university teachers were actually paid, she replied that the base figure (which could admittedly be augmented by research grants) was $2,500/month after taxes. In order to put that into perspective, the basic graduate assistant salary at my university is $1,960/month, which comes to about $1,650/month after taxes. This is in exchange for 20 hours/week of work and does not include the money that is paid directly to the university in order to cover the student’s tuition. In short, if graduate assistants worked full-time, they would make more than French professors. And that doesn’t even mention the salaries of American professors.

“But what does this do to your universities?” I asked her, astounded. She replied that finding people to teach in the universities was a very serious problem. Anyone with talent was encouraged to go to one of France’s specialty engineering schools, where they would be able to obtain more money and respect for their credentials. Intelligent people who genuinely wanted to do research tended to get pushed out by the professors because the professors didn’t see any rewards in it for them. Although the French universities were desperate for qualified people, they also had great difficulty actually hiring anyone because so many people were in on the selection process that getting sufficient approval was extremely difficult. Conversely, once a professor was in it was almost impossible to fire them for the same reason. She ended by saying, “Several of my professors asked me, ‘What are you doing here? You’re so smart. You should be doing something else.’”

Eventually I managed to pick my jaw up off the floor and the conversation turned to other topics. “So how do you like America?” I asked her. She replied that although many of her friends in France thought she was crazy for coming here, she was actually enjoying herself and was considering looking for a professor’s job in the States.

I told her to go for it.


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7 Responses to “Brain Drain – A Personal Tale”



  1. Tom |

    Nicely done, Brianna. This perfectly illustrates what happens when social, economic, and political policies create disincentives. People will always go where their own interests lead them. Taxes are a perfect example. People are leaving states like California and New Jersey, which have absurd tax rates, to more tax-friendly states. They also move from one country to another because of taxes, greater opportunity, and more freedom. Often governments don’t seem to understand that basic fact, to their own loss.


  2. Brian Bagent |

    Good essay, Brianna. More’s the pity that a 20-something grad student can figure this out, but our so-called leaders cannot.

    Competition always makes everything cheaper, so you would think that our governors at the federal and state levels would be doing everything they can to encourage competition, not discourage it.


  3. doris |

    Yet,she wanted to live here and get paid well,we must be doing something right. This just proves how much better it is here.
    When I worked in a well known chemical plant,a french group came to tour our facility. I spoke to them,knowing a touch of french,despite their offensive smells,they were cute and persistant. They were paid about 1/4 of our starting pay and were impressed that a girl worked out in the field,not allowed there.An interesting point,they brought beer for their lunch,as was custom in France,we all got very excited about this fact,as even an empty can in back of our vehicles,got us fired. They only had to pour it out.They all left us,wanting to work in Texas.


  4. Brianna |

    “Yet,she wanted to live here and get paid well,we must be doing something right. This just proves how much better it is here.”

    Yes, but WHAT is it we’re doing right, Doris? Why is the United States the ultimate refuge of the intelligent and ambitious from all over the world, even though most of those intelligent and ambitious don’t even fully realize what they’re doing? France’s universities are state-subsidized. So are most of Europe’s. So are their medical systems and scientific research.

    The questions I’m trying to point out here are: “If the European way of doing things is so great, why are so many intelligent, ambitious people leaving Europe?” And, “If we become more like Europe, where are these intelligent, ambitious people (including our own intelligent, ambitious people) going to have left to go?”


  5. Brian |

    Brianna, that is a huge problem for them, but it is ameliorated by our own immigration laws. We give amnesty/citizenship away freely to those that cross our borders illegally, but the Europeans have to participate in a lottery to come here. And even at that, few are allowed to cross the pond to come here and work.

    We want the educated, the ambitious, the moneyed, the skilled and trained to come here. The more the better. As Friedman and von Mises pointed out, a rising tide lifts all boats, great and small.

    In answer to the question you posed to Doris, it is because we are the least taxed and have had the most stable currency in the world for the longest period of time. Both of those things are likely to change in the not-so-distant future, I am afraid, and the Democrats and GOP share the blame nearly equally.


  6. doris |

    Wow,Brian said something good about this country.Brianna didn’t think I got the point of her story,I did. She wasn’t really asking me a question. I just think we shouldn’t believe we will ruin everything, before we mess it up,wait until you are certain we will. Brian is sure,but I will wait and see.He is right,both parties are to blame for almost everything.


  7. Brian |

    Doris, raising taxes and spending money that one doesn’t have is what has always caused problems.

    Since the Chinese have decided that they are not going to finance our budget the way they have, the federal government has only two choices to come up with the money to cover the $1 trillion or so that it is going to spend but does not currently have: they can raise taxes signifigantly, or they can print more money, or both. Both of those options will make things feel better for the next year or two, but it’s like giving morphine to somebody with terminal cancer – they may not feel the pain, but they are dying just the same.


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