Advice for the American scientist moving to Canada

I got an email from a reader asking if I have any advice for American scientists moving or considering a move to the Great White North. You bet I do! Please note that I didn’t live in Canada as a whole, I lived in Montreal, Quebec, so most of my advice will be Quebec-centric. On the other hand, I do have a fairly good idea of how life is in most of Eastern Canada so I’ll try to keep it general.

We’ll break this into three sections. Advice for life in general, advice for the new Canadian PI and advice for the Canadian Postdoc.

1) Life in general.
A) Unless you’re moving from Upstate NY or someplace like Minnesota or Michigan, you have no idea what real cold is! You are going to need a good jacket and a couple pair of high quality boots and gloves. You cannot buy these things where you live right now. When you get to Canada start looking for jackets (I suggest you splurge for a Canada Goose Down or something similar), boots and gloves. Don’t by shy on spending some hard earned cash on such items. Your happiness is going to depend on them.
B) If you are going to live in a big city (Montreal, Toronto) forget about suburban life and live near downtown. Dump at least one car and get a metro/bus pass. The more you dive into city life the more you will relish your decision to move up North. Moreover, winter in the burbs can be very isolating (especially in Montreal). Winter never stops the action downtown!
C) Be prepared for taxes. They are higher but chances are that you will have some sort of tax holiday for at least a little while. Find someone to help you with your tax situation (you still have to pay your US taxes but there is a treaty). There is no way you can learn all this stuff yourself. I tried and we paid too much.
D) Get ready to pay more for the stuff you normally buy. Everything costs more in Canada. I have no idea why. The sooner you forget about this fact the better off you will be.
E) Learn some French! You don’t need French outside of Quebec but there will be Francophones wherever you go. If you are in Montreal you also will not need French to get by in daily life. On the other hand, people really appreciate it if you try to assimilate. Its your big chance, why not learn? I didn’t do very well on this front and I am still kicking myself for not learning at least a bit of French.
F) Learn to love Hockey. I knew nothing about it before I got to Canada (being from Texas and all). I’m a Habs fan now and some of my fondest memories of Montreal will always be hanging out at the Le Cage aux Sports watching Habs games with hundreds of my (new) closest friends.
G) Quebec Beers rule. Get some Cheval Blanc in your system as soon as possible!

2) The new Canadian PI.
I don’t have too much experience in this area but I did watch some colleagues move into this position while I was a postdoc.
A) Don’t lose your US funding ties. Chances are you are eligible to apply for US and Canadian grants as an American PI working in Canada. Take advantage of your ability to send grants to 2 governments. Moreover, most funding institutions and societies have no qualms about sending money to Canada for their research.
B) Different Application Types. If you’re in biomedical research, you should know that CIHR apps are much shorter than their US equivalents. Be ready to pare down your applications.
C) Soft Money Positions. I don’t know about the rest of Canada, but, in Quebec there are very few soft money positions and most positions have 100% salary guarantee. If you want to make more money by supplementing your salary from grants you may not be able to do it. Find out about this early on!!
D) Research materials cost much more in Canada. There isn’t a thing you can do about this but be ready to learn about making your budget stretch.
E) My experience at McGill was that the Canadian research enterprise is generally more collaborative in terms of big ticket items. There may be more cores than you are used to and the Uni may not look kindly on not sharing big ticket items (like confocals) with a large group of researchers. By ready to get in where you fit in to get access to machines you need to work on.
F) Unions. Your techs and maybe even your postdocs will be union workers. This may mean that they have Fridays off over the summer or other more relaxed work schedules that you are not used to. Get used to them!

3) The Canadian Postdoc.
Much of what I just said for the new Canadian PI also applies to postdocs. Here are a few extras…
A) Chances are that you will need to join the Postdoc Society at your institution. This is kind of like a union and kind of like being a student all over again. Find out how the society can help you and take advantage of it. Also, if you’re going to McGill (which many of you may be considering) find Thomson House and find it fast. Its the best intellectual centre for postdocs in the world, as far as I’m concerned, and the beer is cold and cheap.
B) If you’re a US citizen you are still eligible for US postdoctoral fellowships from NIH and/or NSF. Apply, early and often. You don’t have to worry about the health insurance issues that come with having a fellowship in the US (because you’ll have government coverage for free) and you’ll learn about the tax advantages once you have it. You’ll be happy you got one, if you get one.
C) Go to Canada-specific meetings. These meetings are smaller and a great chance to meet the big shots in your field from all over Canada. Get to know these people and make some arrangements to come visit their labs. The research field is smaller in Canada and you can really get to know people quickly and easily there. If you play this right you can come back to the US (if you so choose) with an international research reputation already in place. Not many postdocs can say that! Take me for an example. I can legitimately say that I know more than 50% of the researchers in my field in Canada on a level such that they know what I do, where I am now and if I wanted to get a collaboration up and going I could just pick up the phone and call. This is a big advantage for many reasons but I’ll just name one: think of the letters I can get come tenure review time.
D) Enjoy your life in Canada. This one really goes for everyone. No one works the crazy hours that most American scientists and postdocs work up in Canada (at least in Quebec). Get out and have some fun. Ski, snowboard, hike, go see the whales. Have a blast in the lab and outdoors. And, if you’re in Montreal, don’t forget the Opera!!

So, I hope this is helpful (I’m looking at you “Q”). If it was, send me some foie gras!! We ain’t got none down here in the desert southwest and I’m jonesin’

3 responses to “Advice for the American scientist moving to Canada

  1. Thanks for the advice! I was already planning on trying to keep my feet in the US funding pool, so your advice confirms my instincts there. I appreciate the tip on collaborating and sharing equipment. I want to learn French too, but I am worried about having time as a new prof…

    I’ll lift a glass of local beer in your honor when I get to Montreal!

  2. Hey Q, you should hook up with funkyneuron and crew when you get to Montreal. You two let me know if you want an email exchange.

  3. Hi,
    I am moving from Canada to US with a little consideration of McGill.
    Canada turns me off on many things:
    high tax
    little funding for research
    high living expence
    higher descrimination of visible minorities
    there is even no postdoc association and I am at one of the best Can. Uni.
    My canadian PI is arrogant and even less experienced, he had to stop one grad student because he did not get any grant, that student ended up fast-finish-MSc

    I generally agree with what you wrote. But I ask “Why do you even bother with Canada?”

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