The brain drain: Degrees in vain?

We not only need to educate our own children and young adults to be more skilled in scientific and other advanced fields, but also need to figure out how to keep more of the people who come to study in the United States from abroad

Amy Swinderman
As a college undergrad, one of my close friends was a man who hailed from the Middle Eastern kingdom of Jordan. He was just completing a master's degree in engineering, and was planning to take a summer off to pilgrimage home for his marriage ceremony before returning to complete his doctoral degree.

We discussed these developments one evening over our usual disappointing dormitory cafeteria meal. I asked if he would be bringing his bride back to Cleveland with him in the fall.

"No," he sighed with deep regret. "I wish I could, but she is going to stay behind in Jordan until I complete my doctorate degree and go back home to her."

I was alarmed. I had assumed he'd put his degree to use here, and start a new life in the United States with his wife. Clearly, he was not happy about living on a separate continent from his wife, and he seemed to enjoy living in the United States. So why, I asked, was he planning to leave?

"That has always been my plan," he said. "There are far more educational opportunities here, and I can take them back and be guaranteed a good job in Jordan because my skills will be considered unique."

It took about a decade of teaching at universities here, but my friend made good on that plan, and now works in his native country.

I was reminded of my friend last month during President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address, in which he addressed some of the challenges facing education in America and our ability to compete with students in other countries.

"The rules have changed," the president said. "In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there's an Internet connection. Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They're investing in research and new technologies."

If we want to produce jobs in America—and solve the current unemployment crisis— we have to win the race to educate our kids, Obama said. But there is another problem we need to address: "Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us," the president added. "It makes no sense."

It's a situation commonly known as "the brain drain." I know from our many interviews with academic researchers and interactions with conference attendees on exhibition hall floors that many of you who read this newspaper were not born on American soil. You're among the "talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses and further enrich this nation," as Obama stated. I'm very interested to learn what brought you here, and why you may not stay. How do educational and professional opportunities abroad compare to those here in the United States? What can America do to keep those we educate here where they can contribute meaningfully to our economy and innovation?

I also wonder, with constant reports of massive layoffs in Big Pharma—Abbott let 1,900 people go as we went to press with this issue—if you may find yourself forced to seek employment abroad in order to work in this industry. Please send your experiences and thoughts to me at

Until then, unfortunately, I agree with the president: It makes no sense. I hope you will make it make sense for me. I look forward to hearing from you. 

Amy Swinderman

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